Thursday, March 27, 2008

Just Paying Attention

from Jacqueline

Phew, what a week on the blog we’ve had, especially with Cornelia’s impassioned and to-the-point piece on the link between autism and childhood vaccinations. If you didn’t read it, go right back there before you read another word of this post. Then send it on to everyone you have ever emailed in your entire life.

I’ve been thinking of that bumper sticker this week, you know the one, we’ve all seen it:

Cornelia’s post had me steaming, and came hot on the heels of two features on the news this week.

The first was from Zimbabwe. OK, so there’s a lot to get outrageous about right there. The news from Zimbabwe is bad at the best of times – it’s hard to believe it was once the bread-basket of Africa – and I think we sometimes become more than a little immune to the news of starving people in lines waiting for food, or families trying to make do with a tin roof over their heads in the teeming rain. Many – myself included – send checks to aid organizations and hope they’re not spending the money on junkets or “fact-finding missions.” You do what you can when those pictures prod you again. But a few nights ago I was watching a special BBC report on the way in which so many women have been pressed into prostitution, crossing the border into Zambia for their work, so that their children could be fed. Now, I know that some people’s eyes glass over when we bring prostitution into the conversation – there’s still a lingering sense that we’re talking about those scarlet women who won’t get a real job, rather than women and girls (and young men and boys) for whom there is no other option if they want to survive – but it broke my heart to listen to these women, including a former bank executive and another women who had her own hairdressing business, both now without work due to the Mugabe regime. They talked about the path to prostitution, about their shame, about the hollow grief that life brings to them with each new dawn. One woman wept as she said, “I pray to God to forgive me.” Forgive her? Forgive her? What a tragedy. I want to tear my hair out when I hear these stories, and at the same time feel just powerless. I want to know what is being done, what is happening to ease this collective pain other than “sanctions.”

In the same news broadcast came the story that France had threatened not to send athletes to China unless Tibet is free of violence from the occupying Chinese regime. Now, we know how Tibet is the elephant in the Chinese stadium this year, but my first thought was, “So, why aren’t we stepping up to the plate and making that same threat?” Where are all the other nations, where is the outrage? Well, of course, there are a slew of athletes who have been training for years for the opportunity to compete for an Olympic medal (I do understand what is at stake here) and we wouldn’t want to give up the chance to show the rest of the world what we can do – but more than anything it’s clear that we don’t want to get touchy with China do we, because China has been holding up the dollar by buying our currency, and of course they are trading partners.

But I’m outraged. I’m frustrated because one of the reasons we went into Iraq (other than the illusive WMD) was supposedly Saddam Hussein’s track record in human rights abuse. Not that he didn’t commit terrors, but where is the outrage, the demand for something better from those non-oil-bearing countries? Why aren’t we holding their feet to the fire, instead of just looking on while more women are raped, more are pressed into prostitution, and not so far away, while Buddhist monks are beaten to a pulp?

I guess the thing I am most upset about is the feeling of powerlessness. I sign petitions, I send donations, I have written letters and of course, prayed (that loving kindness meditation saves me from cardiac arrest, I am sure). I remember asking that almost unanswerable question before on the blog: What can we, the people, do? It is the collective voice that rises up and is heard, and it’s about time more of us asked the question of our government – such as it is – what are you going to DO, and WHEN? Trouble is, half of them are on those junkets and fact-finding missions paid for by the pharmaceutical companies, the oil companies, the energy companies ....

I remember, when I was about eight, sitting at the kitchen table, reading the newspaper, and becoming very upset about the starving children in Biafra. I was raised by parents who were proponents of the, “There are children in Africa who would give anything to eat that broccoli, and you’re turning your nose up at it?” school of guilt, but it was a threat without substance, because I didn’t know what it was to starve, to be so hungry your stomach swelled out and you shed tears even though you were beyond crying. That week I emptied my coin savings bank into the Biafra collection box in our classroom, and even as my horse money went into that box, I knew there was a hunger in the eyes of the child on the poster that I could never dent.

I never want to get used to the images of suffering. I never want my eyes, the windows of my soul, to become immune. I want to be outraged by injustice, because acceptance is unacceptable to me. If I shrug my shoulders and say, “But there's nothing I can do," then I am complicit, and that scares the heck out of me.

And to give you a break from my ranting, I’m back on my book tour again (see you in Virginia this weekend, Jim) and next week will be off across the pond, so have asked James Grippando to sub for me – it’s always great to have him back at


  1. You're so right....the feeling of powerlessness begets cynicism, which begets passivity. Ugh.

    Many thanks for your post....

  2. I agree with what you said, except about the Olympics.

    Boycotting the Olympics will not change the situation in Tibet one bit. It will only punish the athletes. And for that reason I doubt most nations will follow through with their threat of a complete boycott.

    Though I heard on the news this morning that several nations are talking about boycotting the opening ceremony, which makes more sense.

    But if anyone of these nations were really serious about the situation in Tibet, and not just putting on a public face, they would consider changing their business dealings with China. And we all know that is not going to happen.

  3. From Jacqueline

    Thanks for your comments, Rae and Doug. You're right, Doug, boycotting the Olympics won't change anything, but at the same time, we cannot ignore the myth that China is a fully-functioning part of the democratic world, and if the Olympics can be used as a tool to highlight the double standard at work, then so be it. And you are right, the business dealings won't stop in a hurry.

  4. I think you hit in on the head when you mentioned "non-oil bearing countires" in your blog. As long as other counties don't have something we want, we as a country will do nothing. Just look at our response and the response of other countries to the genocide in Rawanda. Fortunately, just because our country doesn't do anything, that doesn't stop individuals from doing something. It can be overwhelming to think of all the sorrow and injustice in the world.

  5. Here's the web site for the government of Tibet in exile:

    The Chinese invaded Tibet in 1950. The Dalai Lama has been living in exile since 1960. The Olympics is a perfect time to bring this to the world's attention once again--for all the good it will do. Rae nailed it. Powerlessness begets cynicism.

  6. Your post made me think of how Hitler used the Olympics, how the USA boycotted Moscow thanks to Afghanistan, USSR boycotted later, and now what to do about China?

    I don't think boycotting really works. Don't we all know remember Jesse Owens more than we do images of Hitler at the Berlin Opympics?

    The Chinese are reneging on their promises to allow the world media to do live feeds from Tianamen Square during the Olympics... Before Tibet exploded last week, I would suspect the Chinese authorities are more worried about student protestors in their own capitol than from others. Tianamen Square 1989 anyone?

    So, what can the average person do? How about showing support to those marching for Tibet and Burma in the many peacefull demonstrations around the world to keep the media attention. The Olympic torch has one - count it "one" - North American stop: San Francisco in April. The Burmese supporters are planning a counter march across the Golden Gate Bridge...

  7. I think you missed the point of what I meant. Boycotting the Olympics is going to do nothing but screw over some kid who has worked for years to be in the Olympics.

    China does not care what we think about Tibet, they didn't care about what we thought about Tianamen Square, about the fact that we know they use slave labor in their factories.

    In the long run no one will remember or care if we boycott the Olympics, except some kid who had his dreams snatched from him.

    I know you will say sure they will let me ask you a question....Do you remember or did you ever know that the Goverment of Mexico ordered it's troops to open fire on demonstrators in Mexico City, killing over 300 not ten days before the opening of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City. 40 years ago. The world has a short memeory.

    Boycotting the Olympics is an empty, hollow gesture. If we really care about what is happening in Tibet and we want China to know we are serious, then cut back the amount of cement we are sending them.

    Do something that actually has an impact. But we won't because, everything we buy is made there and like Matel we are afraid to anger them.

  8. I guess I have a hard time wrapping my head around why it is better to be complicit with human rights violators than to "harm" athletes by boycotting the Olympics. NPR has done some good stories recently, including an interview with a Canadian Diplomat / Human Rights Advocate. When will we admit that the games are no longer a celebration of amateur excellence and world amity but are really about marketing and ad revenue and TV product? China is a big supporter of the genocide in Darfur -- the US should NOT go, regardless of whether it will "do any good" as anything more than a statement that we do not condone their policies and practices.

    The IOC is fine with murderers, but not with protests? Please explain! mbh

  9. m, Doug, I absolutely got what you said, and to a point I agreed with you, in fact, in the post, I pointed to the fact that athletes train for years for the opportunity to go to the Olympics, and it would be desperately sad to rain on their parade. Perhaps I was not clear in my thoughts there, but I think the fact that China is hosting the Olympics is a time to bring the issue of Tibet, for example, into sharper focus, and for the countries who are sending athletes to show some recognition of the human rights abuses perpetrated by their host. Surely we can't march in there flying our flags as if nothing is happening?

    Anonymous/mbh also makes an excellent point - what value is that gold medal when simply by being part of China's coming out ball, there is complicity with human rights abuse? Unless a Tibetan monk wins a gold medal, we are not going to have a Jesse Owens moment. Frankly, I think there are times when you have to stand for something, without self interest. The Olympics were always such an inspiring event in the public imagination, the dream come true - as a kid I couldn't wait for them to roll around - but they have become so commercial. On a personal note, I began to lose interest in the Olympics when the professionals moved in on what is supposed to be an "amateur" event - of course, that was happening slowly for some years, then the balance seemed to go towards athletes who by any stretch of the imagination could not be called amateur.

    Bottom line is that we all agree that the rest of the world - whether were talking about the banks, the corporations or the governments (and the IOC?) - is afraid of China's power and their abuse of that power. And that should worry a lot more people. The truth is that there will be no solutions to the world's hotspots of human rights abuse without someone, somewhere, losing out on something, whether that something is their life, their money or the opportunity to run 100 metres. I wish it were otherwise.

    (PS: Yes, I do remember Mexico - I was a kid, but I loved to follow the Olympics and remember the news coverage.)

    Alice, thank you for your comment, too. I think I'll make a point of being in San Francisco - that torch should represent a beacon of hope for global tolerance, understanding, compassion, for communication. Being present at a peaceful demonstration looks like one of the best options for someone like me to feel as if their voice is heard - even if the echo lasts no longer than the time it takes to walk away from the Golden Gate Bridge.

  10. Ok, maybe my mentioning the athletes, so maybe I can simply this so people can get their mind around it.....

    CHINA = +MONEY / - world opinon.

    CHINA cares about your MONEY....not your opinon of them.

    Boycotting the Olympics may make you feel better, but it is not going to help one monk in Tibet.

  11. All the info about the Golden Gate march, etc.:

    Almost everyday this week in SF area we've been hearing on the news the shifting plans about where the official Olympic torch run will be and where "protesters" may be allowed. It's quite a moving target.

    Wouldn't be surprised at this rate if the whole Olympic torch offical thing in San Francisco is just a run around the enclosed Giant's baseball stadium given how the length of the torch run keeps getting reduced.

    PS I've been sending Cornelia's mercury/vaccine info to everyone I know. Spreading info can have an impact. Bit by bit.

    PPS After the 70+ year rule by the PRI Party in Mexico, the last PRI President Ernesto Zedillo allowed full investigations and opening of files on that 1968 massacre in Mexcio City. Everyone there now knows who in the federal government was truly responsible. It took about 38 years....
    And, it took many peaceful demonstrations to bring the perpetrators to justice.

  12. So, Take away our MONEY and maybe they will start to CARE what we think?
    One of my brothers was a US Team Member and Worlds Silver Medalist, so I understand elite athletics and "screwing over some kid " who has worked for years to be in the Olympics.

    I hate that the IOC chose China as the venue and think we should not go. This is a nation of War Criminals on an unprecedented scale.


  13. I too am trying to make a difference little by little. I do seminars on protecting children from child molesters adn in the biggest city of my state had five people show up! Denial is more than a river in Eygpt! I feel tthe same way! Wake up!!!!!!!! KMF

  14. Thanks, mbh and KMF for weighing in on this subject. At least we're all paying attention! I keep trying to put myself in the position of being an elite athlete (I just re-imagine that old dream of making it to a national equestrian team), then weighing the opportunity against the reality of competing in a country known for the sort of human rights abuses we've tried to end by sending soldiers to war. As much as I would be shattered not to have competed, I'm not sure I could explain my actions to my soul.

    That being said, for those athletes who go to China, I truly wish them well, and may their hard work bring home the medals that are the stuff of all our dreams. And may none of us forget the freedom we have to engage in this conversation, even though some of us disagree. In this world such freedom is a gift to be cherished and to be used and never put aside because someone might not like what we say. This blog and other blogs like it are part of that freedom - I'm glad you all stopped by to speak your truth and share what you know and how you understand the world to be.

    As I understand it, the root of the word "conversation" means "learning together." Thank you for the conversation.