“the worst are full of passionate intensity”
In a previous post I wrote: I conclude that there are very few speakers at commencement who try to give the graduates, and for good reason, a true picture of the world into which they are entering after some 12 to 18 years of schooling. Instead the graduates hear a lot of talk with such advice as, find your inner self, fall in love, learn something new, take risks, etc….
(see, Amrisha Vohra).
So I did something different. Probably too different. I began my talk with brief summaries of a few of the horrible events and stories from the previous year that I had noted in my journal. The breakup of Yugoslavia with accompanying slaughter of the innocent. The civil war between the Sinhalese and Tamils, the two main ethnic groups of Sri Lanka. Then Somalia on the horn of Africa, and the clan-based guerrilla groups engaged in internecine warfare….
What did I think would happen by my recounting of these and other humanitarian disasters of the previous year? That the graduates would begin their own lives with some real knowledge of others of the world’s peoples who were struggling, just to survive, of the many millions of their fellow human beings who were totally without their own advantages and who were in desperate need of help, if not theirs, someone’s.
Perhaps I thought that the graduates needed not to be told yet once again that their own golden lives held the promise of their own realization of the American Dream, bringing them the expected wealth and family happiness. But instead, if someone could somehow at this point in their lives make them aware, if only for a moment between graduation parties, that there were millions, hundreds of millions of their fellows, not only with no dreams of their own of a better life, but without even the minimal essentials of this present life, and that only the relatively small populations of the world’s richest countries, of which they were members, could ever provide even a small part of what was needed.
So going back, I guess I haven’t changed, I still feel that’s what the graduates need to hear. Maybe a TED talk, or a u-Tube video would have been, or would be now best for this purpose. But I have only my blog.
Below in the left hand column are the relevant portions of my own talk of 22 years ago. In the column alongside at the right I have chosen not to list some of the very similar and quite comparable (what are usually referred to as) humanitarian disasters of today, and I’ve noticed that either there are many more disasters today, many, many more, or the media is doing a much better job than ever before of reporting and bringing us the news.
There is of course the continual fighting throughout the Middle East, the rampages of the very worst, the killing sects — The Taliban, ISIS, and
then the Ebola outbreak, draughts and violence in Somalia, in the Central African Republic, and elsewhere… There seems to no end to these troubled lands and peoples, and most of us, the graduates too, live as if these troubles weren’t ours. And of course they are.
But my right hand column below I will give over entirely to just one humanitarian disaster, that of the Southern Sudan. Marc Santora writing in today’s Times should be heard, and especially by the graduates of our colleges and universities. If I were ever again to give a commencement address (I of course don’t intend or expect to.) I’d read Marc’s account from the Southern Sudan aloud to the graduates.
“Two days ago I was in Harvard Square. Harvard University employees were holding a protest rally in the street next to Au Bon pain. One of the posters read, Many faces, one voice. Good luck, I thought. That’s not the situation in the world today, where there are many faces, 5 billion of them, and almost as many voices. Do people anywhere speak anymore with just one voice?The civil war in Yugoslavia which has already cost 10,000 lives, countless maimed and wounded, an estimated 1.5 million left homeless, let alone the material damage to cities and towns, and to the jewel of the Adriatic, Dubrovnik.
In Sri Lanka last month it was the start of a week of festivities celebrating the new year. The two main ethnic groups, the Sinhalese and the Tamils, were celebrated with family gatherings and exchange of gifts, as they have done on this occasion for centuries. On the very eve of the celebration 20 soldiers were killed in ambushes. On the first day, a bus was blown up and 25 people died. On the same day a bomb went off in a bazaar in the outskirts of the capital, Colombo, killing another 15 people. It is assumed that the attacks were the work of the Tamil Tigers, a guerrilla group fighting for a separate Tamil state in northeastern Sri Lanka.
In present day Somalia on the horn of Africa a number of clan-based guerrilla groups are engaged in internecine warfare. There is no legitimate government. The following conditions are typcal: An idle pharmaceuticals factory built by the Soviets is now a “refuge” for thousands of refuges from wars; they are waiting for help and they are watching their children die from the lack of proper nourishment. Around the capital, Mogadishu, alone there are over 100 such sites, rude havens for unarmed civilians forced to flee their homes.
For nearly six months the refugee camps, like the city itself, have been cut off from food as warfare and chaos have stymied all international relief efforts. Uncounted hundreds, perhaps thousands, have already starved to death. Tens of thousands of others have been killed or wounded. Central Mogadishu, once a gracious district of shaded streets, pastel villas and modest office towers, is now a tense and deserted no-man’s land of buildings defaced by shellfire and laden with rubble. A Somali, who is now professor of history at Rutgers University has described the situation there as follows: Modern Somali politics is nothing but traditional clan politics writ large, with the difference that the clan members are now armed with modern, mass-destructive weapons.”
In Peru, a black woman, Maria Elena Moyano, helped to create in the suburbs of that city a haven for the poor, called Villa. Now Villa is home to over 300,000 people. They have their own local government, schools, health clinics and industrial park. They have become a model for other Third World city planners. Last September, 20 years after the creation of Villa, Moyano was murdered by Shining Path guerrillas. The guerrillas also blew up the warehouse that supplied 92 Villa soup kitchens.
A man who tried to stop them with a loudspeaker in hand was shot in the head, a friend who tried to help was stoned to death. Shining Path spokesmen say that they are engaged in a “people’s war.” Rather than feed, educate or heal people, which was Moyano’s vision, they want to “deepen the contradictions”—that is, create more hunger, disease and death. Then, the theory goes, people will feel compelled to fight on the guerrillas’ side. That’s why they murdered Moyano.
Much closer to home there is Los Angeles. Admittedly not the same thing, but also with a large part of ethnic strife and grinding, inner city poverty.
First of all there was the white jury’s verdict flying in the face of everyone’s idea of justice, if not of justice itself, acquitting the four Los Angeles policemen accused of excessive brutality in the arrest of a young black man.
Then there was the white man being dragged from the cab of his truck and being brutally beaten by four black men while down on the pavement.
Then a mob of rioters storming shops and business, looting and setting fires, mostly in the absence of any police protection. We are told that it was the most violent American civil disturbance since the Irish poor burned Manhattan in 1863.
Two days of rioting left thousands of burned out buildings, including nearly 2000 business owned or operated by Korean Americans, more than 60 fatalities, thousands wounded, nearly 17 thousand jailed, an estimated 1 billion dollars in damages.
The blame fell everywhere: Legitimate black anger over the King decision, the devastating poverty of all those weak in skills and resources, the flight of a stable and responsible middle class to the suburbs, the loss of manufacturing jobs, a 40 to 50 % unemployment rate for minority youth, the Kennedy and Johnson social policies of the 60s, the Reagan and Bush neglect of the 80s, a conspiracy on the part of the Crips and the Bloods, Black vengeance taken on the Korean community for the death of 15 year old Latasha Harlins, shot to death last year by a Korean grocer in a dispute over a $1.79 bottle of orange juice, the marginal types, the riff-raff, the havenots all just spoiling for a chance to pillage and burn the haves, the heat and the boredom as in Watts in 1965. But it’s not so much the number of causes as the lack of solutions that is appalling.
A good part of the problem is that America is still the land of opportunity. There are countless immigrants at the gate. Many of them are in the country many of them are in Los Angeles.
The outburst of minority assertiveness in Los Angeles may be seen against the background of similar explosions within nation-states around the globe. The outbursts abroad are often marked by old hatreds, such as in Yugoslavia, and deeply entrenched linguistic and religious differences, such as in the former republics of the Soviet Union. These outbursts take separatist forms, and use organized violence, such as in the Basque region in Spain and in Northern Ireland, threatening the very existence of the nation or region in which they occur. With many variations there are other examples in South Africa, Canada, Lebanon, Ethiopia, the Sudan, Myanmar (or until the summer of1989, Burma), Indonesia, and even the most recently liberated generation of nation-states, such as Czechoslovakia.
Has the whole world gone the way of India, with its large population of “untouchables,” that is, those at the bottom of the social and economic pyramid, those who, if they do get work, do the dirty work of society. Mahatma Gandhi called them Harijan, or children of God, a term we haven’t heard used in referring to the rioters in Los Angeles. We call them, or we used to, the underclass. They really are becoming the new untouchables. Does anybody care?
Someone has said that history is no longer made primarily by what nations do to each other, but by what is done to nations by divisive ethnic feuds within.
Has the world always been like this? In the underdeveloped countries civil wars and guerrilla movements seem to be the norm. In the developed countries, there is terrorism, but most often a kind of insurgency, or low intensity conflict, LIC in army language. This may flare up into something more, as in Los Angeles.
When I was in France two weeks ago the French were asking themselves could or would it happen there. They were no more secure than we are. And I’m sure citizens of London and Berlin were asking themselves the same question. There is no center, there are only many voices, and these voices are worlds apart.
Do you remember the first stanza of Yeats poem, The Second Coming, written during the first world war, or in its aftermath, but perhaps even more topical now than then:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre The falcon cannot hear the falconer; Things fall apart, the center cannot hold; Mere [pure] anarchy is loosed upon the world, The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere The ceremony of innocence is drowned; The best lack all conviction, while the worst Are full of passionate intensity.
Should we now expect the world revolution that Marx and Lenin talked about in the concluding years of the past century? As has been often said the end of the Cold War has released a thousand demons from the box.
What’s going on? On the most human level people want to be heard. They want to be recognized. On another level they want a larger share of the pie. Given the constant pressure of a growing world population on the world’s limited resources can we not expect a growing pressure from those without upon those within, a constant knocking at the gates with the ever present threat that the gates will be knocked down. The lid is always about to be blown off. Is our only recourse to find additional safety values (enterprise zones, weed and seed programs—an expression I couldn’t believe when I first heard it) and keep on muddling through, postponing a day of reckoning?
The Shining Path is an insurgent group in Peru that has declined in recent years, although one faction remains dedicated to drug trafficking activities and extortion.
‘There Is No More Country’
By MARC SANTORA
MALAKAL, South Sudan — In places where the fighting is fiercest, no one is even attempting to count the dead.
Nearly half the population of the world’s newest nation, South Sudan, is in danger of going hungry. New atrocities are reported almost every day. And more than 1.5 million people have fled their homes, the vast majority to swampland villages where they hope rising waters during the rainy season will keep them safe from marauding soldiers.
“There is no more country,” said John Khamis, 38, who has spent much of his nation’s existence sheltered in a camp on a United Nations base. “I don’t know how the fighting stops now.”
It has been less than two years since a power struggle between the nation’s leaders plunged South Sudan into chaos, inflaming old ethnic tensions that almost immediately tore this new country apart.
Despite repeated attempts at peace, some of the deadliest fighting of the civil war has erupted in the last few months.
The warring leaders are unflinchingly entrenched in their positions, and the kinds of abuses that shocked the world early in the conflict, including the use of child soldiers and deliberate attacks on civilians, are reoccurring with new ferocity.The population of Wau Shilluk, a swampland village on the Nile, has swelled as people have fled their homes seeking safety from marauding soldiers.
Credit Tyler Hicks/ N Y Times
“The details of the worsening violence against children are unspeakable,” the director of Unicef, Anthony Lake, said in a statementthis week. “Survivors report that boys have been castrated and left to bleed to death. Girls as young as 8 have been gang raped and murdered. Children have been tied together before their attackers slit their throats. Others have been thrown into burning buildings.”
Even the spokesman for the military, the South Sudanese Liberation Army, acknowledged that the conflict was pointless.
“This is a senseless war,” said the spokesman, Col. Phillip Guarang.
Chol Garkouth, 15, can barely remember how his family celebrated his country’s independence from Sudan four years ago….
“All the other boys my age were going to fight,” Chol, 15, said from his hospital bed, bleary-eyed, a bullet wound in his leg. “I wanted to go fight with them.”…
The country’s economy is in free fall, and the cost of food, gas and other essentials has skyrocketed.
By April, 3.8 million people did not have enough food. Within a month, that number had grown by nearly a million.
“A staggering number of people are going hungry,” said Joyce Luma, the director of the World Food Program in South Sudan.
So many people are seeking refuge that in one village north of the city of Malakal, Wau Shilluk, the population has exploded to more than 39,000 from 3,000. For more than a month, no aid could get there because of the fighting, and children described going as many as five days without a meal….
George Fominyen, the spokesman for World Food Program here, said it was a race against time to deliver food and other supplies before the heavy rains.
“When you look at the map
and the stretches of land these people crossed to survive, you have to ask how in the world did they make it there alive.”
Tens of thousands have sought refuge in United Nations camps, many for more than a year. The compounds were never built to house refugees, but are now taking on a feeling of permanence.
Here in Malakal, more than 7,000 people have arrived in the last two months, swelling the compound’s population to more than 30,000.
With families piled on families, much of the camp has become an open sewer. The fighting has kept supplies from arriving from the capital, and there are shortages of just about everything.
United Nations officials say they face an impossible choice: open their doors to the desperate, or let people die….
In 2011, when South Sudan voted to separate from Sudan, the leaders of the new nation’s two largest ethnic groups — the Dinka and the Nuer — joined in forming a government.
Then, in December 2013, President Salva Kiir, a Dinka, accused his former vice president, Riek Machar, a Nuer, of plotting a coup. The two had a history of hostility dating back decades, and their personal political struggle quickly swallowed the country, setting off a new round of violence.
The fighting spread from the capital and has been most intense in two regions where there are oil fields.
….when the militia leader of one of the nation’s largest groups, the Shilluk, broke from the government in May and began an assault on the towns leading to the last remaining working oil fields in the country, it represented a major blow to Mr. Kiir’s hold on power. The vast majority of the nation’s budget comes from oil.
….The fighting raged just outside the camp, and the burned remains of cars sit just beyond the fence. Farther north, the town of Melut was leveled, and aid workers were stranded for days. Their warehouses and supply depots were ransacked and looted.
Villages were torched; hundreds of thousands fled to the bush; and untold numbers of civilians were killed.
The opposing forces now sit on opposite sides of the Nile, occasionally lobbing mortar shells at each other, the bombs flying over this camp and the civilians huddled for safety…. as fighting eased in recent months, some people had started to go back to the city, opening a market and hoping to rebuild lost lives.
Lual Ukuach, 43, said his brother and his children all were in Malakal when the latest round of clashes erupted.
“The troops, they came and they asked if you were Shilluk,” Mr. Ukuach said. The wrong answer resulted in a bullet, he said.
“I lost five members of my family, including my blood brother,” he said.
In the latest round of fighting, government forces ….had reached Mr. Machar’s hometown, Leer.
“Eyewitness accounts reported targeted rape and killing of civilians, including children,” according to a statement by the United Nations. It has accused all sides of abuses, adding that combatants were preventing human rights workers from documenting what has taken place in the past two months….
Colonel Guarang blamed criminals for any violations of human rights attributed to the government, but said he, too, supported accountability — just not yet.
For more than a month, no aid could reach Wau Shilluk, a South Sudanese village on the Nile, because of the fighting.
Credit Tyler Hicks/The N Y Times
“You cannot ‘account’ when the war is on,” he said. “How do you get the suspects from both sides when the war is flaming.”
Still, he conceded that there was a major problem with “indiscipline” fueled by alcohol.
While exact figures are impossible to determine, international officials and human rights activists say tens of thousands of people have been killed since 2013.
“For more than 17 months, women, men and children have been senselessly suffering through an entirely man-made catastrophe,” the United Nations high commissioner for human rights, Zeid Ra’ad al-Hussein, said in late May.
“And now, over the past few weeks,” he added, “the opposing parties have actually managed to make a terrible situation much, much worse.” …
“Both Machar and Kiir know that total victory is impossible; they know they cannot kill everyone from the other side,” one Western official said. “What is happening now is that all the parties are trying to secure as strong a position as possible before the rainy season comes and the fighting stops.”
While many hold out little hope for a lasting deal, it would not be the first time the two main rivals had fought and then reconciled.
In 1991, Mr. Machar split from Mr. Kiir’s Sudan People’s Liberation Army. Forces under his command then killed hundreds of Dinka in the town of Bor, setting off an ethnic clash similar, though smaller in scale, to the one playing out today….
Still, after the peace deal was struck in 2005, Mr. Machar and Mr. Kiir allied once more. The two lived in homes just across the street from each other in Juba.
Mr. Machar’s home now sits empty, the damage where it was struck by a tank shell still evident.
Dak Ongin, 54, remembers the day peace was declared in South Sudan in 2005, and when the country declared its independence six years later, becoming the world’s newest nation.
“I was hoping that peace would last forever,” he said, sitting atop a mound of earth and rotting trash at the United Nations compound.
In the distance, beyond the barbed-wire fence, lay his home in Malakal and an untold number of dead relatives and friends.
Mr. Ongin no longer expects peace.
“If the government keeps misbehaving, we will tear down this fence and take back the town ourselves,” he said.
(I wrote what follows, also in June of 1992, not sure if I would say it the same way today. Probably not. Today I’m hopeful. And it’s the wonders of the Internet that are giving me hope, the internet being that which enables each and everyone of us to touch lives up until now well beyond our reach.)
Some people feel that ours is the 11th. hour, that we are up against it, that by these and other signs we are being told that civilization is in great danger—other signs being global warming, holes in the ozone layer, mass extinctions in the tropical rain forests, the AIDS epidemic, the threat of nuclear terrorism, the depletion of the mineral resources of the planet…. Man seems to be aware of what’s happening, but unable, so far, to change the way he lives.