Saturday, July 11, 2009
This is the lead paragraph of an article in the current Economist, on a story about the receding of the world food shortage in recent months:
"Mulualem Tegegn bought a donkey last year. As a hard-working Ethiopian farmer, aged 58, he saw the purchase of the beast as a return to better times after several seasons in which drought and high prices had forced him to sell his livestock and take his grandchildren out of school to work on the farm. This year, he will have enough grain to buy a goat or two, and the donkey would make the long trek again to school. This is how things are supposed to be."
This is how things are supposed to be? Huh? I doubt that that unbylined writer meant it the way it sounds -- that Third World farmers are supposed to get by with donkeys and goats and tough shit for their dreams about John Deeres and refrigerators. The writer probably meant only that things had returned to a dusty, miserable normality that was better than starvation. His phrasing simply lacked empathy.
But this does point up an unfortunate truth: We who enjoy the good things of life also tend to show little empathy for have-nots. They are not individuals but abstractions. This is why do-gooders make television ads (think Sally Struthers) focusing on a single emaciated and doe-eyed waif in, say, Sierra Leone, and tell us that Khalifa will have a chance to live if we'll only contribute a few dollars to "adopt" her. Charity fund-raisers are painfully aware that appeals to improve the quality of life for thousands of children won't match donations for a single "real" youngster.
This same psychology of empathy obtains with health insurance for the less fortunate. We'll happily donate ten thousand bucks to help one winsome Little Willie walk again, but allow the government to tax our $350,000 household incomes by not even half of that to help tens of thousands of the poor to obtain access to health care? No way.
Little Willie is "real," for we have looked upon his face. All those other poor folks are faceless and therefore to be forgotten.
This is not how things are supposed to be.