The Neverending Story
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We know that our individual efforts to send money, sacred and important though they are, cannot come close to reaching the level of the tens of billions of dollars that will be needed to help the millions of people who have lost homes, work, and everything they own or with which they could make a living due to the tsunami. Only a full-scale governmental effort on the part of all the countries of the world, and most particularly the wealthy countries, could make much of an impact at this level of financial need.
So it is particularly distressing to find once again that those of us who live in the U.S. have to witness our own country giving a pathetically small amount of money (even after responding to pressure to increase its initial pledge tenfold, the U.S. is giving a tiny, tiny percentage of what is needed). The hundreds of billions of dollars being sunk into a war against Sunnis in Iraq is monies that could have been spent on providing the kind of advanced warning systems, and solid construction of buildings, that might have dramatically limited the damage and deaths caused by this terrible storm. Once again, the unequal distribution of wealth on the planet translates into the poorest and most defenseless being hardest hit.
Two weeks ago the United Nations issued a report detailing the deaths of more than 29,000 children every single day as a result of avoidable diseases and malnutrition. Over ten million children a year! The difference between the almost nonexistent coverage of this ongoing human-created disaster and the huge focus on the terrible tsunami-generated suffering in South East Asia reveals some deep and ugly truths about our collective self-deceptions.
Imagine if every single day there were headlines in every newspaper in the world and every television show saying: "29,000 children died yesterday from preventable diseases and malnutrition" and then the rest of the stories alternated between detailed personal accounts of families where this devastation was taking place, and sidebar features detailing what was happening in advanced industrial countries, like this: "all this suffering was happening while the wealthiest people in the world enjoyed excesses of food, worried about how to lose weight because they eat too much, spent money trying to convince farmers not to grow too much food for fear that doing so would drive down prices, and were cutting the taxes of their wealthiest rather than seeking to redistribute their excess millions of dollars of personal income." If the story were told that way every day, the goodness of human beings would rebel quickly against these social systems that made all this suffering possible, suffering far, far, far in excess of all the suffering caused by tsunamis and other natural disasters.
If we were being told this true story every day, we'd quickly find that the progressive forces seeking a new global reality would come to power in democratic elections, and that proposals, like Tikkun's Global Marshall Plan (which would have the U.S. lead the advanced industrial societies in a global consortium dedicating 5 percent of their combined GNP each year to alleviating hunger, homelessness, poverty, inadequate education and inadequate health care), would no longer seem "unrealistic" to most people on the planet, but immediate survival necessities.
One important reason that this doesn't happen, whereas the suffering from the tsunami does get the coverage, is that the tsunami can be seen as "natural" and therefore no one is being blamed, no one has to feel guilty about consuming a disproportionate amount of the world's resources, and no one is mobilized to challenge the existing systems of power which fund and control the mass media. However devastating, the tsunami's story line is safe and predictable and unlikely to challenge the current global distribution of wealth or power.
Most reporters and news editors have internalized their sense of what the top-management in their industry considers "newsworthy" and thus they didn't give much attention to the U.N. story and its dramatic and tragic dimensions. If you pressed them, they would probably say something like this: these stories about global poverty don't really interest anyone, because most people know that nothing can be done about it, given that everyone they know is more interested in getting their own material needs satisfied than in worrying about global redistribution of wealth – so there is no point in pursuing that story, because the kinds of changes needed to deal with it will never happen anyway.
Perhaps the reason that social change seems so unrealistic is because not only these news people but almost everyone else has been taught that others are only motivated by narrow material self-interest. Yet when we watch the response of the people of the world to this tragedy we see just the opposite – a huge outpouring of generosity. Millions of people are making contributions, and billions are showing signs of caring. And it is this way whenever we face a situation in which the official media lets down its normal "cynical realism" and tells us that it's OK to show our caring side.
Those who despair are mistaken – the goodness of humanity is always just a few inches from the surface, on the verge of being released. One reason why right-wing Christian churches have been so successful is that they give people a spiritual context within which to let out their caring sides without worrying that they will face cynical put-downs from others around them. One task for progressives interested in social change is to find the best way to facilitate that process in a progressive context, but that will require a new sensitivity to a spiritual framework that validates and supports that spirit of generosity within most people.
Yet in the rest of our lives, few of us are ever encouraged to show caring beyond our small circles of friends and families, and if we are urged to show caring, it is only for the victims of some kind of natural disaster, but not for the kinds of problems we could actually deal with through collective restructuring of the world's economic and political arrangements – because that would threaten the interests of the powerful. They are all too glad to divert our attention to the disasters that can't be changed, and to channeling our anger into anger at God instead of anger at our social system.
The Tikkun Community is proposing a Global Marshall Plan: let the U.S. take the lead in convincing the other leading industrial countries to jointly contribute 5 percent of their GNP for each of the next 20 years to eliminating global poverty, hunger, inadequate education and inadequate healthcare and to build the economic infrastructure of the third world to dramatically improve the well-being of the worst off in every respect from earthquake and tsunami preparedness to environmentally sustainable rebuilding of their agricultural and industrial base. This should be the center of a progressive spiritual "values-based" approach to politics: a recognition of the fundamental interconnectedness of all human beings on the planet. What the tsunami shows is that the caring for others necessary to support such a politics is already there in most Americans. Our task is to let that fundamental goodness be channeled in paths that would actually work to dramatically decrease suffering in all corners of our world.
Rabbi Michael Lerner is editor of Tikkun and invites readers who agree with his perspective to come to an international conference jointly sponsored by The Tikkun Community and the University of California Peace and Conflict Studies program focused on Building a Spiritual Left around programs like the Global Marshall Plan. For more info email: RabbiLerner@tikkun.org