Last night, as I found myself drawn into another argument on an old saw of mine, I was reminded (brutally and in the most unpleasant way) of how little we (collectively) hear, talk, write or know about the international scene in the Global South, and immediately again why no one listens when we (reporters, academics and assorted nuts) yap off about it.
Without getting into too much detail (and, tragically, without naming names) allow me to explain:
I was fraternizing at a friend’s birthday party in Harlem when an animated foreign acquaintance and our abrasive American colleague —whom I am at a loss for words to describe (acquaintance feels far too genial)— got into it over, what else, foreign press coverage of policy and conflict outside the G8.
The fireworks started at about the same time Comrade 2 was regaling us with tales of obnoxious American do-gooders in the Save Darfur movement. Or maybe it was obnoxious American do-gooders in the Justice for Palestine movement. Anyway, these were protesters dejour with our lady’s phone number, and damned if she was going to spend precious pico-seconds on the horn with a bunch of scarf-wearing crybaby’s who’s event was under quota for the TV cameras . Wasting her time with their gesturing—how dare they.
Fair enough—I’m not the only person endlessly frustrated with the caprice of the well-meaning. And for once, I wasn’t the only one in the room who felt that too much time and too much UN air is being wasted on Darfur, a horrific situation that is actually among Central Africa’s milder conflicts. One imagines that, as a UN attache for one of the leftier, 3rdworldier TV stations out there, Comrade 2 is practically wading in these people and their half baked ideas about how the world should be run.
I have never in my life met anyone so disdainful of their sources (in her case—poor things—we’re talking refugees), and so sure of their own moral and intelectual superiority. And never in my LIFE have i had such a rancorous intellectual agreement with someone. We agreed more or less vehemently on Darfur, but when it came to my pet conflict (the end-of-days scenario playing itself out between the rebels and the military on a 13 mile-wide stretch of northern Sri Lanka) and hers (Gaza, ugh), we nearly went to blows. The sad thing is, I don’t really disagree with her assertion that Israeli deaths get more attention than Palestinian ones, I just don’t think that means that the two Palestinian toddlers who died yesterday on the strip automatically deserved a mention in the New York Times (this being her position). On the other hand, Comrade 2 doesn’t really disagree with me that Sri Lanka (which suffers about 60 civilian casualties a day, depending on the intensity of the fighting, a number that has sustained itself FAR longer than the 22-day orgy of violence that claimed a rather banal 1,200 lives in Gaza in December and January) is the most thruroughly under-covered conflict in the world. Where we differed was essentially in the idea that coverage of one must necessarily unseat some coverage of the other. I may have also said that Gaza is the world’s most over-covered conflict, but don’t quote me.
Look, if you think I’m being cheeky about all of this, you’re right. I’m being cheeky because I met the alternative last night, and its so self-righteous, disdainful and abrasive that I find myself at a loss. I was impressed at Comrade 2’s encyclopedic knowledge of regions and conflicts even my smartest friends don’t know, and almost pleased to find someone with whom I could debate Sri Lanka. Until i stepped back and thought “holy shit, this is the person they’re trusting with refugee crises and genocides?” And then it struck me.
It doesn’t matter what you know. Ok, well, it matters what you know, but it matters about an order of magnitude more that you care. A lot. It matters that you value other people’s experience and opinions above your own and that you have a metric to determine who is worth listening to and whose heartfelt bullshit matters too.
Listen to me, fellow self-righteous lefties. Whatever book or documentary it is that changed your whole thinking on Gaza, I read it, saw it, wrote about it. Whatever Guardian article that blew open your consciousness about Congo or Mother Jones piece that exploded your understanding of Indian poverty, well I’ve been there and done that. And I’m not alone. You might have a newer, shinier fact or a better pull quote, but in the small and shrinking cadre of people who are educated in this shit and actually give a fuck, we’re on par. And for the rest of the world—well, you certainly aren’t going to browbeat them into caring.
We spout off a lot about human voices and narratives and shit, but I’d rather read a bunch of solid numbers behind a single, strong argument than see another Maya/Fatima/Yelena, etc propped up in front of a camera and poked with a stick until she spills her unimaginably brutal survival story for another wannabe foreign correspondent’s lede. Human beings are the ONLY way to tell a story, especially a foreign story, but only if you treat them like humans instead of units of commoditized suffering. Anything else is just prostitution, and nobody likes a fucking pimp.