On Sunday, I posted a brief essay in which I linked to a Nicholas Kristof column detailing some of the extraordinary gains that have been made in recent years in reducing starvation levels of poverty in the world, combating age-old scourges like leprosy, and making clean water available to those without it. I suggested that these gains put into perspective the evils visited on us by the infantile narcissistic bully in the White House. I was, I confess, somewhat surprised by the response of LFC, seconded by local details from S. Wallerstein. “Before celebrating too much about the decline of extreme poverty, some things should be noted,” LFC wrote, citing, among other things, the fact that three-quarters of a billion [!] people remain in extreme poverty world-wide. S. Wallerstein offered a few details about just how little “$1.90 a day” will actually buy in Santiago, Chile, where he lives.
As it happens, I agree with every single word both LFC and S. Wallerstein wrote, but I wondered, Why did they feel it necessary to write what they did? To whom were their comments directed, and for what purpose? I puzzled over this during my morning walk [to which I have returned after several days spent rehabilitating my aching and aging back] and here is what I have come up with.
There are two very different standpoints from which one can view the world: as passive, though interested, observer, and as engaged activist. The observer and the activist have the same information available to them [although the activist may have a wealth of particular and intimate detail about one problem or region of the world that the observer lacks], but their orientation to that information is quite different. Compare the point of view of an aid worker who spends years in the field working to reduce the extreme poverty of the men, women, and children in one village in Africa with the point of view of one of us reading Kristof’s column. The aid worker, we may suppose, spends ten or twelve hours a day helping the people in the village to dig wells that yield clean water, teaching more productive ways of using their desperately meagre resources to increase crop yields, calling in assistance from a network of city lawyers to fight the exploitation of local landlords. She does this not for a week, or even for a month but for years on end. A new well is a victory, an expansion of the crop yields a triumph, one court victory against a rapacious landlord, after a series of disheartening defeats, a cause for celebration. She is perpetually aware of how small her victories are when measured against the appalling misery and poverty in the midst of which she lives and works. But she is a human being, not a balance sheet, and she must take heart from every advance, no matter how small, if she is to keep at her work and draw emotional sustenance from it. For her, the Kristof column is a reassurance that she is not alone, that her work, along with that of so many others, is having a measurable impact on the world’s poorest and most powerless people.
The observer contemplates the world equanimously and with admirable balance, ever on the alert for false voices saying the crisis is over, the worst is behind us, we may relax our efforts and pursue our comfortable lives untroubled by the misery of others. To the observer, who is, after all, not actually doing anything about poverty, or leprosy, or unsafe water, save perhaps casting a vote every two years and donating a bit of money now and again to Doctors Without Borders, the moral high ground is seized by those whose condemnation of evil is unrelenting and every positive report is rejected as a self-serving invitation to inaction. Any celebration of progress is viewed as a form of moral back-sliding, of that worst of all political sins, moderation. To the observer, the Kristof column sounds suspiciously like the self-satisfaction of a Clintonian.
Let me speak personally for a moment. I have done precious little in my life save offer opinions, and thanks to certain oddities of the mid-Twentieth Century American Academy, the more extreme the opinions I expressed, the more my salary went up. But I did after all actually do something besides offer opinions – for twenty-five years I raised bits of money to help poor Black young men and women to attend historically Black universities in South Africa. The amounts were trivial -- $40,000 in a good year – but thanks to the exchange rate, it was enough to enable fifty or sixty young people each year to pay the portion of tuition due at registration, thereby making them eligible for government funded loans. I was painfully aware that my bursary recipients were so few in number that my efforts did not even cause a blip in the South African university enrolment figures, but when I met the students on my annual visits, I drew encouragement and strength in my effort from their excitement, energy, and youthful enthusiasm. I even received a cherished award after all those years in the form of an honorary degree from the University of the Western Cape, conferred on me by the titular Chancellor of the university, Archbishop Desmond Tutu himself!
Had someone sought to throw cold water on my excited reports of my trips to South Africa, pointing out to me that my efforts had failed to correct the deep-rooted educational inequities in South Africa, my response would have been that the comment entirely missed the point. I needed any encouragement I could muster to keep at the effort for a quarter of a century, long after the novelty had worn off and the attention of lefties like myself had moved on to other inequities, other needs, other peoples.
So I should like to suggest that we allow ourselves to rejoice in Kristof’s statistics. The magnitude of the improvement in human life summarized by those statistics is enormous. Save the cavils and cautionary reminders for those who take Kristof’s column as an excuse for inaction.