the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world











2003 July 17


You would not know it by watching the news, but a democracy was overthrown yesterday. It is a small part of the world, Sao Tome and Principe. It has a small population, one hundred sixty thousand, about the size of the county in which I was raised. It is a few small islands in the Atlantic. It is miserably poor. That may change soon, though ― or so the military suspects. The soldiers, like all those in Sao Tome and Principe, are tired of being poor. They are heartened by the news that billions of barrels of oil lie offshore, and will soon be available to enrich the state. Whom the state enriches afterwards is the issue. Unwilling to risk their share of the spoils, or perhaps unwilling to share the spoils at all, members of the military, at a moment when the president was out of the country, have seized the instruments of state, and the ministers of the government. They speak of ending a decline; but what is their plan for elevation? They speak of ending poverty; we can be assured that, in a manner of speaking, that is exactly what they have in mind.

I have been watching the news on the Public Broadcasting Service since I was still legally a child. The NewsHour is one of the most intelligent, thoughtful programs I have ever seen on US television, and it is certainly far and away the best television news in the US, where everything else is five minutes of news and fifteen minutes of human-interest stories. National network news is just a glorified local broadcast without the gender- and race-balanced anchor team. Not so the NewsHour, which has the time and the inclination to present important issues in depth, with open discussion. That is the reason I watch. For information, it is far better to use the internet to access the world’s great news-gathering organizations ― the BBC, CNN, and the wire services. As a case in point, if I had not known about the coup, I would not have learned about it from watching the NewsHour: the lead stories last night were that another US soldier was killed in Iraq, and that a US plane was not shot down by a surface-to-air missile at the Baghdad airport.

At the end of the NewsHour, since soldiers began dying in Iraq, there has been a display of names, pictures, ages, and hometowns of all US military deaths in the war. As a matter of principle, I have watched this in full every night. I supported the policy that caused these deaths; it is right that I should see their faces and know that they were real, that they had lives, families, and dreams, all ended. But I do wonder that, on the United States’ most erudite network, on its most cosmopolitan program, founded in fact by Canadian Robert MacNeil, only US soldiers’ deaths should be shown. Is all news in the United States national news? Is that all we care about? Should an information program designed for the engaged and the educated be nonetheless a chauvinist appendage of the nation?

And I wonder, too, at all those who use evidence of further deaths in Iraq to argue against this war having ever been fought. Would the regime of Saddam Hussein have lasted thirty-five years if, during all that time, there had been a nightly litany of its victims on the evening news? One more village gas-bombed. Three more families of dissidents tortured and killed. Two more unreliable officials shot in front of their peers. Another thousand rebellious Shiites massacred. Do those people not matter? Would any of us have been able to sit through the recitation of the names of the hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, who have been killed by the policies of war, starvation, and repression employed by the Iraqi state?

Another US soldier dies. It is a shame; it is a shame that anyone has to die. But is that more important than the death of democracy in Sao Tome? Do we more need reminding that soldiers are mortal of body, or that they are fallible of spirit? What will better help us understand our world, and our nature? But there my assumption is flawed. When I seek information about what is happening, I mean what is happening in the world, because I am not an Iland, intire of my selfe. I do not mean what is happening in the small part of the world that contains me. Or perhaps it is that I do not feel contained by any part of the world. Or perhaps again it is that even the most educated segment of the US population is living in a world with narrow boundaries, and even narrower concerns.

There is a good word for this: ‘narcissism’. It has become such a favorite of mine in recent months that I have taken pains not to overuse it. Narcissism is absolutely everywhere. It consumes the world, no less outside of the United States than within, not that any of us would know of it. It is a combination of pathological self-concern and burlesque vanity. I, of course, am insufferably conceited; but at least I admit the existence of a world beyond my immediate surroundings. And one need only concede the world’s existence to see that narcissism is practically the default position of humanity. I am wholly in favor of real masturbation. But this symbolic masturbation that we engage in is inestimably more depraved than the real thing was ever reputed to be. We have become completely devoted to our own pleasures and incapable of forming a meaningful relationship with the world around us.

It is why Liberia and Congo are at war, why Liberian warlord Charles Taylor believes that both his tenure and his departure must be considered testament to his indispensability, and why Congolese dictator Joseph Kabila now has four vice-presidents. It is why Burmese dictator Than Shwe detests opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi, and has her locked up yet again. It is why China demands that Hong Kong pass a subversion law, despite the massive recent display of opposition. It is why taxes in the United States are so low that the government will borrow a trillion dollars in the next two years to pay for its operations. It is why the governor of California is being recalled shortly after his election, possibly to be replaced by someone with a fraction of his mandate. It is why Zimbabwe’s ruler Robert Mugabe is trying his most prominent opponents for treason, and why Cuban caudillo Fidel Castro is now executing desperate hijackers. It is why Saddam invaded Iran and Kuwait, and erected his statues and palaces. It is why the Catholic Church is pressing for the European Union to be officially Christian. It is why the Russian Orthodox Church, after building an expensive temple on the site of the “martyrdom” of the tsar, has called for the renewed union of the Russian state and nation with itself. It is why Kim Jong Il builds nuclear weapons, insists on unmediated talks with the United States, and now calls himself by his late father’s title, ‘Great Leader’.

At the center of it all is a person at the purported center-of-it-all. The nature of perception may demand a certain egocentrism; but it does not warrant such self-absorption. We pity ourselves for our own minor problems while others not far away are suffering a thousand times worse. If others exist to us, it is only so that they might love us as we love ourselves. We gaze upon the fair flower that enchants our world; but our world is no broader than the pool in which we see our own reflection.


No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
― John Donne


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