One summer highlight was Mom’s visit, during which she convinced me to take her to Watts Towers, which I’d somehow imagined to be a 1960s-era urban renewal housing project, like coop city. NOT! For more than thirty years, a relatively uneducated Italian immigrant named Simon Rodia single-handedly constructed and decorated everything that you see here – to thank his adoptive country for providing a home and a living, to atone for things he’d done that he wasn’t proud of, to express his faith, and/or for other reasons that we may never know. They certainly stand out in the low-income neighborhood of Watts.
In history class, I learned that US history in the 19th and 20th centuries included several episodes of isolationist sentiment. One example was the American public’s unwillingness to get involved in what it viewed as a European war right up until the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, years after the war started in Europe. What I find curious about the current context in the US is that our government has arrogated to itself the right to abduct citizens of other countries and hold them indefinitely at Gitmo under torturous conditions and without rights (such violations of basic rights are far, far worse than the injuries from King George that led colonists in Boston and elsewhere to revolt against England in 1776…and to start a military campaign that the traditionalist and more powerful British military viewed as ungentlemanly and rather uncivilized – the concept of terrorist didn’t exist yet then – in nature), to invade Iraq and Afghanistan despite, in the former case at least, very strong and legitimate international concerns about the invasion.
But where am I going with all this soapbox, you ask…quite rightly. My experience of the US is of an almost surreally ripe, rich and spoiled country utterly isolated from the realities with which so much of the world lives every day. On one hand, I love the ease of life here, the ready availability of all consumer commodities, and so on. But the issues, the concerns, the things that Americans get excited about just seem so alien to me. Standing in line overnight for I-Phones? Hello, I’ve seen farm families in China who work their rice fields 14 hours a day 330+ days a year and are rewarded with rice gruel and smoky fires to light their breakfasts and dinners. Do they merit less access to consumer commodities than we do? Do so many of us truly not recognize that we’re a small part of the world’s 6+ billion inhabitants, yet we’re consuming WAY more than our share of the world’s precious resources…and, whether viewed from an ethical lens or a purely utilitarian realpolitik one, this simply cannot continue? When I got to Cleveland, a participant in an online chat room tried to get people motivated to protest against high prices of gasoline. Hello? How about protesting against government subsidies for military adventures that ensure short-term oil supplies but do nothing to develop longer-term renewable energy sources and grow public transportation?
After I drafted this section, I posted the news clippings you see below from Sri Lanka, and always spectacularly-loyal reader Ondrej blew my mind by reading it the very same day and posting a wonderfully thoughtful, long comment on it the very same day. (To read his comment, simplyl click on the “comments” link at the bottom of the post, down below.) To summarize his argument: viewed from Australia (already a developed, rich country closely allied to the US), it seems American news gets way more air play than it merits, given how much or little it may affect the lives of people there. If white Australians feel this way, imagine how much less an inhabitant of, say, most parts of Africa, or occupied Iraq, feels that Paris Hilton’s jail time touches their lives – as opposed to their ability to vote safely in a meaningful election, get a meningitis vaccine for their kids, or find food for the family’s dinner. Yet we march blithely onward, acting like the price of our gas, access to developing markets for our corn and soybean products, and above all (for the Bush Greedmeisters and his cabal) our military companies’ ability to sell weapons where they want, when they want with tax subsidies from Joe Taxpayer in Kansas should matter more to those folks than their own dinner tables and paychecks. No, George, it’s not our “freedom” that the world resents…it’s our selfish monopolizing of the world’s resources and blind ignorance of the consequences for everyone else…or even ourselves. So yeah, Ondrej – I agree. Americans are in store for a hard dose of reality somewhere down the line.
I’m so grateful that I get to live in places where luxuries are still luxuries, and the essential elements of everyday life are simple person-to-person contact, over a fire or a candle’s light or the rising sun’s rays. Three months a year here in luxury land are more than rich enough for my blood right now, and I’m already beginning to long for what I’m sure will be a simpler life of conversations around a dinner table with colleagues with whom I work all day long. I know I’ll miss all the things I usually miss when I’m not here – bagels, tennis, Mexican food, canyon hikes or walks in parks with my US friends.
But there’s greater simplicity to that life, and I appreciate it. Here, it seems I rush around impatiently, just so I can spend more time in front of the computer answering emails and sitting in chat rooms. That’s not really what I need my life to be about, and watching more television is certainly not I want my life to be about. So I feel incredibly blessed: that so many of my pre-MSF friends remain in touch with me and spend time with me when I’m back here, and that with each new assignment I learn about some new part of the world and some new context of humanitarian intervention, meet new colleagues from the developed and developing worlds, and constantly expose myself to newness, variety and challenge that causes me to evaluate and reexamine what really matters to me in my life.
I couldn’t, and I wouldn’t want to, deny my basic American-ness. It’s who I am, it’s where I grew up, and it’s what I know best. But I remain chagrined that so few Americans, citizens of the country that so dominates global decisions and economies, bother to get really outside our country and see, firsthand, more of the world that’s so affected by our daily decisions and periodic electoral votes. Thomas Jefferson felt democracy works best when only educated citizens can vote. If citizens of the world had a choice, I suspect they’d think Americans – whose votes directly affect lives far beyond our borders – should be required to pass some basic tests in world events, history and politics in order to earn and retain the right to vote. Or, at the very least, some basic tests in the history of American foreign policy. Instead, we have a president who revels in his lack of understanding of global issues, and a populace that seems to think this is just fine.
It’s pretty much a year since I suddenly left China to work in Sri Lanka, and a bit less than a year since the drama of being nearly kicked out of Sri Lanka engulfed my life. Having now spent a full two months in LA, surrounded by the many good acquaintances, tennis hitting partners and others who formed the warp and weft of my LA life prior to joining MSF, I’ve realized how many people aren’t aware of the challenges the Sri Lanka assignment presented me (and my other MSF colleagues in Sri Lanka, plus any other NGO folks trying to do similarly neutral and independent work). In so public and documented a medium as this blog, I can’t relate details of the challenges we and other NGOs (non-governmental organization: this is what the world calls those entities we Americans know as “non-profits”) faced in trying to provide neutral, impartial, and independent humanitarian assistance to those populations most needing the kinds of assistance we’re best at providing (in our case, usually specialized emergency medicine).
But having had a few very rewarding conversations about humanitarian space here in LA, most recently with former colleague and friend Bree and one of her current colleagues, who regularly supports MSF and thus keeps her ears more tuned to events and policies affecting the ability of neutral humanitarian actors to do their jobs, I thought perhaps I could safely put up for the edification of my friends and readers a few articles scanned from the English-language newspapers in Sri Lanka last fall. Since these are public record, and the comments I’ll be adding are information available from public sources, I hope I’m not in any way compromising the position of my successors and colleagues still trying to work in Sri Lanka.
Know that these are only a small selection of clippings directly about international NGOs that appeared during what I experienced as the worst months of anti-NGO publicity in the English press, mostly October of last year. Colombo has three English-language dailies; one can be seen as a channel for the GoSL viewpoint, another as the essentially Sinhalese-nationalist counterpart to the Murdoch-era New York Post; and the third is the only one my experiences lead me to believe attempts to research and report stories with some impartiality and neutrality. As far as I could ascertain, none of the plethora of Sinhalese-language papers carried any of these stories last fall: it seemed all to be a domestic political shadow-play put on for the benefit of the English-speaking elite and expatriate residents in Colombo. This changed a few months later, when events caused both Save the Children and Oxfam to come under public criticism for trumped-up reasons, when the Sinhalese papers carried some stories that I personally thought could be quite dangerous for people working at those NGOs. (If I remember correctly, as one example, when the army overran some southeastern LTTE-controlled zones very early this year, they found Save-the-Children distributed fishing boats in a few LTTE camps: these boats had been broadly distributed in areas most affected by the tsunami back in 2005, in areas under both GoSL and LTTE control, and what agency could possibly control the fate of every one of hundreds of boats distributed more than a year earlier? None of the explanatory facts appeared in early media reports about these events: those that I saw all chose to portray these agencies as actively supporting the LTTE. This in an environment in which extra-judicial killings against people perceived to be acting for or against any of the various sides in this conflict are extremely common, thereby making it ever more dangerous for NGOs to work in Sri Lanka, especially for any Sri Lankan citizens to work with the NGOs. Example – in the Jaffna Peninsula which is under government control, a hand grenade was thrown into the compound of the International Committee of the Red Cross last fall, on the same day that the Island article, shown above, appeared.
I suppose – I hope – books will be written about all this one day, because the issues involved are typically complex and many-faceted. NGOs in Sri Lanka and elsewhere make mistakes as do all human organizations, and it’s not my goal to portray them as infallible victims of politics or circumstance. But it is my goal to sensitize those reading this to the fact that the space for truly neutral, independent, and impartial humanitarian actors to operate in the world’s many zones of conflict continues to be challenged, restricted, and attacked by all sides – by both governmental and non-governmental actors in almost any context that I’ve read or heard about. And if we’re going to say, as supposedly civilized societies, that noncombatant civilians in these contexts have rights to basic necessities like food, shelter and medical care…then, well, somehow we have to re-forge some global recognition of these rights and of the responsibilities of humanitarian agencies to meet them when necessary. To the many well-meaning friends and families who continue to worry about my safety and well-being in these potentially-dangerous contexts where I work, I challenge you to recast your imaginations and ask why it’s OK for a kid born in these places to live, and (more likely than me) possibly die unremarked in these places, while I’m supposed to be some kind of hero for just going there and doing a little work there, always knowing I’ll be able to leave when my assignment is over, and spend a summer taking yoga classes and playing tennis in LA. There will always be a spectrum of haves and have-nots, but must the gulf between them, and our developed-world perception of the most have-not zones and their worthiness of attention, be so extreme?