Tuesday, November 23, 2010

A Call for Selfishness in “תיקון עולם”

In the past month, I have watched many National Geographic specials and documentaries, and attended a Friday night service, which was used to commemorate Kristallnacht. I am now sitting in a presentation at the National Conference of Teachers of English. The presentation is titled “The Genocide Project”—more accurately, it is about a Rwandan Genocide memorial project. The project, while it encourages students to learn about genocide and its lessons, also continues to point to the ongoing genocide in Darfur.

As a Jew growing up primarily in America, I have spent a great deal of my life being taught about genocide. I have learned about Nazis, Russian Refuseniks, Ethiopian Jews, Rwandans, Croatians, and many more, and was raised to maintain an awareness not only of what was happening at any given time, but a greater awareness of what I, as a human, and now as a teacher and a scholar, might be able to do about it.

But today I have a problem. Today I sit here, with people talking about teaching their kids that awful things happen in other countries and that there may well be something they can do about it. Last week I watched a NatGeo special about Americans flying to China to adopt little girl babies who otherwise would be left in orphanages, or killed, or to help keep them from being aborted. And there’s nothing wrong with what these people are teaching or what thoe parents to be are doing, but I wonder who’s teaching the violence, ghettoization and killing off of massive populations in the US? Who’s going to adopt the “unadoptable” kids in the US—who are untouchables because they are some shade of brown?

It seems the Shoah acted as a wake-up call for US involvement in the world, but that the call allowed the US to begin to enact a national belief system about what does or doesn’t happen here. Or to ignore what has happened here. Where are the calls to end the genocide of unequal education that maintains socioeconomic control and keeps the powerless in their silenced position?

At what point do we call it a genocide? Is it a genocide that the Chinese government eradicates Mongolian culture by moving Chinese populations into Mongolian cultural spaces, by moving Mongolians, by force, out of their spaces and into Chinese ones? Is it a genocide that in Catalunia, until the 90s, Spanish was taught to the detriment of Catalan or is the new Catalunian regime’s insistence on not teaching Spanish to Spanish citizens in order to maintain and grow Catalan culture and language the cost of their mobility within the rest of the country?

We need more words. And that, in itself, is the tragedy beyond words.

We need to practice some Tikun Olam (The Jewish term for social justice, in essence) in our own places. We need to turn to home a bit. The American Dream, an attempt to provide all Americans with a belief in upward mobility is not just a lie—and we all know it is a lie—it’s a lie that allows elites permission to blame the downtrodden for not pulling themselves up by their non-existant bootstraps. “I did it!” they can cry, in particular if they are among the few who did. “Why haven’t you?!?” The American Dream, coupled with the wake-up call of the Shoah, makes it possible for people to help those abroad in need of help at the cost of the permission it gives them to pretend those who need help at home simply don’t deserve it. They live in America, after all! They should just work harder!

But hard work doesn’t cut it for everyone. Hard work doesn’t make it happen in every situation. In fact the people who work hardest make the least progress in this country.

My father liked to say (back when as a returning American he worked three jobs) that there is nothing more expensive than poverty.

I am not arguing against the need to stop genocide wherever it may occur. I am simply suggesting that if we work to stop the immense inequality, social silencing and expense of poverty at home (in whatever place you call home), we might not get to the point at which we have to term it genocide. What we need to do is come up with new words; words that pronounce, as they announce, the slide toward genocide.

Fixing the disease is far better than treating the symptoms.