Thursday, March 22, 2007

What is to Be Done?

Finished What is the What this morning and have been turning it over in my mind ever since, even when I was out this evening taking pictures in Waikiki. (Spoiler alert: I'm going to quote the last paragraph of the book in a minute. It doesn't give away anything of the plot, but even still, if you you're thinking about reading it and don't want to know the last paragraph, stop reading now.) The narrator, Valentino Achak Deng, ends with these words:
Whatever I do, however I find a way to live. I will tell these stories. I have spoken to every person I have encountered these last difficult days, and every person who has entered this club during these awful morning hours, because to do anything else would be something less than human. I speak to these people, and I speak to you because I cannot help it. It gives me strength, almost unbelievable strength, to know that you are there. I covet your eyes, your ears, the collapsible space between us. How blessed are we to have each other? I am alive and you are alive so we must fill the air with our words. I will fill today, tomorrow, and every day until I am taken back to God. I will tell stories to people who will listen and to people who don't want to listen, to people who seek me out and to those who run. All the while I will know that you are there. How can I pretend that you do not exist? It would be almost as impossible as you pretending that I do not exist.
It's a powerful ending, and honors in an eloquent way the importance of words, the importance of stories, the blessedness of life itself. But there's a zinger in the last line. Heartwrenching and horrific as the events of the book are, one of the things that is made clear again and again is that those in a position to do something about the situation as it once existed and as it exists even today, like the government—and the citizens–of the United States of America, have in fact done the "impossible" thing, consistently and as a matter of course, a matter of policy: they have pretended that Valentino Achak Deng, and the thousands and millions of people like him, do not exist, that what has happened and continues to happen in Sudan and Ruanda and Darfur is not worthy of our notice.

I don't exempt myself from this. Like most Americans, I live out my days in a bubble of good fortune, and most often do not make it my business to look outside. I try to take care of myself, and my family, and my students. I try to avoid situations that look like they will cause me stress or discomfort, or put me in danger. I am, like most Americans, and most people everywhere, I would suspect, cautious about getting myself mixed up in complicated situations that seem like they are beyond my control. Because it's not just Sudan, right? It's not even just Africa. There are outrageous acts of inhumanity taking place everywhere on the planet on a daily basis: in Iraq, in Pakistan, in Nepal, in our cities, even in Honolulu, where last week a family of tourists were dragged from their car and beaten. There's violence and injustice and environmental degradation and homelessness and greed and stupidity of every conceivable variety on display every time you walk out the door or open a newspaper, more problems than you can shake a stick at, and so how do we go about selecting the ones we are going to try to do something about?

So the question I've been turning over in my mind all day is really the same question I've been asking my students to consider as we've been reading Peter Singer and Ian Parker's essay on Zell Kravinsky (there's a link to the article in this post )and The Poisonwood Bible: what do we owe to others less fortunate? Presumably it's more than nothing, and less than everything we have. So how much is enough? It's certainly possible to pretend that the suffering of others does not exist, or, alternatively, that it exist but it has Nothing to Do with Us. But if we choose not to put our heads in the sand, then what?

What Eggers has done is tell Valentino Achak Deng's story so convincingly and so sympathetically that anyone who reads it can no longer pretend that he does not exist. But that seems to imply that something else should change as well. And that's the question that's on my mind tonight. What to do about it.

1 comment:

Patrick Higgins said...

While I haven't read this new Eggers' book, I did read "Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius," and was an enormous fan of his work at McSweeney's back in the late 90's.

The same things you struggled with as a result of this book are being addressed by Nicholas Kristof of the New York times, and his approach is to take Americans to these problems, starting with students. Last summer he took a college student with him as he toured Africa in order to help globalize this continent. This summer he is taking another college student, but also a middle or high school teacher as well. Here is the link:

I posted this to my Tech Dossier site for my faculty to look at. I hope someone I know (maybe even me!) goes on this trip.