Meanwhile in Romania…

The flag of Romania

While most people in the United States are fixated on the war of words between the executive and judicial branches of our federal government, there is another such battle taking place far from away in the nation of Romania.

I cannot think about Romania without remembering my best friend from graduate school, who was a native of the former Communist state. In one of our first conversations, I told her that when someone said the word “Romania”, I immediately thought of gymnasts. She seemed a bit befuddled and replied, “From what I hear, it’s usually vampires…Transylvania!”

We would all gather for dinner in the cafeteria of the international students’ dorm. There was a group of Russian students that tended to sit together. Aura (for such was my friend’s name), who was normally a courteous person, looked upon them with disdain. When I suggested that perhaps these students should not be equated with the policies of the Russian government, Aura replied as if all Russians were exactly the same. “They invaded my country!” she complained. Continue reading

France’s Crazy Presidential Election (or, The French Disconnection)

Paris looked beautiful from the top of Notre Dame Cathedral on November 7, 2008 (author photo)

While the UK is undergoing a protracted exit from the European Union and the US is attempting to come to terms with the ascension of Donald Trump to the presidency, there is another country about to take part in an election of its own: America’s “oldest ally”, the French.

Ah, oui oui! The French hold elections too, and they are just as crazy as the ones in this part of the world, if not more so…but then again, we are talking about the French. Now, you may be thinking, “Why should I care about the French election?” (A question the French will never ask with regard to the United States.) I take your question, and I shall answer it. Continue reading

The Origins of the Protestant Reformation

Woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder portraying the pope selling indulgences, circa 1521

Woodcut by Lucas Cranach the Elder portraying the pope selling indulgences, circa 1521

Can you recall the first time you learned about the Protestant Reformation? In all likelihood, you were told a story somewhat like this. On October 31, 1517, a German monk named Martin Luther nailed a piece of paper to the door of a church that stated his complaints with Roman Catholicism. This began the splitting of Western Christianity into two primary groups: Catholics and Protestants. Regardless of where you grew up and what form of religion your family practiced, the issue was almost certainly presented in this manner.

Most people today will never progress beyond that extremely limited and largely misleading version of events, nor will they come to realize the vast ways in which their own lives have been affected by the Reformation. Nearly 500 years later, if we are to truly understand what happened on that October day, we must go back in time and consider the events leading up to that period. Continue reading

The Ukraine Crisis Explained in a Series of Maps

791px-Kyjiv_sofienkathedrale, Wikipedia Elya

The St. Sophia Cathedral complex in Kiev, Ukraine. Photo by Wikipedia user Elya

Ukraine has been in the news quite a bit lately. What began as a series of protests against President Viktor Yanukovych following his decision not to sign a trade deal with the European Union quickly escalated. Eventually, Yanukovych fled the country (or left orderly, depending on who you ask) and was removed from office by an act of parliament. The parliamentary chairman, Oleksandr Turchynov, became the acting president in charge of an interim government.

Within a few days, we all started hearing the word “Crimea” a lot as this semi-autonomous section of Ukraine became the center of an ever intensifying standoff between the Russian government led by Vladimir Putin, the new Ukrainian government in Kiev, and other foreign countries such as the United States. The rhetoric seems to get more severe by the day, Putin has received permission from his parliament to take military action in Ukraine to protect “Russian interests” (in addition to the apparent Russian military action already taken in Crimea), the Crimean parliament has voted to become part of Russia and put the issue to a public vote, and the Obama administration is struggling to come up with a proper response. Continue reading

Why is Vladimir Putin so Popular?

Russian president Vladimir Putin poses with members of the gold medal winning Russian figure skating team. (He's the guy in the middle of all those hot ladies.) Official Russian presidency photo

Russian president Vladimir Putin poses with members of the gold medal-winning Russian figure skating team. (He’s the guy in the middle of all those hot ladies.) Official Russian presidency photo

If you have been paying much attention to American commentators lately, you would be tempted to think that the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi has less to do with the athletes than it does with the Russian president. Vladimir Putin, never one to cede the limelight to anyone, has been at the center of these games every step of the way, from the time he helped to convince members of the International Olympic Committee to let Russia’s beach resort town host the Olympics (a questionable decision given that there seem to be more naturally occurring palm trees there than piles of naturally occurring snow), to the visually stunning Opening Ceremony (a perfect propaganda opportunity, some would grumble), to posing for photos with newly minted Russian gold medalists in the team figure skating competition. You might be tempted to think these are Putin’s games rather than Russia’s.

There are few international leaders who are demonized in the United States as much as Putin, rightly or wrongly. From his body language in bilateral meetings with U.S. President Obama, to his championing of an anti-homosexual “propaganda” bill, to his insistence on masculine self-promotion, practically everything that Putin does is viewed by many in the United States as arrogant, power-hungry, or downright evil. Likewise, Americans often assume that the Russian president is a dictator and national elections are marred by fraud. Even if they do believe that Russians like Vladimir Putin, most Americans would be hard-pressed to explain why this is the case. Continue reading

Let’s Give Neville Chamberlain a Break

Arthur-Neville-Chamberlain, US National Archive

Photo of British PM Neville Chamberlain from the US National Archive

In the year of our Lord 1938,

A man named Neville caught a bad break.

He sought to bring us peace for our time,

But as it turned out, he was blind –

Blind to evil that grew by the day,

To the Führer who feared not to betray.

We remember him for all he failed to be,

For his optimism and naïvety.

The peace he brought was none too long.

The gathering storm was just too strong.

He sought a madman to appease,

And avoid war by saying “please”.

No courage did this man possess,

Of duty and honor he knew less;

For no war would have come to be,

Dear reader, were it not for he! Continue reading

Angela Merkel: Mädchen in Flammen

Aleph

Photo by Wikipedia user Aleph

Germany’s Chancellor looks set for another victory in this month’s parliamentary elections.  What, if anything, can we learn from her success?

On September 22, Germans will head to the polls to choose who will represent them in the Bundestag, Germany’s federal parliament.  At the center of attention will be Angela Merkel, Germany’s Chancellor (similar to a prime minister).  As head of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), the largest party in the Bundestag, Merkel has served as Bundeskanzlerin since 2005, and she is widely expected to remain in that position after the election.

Merkel’s time at the top of German politics has come at a critical period for Europe.  The financial meltdown of 2008 and ongoing Eurozone crisis have placed her at the pinnacle of global power, the head of the most dynamic economy in the European Union.  Although the country’s economic growth did slip into negative territory in 2009 – the result of an international slowdown – it has since rebounded and is looking much better than France, Spain, or Italy. Continue reading

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to War

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Official UK government photo of the Prime Minister’s residence at 10 Downing Street

Today, President Obama announced that he will seek authorization from Congress for a military strike in response to the use of chemical weapons in Syria, an act apparently committed by the Assad regime.  “This attack is an assault on human dignity.  It also presents a serious danger to our national security,” Obama said in his speech.  “In a world with many dangers, this menace must be confronted.”

The President stressed that the scope of these strikes would be limited.  “This would not be an open-ended intervention.  We would not put boots on the ground.  Instead, our action would be designed to be limited in duration and scope.  But I’m confident we can hold the Assad regime accountable for their use of chemical weapons, deter this kind of behavior, and degrade their capacity to carry it out.” Continue reading

The Inevitability of Religion

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This map shows the relative importance of religion in different countries based on polling data by Gallup. Darker red colors indicate greater importance. Most of the less religious countries are located in or somehow connected to Western Europe. (Several others are former USSR states.) Image courtesy of Wikipedia user Sbw01f.

Author’s Note: The following is a brief essay written back in 2011 which is only now being made public.  It is one of a series of such essays that I have produced examining the causes and results of spiritual belief.  It is not meant to be a full-length research paper, but rather an initial overview leading to more in-depth work in the future: please keep this in mind when reading it.

Is the secularization of the world inevitable?  Not so long ago, any number of scholars would have been ready to answer “yes” to that proposition.  Unfortunately for them, time is a funny thing: it does not always play out as one would expect.  The world today seems to be just as religious and perhaps more so than it ever has been.  Rather than taking a back seat, the realm of the spiritual is at the center of our great political and sociological debates.  Why is this, and does it represent an inevitable urge of humanity or merely the last death throes of a world unwilling to embrace change? Continue reading

In Defense of American Ignorance

I’m going to do something today that might shock even myself.  I’m going to defend the ignorance of my fellow Americans in several areas.  In general, I’m opposed to ignorance.  In fact, I will have to overlook several perfectly valid counterpoints in order to play this role of devil’s advocate.  What you are about to witness is something which may not happen again, but for the sake of argument, it is happening right now.

It is all too easy to point out the deficiencies in the average American’s knowledge about our world, and if it’s easy for me, it’s even easier for foreigners.  Most Americans are more likely to know about the exploits of Kim Kardashian than Angela Merkel (the Chancellor of Germany and current champion on Forbes’s “100 Most Powerful Women” list).  But as I’m about to show, there are perfectly understandable reasons for this state of affairs beyond simple stupidity. Continue reading