Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Thursday, 15 May 2008

A flea in a sandstorm

In my novel Living with the Truth, there is a scene when Truth passes comment on Jonathan's relationship to Charity:

“You have seven days a week, so you could attend an R.S.P.C.A. meeting on Monday, Greenpeace on a Tuesday, C.N.D. on Wednesday, distribute hot meals to the winos and junkies on the streets Thursday night and address a rally to raise public awareness of the various forms of cancer on Friday. On Saturday morning you could give a few hours to your local charity shop and in the afternoon visit one or two of the local pensioners. And on Sunday you could spread yourself as far as possible over the county’s AIDS sufferers. Not forgetting your spare time in which you could write long, fact-filled letters to your local MP about the country’s misuse of public funds and to food companies to warn them about the dangers of additives and to third world dictators about human rights. Would you do any good?”

“Maybe not but I’d feel as if I was doing something.”

“And that is practically all it would be, a flea in a sandstorm. You, you don’t even recycle your aluminium cans or your bottles let alone even one or two of those other things. You didn’t even watch Live Aid. In fact you do nothing.”

It's a striking moment and it raises important questions.

You're on your way to the shops. There's a girl standing on the corner of the street holding a donation tin and you drop your 50p in, accept your badge (so the world knows you're a giver) and head off to buy whatever it is you're after, a CD, a DVD, or something practical, ink for your printer or batteries for your cordless mouse. And then there's another one nestling in wait at the entrance to the mall and another as go into the shop. Charity's all about sticking your hand in your pocket, right? That's what Bob Geldof was shouting about during Live Aid: "Just give us the fucking money…"

Back in January the Burmese poet, Saw Wai, was arrested the day after his poem 'February 14' was published in a popular weekly entertainment magazine. I read about it on several blogs. It's old news. But where was the donation tin? I didn't see one so I passed on.

I wonder whatever happened to Saw Wai? I found a link that said he's been allowed to meet his wife but I got a 404 page. Oh well. He's got a Wikipedia entry but it's only a stub. It doesn't say too much. Maybe whoever wrote it lost interest. It seems he's in Insein prison and his wife tried to see him on January 28th but they didn't let her. Insein prison is an enormous detention centre built by the British near Rangoon and has become the symbol of the military regime’s repressive apparatus. It is known for appalling conditions and the frequent use of physical and psychological torture

I had a look on the Burma Campaign UK site but I couldn't see anything about Saw Wai. There's a DONATE button but I'm not sure Saw Wai would benefit from my money. Maybe money isn't the answer. I could write him a poem. He's a poet. He'd like that. But he probably doesn't read English and if they won't let him see his wife then I doubt they'd let him have a poem even if it was in English. I guess that's a bit of a non starter then. Mind you, in February Anti published a collection inspired by the incident called Crazy Senior General Than Shwe. I wonder if anyone sent him a copy?

Afer a bit of effort on another site I discovered that Saw Wai did eventually got to see his wife, Ma Nan San San Aye, on 20th February. After the visit she had this to report:

Apparently he told government officials during interrogation that the poem had already been rejected by the censor board before it was published in Achit Journal [Love Journal]. He said that the journal's editor, Myat Khine, knew publishing the poem in his journal would increase sales, and so decided to publish it anyway and said he would take the consequences. – DVB

On hearing of the accusation from Saw Wai, Myat Khine denied any responsibility: "No. We published the poem as we received it from Saw Wai," he said.

I can't find anything more concerning Saw Wai but when you investigate things a bit further there's no reason he should have been singled out other than he was a poet. The western papers never mentioned Soe Min Oo and Kalar Shae who were arrested on the same day or U Par Lay and U Maung Soe who were arrested two days earlier or Htet Htet Aung, Ko Kyaw Kyaw and Kyaw Zin Win who were all picked up on the 4th of January. They're just odd-sounding names to me but they were all a part of someone's family, they'll have had husbands or wives, children, parents, uncles, aunts.

Do I feel bad that Saw Wai is trying to get free by abdicating responsibility? Who am I to judge? What would I do in a place like that? Maybe he's not the heroic type. Maybe writing that poem was the best he could do.

We talk about the power of words. Talk's cheap. But is it pointless? Will this blog make a difference? Even when added to all the other blogs that will be posted today? The answer really is: I don’t know. I only have words and strangely enough the freedom to say whatever the hell I like but someone, somewhere along the line might read them who actually has the ability to do something but lacks the motivation. Isn't that the way writing works, when the right writer and the right reader come together? Or I could just click on the DONATE button and be done with it.

Have a look at the Blogger Unite website. I think someone might have forgotten to add a DONATE button to it through.


Anonymous said...

Your words are powerful and your meaning well put. Talk maybe cheap but I am not so sure words are. THey can be very expensive.


Caroline said...

Thanks for your post, the more I am learning so much today with unite, and I have to say that even if the posts don't make a direct impact on any issue, surely increading awareness, and education of these issues is a step in the right direction.

I've only read a few blogs today, and I already knew there were a lot of things wrong in the world, but by reading these stories I find out more.

It doesn't take a huge action to make a difference. Change begins at home, in our own communities. There's so many restrictions to human rights in the world, even just in our own biases, everyone has them.

I agree with ellie, your words are powerful.

Ken Armstrong said...

I had a look. Thanks for the heads-up. My head is up now.

Daisy said...

From Daisy's Mom:
There is so much need that sometimes it feels like one person cannot make a difference. But if each person does something it really does add up. I volunteer at a no-kill cat rescue shelter/low cost spay and neuter clinic 3 mornings a week. I know I am making a difference every time I walk in that door. Those homeless cats so appreciate an extra moment, soft word or kind touch. Maybe it's not such an important or political cause as others, but I think we all have to choose a cause that's close to our hearts.

Jim Murdoch said...

Ellie, Caroline, Ken and Daisy's Mom – thanks all for your comments. I have to say I have mixed feeling about the effectiveness of blogs like this. Like you said in your post, Ken, Human Rights is the kind of issue that people like us have no control over. But there are people out there, younger than us, who are growing up reading stuff like this who are going to go to school, sit their exams and probably some time after we're dead and gone – or are at least doddery and going – get into a position of power where something can be done. So, in the meantime we look after what we can, be it stray cats or injured birds. Change takes time, too long perhaps, certainly too long for people like Saw Wai. Live Aid did change the world. It's one of the landmark events of my generation along with the death of Diana and 9/11 – I was too young for Kennedy, all I remember is the first episode of Dr Who which aired the same day.

Jena Isle said...

I smiled at the last sentence of this post. Yes, campaigning for something is not easy ( see my A Campaign for Non Violence on TV) . Nobody seem to care or even read the posts there. But I know, it is not so. I just have to be patient. There are people around who do care but are just not acting out on it.

I still believe in the basic goodness of man; that we look out for each other, because we do live in one planet.

Thanks for a good post.

Unknown said...

I have a negative reaction to pressures to contribute to visceral causes that have nothing much to do with my immediate zone of life contacts or human relationships.

Increasingly non-profit organizations are built on a model to solicit money in the interest of various causes where the money will be applied without any substantive participation of the contributors.

The problem as I see it with the state-of-the-world is not that any one of us gives enough money, it is that increasingly we do not work to build community. We do not reach to touch each other.

It is easier to give money than it is to face up to human relationships, to share, and to come through for each other in a pinch. Giving money has become an industrialized mechanism by which we more conveniently avoid human relationships.

What words do bolster is the will to persist.

It is like they say with hypnotism; words cannot make you do what you would otherwise not be inclined to do if you had the will to do it.

If anyone wants to give a quarter here, or there, I don't mind. But what I do mind is the constant pressure -- and it seems I cannot go anywhere without getting hit up for a contribution -- to give money to causes that I don't care about and that get in the way of my giving of myself where I do care to make a contribution.

Jim Murdoch said...

Jenaisle, thanks for the feedback. You're right, it's hard to drum up support of pretty much anything these days. There are too many things both worthwhile and not quite so worthwhile that are demanding people's attention. What does it take to get people's attention? No one has unlimited funds so what do you do? I make a regular donation to a blind charity. It's only £6.00 a month but they get that every month and have done for several years and every now and then they call me up and try and guilt me into increasing it at which point I explain how my income has decreased over this time and yet my contribution has not and get somehow they still make me feel bad. There are other people out there supporting starving kids and lame donkeys.

But you're right Gabe, we've turned into a society where we think money is the answer, which was the thrust of my article. We even want to pay money to compensate for the greenhouse gases we contribute to Earth’s atmosphere. The ozone layer is, I'm sure, very grateful for the donations and will spend them wisely.

The thing about Human Rights is that you can't give money to a charity to buy a tin of dehydrated freedom of speech to drop from a helicopter over some tiny country we couldn't point to on a map if our life depended on it. And that leaves most of us a bit stuck.

j said...

I've certainly been wondering, as a rather weak participant in bloggers unite, whether it makes a rat's ass of difference. Too much scattered knowledge (though calling it knowledge is a bit much), too little power. Does my signature on a petition make that much difference to a dictatorship? Was my rallying blog entry (ha ha) a little stab in the big toe of oppression?

Well, I can sign the petitions, give a little money, and try to be informed about matters of human rights and my government's participation in the abuse thereof. Signing a petition is no big deal; maybe it makes a difference. Doubtful, but no skin off my back, right? But should I be so easily placated?

Maybe the best thing to do is to do what you can close to home or as far away as you can reach. Try to be aware of what is going on in the world. Then wring your hands about what you can't change.

Thanks for an entertaining and thought-provoking post.

Jim Murdoch said...

I read your own post, Jennifer, and what struck me about Guantanamo Bay is how it makes it so much harder for a big hitter like the USA, who could make a difference, to stand its ground.

Dave King said...

Thanks for that,Jim, such words are always a timely reminder. I don't know if they make a difference, I don't know what else might make a difference, but I do think we all need to be reminded regularly. I checked out the site, and even that was out of date: the "Next Event" was three days ago. The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak, I guess. The first person who can stand up and tell us how we really can make a difference will be the one to really change the world. Another Christ, I suppose.

Unknown said...

Talking lame donkeys... years back I was involved with an organization that promotes French-American cultural exchanges and on going through the letters of thanks that a particular non-profit funding agency received I was struck by one letter from an organization dedicated to the survival of a particular breed of French donkey. The grant funds from the foundation had made possible the saving of a number of vials of donkey semen. It seemed to me from that information we should be able to apply for a grant for money to go toward humans... and so we applied and so we did get money that went toward a good cause that directly involved people. Though there was, as far as we know, no semen involved in the cultural exchange nature of our project.

Jim Murdoch said...

Thanks Dave and Gabe. If there's one thing that the shrinking of the world through the mass dissemination of information is that there is too much choice. This goes for literature, music, art and good causes. A person could wear themselves out trying to do their bit and what good would that do or they could sit and be realistic and say, "I'm going to do my bit for this good cause," and then have to deal with the fact they look as if their making excuses for not supporting and one of the other good causes. In an ideal world there would be a place I could send my donation and someone a lot wise than me would tote up all the donations and dish them out in direct proportion to the needs of the good cause. How someone would measure up AIDS awareness or research into cancer or working to cut out domestic violence against human rights violations and lame donkeys I don't know.

Unknown said...

I know that with a fairly modest contribution of time and effort, and inspiring of others to provide them a vision of their own capabilities, that I have enabled a direct benefit to the rebuilding of post-Katrina New Orleans in 9th Ward, Holy Cross.

That said, what bothers me in the 'donation' scheme of things is that it can become all too easy to forget that we can be effective to make positive change in the world simply by dint of waking up each day and trying our best to spread as much kindness as possible into our immediate social milieu.

I object to the industrialization of our social guilt, and I reject the imposition of guilt. Yes, we can focus to give to one cause and appear selfish to reject all others. Nowadays when I am solicited in person for a donation that I don't care about I say, "No, but I thank you for asking."

Bums panhandling have a hard time dealing with that answer, but I mean it sincerely. I appreciate that there are elements in the world that look at me and suspect that I am capable of infinite giving. It makes me feel not quite at the bottom of the system. I am very aware that I am not at the top and hardly need to be reminded too often of that, particularly when the bills come in that need to be paid in order to sustain my desired charities.

We can be total A-holes and earn a whole lot of money and save the rain forests by sending someone our money. Possibly that is noble. Or, we cannot try quite so hard to get away from the responsibility we can have for our simple being on this planet to do our best to help in the small ways of kindness that come day-to-day.

Yes, Gitmo is terrible, AIDS, child abuse, what have you... but when the boys nextdoor from the welfare family are hungry I am more intent that I make it possible in earning a living that my wife is able to give them breakfast. Or that when another neighbor runs out of firewood, and she has no income, that I am able to give her wood out of our pile to keep her and her stove warm.

The world is always going to be a bad terrible place and no matter what we put towards to make it different we also need to make sure and keep in mind that we not get ourselves eaten too.

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