The Poor of Your City
Long before the NY Times, the BBC and Haaretz, there were the geographic magazines.
Starting from an issue I got as a birthday present, I’ve been a consistent reader of geographic magazines, such as the local Masa Acher and international ones like National Geographic. When I started reading them, Al Gore had not yet invented the Internet (just kidding—I meant to say this was before the popularization of the ’Net in the early 1990’s), so these were truly my first window onto the large world. Fascinating reads, all of them: chock-full of descriptions, narrations, background stories and, best of all, photos. Intriguing cultural customs from all over the world. Many instances of shattering misconceptions as to what was universal throughout humanity and what was not.
Formation of political opinions was far off—this little kid was still at the stage of believing everything his parents said. And yet, the more I read those magazines, the more I found something disturbing.
One thing adults tend to overlook in little children is the fact that, because of their innocence, they are the most rigorous comparers of the ideal with the reality. I was sold on the idea that geographic magazines were unvarnished descriptions of other places and all that is in them. I thought, in simplicity: the writer would go to the destination, take notes and photographs, return to his offices, prepare the article, and that would be what every reader would see. Only a child could think like that, of course. How educating, then, howbeit in a shocking way, to find otherwise.
More and more as I read, as I became aware of it, I found out a proliferation of statements which, I realized, were not descriptions but opinions. They were usually integrated seamlessly into the descriptive whole, but the more I thought about it, the less I could mistake it: those were opinions. Not merely reports of the locals’ sentiments, which were OK, but interjections by the writers themselves. I did not yet have a good eye for the themes, which I do now, but I did not have to recognize themes in order to know that the subtle hints of pre-colonial bliss, of Western blame and of the curse of mechanization were opinions and not descriptions. I did not yet know the exact system behind an article describing life in traditional villages in Ladakh as a good model contrasting with the “soullessness, cheapness and despair” of modern life in the West, but I did not have to know that—even for a little kid, it was crystal-clear that the message here was educational, not informational. It was all clothed in the semblance of telling of exotic things, as if in the tradition of Marco Polo, yet it had an agenda.
Long, long before our Mainstream Media started giving us our daily dose of self-skepticism, nay, self-flagellation, in the mantle of reporting, reporters of the Other had been doing that for thousands of years. Already in Herodotus one finds criticism of his own society inserted into his descriptions of other peoples. Tacitus’ Germania contains a wealth of information on the Germanic tribes that is true and has been verified, yet the opportunities which he took to use his work as criticism of contemporary Roman society necessitate caution. And I need hardly mention Montesquieu’s Persian Letters, Diderot’s descriptions of exotic tribes and the rest of the offerings of Enlightenment writers—all social criticisms presented as descriptions of the Other. Bias and agenda in the form of unbiased description.
Those were in the days when the media was open about its biases. The media has never been unbiased, but the difference is that in our times it takes after the geographic magazines, impressing the readers with the cloven hoofs of neutral-sounding language, while the inside, the spirit, the facts that a trained eye could see, was deep and unrepentant bias. Today, the more neutral-sounding the name of an organization is, the better its chances of being an organization with a single-minded agenda. Take the website Information Clearing House. Such an innocuous name, is it not? Judging by the name, it sounds like a repository of plain facts, much like a telephone book. But in truth, that site is a conspiracy theory website, one of the wackiest and most uninhibited on the ’Net.
Why did it begin that way? How did covert bias, and self-flagellating bias at that, creep through what was supposed to be mere reports of faraway places? What is it about the Other that attracts people, in such a way that it dominates today’s political discourse? How have we reached this state in which it is possible to reduce all the problems in the world to “racism” and “xenophobia”? How have we come to a world where the cycles of victimization, guilt and reparations now trap all discussions of policy, even to the detriment of national security?
I said geographic magazines were my first window to the world. For those who have not found answers to the problems besetting their societies, whether out of ignorance or by rejection of traditional answers, the window to the world is their beacon of hope. They crave the global view of humanity because it might provide them with answers. The parochial view, they think, cannot provide answers, because of the very fact that it is parochial, while a larger view of humanity could inform us of human universals, the key to answering the human problem. Utopianism and cosmopolitanism often go hand in hand, and in the past century have done so spectacularly, with more to come for sure.
The window to the world has grown ever wider. When I started reading geographic magazines, the old method of word-of-mouth was still the best way to rally people; a few years afterward, the entire globe was connected by computer-to-computer interaction. With the popularization of the Internet in the early 1990’s, the famed (and worn-out phrase) Global Village was born. There could no longer be a situation in which humans no longer cared for the plight of other humans elsewhere—or so it was believed, even when events like the Rwanda Genocide of 1994 showed otherwise.
A big mistake. A mistake identical in cause, even if not equal in victims, to the mistake of Communism. The mistake of assuming the malleability of human nature.
The sages of Judaism say: “Aniyei irkha kodmim”, meaning, “The poor of your city precede”. It is in the framework of discussing the duty of giving to charity, but it touches human nature deeply. It is both descriptive and prescriptive. And it is more relevant than it ever was.
Geographic magazines, then media outlets, and now the Internet have supposedly brought humans closer, thus increasing the awareness of human commonalities and shared troubles, thus leading to greater empathy in the world. Or have they? No. Not by a long shot.
Contributions to Live Aid or Live Earth concerts are a good way to assuage one’s guilt over enjoying life while others are struggling with the necessities, but the things a particular human involves himself—really involves himself—with are the same as they have always been: the causes that are close to his heart. To his heart, not to his sight on the computer monitor. Of those who say, “All humans are my brothers and sisters”, how many act it? To which the reply will inevitably be a list of good deeds and philanthropic activities, but that misses the point: people who claim empathy for all humans don’t have that. Oh, they do have empathy—I didn’t say they didn’t—but their empathy is limited to a set of concentric circles. Greatest empathy to friends and family, then to people they are familiar with, then to those of the neighborhood, then the town, and so on. And whenever you find they have empathy to those faraway, then on further investigation you always discover that this is because those people faraway have some affinity, some emotional similarity, with the empathizer.
Or take activism for animals as another example. How much of it is for the welfare of dogs, cats, mice, horses and monkeys, and how much for flies, mosquitoes, fish and worms? Is it a coincidence that human empathy for animals is nearly always reserved to those animals that share important features with humans, foremostly the ability to show pain and other emotions? No, there is none of the fabled “Empathy toward all creatures, born of the feeling of Being One With The Universe” here; it is all “Like attracts like”, the tendency of humans to open their hearts to what those hearts regard as kindred, while—by necessity—closing their hearts to what is remote. Remote, in a sense that all the geographic magazines, media outlets and websites cannot counter.
How many of the “Free Palestine!” crowd have exhibited even a quarter of their zeal for the cause of Tibet, or for righting the (true) wrong of the setting up of an Islamic state on historically Hindu lands (Pakistan)? They will all say, of Darfur, “Yes, I agree, we must do something”, but where is the zeal? Giving to charity can easily be perfunctory; zeal, in contrast, bespeaks something inward. The anti-Zionists do not care much for the “Palestinians”, for they did not make the tiniest squeak when “Palestinian” refugees were forcefully expelled by the Kuwaitis after their liberation from Saddam, or more recently the Naher al Bared massacre in Lebanon. The causes of Iraq and “Palestine” resonate only because of some affinity with the activists’ own purposes. Just as my empathy with the victims of Islamic terrorism in Southern Thailand (and elsewhere) can only be explained by the affinity of the situation in Israel. Like attracts like.
The mythical Global Village is nothing but conceptual smoke and mirrors; in reality, we are as parochial as ever, choosing even our worldwide interests according to our very, very local leanings. More: the towering Marxist catchphrase, “We are all Citizens of the World”, has proved to be bankrupt by none less than the sons and daughters of pluralistic education themselves.
You are Citizens of the World? Really? Then why do you try to find your identity? Why do you play Indian? Why do you seek out a shaman from the Wannabi Tribe, in order that he may initiate you into the mysteries of the Smelihipi Tribe? Why does Abe Cohen, a Jew brought up on the idea that Jewish tribalism is an outdated, even dangerous, concept, seek out the tribal knowledge of a Hawaiian Kahuna, after having been indoctrinated against his own tribal heritage of the crown of kehunah (priesthood)? Why do Citizens of the World so often exchange the “elitist, Eurocentric” (et cetera) philosophy of Greece and Rome with the philosophy of India and China? (Not that that’s bad, but I’m pointing out the inconsistency here.) Why is there such a tendency for activists against white racism to excuse, even condone, anti-white racism? Why are those that issue the strongest condemnations of “dualistic divisions”, calling for the end of all distinctions as the only way of bringing world peace, so keen on propping up divisions themselves (support for the “Palestinian” and “Iraqi” nations, to name just one example)? Because, when you think about it, being a “Citizen of the World” is a state that is contrary to human nature. Humans cannot feel all-embracing empathy toward the whole world; their empathy, as I said, is a set of concentric circles.
Geographic magazines pioneered the demonstration of human diversity. Diversity has become such a potent watchword today, to the effect that it can be invoked to shut down sane initiatives against threats of terrorism. But diversity, like empathy, is not absolute. It could be absolute only if every human were his own group—his own ethnicity, his own religion, his own culture, and so on. There is no diversity in humanity except the diversity of groups, and that cannot exist without—oh, the horror—sameness within each group. Sameness, or more accurately a sufficient amount of affinity between the members. “Affinity” again. That dreaded, reviled parochiality once more.
There is no “near” for humans except “near and dear”—that is human nature, and no window to the world can change that. It is not possible for the state to replace the family, hence the need for repression whenever an attempt to do that has been made. A bureaucrat can never be a true helper, even if he does do his job of giving the applicant the desired government handout, for in most cases he does not know the applicant. The wider the circle becomes, the farther it is from having your interests in mind. If the state is uncaring to the individual due to its distance from his life, then the superstate is sevenfold so. The European Union and the Islamic Caliphate cannot be anything other than monsters of bureaucracy or repression or both.
“The poor of your city precede” is not a call for apathetic withdrawal into one’s tiny shell—far from it, it is the only way you can realize those human traits you have been raised to cherish so much. Charity begins at home because that is where charity really flows from an inward source—love, empathy and the “up close and personal” angle that no geographic magazine can give you. The farther causes are built on top of that, and not the other way round. In our day and age more than ever, redemption is brought to the world by local efforts, made enthusiastically therefore thoroughly, widening and widening, until the feeling of “all in the same boat” forms the needed cohesion. In this period of government betrayal, this is the only way. It is the only way because it is authentic, while all-embracing cosmopolitanism is fake.
If there is just one thing for which I am grateful to the geographic magazines for, it is this: the realization that happiness in our age lies in turning away from being a global tourist and reporter, to finding one’s particular heritage and local existence—turning into one of the groups which a rootless, world-citizen geographic magazine reporter would describe in one of the issues of his magazine.
“Be strong, be strong, and we will be strengthened”.