The Hungarian Father of U.S. Cavalry

The first thing to greet me at the Hungarian Embassy in Washington, D.C., is this very dramatic statue of a horseman waving an American flag.

As it turns out, this colonel Michael Kovats was a Hungarian nobleman who is considered one of the “Founding Fathers of U.S. cavalry”—and who gave his life for the cause of American independence.

Like many of the foreigners who fought in the American Revolution, Kovats was a highly experienced soldier motivated by both adventurism and a genuine belief in the universal cause of liberty. As soon as learned of the war, he ventured to meet the U.S. ambassador in France, Benjamin Franklin, and offered him his sword along with a letter written in Latin:

Most Illustrious Sir:

Golden freedom cannot be purchased with yellow gold.

I, who have the honor to present this letter to your Excellency, am also following the call of the Fathers of the Land, as the pioneers of freedom always did. I am a free man and a Hungarian. As to my military status I was trained in the Royal Prussian Army and raised from the lowest rank to the dignity of a Captain of the Hussars, not so much by luck and the mercy of chance than by most diligent self discipline and the virtue of my arms. The dangers and the bloodshed of a great many campaigns taught me how to mold a soldier, and, when made, how to arm him and let him defend the dearest of the lands with his best ability under any conditions and developments of the war.

I now am here of my own free will, having taken all the horrible hardships and bothers of this journey, and I am willing to sacrifice myself wholly and faithfully as it is expected of an honest soldier facing the hazards and great dangers of the war … I beg your Excellency, to grant me a passport and a letter of recommendation to the most benevolent Congress. I am expecting companions who have not yet reached here …

At last, awaiting your gracious answer, I have no wish greater than to leave forthwith, to be where I am needed most, to serve and die in everlasting obedience to Your Excellency and the Congress.

Most faithful unto death,

Bordeaux, January 13th, 1777. Michael Kovats de Fabricy

P.S.: As yet I am unable to write fluently in French or English and had only the choice of writing either in German or Latin; for this I apologize to your Excellency.

Talk about a class act! (And he sure as hell looked the part too).

Kovats’ commitment was a huge win for the colonists: The hussars he trained and commanded were some of the finest light calvary in Europe, if not the world; calvary were the elite units of the day, capable of great mobility, shock tactics, and even psychological warfare.

Along with Polish general Casimir Pulaski—who is likewise considered the father of the U.S. cavalry—Kovats reformed American horsemen along the lines of the elite hussars. The resulting “Pulaski’s Legion” was one of the few calvary units in the Continental Army.

Unfortunately, both the legion and its two founders would be short-lived: Like most wars at the time, diseases decimated the troops as much as actual warfare. Following a long march to the south, where the British were shifting their focus, the legion was weakened by smallpox; it arrived as the decisive British siege of Charleston, South Carolina was underway.

Given the desperation of the situation, the legion engaged the attackers in an effort to lift the worsening siege but were promptly cut down—this was the era when calvary were starting to become obsolete in face of ever-improving firearms. Kovats and Pulaski were killed leading the charge to inspire their men; one British major described the force as “the best calvary the rebels ever had”.

True to his word, the Hungarian nobleman—who did not have a dog in the fight—nonetheless remained faithful to the American cause until the very end, though he is little remembered today. (Pulaski, at the very least, was made an honorary U.S. citizen, one of only eight with such an honor).

Fittingly, the Citadel Military College in Charleston has part of its campus named after him.

A Sense of Survivor’s Guilt

It always feels weird to share my thoughts, news, and even silly memes about life-shattering events happening worldwide. Folks who are alive and real as me or my loved ones are suffering to a degree I literally can’t imagine, simply because I won the birth lottery. I have the luxury of casually discussing and debating the cold hard historical and geopolitical facts behind events that kill, or have killed, millions. It is a weird feeling.

It is easy to feel powerless in the face of these global tragedies, which are so far removed from us both politically and geographically—after all, we could barely stop our own government from its deadly adventurism abroad, much less autocrats around the world like Putin. All I can do is laugh, learn, and spread the word, I suppose.

So, to some extent, I think it’s a coping mechanism: Many times, I find myself being weighed down by the state of the world or my society. All of a sudden, the reality of the human condition will seize me, and I’ll start to feel bad about both the suffering itself and my powerless to do anything about it.

Yet, years of consuming so much history and news has left me with some level cognitive dissonance towards the pain and suffering that are the norm for the vast majority of humans who ever lived. I read about wars, genocides, and brave but doomed rebellions—past and present—with detachment: I know these things happened—and continue to happen—to real people, but it feels more like I am reading a story rather than events that happened to people like me.

What was very real to the soldiers sent off to die for their leaders’ wars, and for the civilians caught in the middle, is just interesting bedtime reading or a quick and easy social media post. It’s all in some sense unreal, whether it’s acute crises like Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, and Ukraine (to name just a few), or banal day-to-day tragedies like thousands of kids dying from a first-world inconvenience like diarrhea.

To some extent this can’t be helped: Psychological phenomena like “psychic numbing” and the “identifiable victim effect” make us more inclined to care about people who look like us, are related to us, or form part of a small community. This makes sense given that we’ve been tens of thousands of years living in small, interrelated clans, on which we depended to survive.

By contrast, feeling an emotional connection and moral obligation to an ever-larger, more diverse set of strangers—from tribe to city to country and now the world—happened gradually over just the last few centuries (and accelerated only two hundred years ago), which is a blip in our 200,000-year history.

The idea that I should feel sad for millions of Americans I know thing about—let alone Yemenis, Afghans, Ukrainians, etc.—would have been alien not that long ago. Who are these people to me? Why should their suffering matter? It’s a mark of progress in our species that more and more people take into account the wellbeing of total strangers they will never meet or know (though we clearly still have a long way to go).

I think feeling disconnected from a world of billions of strangers remains a reasonable survival mechanism: Imagine what it would be like to truly feel the pain and sadness of billions of people as saliently as we do our own or our loved ones. How would we function in the face of nonstop exposure to human suffering and tragedy, which has never been more frequent, tangible, and personal, thanks to social media, smartphones, and widespread Internet access? (And to think the world is actually less violent than at any point in human history—imagine social media in the Middle Ages or World War II?

Over two centuries ago, Adam Smith posed an illustrative example of this phenomenon: If someone in his native Britain learned that a world away, millions of Chinese died from an earthquake, their response would be something like, “Wow, that’s awful” and then go about their day; if that same person learned their pinky was going to be amputated, it would haunt them for the rest of the day and well after.

Smith’s point is more salient than ever. Throughout any given day, I’ll get news notifications about all sorts of horrible things happening around the world, and I’ll recognize it for what it is—tragic and awful—but immediately move on with my life, and even laugh at the funny meme or text message that follows. It speaks to my sheer good luck that I am that small fraction of humanity for which this level of suffering is merely a meme, notification, or interesting historical reading.

I guess all we can do is try and make more and more people be as lucky as we are to not know starvation, war, abject poverty, and oppression. I don’t know how we do that; but expanding our circle of moral concern and compassion is definitely a start.

Premeditatio Malorum

The Stoic philosophers of the ancient Greco-Roman world had a meditative practice called Premeditatio Malorum, or “premeditation of evils”, which consists of imagining and thus preparing ourselves for the misfortunes, obstacles, and suffering we can encounter every day or while pursuing a goal.

This technique of “negative visualization” forces us to confront undesirable things we would rather not think about, even though they are entirely possible, if not inevitable. Losing your job, being the victim of a crime, falling gravely ill, getting injured or killed in an accident, or getting that dreaded phone call about these things happening to someone you love. We all know these things happen—thousands of people fall victim to at least one of them every day.

It seems depressing and counterproductive for one’s mental health to dwell on these things. But for the Stoics—and for that matter, other practitioners of this idea worldwide, from Muslim Sufis to Buddhists—this mentality guarantees a healthier and happier life. It keeps you vigilant and as ready as possible for the bad things that come your way. It makes you appreciate every second you and your loved ones are alive. It challenges you to not sweat the small stuff, and to try to build healthier relations or interactions while they last.

Making it home safe from work is something to be grateful for, as thousands of Americans are not so lucky. Being able to call a loved one and hear their voice is something to cherish. Even waking up to see another day is something too easy to take for granted, even though millions worldwide wish they could have done the same. In short, it really is the little things that are, well, the big things, if you think about it.

Of course, like most efforts to improve one’s attitude and behavior, all this is easier said than done. But that is why it is called a practice.

The Intelligence of Betta Fish

Contrary to popular belief, Siamese fighting fish are fairly intelligent. Research indicates they have complex behaviors, social interactions, and even individualized personalities. Males engage in carefully coordinated combat, dance-like courtship, and the building of “bubble nests”, which they fiercely protect; all this indicates a fairly well developed nervous system. Bettas are even capable of associative learning, meaning they develop and adopt certain responses to new stimuli (think of Pavlov’s famous experiment with dogs, where they learned to associate a bell ring with food).

Having had bettas for over fifteen years—including around 36 at the moment (blame the pandemic!)—I can vouch for this by personal experience. Our bettas are inquisitive, alert, and generally perceptive of their surroundings, watching and exploring anything new that comes their way. They also have varied personalities: Some are nearly always aggressive, tending to flare at us when we walk by; others are more shy and reclusive. They even have distinct tastes in food (which has prompted me to get several different brands and types).

Image may contain: plant
Our beautiful betta Dream, a “dumbo” or “elephant ear” type.

Now, aside from this being anecdotal, I know we humans tend to anthropomorphize animals, especially our pets, attributing human traits, behaviors, and intelligence to their natural behaviors. But there is quite a bit of scientific research backing my impressions (and perhaps those of fellow betta fish keepers).

In fact, Siamese fighting fish are frequently utilized in physiology and psychology studies due to their complex biology; many scientists in these fields consider them “prime models” in understanding how hormones and other hormones affect behavior.

For example, one study found that bettas were affected by antidepressants, specifically fluoxetine, which relies on serotonin transporter pathways to regulate behaviors; in this case, the bettas saw a reduction in their characteristic aggression, which indicates that have a comparable neurological framework. (In fact, bettas can be bored, depressed, and happy; moving them to a bigger tank or placing new decorations will elicit a positive response, with each specific betta having its own preference.)

A more recent study showed that bettas are able to synchronize their behavior during fights—something that has been observed among mammal as well! The longer they fought, the more they could precisely time their strikes and bites, to an extent that surprised the researchers. The study also determined that fights are highly choreographed, with seemingly “agreed on” breaks between each move. Bouts escalated every five to ten minutes, when fish locked onto each other’s jaws to prevent breathing—and thus test who can hold out the longest. The bettas then break apart to catch their breath, and the cycle begins anew—not unlike a boxing match!

Even more surprising, the team found that this synchronicity went down to the molecular level: Certain genes of the combatants were “turned on”, and while it is unclear what they do, this may influence how bettas will engage in future fights. Thanks to the betta’s renowned martial prowess, the researchers claim to have a “new dimension” to studying the relationship between genes and the nervous system in humans.

Given the complex personalities among bettas, and their capacity to feel happy, sad, or bored, they should be given far more than a cup or vase to live in: Not unlike humans, they prefer more space, more decor, and cleaner water, even if they can otherwise tolerate less than ideal conditions.

Survival’s Guilt and the Human Condition

I used to comfort myself with the fact that, compared to the vast majority of humans today and throughout history, I have it pretty damn good. Of the 107 billion people who ever lived, all but a relative handful lived short and miserable lives defined by work, disease, ignorance, fear, and repression. Hell, billions died before they even reached the age of five, and billions more before their prime. Even fewer had the chance to self-actualize, to reach certain goals of personal fulfillment and achievement, or to enjoy basic comforts and conveniences; good food, entertainment, a warm bed, etc.

It always felt kind of wrong to use others’ senseless suffering to bolster my own sense of purpose and gratitude. But it also isn’t working like it used to, because I realize what it all says about human existence. How the heck can I get solace from knowing that the default experience of most thinking and feeling animals is pointless suffering? And that the only reason I am in a better position is a series of fortunate circumstances, starting with when and where I was born?

It is madness-inducing to imagine that most living things suffer and die without any meaning. Humans across time and place have come up with all sorts of religious and spiritual beliefs and practices to explain and cope, but none of it is as verifiable, salient, and provable as the suffering right in front of us. As far as anyone can truly tell, things just come and go in and out of existence, and there is no real point to it. (I explore a lot of these beliefs and ideas, but none of them ever really stick, even if I can’t rule them out.)

I don’t know, maybe this pandemic and the general state of the world have just weakened my mental resilience. As grateful and comfortable and amazing as my life has been, it is harder to focus on the good given the more widespread and established reality of existence being really awful. I know I’m not the first to think about this, and I know most of the reassurances and counterpoints, I just feel kind of stuck. I welcome any and all perspectives on this.

For my part, all I can do is make the most of this wonderful life that has been granted to me, to embrace and indulge in its wonders and beauties, to add to its kindness and compassion, and, above all, to strive to make it as wonderful for everyone else as possible. It’s not much, but it’s something, and despite these hiccups, it has gotten me this far—for which I am eternally grateful.

Remember Death

Since ancient times, all across the world, it’s been understood that we should always be aware of death. Socrates said that proper philosopher is “about nothing else but dying and being dead.”

Early Buddhist texts use the term maranasati, which translates as ‘remember death.’

Some Muslim Sufis are known as the “people of the graves” for their practice of visiting graveyards to ponder death, as Mohammad once advised.

The ancient Egyptians, well known for their obsession with death, had a custom where, during festivities, they would bring out a skeleton and cheer to themselves, “Drink and be merry for when you’re dead you will look like this.”

Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe developed an entire genre of artwork dedicated to memento mori, literally remembering death.

To my mind, the most famous and articulate proponents of this idea were the Stoics, a Greco-Roman school of philosophy that emerged in the third century B.C.E. In his private journal, known as the Meditations, the Roman philosopher king Marcus Aurelius advised to himself that “You could leave life right now. Let that determine what you do and say and think.” The famed Roman statesman and orator Seneca said that we should go to bed thinking “You may not wake up tomorrow” and start the day thinking “You may not sleep again”. He also recommended that we

“… prepare our minds as if we’d come to the very end of life. Let us postpone nothing. Let us balance life’s books each day. … The one who puts the finishing touches on their life each day is never short of time.”

All this probably sounds pretty morbid and depressing, not to mention counterintuitive: Thinking about death all the time is no way to live, and would probably paralyze us with fear. But as another famous Stoic, Epictetus, explained:

Keep death and exile before your eyes each day, along with everything that seems terrible—by doing so, you’ll never have a base thought nor will you have excessive desire.

Extrapolating from this, some modern Stoics advise that we remember that the people we fight with will die; the strangers tick us off on the road will die; that every time we say bye to a loved one, we keep in mind they may die before we see or speak with them again.

Again, the point isn’t to be depressed, despairing, or even nihilistic, but to allow us to put things in perspective and value each finite second we have. The people we hate will end up just like us one day, which both humanizes them and reminds us not to waste precious little time occupied by them. The people we love will end up the same way, so better that we make the most of our time and fill it with happiness.

Of course, all this is easier said than done: It’s why we’re still trying to keep this advice thousands of years later.

Reflections on a Decade Graciously Well Spent

Around this time in 2010, I graduated from Florida International University with a double B.A. in international relations and political science. I had vague plans to either work at a think tank in D.C., enter the U.S. Foreign Service, be an international lawyer, or even some combination of the three.

But year after year, I kept stalling for one reason or another, mostly to do low self esteem, my comfort zone, and personal finances. In that time, I wandered through a disparate path, including a job at the county health department, a semester studying philosophy at Miami-Dade, an unpaid internship at an NGO, and three years in marketing (of all places). I also became a freelance writing, using the skills I learned in school for something totally contrary to my supposed goals.

To be sure, I was content and grateful — in far better shape than the vast majority of humans — but I did not feel fulfilled.

It remains surreal to reflect on where I am now, and how unspeakably lucky I am. I had lost hope on ever being a healthy long-term relationship, let alone the wonderful marriage I am infinitely fortunate to have. I am about to enter my last semester of law school at University of Miami — something I never thought I had the skills or courage to do — and gotten to see and do so many amazing things I missed out on in undergrad due to that same crippling self doubt. I am loving my legal work and finally found my calling in life, hand’s down.

Speaking of which, my psychological hangups have largely been contained as well, due in no small part to the support of an endless list of loved ones, colleagues, and peers, most of all my incredibly supportive wife, who was one of the main catalysts for finally getting into law school. The amount of patience, goodwill, and encouragement from a multitude of people in and out of law school has been overwhelming, humbling, and impossible to pay back.

Most of all though, I’m just lucky to be alive for another year, and to have enjoyed a steady and happy life from literally day one. So many people never make it to another year — hundreds of thousands still don’t pass their first birthdays — and yet I’m not only here, but remain in that elite fraction of our species that enjoys unparalleled privilege, opportunity, and hope.

It goes to show how much I owe my fortuitous decade to the kindness and charity of others, both known and unknown, and how much can change in just one year, let alone ten. Whatever you yearn for, don’t let up. I know it’s easier said than done, especially in hindsight, but there is no real alternative in my (privileged) view.

Here’s to another year of building myself up to pay it all forward, with all you wonderful folks there to make me hopefully, happy, and forever grateful. I wish you all a great year and decade ahead.

Daily Survivor’s Guilt

With the sheer amount of people that die every day for no good reason — from freak accidents, horrific acts of violence, or even banal causes — regardless of what they were doing and what kind of people they were, you can’t help but feel a sense of survivor’s guilt every day you make it out alive.

It is all the more sobering when you consider that an estimated 106 billion people have existed in this world, and the overwhelming majority of them lived short and brutal lives, ravaged by disease, constant violence, ignorance, oppression, and so many other miseries.

It is sobering to know that the only reason I am in the top 0.00000001 percent of humans who have ever lived, and why I am still here to reflect on it from the comfort of my home, is pure, unearned luck. (And even if someone wants to credit some divine or cosmic force out there looking out for me, you have to wonder why I get that honor when people just as deserving, if not more so, don’t; still feels like pure luck.)

Ushering in the New Year With Immense Gratitude

I am immensely grateful to have made it to another year in this world. It seems morbid to frame it that way, but consider that the vast majority of the 108 billion people who have ever existed had short, painful, and miserable lives that often ended in terrifying violence, famine, or disease.

This remains the reality for tens of millions of people around the world, and it’s only by random luck that I was born in just the right time, place, and condition not to be in the same position. I — and most of you reading this — are literally in the top 3-4 percent of all humans who have ever lived, for no discernible reason than random chance. (This doesn’t even include the many people who live in similar prosperity but whose lives are cut short by freak accidents that could just as well happen to anyone.)

Of course, this kind of gratitude should be had every moment of everyday, but given the context, now is as good a time as any to highlight it.

I’m Going to Leipzig!

I am ecstatic to announce that I and nine wonderful peers were accepted into the Leipzig-Miami Exchange Program for this spring, which brings together students from UM Law and Leipzig University in Germany to collaborate on various topics relating to law and policy. The goal of the program is to learn about each other’s legal systems, exchange ideas, and develop a mutual understanding of our points of views. As an intellectual powerhouse, a central player in European and global affairs, and one of the world’s most robust democracies, Germany is a natural partner in this endeavor. (It is also a fellow federal republic with very strong civil liberties and constitutional protections, given its efforts to move past its history.)

I will be partnering with a German law student to work on a presentation about restorative justice, which is an exciting and promising frontier in criminal justice, rehabilitation, and conflict resolution (hence why it was my top choice, though they were all good). We will incorporate the perspectives and approaches of our respective nations, and hopefully enhance our countries’ knowledge and methodology of restorative justice. I also get to hang out with the German student when they visit this January, then work on a second topic with another German student in May, when I will visit the hidden gem of Leipzig, Germany for a few days.

As someone with aspirations in international law, it goes without saying that I am immensely excited and grateful for the opportunity to develop skills in cross-cultural collaboration, which will help me grow personally and professionally. And as many of you know, I am always eager to get to know people and perspectives from other cultures.

Founded in 1409, the University of Leipzig is one of the oldest universities in the world and the second oldest in Germany. Nine Nobel Prize winners are associated with the university, and its alumni include such eminent thinks as Leibniz, a polymath who made major contributions to math, philosophy, and science; Goethe, widely regarded as one of history’s greatest poets and writers; Leopold von Ranke, considered one of the fathers of the study of history; composers Richard Schumann and Robert Wagner; Tycho Brahe, a Danish astronomer who greatly advanced the study of space; Fredrich Nietzsche, among the greatest influences in modern philosophy; and Angela Merkel, Germany’s current and first female chancellor.

Given its 600 years as an intellectual hub, it is unsurprising that Leipzig played a key role in bringing down the East German regime, initiating a series of spontaneous mass protests that were among the first and most prominent in the country’s history, catalyzing other cities to do the same. Since reunification, Leipzig has become one of Germany’s fastest growing and most dynamic cities, being rated one of the places in the country to live.

Needless to say, I cannot wait to visit such an amazing university and city and broaden my horizons!

Photos courtesy of Wikimedia.