Here is what is going on today:
In a drought-stricken area of southeastern Ethiopia, a young boy is dying of starvation. The U.N. World Food Program says that feeding him would cost less than $3 a month. A small donation to that program will help save the child"s life.
In a village in rural Kenya, a 35-year-old woman is dying of AIDS, leaving behind seven children as orphans. Their father died of AIDS two years ago. The antiretroviral medicine that would keep her alive and healthy costs a little over $1 a day. A small donation to the Indiana University School of Medicine Kenya program ("Dying Right in our Hands," May 31, 2001) will help save this woman"s life.
In Indianapolis, my wife and I hire a baby-sitter and go out to dinner and a movie. We"ll end up spending over $60. We leave behind unanswered letters asking for donations to the U.N. and IU programs.
What is wrong with this picture?
Plenty, according to New York University philosopher Peter Unger. In his book Living High and Letting Die, Unger poses a series of hypotheticals to illustrate the ethical dimensions of our obligation to the world"s poor.
Unger tells the story of Bob, whose valuable, rare and uninsured car represents his retirement nest egg. One day, Bob parks the car on a railroad side track and goes for a walk. Suddenly, he sees a runaway train barreling down the main track toward a small child whose leg is trapped on that track. If Bob throws a nearby switch, he can divert the train away from the child. But it will then run over his prized car, ruining Bob"s chance for financial security. Bob decides not to throw the switch, and the child dies.
Most of us would agree that Bob"s decision is morally wrong. But, Unger asks, how much different is Bob"s decision than my choice to go out to dinner rather than donate the cost of the evening to save a suffering child in Africa?
Unger"s fellow philosopher Peter Singer poses his own analogies to indifference to global suffering, including that of a man refusing to save a drowning child from a shallow pool because the man will ruin his $150 suede shoes in the rescue. (Singer"s controversial views on topics like animal rights and euthanasia often overshadow his important work on citizens" obligations to the world"s poor. But Singer and Unger both walk the walk on these topics: Singer donates one-fifth of his income to famine relief agencies, and Unger directed all of the author"s royalties from Living High and Letting Die to Oxfam and UNICEF.)
Cancel the cruise
The philosophical discussion can get complicated, of course, with Ph.D.-level debates on the merits of relativism, objectivism and various other -isms. But it doesn"t have to be complex. Unger"s and Singer"s point is that our increasingly globalized society allows us historically unprecedented knowledge about our fellow world citizens, along with unparalleled capability to impact their lives.
Given that knowledge and power, we can no better justify ignoring the needs of the starving Ethiopian boy than the hypothetical Bob can justify ignoring the cries of the child trapped on the railroad track. This is not a question of charity. Globalization brings with it ethical obligations as world citizens.
"I can see no escape from the conclusion that each one of us with wealth surplus to his or her essential needs should be giving most of it to help people suffering from poverty so dire as to be life-threatening," Singer wrote in a 1999 New York Times Magazine essay. "That"s right: I"m saying that you shouldn"t buy that new car, take that cruise, redecorate the house or get that pricey new suit. After all, a thousand-dollar suit could save five children"s lives."
It is not too much of a stretch to also conclude that Americans" ethical obligation to our fellow world citizens goes beyond donating excess wealth. We are allowed to be active political participants in the most powerful nation on the planet. It is a nation that can do so much to help others. Yet, for the most part, we choose not to.
Is it ethical to stand by silently when our country bombards Afghanistan with cruise missiles instead of bombarding Kenya with convoys of AIDS medicine? To shrug while our leaders plan a full-scale invasion of tanks into already-suffering Iraq instead of planning a full-scale invasion of foodstuffs to drought-stricken southern Africa? To vote without first contemplating that the U.S. spends 33 times more on our military than we do on foreign aid?
So, here is what I"m thinking about as the year comes to an end. I"m thinking about the starving children in Ethiopia. I"m thinking about the 6,500 people who died of AIDS in Africa today. I"m thinking that, for lack of funds, people are suffering in ways nearly unimaginable from my comparatively luxurious perspective.
And I"m thinking about whether it is my fault.
To contact the IU Medical School-Kenya program, check http://medicine.iupui.edu/kenya/program.html or call 630-6455. To contact the U.N. Food Program, check www.wfp.org or call (212) 963-8364. To contact the White House, call (202) 456-1111 or fax (202) 456-2461.Songs of experience: Bob Dylan at the Egyptian Room
Tuesday, Nov. 5, 2002, was an election day in the United States of America. All over this country, people were given the opportunity to exercise their franchise, to cast ballots for senators and governors and even county assessors. You"d think a day like this would represent a kind of snapshot of the national character at this particular time.
The stakes couldn"t have been higher.
We were fighting a War on Terror, getting ready for another war with Iraq. While TV commercials made it seem like there must be enough money for everyone to buy fast cars and perfect clothes, the facts were different. Fewer people could afford adequate health care. More people had to work two or even three jobs to get by.
But most of the people who could vote on this most American day of the year chose not to. And though the election said a lot about the influence that campaign contributors can buy, it told us very little about what it really means to live in this country at this time. For that information you best turn to a poet.
As it happened, Bob Dylan played the Egyptian Room on election night. What occult calculus was employed to position our country"s living Shakespeare in the heart of the heart of the country at this, of all times? When, just a few weeks before, word came that Dylan would make Indianapolis a kind of rare club date, the news was greeted with incredulous joy. Why us? Why here? How typically Hoosier.
The date grew even more momentous with the passage of time. In Minnesota, not far from Dylan"s iron range roots, Paul Wellstone, the kind of folk hero Dylan might sing about one day, was killed in a plane crash. With war looming and political discourse in the country all but shut down, this night in the Egyptian Room acquired a certain resonance.
Not that Dylan has made any real attempt to cultivate public perception of his significance. In fact, you could say that his last 20 years have been as much about deconstructing his 1960s "Voice of a Generation" persona as anything else. Embarked upon what"s been called an "Endless Tour," the man seems intent on being known simply as a working musician and songwriter.
But, as we found out on Nov. 5, it"s through this latest incarnation that Dylan seems to have found his richest and, given the times, most disturbing voice.
To understand what Dylan"s up to, arrive early. Like most concerts, taped music plays through the hall before the artist takes the stage. In Dylan"s case, though, the music playing is Aaron Copland - orchestral interpretations of American roots music, a Modernist assertion of American folk culture"s high art significance and, for Dylan, about as bold a statement of intention as you could ask for. In a gesture that, like so much of his work, is at once disconcertingly ironic and reverent, the last piece of music played before Dylan"s band takes the stage is "Fanfare for the Common Man."
As if this weren"t enough, Dylan adds a final, icon-mocking touch: a spoken introduction that summarizes each phase of his 40-plus year career in purple National Enquirer prose - from prophet to substance abuser, to Christian convert to comeback trail. The inadequacy of these tags is hilariously clear. All of them are shortcuts, feeble attempts to brand the work without having to try and really understand it.
Maybe that"s the point of the "Endless Tour." Dylan will perform for us until we finally get what he"s been trying to do all these years. Not only that: He will keep performing because he, too, is finally getting what it"s all about.
Onstage, Dylan is lit from below. Dressed like a riverboat gambler by way of Salvador Dali, sporting a gigolo"s mustache, Dylan looks like a character in a David Lynch fantasy. Except that Dylan was working on this character long before Lynch shot his first film. Now that he"s 61, it becomes increasingly clear that Dylan"s project has probably always been about a search for the quintessential American character. It started when, barely more than a teen-ager, he sat by the dying Woody Guthrie"s bedside. Then he went forth, making up an autobiography, including apocryphal stories of riding rails and a hobo life that belonged to Guthrie"s generation.
Any great actor might have done the same. Somehow, though, Dylan"s writing was confused with Beat-style personal confession. Throughout the "60s, fans searched the songs like they were maps leading to genius. Little wonder this made Dylan uncertain and, at times, even resentful of his audience. In performance he all but mutilated his own material in an effort to find the voice that might finally crack his cult of personality. At the Grammys in 1991, in the wake of the Gulf War, he played "Masters of War," possibly as searing an antiwar song as has ever been written. But he played it jacked-up and slurred, as if to say, "See? You"ve learned nothing. This means nothing." It seemed an act of despair.
Sir Laurence Olivier, the great English actor, played Shakespeare"s tragic King Lear for the first time when he was in his 30s. People raved about Olivier"s sheer ability to inhabit the body of an old man. But when Olivier played Lear again, in his 70s, he captured the king"s soul in a way that moved audiences to tears. Olivier said the passage of time and his own aging had enabled him to truly grow into the part. Something similar seems to have taken hold of Bob Dylan. He was an old soul but still a young man when he wrote "Mr. Tambourine Man." Hear him sing it now. You realize this is not a song of innocence but of experience - and that Dylan is at last old enough to understand the song in a way he could only intuit when he first performed it.
The passage of time and experience has enabled Dylan to emerge as one of our great blues singers. The voice, splendidly ravaged, is a storyteller"s dream. It seems to come from a timeless place that"s equal parts cafÈ, shack, hotel room and dirt road. He has spent a lifetime listening to the words America uses to brag, seduce, mourn, remember and lie to itself. We listen to him and we hear our history as if picked up by some alchemical radio frequency during an all-night drive.
Now that he is no longer the leader, "the voice," Dylan is free to play a more significant and probably more enduring role. On another disappointing election night we saw it - and him - there, before us. The wiry man in the dark suit sneered, but there was a sob in his throat. Whether he had been betrayed, or betrayed himself, there was, he seemed to say, enough blame in this country to go around.
Dipstick on the Zeitgeist
First I ask a 15-year-old. How would you describe this year?
"The year?" she asks.
"This year," I say.
"Well," she says, "the last I remember it was Sept. 11. I can"t remember anything that happened this year. What happened?"
"Try to think," I say.
"Well," she says, "there was that sniper guy and his son."
"Yes," I say.
"I"d almost forgotten that," she says. "The news people went crazy," she adds. "This is the year," she says, "I decided I didn"t like news people. Not even weather people. They talk about the same things over and over. They like it when things are bad. A storm! They love it when there"s a storm and they can talk all night. They talk about other people having bombs and not about our bombs.
"And I"d like them," she says, "to show more people celebrating."
"Sounds fair," I say. "What else?"
"Well," she says. "Michael Jackson"s gone crazy.
"Supposedly," she says, "he doesn"t have a nose. And Britney Spears," she says. "I don"t like her, and I used to like her. Now I like Avril Lavigne and Michelle Branch and Vanessa Carlton, the singers who do something - play an instrument, write their own music - don"t just dance around in a thong."
"What about Christina Aguilera?"
"I still like her," she says, "she has a voice. But she did pretty much dance around with her whole ass hanging out. It was amazing how she thought of that. It looked like cleavage upside down."
"What about the news?" I ask.
"Like what?" she asks.
"The Iraqi conflict," I say. "The accounting scandals."
She thinks for a second then says, "It"s always too much drama. That whole thing about Iraq. I thought we only had a problem with Osama. It would be like if a country attacked us because they didn"t like George Bush. I would feel pretty hurt."
"Are you and your friends optimistic about the future?"
"Nope. You"re screwing it all up for us. You"re getting in other people"s business. Teen-agers know not to get in other people"s business. We"re afraid we won"t have any friends left when we"re old."
"She"s right about that," her 19-year-old brother says. "We"re witnessing the end of the American Empire."
He doesn"t seem concerned.
"China"s producing everything now," he says. "They have the resources and the manpower. Their GNP is climbing."
"So do you want to leave?"
"Oh no," he says. "This is my home."
My daughter asks me if I have one. I tell her I"d forgotten it existed. I have to get a magnifying mirror to find it. Over the years, my arm has spent too much time in the sun. There are different shades and shapes of pigmentation to sort through. I feel as though I"m looking through a box of old buttons to find one for a coat I wore in 1959.
I find it on my right arm. I wonder if my mother was frightened when she took me in to get it. Sometimes when I drive West 38th Street, I look at the white brick house on the corner and remember the doctor"s waiting room, and I remember the toy phone I played with and I remember the doctor"s name - Rust - but I don"t remember his face or the particular day I received the mark that I would carry on my arm right to the grave.
It"s paler than the rest of my skin. At one time, I remember, it looked like someone had taken a small coin and pushed it into my arm. I remember being aware of it when I put on a sleeveless dress to wear to a New Year"s dance in high school. My grandmother had made me, I remember, an aqua dress made of silk. Now the roundness of the mark has filled in, and what"s left is, oddly, a white engraving in the exact shape of a five-pointed star. I"d rather get my nose pierced, my daughter says, and I say I"d rather she didn"t have to think about it.
I assumed the mark would work its charm forever, like a cross marked on the door of my skin. Those of us my age have been walking around for years in an illusion of safety. I remember being fascinated several years ago when the item appeared in the newspaper that there was a debate about destroying the last of the virus. It was housed, we believed, only in Atlanta and in London.
"So how would you describe this year?"
"I"ll tell you," he says. "This is the physics of this year. It"s a roadrunner cartoon, where we"re falling in mid air, about to crash, sure that when we crash we"ll pull ourselves back up and be the same."
In September 2001, the top hits on Google.com were as follows: Nostradamus, CNN, World Trade Center, Osama bin Laden, Taliban, Afghanistan, American Flag, BBC, FBI. The top declining hits were travel and Chandra Levy.
The week ending Sept. 11 you would also include the American Red Cross and American Airlines in the rising into consciousness, replacing the U.S. Open, Aaliyah, Hank the angry dwarf, David Blane (the man who lived in ice), Anne Heche and shark attacks.
In October 2001, the top hit in the Zeitgeist continued to be Nostradamus.
I cruise the Net and watch these subjects as they rise and fall in the Magic Eight Ball that is our collective consciousness. Murky and wet, only letting those things rise that have risen in the equally murky dark of the television screen. Now and then there"s something violent that demands that we look at it. In between, we bask and float with lazy meaningless phrases - Sure Thing, Why Not? Yes or Don"t Count On It. In January, the 1901 census broke the surface, the Australian Open, Survivors, Weight Watchers (predictably). Falling down through the darkness were Christmas cards, toys, George Harrison (good-bye!), digital cameras and - with a stone tied to his feet - Osama bin Laden. He hasn"t made the top 10 since last December. No wonder we haven"t been able to find him.
"So how would you characterize this year?"
"Well," he said. "This is what happened to me. I discovered that in that driving around time you have where you go to the grocery or drug store or the doctor, when you buy more gasoline and fill your tires or buy a present for your wife or drive to work, in all those lost seconds I had enough time to listen to three whole Trollope novels on tape and two of Dickens. That"s the kind of year it"s been for me."
Zeitgeist Two: late winter early spring
In February, we were preoccupied with the Winter Olympics and Superbowl commercials. In March, the Oscars and Halle Berry. In April, for some reason, Linda Lovelace, Spiderman, Le Pen, Robert Blake, the IRS and Lisa Lopes. My husband reminds me that Linda Lovelace died. "Of AIDS?" I ask. We can"t remember.
In the United Kingdom, they were thinking about Spiderman, Loft Story and the Queen Mother. In Germany, oddly, they were thinking about the Ice Age.
In the U.S. in May, it was Natalie Portman, Spiderman, the World Cup and Eurovision. In the U.K., they thought about Big Brother and Britney Spears. In France the top two hits were Britney Spears and Shakira.
"I thought about your question and this morning I was dancing around the living room holding my infant son and singing "Pink Cadillac," and I thought that a world in which this was possible couldn"t be that bad a place to live."
Zeitgeist Three: Summer
In the summer it was Wimbledon, Big Brother, American Idol, The Who, R. Kelly, Shakira, Anna Nicole Smith and Neverwinter Nights. I look up Neverwinter Nights and discover that it"s a new video game about a place called Neverwinter where a disease called the Wailing Death has infected the city. A cure is on the verge of being found when an unknown force steals the reagents needed to form it.
In Germany they had a brief fling with Marilyn Monroe in August and with the Red Hot Chili Peppers in July.
In the Parisian July "orange" was No. 1, and "marriage" never seems to leave the list. Britney Spears, Kylie Minoge and Spiderman were on top all summer in the U.K. Our sane neighbors to the north loved anime, Batman and American Idol, The Simpsons and Hello Kitty. And, of course, Britney Spears. In fact, Britney Spears doesn"t leave any of the lists all year long, with the exception of the one in Switzerland, where they don"t seem to care.
Zeitgeist Four: September again
In September, there was a brief resurgence in the U.S. of Sept. 11, but it was eclipsed by Kelli Clarkson, Anna Nicole Smith and the Irish Travelers. Canadians were still big into Britney and anime. In Germany, they"d forgotten Marilyn Monroe and moved onto Aloe Vera.
In Spain the biggest hits were Spiderman, South Park, The Simpsons and Eminem. And in that other bastion of sanity, Switzerland, they typed in Jennifer Lopez, Dali, angst, Tupac, James Brown, Sophia Lauren and Pamela Anderson. Dali, angst and Pamela Anderson? I"ve decided that I want to move to Switzerland.
Z5: The Chilly Days of Winter
In December, while our president was terrifying us with smallpox vaccinations and the idea that there were weapons of unspeakable destruction residing in places other than Oregon and headed straight for our bedrooms, the tiles that rose up through the Zeitgeist when we asked our questions read No Doubt, David Beckham, Wal-Mart, digital cameras, beyblade, Heidi Klum, The Bachelor, Michael Jackson, Victoria"s Secret, Grand Theft Auto, domino day, Halle Berry, the Atkins Diet, Wynona Ryder, The Sopranos, Shania Twain, National Airlines, the atomic clock, Harry Potter and Richard Harris (may he rest in peace).
"My friend Dale died and Jimmy Carter won the Nobel Prize."
"I went to see the rock star Bono at the Madame Walker. There was this minister who opened with a prayer. "Oh God of all people, times and places, as real as all the air." I couldn"t believe it. Ashley Judd was there. And Chris Tucker. In Chicago, Ashley Judd said, "The spirit of the Holy Ghost was so strong." It was Ashley Judd saying that. I"d only seen her on the screen.
"The glass jar that we live under was shattered last year on Sept. 11. Splinters as sharp as 6,500 people dying every day of AIDS.
"I heard Bono say this: "Two and a half million Africans will die next year of AIDS because they can"t get the drugs we take for granted. In Uganda, half the population is under 15. Seventy percent of the adults are dying of AIDS."
""This is the moment," he said, "that defines our generation. I don"t want my grandchildren to ask what I was doing when an entire continent was dying," he said, "as the result of poverty. Two thousand one hundred and forty-three passages of Scripture are about poverty - I was naked and you clothed me - and only one is about judgement."
"And this is what I felt. I"ll tell you something shameful.
"Deep down inside, there was something in me that knew this. I knew a continent was dying. Something deep down inside me was hunkering down and watching it as though it wasn"t real, as though it were happening for my entertainment. The worse it got, the more amazing. They say that wars do that, that sometimes we want them for that reason.
"I went to hear the rock star Bono at the Madame Walker. I"m aware of the evil in me that wants to see the world blown up, that wants to watch it happen someplace else because I"m bored. I"m aware of the death wish in me that wants to see this one I"m living in blow up. I"m aware that it"s an evil that I feel that way. I realize the irony, that it took a rock star to point this out to me. But still. I went to hear the rock star Bono at the Madame Walker and it changed me."
"I spin in my wheelchair all day up and down this giant hallway. There are miles and miles of it, it seems, and then these common rooms with nurses" stations and more wheelchairs gathered around the television. Sometimes I pass by the woman who has a perfectly blank glass eye, sometimes a man missing the bottom of his leg.
"My year has been like this:
"I wheel myself around and then get lost. All day long I move up and down the hallways getting lost.
"When I"m good and lost," she says, "I head toward a light and park. It"s not a bad life. Sometimes it"s quite wonderful. By the end of the day someone always comes and finds me."
"I discovered I"ll have to work until I"m 80."
"I met my future husband."
"My future wife."
"My mother died."
And me? I read some books and wrote another. I taught some things and learned some others. I loved my husband and my children and all my family. Some things I celebrated, some things I grieved for. I made mistakes and didn"t make some. In everything I did I tried to stay awake, and it was hard.
Dissent in the Heartland
On the eve-ning of April 30, 1970, a thousand angry Indiana University students gathered in Dunn Meadow to protest the U.S. invasion of Cambodia. Meanwhile, a panty raid was starting up at Read Center, an all-girls dorm, on the other side of campus. When informed of this, the protestors marched in that direction, merging with the panty-raiders at Forest Quad, where cries for panties soon changed to "Get Out of Cambodia" and "To Hell with Nixon!" They moved on from there, a united front, to Willkie Quad, Wright Quad and up North Jordan Avenue. By the time they reached the Phi Delt house, they were 1,500 strong.
I love this detail, which I unearthed sifting through dozens of folders of Indiana Daily Student clippings from the "60s when I was doing research for a book project at the IU archives last spring. It"s a fiction writer"s detail: small, weird, fraught with possibility. I imagined a young woman deeply committed to stopping the Vietnam War, her moment of truth born of the realization that, for many, the antiwar movement was a whole new kind of party. What would she do? Walk away from it all, say, "Yes," to the nice, safe boy who wants to marry her and wake up one day years later, filled with bitterness and regret? Go deeper, join the Weathermen and commit drastic acts that have terrible consequences she must live with forever?
The panty raid episode was not included in Mary Ann Wynkoop"s account of the Cambodia demonstration in her new book, Dissent in the Heartland: The Sixties at Indiana University. I don"t fault her for this, really. Well-researched and insightful, the book focuses on the efforts of a handful of passionate, dedicated student leaders to inform the IU student body about the issues of the day and organize them to act for change. Wynkoop shows how the "60s at IU were shaped by the particular people involved, including the legendary Herman B. Wells, who wisely saw that change was inevitable. Dissent in the Heartland is essential reading for anyone trying to understand the "60s from a Midwestern perspective. I"m grateful for the clarity with which it lays out the events of that time in that place and the insight it brought to my own IU experience. Marked up, already well-thumbed, I added it to the shelf of resources I consult regularly as my own book evolves.
Still, I find myself pondering that missing panty raid detail, which begs the larger question: What is history, anyway? To what degree is our understanding of the past shaped as much by what historians left out of their accounts of a time as it is by what they decided to include? When is what"s left out legitimate, a question of focus? When is what"s left out a kind of lie?
Baby Boomers studied American history texts that left out the fact that the American government herded thousands of Japanese-American citizens into concentration camps during World War II. The texts skirted around the destruction of Native American people and their cultures, portraying the land grab as a just and noble cause. They decried slavery, yet virtually ignored its legacy of inequality and repression in the first half of the 20th century.
The Civil Rights Movement began our awakening to the way things really were, but it was when the body bags started coming back from Vietnam that our blinders came off and we looked beyond history books for a deeper understanding of America and its place in the world. We wanted the truth. Now. But it was a long time coming. It"s still coming, shifting our perceptions, raising new questions. And all we"ll never know shimmers at the edges, lost to us by accident or intent.
Fiction writer thinking again: I wonder how it might have come down differently if the American public had dug deeper for the details, particularly in the early phases of our military involvement in Vietnam. The Catholic agenda behind Cardinal Spellman"s support of the brutal Diem regime in South Vietnam, for example - and Spellman"s connection to JFK, a longtime personal friend. The 1963 Senate Foreign Relations Committee investigation that concluded there was no justification for war with Vietnam, particularly "an American war to be fought primarily with American lives." Numbers and statistics that by 1967 convinced Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara that the war was unwinnable, an opinion he regrettably kept to himself until the publication of his memoir In Retrospect nearly 30 years and thousands of unnecessary deaths later.
What details are we missing now, as the Bush Administration marches us towards war with Iraq, another war there is a good chance we cannot win, one in which not only American soldiers, but you or I - our friends, our family, our children - might end up in body bags? Republicans, Democrats, conservatives, liberals, Christians, Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, young, old - whoever we are, whatever we believe, we are responsible for looking deeper, seeking details that are windows into different points of view. We must read for information and analysis that may subtly or completely change our understanding of this war initiative that is being so carefully orchestrated by politicians and the TV news.
For more 2002 articles, pick up this week's paper copy issue of NUVO