Quotes of the Day – March 24, 2012

The next book on my reading list is A Bed for the Night by David Rieff. While I’m really enjoying the content of the book so far, I don’t find his writing as smooth as, say Paul Berman’s. The sentences tend to be a bit long, verging on clunky, and there are occasional Latinate flourishes that make it difficult to read. His tone is serious, perhaps even somber. Though this adds gravitas to the points he makes, it sometimes feels overdone.

Or I could simply be trying to make up excuses for why I’ve been reading at such a slow pace. In any event, there are a number of noteworthy passages and points Rieff makes. His insight into “humanitarianism in crisis”, as he calls it, is particularly relevant given all the (digital) ink spilled about the Kony2012 campaign and Invisible Children.

Within the first five pages, Rieff tackles one of the most difficult challenges of life in a globalized time: the challenge of balancing particularism with universalism.

“But what of the Western journalist, photographer, or writer for whom, willingly or unwillingly, the dead of the World Trade Center carry more emotional and symbolic weight than the dead of Kigali, Aceh, or Kabul? We may all reject this logic of the double standard emotionally, but if we really are being honest, that includes all of us” (pg. 4).

Given the events of the past week – the killings of innocent Afghan civilians by an American soldier and the murder of Jewish school students by an Islamic fundamentalist – the above passage is particularly resonant. The massacre in Afghanistan weighs heavily on my conscience. I feel a sense, not of responsibility, but perhaps complicity. After all, my tax dollars fund the continuing occupation of the country – an occupation that facilitated this mass murder of civilians. And I feel almost a sense of guilt for not, to paraphrase Mario Savio, throwing my body upon the gears of the machine to stop a brutal and imperialist war from continuing. Have I done enough to voice opposition to U.S. presence in Afghanistan? Could I be doing more to challenge the expansion of American military influence overseas? But at the same time, I don’t viscerally mourn for the Afghan citizens the way I think I should. In terms of pure numerical significance, their deaths should weigh heavier on my conscience. But they don’t. I don’t feel as though I know, or that I could have known them. More importantly, I think, I simply cannot empathize with them. I cannot say, “that could’ve been me.” But with the dead French children in Toulouse, I feel a much more emotional kind of solidarity. Rationally, I shouldn’t. I know those children no better than I know the Afghanis. I have no more connection to the Jews of Toulouse than I do to the Muslims of Kabul. Yet, there is a deep, tearjerking pain that I feel when I think about the murder of those French children. They were students at a Jewish day school, just like I once was. They were killed for being Jewish, just like me. I could be them, I was them. I am them.

Rieff seems to recognize the challenge of universal solidarity, and he attempts to address the questions of: how can we feel empathy for those with whom we have nothing in common other than the fact that we are all human? Or, is the basic fact that we are all human enough for me to through off all ideological and arbitrary distinctions? Rieff responds to the questions somewhat pessimistically.

“After all, it has never been my experience that people in Somalia inquired after the fate of people in Bosnia, or people in Angola worried about people in Nagorno-Karabakh. Wounds breed self-absorption; that is simply human” (pg. 5).

He puts into two sentences what would’ve taken me at least an entire page to get at.

Part of what makes Rieff’s critique of the current humanitarian model so trenchant is the bluntness and even cynicism of his statements.

“…[W]hat thinking person can take seriously the idea that there is any such thing as the international community? Where are the shared alues uniting the Untied Staes and China, Denmark and Indonesia, Japan and Angola that make such talk anything more than an exercise in self-flattering rhetoric?” (pg. 8).

Apart from taking another stab at the kind of universalism that has come into style among international policy elites, Rieff challenges the very value of the United Nations. The UN and the broader “international community”, he seems to argue, is little more than a puppet court of which the United States is the judge, jury, and executioner. Unfortunately, such a view is a pretty accurate depiction of the truth.

“Of course there is an international order, dominated by the United States, and there are international instituions, like the United nations, the World Trade Organization, and the World Bank. But the reality is that the international community is a myth and a way to conceal the bad news about the present in septic sheets of piety about the future. This should be clear to anyone who considers the question of force. As Sir Brian Urquart, one of the key figures of the first four decades of the UN’s existence on put it, ‘if there is a world community, then who is the sheriff?’ Does anyone imagine that the United Staes will act in the altruistic way such a mandate implies? And if not the United States, then who?

“The reality is that the moment one taps on the idea of the international community it falls apart like a child’s broken toy” (pg. 9).

The growth of the Occupy movement inspired a debate about the role of American workers in the broader global economy. I remember hearing a teacher, or maybe it was a parent, remind everyone who would listen that though they might be part of the 99 percent in the U.S., they were certainly part of the global 1 percent. The Wall Street Journal jumped on the same idea, as I recall, publishing a link to a website that would calculate an individual’s global income percentile based on the dollar value provided. My bet is that David Rieff would feel similarly about the rhetoric of the Occupy movement.

“While the best minds in the liberal West have focused on new rights and new international norms, struggled t create international tribunals and urged an end to impunity for tyrants and warlords, a 2002 World Bank study has shown that the income gap between the rich and poor worlds has been widening steadily” (pg. 15).

Charity and free medical care may address the developing world’s health problems in the present. The problem is that today’s conditions most certainly will not exist tomorrow.

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