[Originally posted September 12 and lost due to website issues. Apologies to those whose comments have been lost as well.]
Monday marked six months since I stopped working in the humanitarian field – I left the insulation and employ of MSF and headed off to parts unknown. Actually, I headed off to parts known, the USA, and spent most of the half year with my wife, immersed in the day to day. Road trip. Chilling out. Taking a break. I recommend it.
We passed through spectacular natural scenery, ate sublime meals at diners whose steady disappearance is as tragic as DRC, and interrupted my 15 years living abroad to spend a full month with my aging parents. Even without its day to day excitement, the trip would have been wonderful simply for the fact of spending so many months off the grid. The phone didn’t ring. The email didn’t stack up. Stress seeped into the ether and sleep came in deep doses.
Did I find myself? Discover the meaning of life? Nope and nope. I did manage to attain nirvana in the tiny town of Webb, Mississippi. This perfection came in the unlikely form of neckbone stew at Vera’s café, with sides of cornbread, mac & cheese, and okra. That’s it? The secret of life is high-cholesterol Southern cooking? It may well be. Beyond that, this is the most I can say. First, the world is a really big place. Second, the world is a really small place.
The world got bigger the moment I left MSF. The adrenaline rush of emergency aid causes a narrowing of vision. Aid agencies churn limited ground. Outside, the world is full of joys and marvels and realities like the miserable, inexplicable poverty of many Native American communities. Or take Syria. At the time of my departure it was a daily point of focus. During my first few months in the States I never once heard somebody mention it in conversation.
The fact of the world seeming suddenly so much larger says something about the worlds in which we live. The world became quite small as well, at one point not much larger than our campervan. That is partly a function of snugness, the age old feeling of comfort or refuge in our own world. In one way, I had replaced MSF’s porthole with another, but at least stress did not fix my gaze. It felt easy at first to join the big world again.
But beyond my road-tripping, the smallness of the world is partly a new phenomenon, as internet information and social networking shrink rather than expand our understanding of issues, and solidify polarized points of view. See this fascinating piece on data visualization of Twitter action during the Israeli-Palestinian conflict: “We’re most likely to only talk to people like us”.
Since coming back on the grid, the news portrays a world in even worse shape than only a short time before. 2013 was bad enough (see my New Year’s Day send off in Huffington Post). Now add Putin’s Ukraine invasion, Ebola, the atrocities of the Islamic State, Israel’s recent attempt to rubble-ize Gaza, Libyan strife, etc.
The twinned trends of a world getting larger and a world getting smaller are not unrelated to this horrific state of affairs. For example, the more misery that piles up in the world, the more (for example) Sudan, CAR and Haiti gather into a white noise of faceless crisis, meaning these specific realities are rendered invisible from our small worlds. Or this phenomenon: in the face of all that bigness – in the face of seemingly inexorable economic and cultural massification on a global scale — there is a retreat into the local. Self-determination at the atomic level, whether it be the selfie, the slow food movement, or Scottish desire for independence. The discourse of nationalism is on the rise. That can be a good thing – ethnic pride. And that can be the success of the Islamic State or Boko Haram.
This self-determination is not only a longing for freedom or power. It is not only political in nature. It is also the self-determination of right and wrong itself. Reversing 500 years of trending enlightenment, “truth” in the form of political conviction is becoming more localized; naked self-interest more shielded as opposing views no longer enter the fortresses of small world opinion. The internet promised the globe and has in many ways delivered the (isolated) village. Safe in those narrow confines, POW slaughter is justified by religious edict and drone assassinations by self-defense.
Contrary to my hopes, 2014 suggests that 2013 was no aberration (again, see link). Of specific concern to humanitarians should be international law, human rights, and humanitarian action. These have all formed part of the world getting bigger – a concerted effort to globalize respect for certain norms and standards. Now, their meaning and hence their potency has been drained by the steady erosive forces of self-interest, exceptionalism, and realpolitik of the flag bearers.
In the aforementioned Huffington Post piece I wrote there were a “mounting number of places that have reached a critical mass of disrespect for international law and universal ideals, or their outright rejection; and where rudimentary compliance is no longer deemed useful.” My primary concern is not the upsurge of bad actors – there will always be bad actors – it’s the very public destruction of these laws and standards by the good actors, or at least of those who typically advertise themselves as good. In the long game of establishing rules against summary executions or slavery, the act of a jihadi beheading a journalist is a call for strengthening international law; the act of the US government torturing prisoners in Abu Ghraib is a knee-capping of it. What is good for the goose is good (easily justified by) for the gander.
(Diversion alert) The US government should take a lesson from Charles Barkley, who understood there are insidious consequences when the public anchors their beliefs and aspirations in the wrong place (see clip): “I am not a role model”. Sadly, such public self-awareness is not the stuff of nations. Here is Samantha Power a few days ago, banging the drum of international order against Mr. Putin’s Ukraine transgressions: “These rules and principles that have taken generations to build, with unparalleled investment – countless lives have been lost to establish and defend these principles.” Ouch. There falls another brick in the house of international law, crumbled as the world’s biggest pot calls Putin’s (pretty big) kettle black. (Diversion ended)
I do not know what happens to humanitarianism in the face of the world getting bigger and the world getting smaller. Aside from shrill press releases, what course of action to take if we believe that our access to people in crisis (Somalia, Iraq, Syria, Congo…) depends in part upon a strong respect for international law and norms? Where it concerns us, I know that we aid agencies have trumpeted ourselves as flag bearers in the international order. We are the goose too. So I know that we who define the humanitarian project must break from our own growing trends of self-interest and living in too small a world.