Saturday, July 7, 2007

Is Change Possible?

In the last 24 hours, I’ve been beat over the head with a call for change. Last night I went and saw Michael Moore’s new documentary Sicko. A number of moments spoke to me directly as I have family members who have been near some of the same situations depicted in the film, but one interview in particular connected with a class discussion from last semester. Tony Benn, a former British politician, spoke of how people become disenfranchised and disconnected from their government and world in general. Although he was speaking specifically about voting habits, his quote can easily apply to apathy. Paraphrased, he said that people lose their sense of power as a result of fear and/or being demoralized. Recently in a class discussion about how the memoir Night by Elie Weisel might be applicable to modern times, one of my students proclaimed with a sigh, “What does it matter? Teenagers don’t have power, anyway. We can’t change anything.”

I stood there gaping for a few moments, the class watching intently to see how I would respond. How could someone so young, just at the start of his journey, be so disenfranchised? How does someone at 16 years old lose all hope? What is it that this student and others in the class who agreed with him be so afraid of, be so demoralized by? Now I know in part that such a comment was meant to goad me; I’m obviously a teacher who believes that the individual can make a difference, can change the world; otherwise, I wouldn’t be a teacher. It is the position, the power of the student, to try to test the teacher, but I believe in part that the student and others in the class truly felt there was nothing they could really change, so why try. How is it that as a nation we have become so cynical, so demoralized that these are the values that we are passing along to our children? It is a sad day when our future leaders lose their idealism, a belief that they can make a difference, can change the world. What hope does that leave for any of us?

But then I also have been watching the Live Earth concerts this morning and see all the young people engaged in a worldwide effort to change the practices of the world’s governing systems. What a noble cause – to raise awareness, to make a pledge to change our Earth damaging habits. I sincerely support this effort, making sure that I recycle my paper, plastic, glass, aluminum, and cardboard and switching to the low-energy florescent bulbs. It truly breaks my heart to see the natural, untouched areas where I grew up ripped down to be turned into sprawling strip malls. However, on the top of my webcast screen I see that the online coverage of Live Earth is in part sponsored by Chevy. Now, I’m the one who turns a bit cynical. Okay, so GM and Chevrolet have made some strides toward helping the environment with their soon to be released hybrid versions of their SUVs and trucks…their SUVs and trucks? Forgive me, but if you really want to make positive environmental change, you should think about driving something other than a gas-guzzling SUV. Even if that SUV is a hybrid, it still does not get nearly the same gas mileage as compact car, or better yet, a hybrid car. I understand that we must start somewhere, but I do worry some of the contradictory messages sent by such commercial awareness raising events. What happens after the concerts? How do we follow through with the promises made by such a corporate-sponsored event? A student from Sri Lanka helped me understand this better.

In December of 2004, South East Asia, especially Sri Lanka, was devastated by the largest tsunami of the 21st century. The world pulled together and as an international community, donated more financial aid to organizations like UNICEF and the Red Cross/Red Crescent than the governments of many industrialized nations. However, just over two years later, Sri Lanka is still in desperate need of suitable housing, medical care, and food for its displaced citizens. Although as a global community we pulled together in the moment, many of the international aid agencies have left Sri Lanka, leaving local agencies scrambling to provide services. As my student from Sri Lanka shared her research about the current conditions in her native land, I was appalled. How could we leave our fellow human beings in such dire circumstances?

Are we a culture, a nation, a world that will empty our pockets in the moment, but when it comes to making lasting, effective change are we too fearful or too demoralized to get our hands and hearts invested? In all my rambling I am reminded of the sentiments of writer James Russell Lowell who said, "All of the beautiful sentiments in the world weigh less than a single lovely action." And so, I’m signing off and going to turn off a light.


Anonymous said...

That is the key, Americans, those who do not care about tragedies and those who call themselves philanthropists or humanitarians tell us we have to do something. Saying "Never Again" is not enough, we have to enforce it!
But then think, has this preacher ever gotten down from the podium and left a cushy life, to save people with no relation to herself at all. The truth is people hear about terrible things, and they say "My god, how can such things happen? How can the world let this happen?" People speak from a human position, a hypothetical one. The UN cannot resolve so many ethnic issues, so many tangled, bigoted, complicated violences. The truth is people don't want to get involved, we throw money at the problem and think we've done something virtous. But what can we really do? Giving money to Africans is not going to heal the scars of imperialism, the cicatrix left over africa is fragile. It is tearing again in places where people never stop killing one another. Politicians did nothing because we don't think it's our problem, we don't want our people, our relatives to die trying to keep a buch of homely africans from ripping each other apart.
It is callous, it is crude, put simply the world does not value africans as it does 1st world nations. We don't want to get involved, because it's labyrinthine. We don't understand why, we don't want to. I don't want to. It's a horrible part of the world, so many things have come together to hurt africa. The africa today looks beyond saving. How do we stop Darfur? How do we stop Rwanda? How do we stop the Congo? If we fight brute force and murder with the same, then it is whites killing blacks instead of blacks killing blacks. Money never reaches the right hands. Goods are stolen from the needy and horded by the strong. Maybe it's time to leave it alone, stop throwing money to the wrong places, stop interveneing when the dying ask us to. Western powers created Africa's problems, maybe its time we let them sort it out. It's horrid to say, and few would speak in favor of it. But letting africa sort out africa may be exactly what a shattered land needs.

Jennifer Ward said...

Wow! A very passionate response. Thank you for your comment, and although I can understand where some of your sentiment is coming from, I'm not sure I entirely agree. Although I agree that throwing money at a problem will not solve the numerous crises that plague the nations of Africa, I think it is even more detrimental to take the stance as you suggest to "let them sort it out."

As Elie Wiesel once quoted from the Torah, "Thou shalt not stand idly by while your neighbor's blood is shed." We have a responsibility to help our fellow human beings, otherwise we are at risk of losing our own humanity.

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