On Saving the World
On November 30, 2009, the New York Times published “Nicholas Kristof’s Advice for Saving the World.” The article starts with Kristof’s puzzlement at the “collective shrug” his column received when he wrote about the “slaughter of children and the burning of villages” in Darfur and the outpouring of sympathy he felt when he wrote about the troubles of a red-tailed hawk in Central Park. The puzzling results led Kristof to do in-depth research regarding human reactions and responses to troubling events. His conclusions:
• “We intervene not because of stories of desperate circumstances but when we can be cheered up with positive stories of success and transformation.” Saving a large portion of a group is satisfying, while saving a small portion seems like a failure. We don’t want to read about the world’s miseries.
• The stories that motivate us “emphasize hopefulness,” and “focus on an individual, not a group.” We have little difficulty seeing one death as a tragedy. But a million deaths? For most of us, merely a statistic. As Mother Teresa said, ‘If I look at a mass, I will never act. If I look at one, I will.”
• Focusing on the problems of the masses produces “psychic numbing.” Research shows: “The more who die, the less we care. … It has been said that ‘statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.’ That’s precisely the problem all the psychological research shows that we are moved not by statistics but by fresh, wet, tears, with a bit of hope glistening below.”
• “Many of you readers travel to developing countries, and you’re the ideal marketers for humanitarian causes. But if you’re trekking in the Himalayas, come back not with stories of impoverished villages but rather ones about a particular 12-year-old girl who, if she received just $10 a month, could stay in school. Come back with photos of her or, better, video that you put on a blog or Web site. Make people feel lucky that they have the opportunity to assist her, so that they’ll find helping her every bit as refreshing as, say, drinking a Pepsi.”
12 Lucky Young Thais
Twelve Thai kids, soccer players for the Wild Boars, and their coach were rescued in mid-July 2018 from the “murky darkness of Thailand’s Luang Cave,” a cave they had explored in the past, where they had been trapped by flood waters for 18 days.
“The most important piece of the rescue was good luck. So many things could have gone wrong…. I still can’t believe it worked,” a Thai military commander who helped out told the New York Times.
But luck comes to the dedicated and the prepared. Ten thousand people from around the globe pitched into the rescue operation: 200 divers, 2,000 soldiers, 100 governmental agencies, from places like Britain, China, Finland, and the United States. The Times continued:
“Deep within the cave, the water was so cold that the Thai divers’ teeth chattered while they rested during 12-hour shifts. Lacking proper helmets, the SEAL divers taped a medley of flashlights to their improvised gear. On the 19th day, July 2, with little hope of discovering anything but bodies, a pair of British divers working to extend a network of guide ropes popped up near a narrow ledge. Suddenly, they saw 13 emaciated people perched in the dark.
“The Wild Boars had run out of food and light but had survived by sipping condensation from the cave walls.”
“The whole world was watching, so we had to succeed. I don’t think we had any other choice,” the New York Times reported a Thai Navy SEAL as saying.
Heroes? Yes. Plenty of stories for Nicholas Kristof to tell, to tug at our hearts, to motivate us. Check out Time Magazine’s Thai Hero Stories.
Peru: the Cocaine Capital of the World
I never thought too much about the troubled lives of Peru’s native compesinos who live high in the Peruvian Andes until 2011, when I traveled to Antarctica. My cabin-mate on the Ocean Nova was Jose Rojas, a young, venturous bank executive from Lima Peru. As we got to know each other, I exuberated about our wondrous Peruvian 1984 family venture, when Joanie, our children and I trekked over rugged, ancient Inca trails and climbed over 15,000 feet through Salcantay Pass in the high Andes on our way to Machu Picchu.
As I finished, Jose gazed abstractly toward our small cabin porthole. After a long, silent minute, he said:
“You could never make that trip today as you did it. It’s too dangerous. Drugs. War Lords. If the compesinos you met are still in the Andes and are not growing coca plants for cocaine, they fear for their lives.”
I was startled; We had felt so safe; we had a once-in-a-lifetime-adventure.
A short tine after I returned from Antarctica I did some research. I learned that Peru had become the Cocaine Capital of the World. Thousands of compesinos are now involved in coca plant production. Coca plants are their prime money crop.
In 2013, the Atlantic Magazine ran an article on Peru’s drug trade, titled A Massive Drug Trade, and No Violence. The article’s subtitle: “Peru is the single largest producer of cocaine in the world. It’s also an incredibly safe country.”
Peru may have figured out how to control its resident Drug Lords and its internal political corruption so that hoards of frightened Peruvians aren’t adding fuel to the thousands, if not millions, of Latin Americans from other countries who are overwhelming the ranks of today’s asylum seekers. But the rest of Latin America isn’t doing as well, particularly the Central American countries of Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala. Before we enlighten ourselves further, some background is in order.
Statistics – Human Beings with the Tears Dried Off
Illegal Aliens. Illegal Immigrants.
Who isn’t against “illegal?” Who doesn’t want strong, authoritative leadership – and high, solid walls – to rid us of “illegals?”
Words like “illegals” and “fake news’ are metaphors, creating strong simulations in our minds – mental pictures of something bad, stirring our emotions, instinctively, and quickly, leading us to conclusions and reactions. Repeating the words “illegals” and “fake news” constantly in the news, whether by conservatives or liberals, fixates the word and its metaphorical representations in what Nobel Prize Winner Daniel Kahneman calls in his 2011 Thinking, Fast and Slow our mind’s “System 1” [our intuitive, automatic, quick acting, emotional mind], perfect to ingest metaphorical thinking; rarely challenged by our mind’s “System 2,” our deliberative, effortful, somewhat lazy purveyor of conscious thought, that rarely challenges metaphorical System 1 thinking.
When our System 1’s perceive that what’s going on at our borders is in the hands of “illegals,” we don’t hesitate. It’s bad! We demand strong, authoritative leaders to protect us from the threat.
And when there are thousands of “illegals” clamoring for asylum at our southern border, we no longer see them as frightened, suffering mothers, fathers and children (many sent alone with prayers and hope but without their parents) seeking asylum from death, gang rape, and other horrors of drug wars, armed gangs, and corrupt or ineffective governments in places no longer safe to call home.
They’re statistics – human beings with the tears dried off.
Consider a UNHCR report discussed in The Guardian:
“One 17-year old Salvadorian girl called Norma says she was gang raped by three members of the notorious M18 gang….’The took their turns…they tied me by the hands. They stuffed my mouth so I would not scream,’ Norma is quoted as saying in the report. Then ‘they threw me in the trash.'”
“Nearly two-thirds of the women said threats and attacks by armed criminal gangs, including rape, killings, forced recruitment of their children and extortion payments, were among the reasons why they left their home countries. The increasing reach of criminal armed groups, often amounting to de facto control over territory and people, has surpassed the capacity of governments in the region to respond.”
But that is not how we see them. They’re not a dozen kids trapped in a cave whose plight churned the emotions of 10,000 people around the globe who rushed to their rescue.
The trapped Thai kids brought out the best in humanity.
But, there are no heroes championing the cause of the asylum seekers. There’s too many asylum seekers. Doctors Without Borders reports that each year, over 500,000 seek to escape from Central America.
For us, they’re not scared, frightened individuals “running for their lives.”
They’re statistics – human beings with the tears dried off.
The asylum seeker crisis at our souther border is not a unique problem of the 21st Century. You can get a pretty good idea of the global migration problem from the Forced Migration Review, a scientific magazine devoted to the subject.
And we’ve been here before. Dara Lind reminds us in her article, How America’s rejection of Jews fleeing Nazi Germany haunts our refugee policy today:
“The US (and other countries in the Western Hemisphere) could have saved thousands of Jews from the Nazis. They didn’t. At one point, the US literally turned away a ship of 900 German Jews. Shortly afterward, it rejected a proposal to allow 20,000 Jewish children to come to the US for safety.
“At the time, the US didn’t know how terrible the Holocaust would become. But Americans did know that Nazis were encouraging vandalism and violence against Jews — many Americans had been alarmed by Kristallnacht in 1938, and President Franklin D. Roosevelt had issued a statement condemning it. But America didn’t feel strongly enough about the mistreatment of Jews to allow them to find a safe harbor in the US.
“That is a moral stain on the nation’s conscience, and it’s what led the US and other countries, after the war, to create a way for persecuted people to seek and find refuge.”
Anne Frank was one of the passengers on the boat turned away.
In 2018, as a supplement and update to the Geneva Convention on refugees, the United Nations completed the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. The Compact was adopted by 192 countries.
The United States? We refused to join in the compact:
“The United States had initially participated in the negotiations, but it abruptly withdrew last December under orders from the Trump administration, which has taken an increasingly hostile view toward cross-border migrants, refugees and asylum seekers. It argued that such multinational agreements subverted the power of individual governments to control national borders.”
For the United States, asylum seekers remain:
Statistics – human beings with the tears dried off.
The asylum-seeker crisis is a global humanity crisis for real people, not statistics. Of course no one country can solve the problem or house the thousands, or millions, seeking asylum. Global problems require the thought and cooperation of the entire world, and that is what the United Nations effort has sought.
As horrible as the present humanitarian migration crisis is at our southern border, the global community has yet to deal with the forced migration that climate change and sea level rise will force upon us over this century. Eight hundred million people living in hundreds of coastal cities are at risk of losing their homes and forced relocation from rising seas and storm surge.
In 1943, the Republican candidate for President, Wendell Willkie wrote a provocative book, One World. In its review, the New York Times wrote:
“One World will be widely read both in this country and abroad.
“Its basic emphasis upon the nearness and interdependence of the peoples of all continents, the importance of strengthening the ties between the United Nations now, and the need of following through in a definite, continuing United Nations organization for peace, justice and progress, is right.”
Perhaps we all ought to read and reflect on Willkie’s wisdom.
It’s time to change our approach to asylum seekers. They are not:
Statistics – human beings with the tears dried off.
Tai cave and refugee art from Shutterstock.