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.

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.

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.

The Massacre of Sabra and Shatila

On this day in 1982, a Christian Lebanese militia known as the Phalange carried out a massacre in the Palestinian refugee camp of Sabra and Shatila in Beirut, killing between 460 to 3,500 civilians. The killings went on for three days, under the watch of various forces, including the Israeli and Lebanese armies, which did nothing.

The Palestinians were wrongly blamed for assassinating newly elected Lebanese president Bachir Gemayel, the leader of the Kataeb Party, a Christian party close to the Phalange. (Just about every political party had an affiliated armed wing.) For their part, the Israelis, who were allied with the Phalange other Lebanese militas, were keen clearing out the camp of fighters of the Palestinian Liberation Organization, even though the vast majority of those killed were noncombatants. Continue reading

The Marvels of Globalization

Globalization is something. The laptop where I am typing this is Chinese (Lenovo), and the antivirus software I use to protect it is Russian (Kaspersky). The world wide web I am using was invented by a Briton (Tim Berners-Lee) and first tested in Swiss-based lab operated by a consortium of 22 mostly-European countries (CERN). My browser of choice, Chrome, was developed by a firm co-founded by a Russian Jew (Google). The messaging system I use most was invented by Swedes, Danes, and Estonians (Skype). The gas station I use most is a British-Dutch conglomerate (Royal Dutch Shell). Continue reading

Superheros in a Globalized World

One of my long-running creative side projects since college has been building a superhero universe that is set in a globalized world with an international cast and multicultural flavor. (Which is one reason I love Overwatch so much.) One of the key themes I want to explore is how international relations and cultural clashes come into play in a world of superpowered beings.

What would happen if a Superman-style hero landed in Bolivia, Tajikistan, or the Congo? Suddenly the poorest and least influential countries in the world are major superpowers in their own right, able to project their values or interests, deliberately or incidentally, on the global stage. The world’s premier guardian would be shaped by a completely different culture, religion, or ethos, perhaps with certain universal principles, like fairness and compassion, still present but expressed in different ways.

How would linguistic, religious, cultural, and political disputes come into play when heroes respond to crises that know no borders or affiliations? How would they cooperate or clash? What do superheroes do in countries where governments are not representative of the people — would they be vigilantes outside the law, or work within the circumstances they are dealt? (I envision a bit of both.) What about in places where there are deeply entrenched sectarian, ethnic, and/or ideological divisions? Would they rise above the fray or remain parochial?

For example, I have in mind that superheroes in Germany would operate with far more transparency (including have their names and addresses publicly available) and far more restraint than elsewhere, for obvious reasons. This is common with the way their security and intelligence forces currently operate.

In the U.S., I would imagine a very complicated state versus federal dynamic at play, as far as jurisdictional issues, funding, etc., as well as a larger issues of whether government and taxpayers should get involved in the process at all. (Not a new idea of course, given Marvel’s Civil War, but still a relevant and interesting one.)

I recall the comic arc wherein Superman renounces his U.S. citizenship due to a widespread perception that he is an instrument of American policy. Though seen by many fans as an audacious gimmick, I think it touched on increasingly topical themes of identity, patriotism, and nationalism amid a globalized world. As Comics Alliance explained:

Superman replies that it was foolish to think that his actions would not reflect politically on the American government, and that he therefore plans to renounce his American citizenship at the United Nations the next day — and to continue working as a superhero from a more global than national perspective. From a “realistic” standpoint it makes sense; it would indeed be impossible for a nigh-omnipotent being ideologically aligned with America to intercede against injustice beyond American borders without creating enormous political fallout for the U.S. government.

While this wouldn’t be this first time a profoundly American comic book icon disassociated himself from his national identity — remember when Captain America became Nomad? — this could be a very significant turning point for Superman if its implications carry over into other storylines. Indeed, simply saying that “truth, justice and the American way [is] not enough anymore” is a pretty startling statement from the one man who has always represented those values the most.

It doesn’t seem that he’s abandoning those values, however, only trying to implement them on a larger scale and divorce himself from the political complexities of nationalism. Superman also says that he believes he has been thinking “too small,” that the world is “too connected” for him to limit himself with a purely national identity. As an alien born on another planet, after all, he “can’t help but see the bigger picture.”

This is the sort of issue I hope to explore in my own superhero universe someday, in addition to giving readers across the world heroes they can relate with or who reflect their unique cultural, political, religious, or historical experiences.

The Rare Privilege of Education

Fewer than 7 percent of the world’s population (6.7 percent) has a college degree of any kind. (This is up from 5.9 percent about two decades ago.) An even smaller proportion of this population has earned a degree beyond a Bachelor’s, and an even tinier fraction of those people have attained a degree from a reputable or good quality institution.
 
As much as I obviously lament student debt, the financial inefficiency and inaccessibility of our education system, etc., I must acknowledge that I am still extremely privileged to be able to pursue a fulfilling career at a fairly prominent law school. I am fortunate to have been born in the right time and place where such opportunities are available; I am lucky to have enjoyed relatively good health, no major family tragedies, good parenting, and an overall stable socioeconomic environment that facilitated my educational attainment and development up to this point.
 
I must never forget how much good luck played a role in where I am today. It is a humbling and effective motivator for working hard and not squandering this rare opportunity, by global and historical standards. (And also a good cause of action to help more people get access to these opportunities..)