It has become a sort of ritual, I think, judging by past year’s content here.
I spend all of Christmas break reading what I don’t have time to read during the school year (this year, genocide and the American South in the cotton economy and global conflict and the Renaissance), and, then, around March, I get around to going back through the sticky notes that I stuck in the pages I wanted to remember…and I pull out some insights that I want to share here.
And you humor me, which I really appreciate.
The book that occupied most of my time over Christmas break (and, based on the posts I’ve started to sketch out for the coming weeks, will appear in various form here for awhile), is A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.
I know, I really let loose on break, hunh?
I’m starting, here, with what I guess should be the end. Because, really, you can only deal with this kind of history by resolving:
The book begins with the story of one girl killed in the Bosnian “ethnic cleansing” (word we use because it sounds less horrible than genocide–more on that soon), but, shortly after, has this quote. Jimmy Carter said in 1979, “we must forge an unshakable oath with all civilized people that never again will the world stand silent, never again will the world fail to act in time to prevent this terrible crime of genocide” (p. xxi).
It’s not giving away the rest of the book to state the obvious.
Of course, we did.
And so that’s my main question, from all 500+ pages, many of which have horrific narrative (I also read a novel about the Cambodian genocide, specifically, so, you know, I do fiction, too).
Since American policymakers know a tremendous amount about what’s happening in genocidal situations, and since some Americans risk a lot to push for action…what would happen if there was real outrage that policymakers are letting this happen ‘on our watch’?
I was thinking about this when, today, I met with a woman who has run a childcare and family support center for families in poverty for decades. Her passion is infectious, and she is a skilled and tenacious advocate.
She said that her advocacy goal is to “get people really, really mad, so that they just won’t tolerate it anymore, that children in our city don’t have a place to live or enough to eat”.
The question, of course, is how to do that.
There has to be ‘hell to pay’ for politicians who ignore or tolerate injustice. The change has to come from people outraged that passivity would be counseled in our names, that problems would be swept under the rug, that children would suffer because our priorities are elsewhere.
We have to make never mean never.
Or it won’t.
This advocate leaned across the table and said, “I believe most people know. They have the information. What they don’t do is act.”
And, how often, does that describe me, too?
Now we have unfettered access to images and stories. But we also have much more content to sort through, and we have to seek out the information. We have many arguments at our disposal, whether our cause is resisting genocide or easing the benefit cliff that sentences low-wage working moms to perpetual poverty. We can couch our appeals in history or in the future consequences. We know what happens when this goes unchecked, and we can project the costs if we do nothing. We can turn to morality, because many people want to do the right thing, and to have right be on their side. We can rely on policymakers’ instinct not to be the ones who let injustice rage on our watch.
We can use cost-benefit analyses, and heart-wrenching photographs, and celebrity endorsements.
We can, as the Sister said today, “give every poor kid a puppy, because then maybe people would grab their telephones to yell about it.”
It doesn’t matter, so much, the why, but the what, and the how.
The study of U.S. response to genocide makes it clear: U.S. officials make ‘potent political calculations about what the U.S. public would abide” (p. 373).
I think this is true in domestic policy issues, too, and it’s why there’s so much attention paid to framing, as it helps to tamp down dissent.
We need to change that equation.
We have to make policymakers fear the consequences for sins of omission.
We have to get outraged, and let our outrage be felt.
We have to make never really, really, really mean never.