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On Feeling the Misery of Strangers

The other day, as I was walking to the grocery store, I strategically moved toward the far edge of the sidewalk to put distance between myself and a pile of large, black trash bags haphazardly stacked against the side of a building. This sight is common in downtown Manhattan, as was the rustling I heard among the bags, which nevertheless made me start. Rats or mice, I thought, as I instinctively crossed the street to avoid them, but it was still light out, too early, it seemed to me, for these nocturnal creatures to be rummaging for food. So I looked again, only to have my breath taken away as I made out the shape of what was certainly a human being lying on his or her side--a man or a woman who apparently was trying to stay warm inside and among a pile of trash bags on this cheerless, wintry afternoon.

Living in New York for over 20 years has not yet hardened me to the point where I can immediately recover my equilibrium after glimpsing such misery and degradation. Yet, I must admit that, except for giving a dollar to a beggar on the street or subway, I don't do anything more, anything significant, to aid the shockingly large number of people in New York who live in poverty, which is estimated at 20 percent of the population. What accounts for my moral complacency? Even if there is something soul-numbing in the bureaucratic, value-free language of population and percentages, how do I simply go on with my daily life, knowing that so many people are suffering? In recent days, this question has visited me with renewed intensity, and this is because of all the talk of poverty on a global scale that has come with the unveiling of the United Nations Millennium Project, which seeks to cut world poverty in half by the year 2015.

Above all else, what has emerged from public discussions on TV and reports and editorials in the newspaper is the staggering, indeed thought-defying, number of people who are being crushed by the effects of poverty in our world today: 300 million Africans lack safe drinking water; 3,000 African children under the age of five die every day from malaria; 6,000 Africans die each day of AIDS; one in 16 African women die in childbirth. Over the years, from time to time, I, like anyone else who reads newspapers and magazines, have had to come to terms with hard, bitter facts such as these, though I can't say I have ever come close, for to do so would mean radically changing my life. How could anyone with a conscience go on, business as usual, after truly assimilating the knowledge that millions of people are doomed to wretchedness and early death because we who live in rich countries choose--consciously or unconsciously (it hardly matters)--to look the other way?

At such moments of extreme moral reckoning, my thoughts habitually move to the Holocaust, and so I found myself thinking of all those people--not only German but English and American, too--who knew of the death camps at the same time that they wished they didn't know, or perhaps more accurately, the way they self-protectively only half-knew of their existence--that accursed human capacity for not seeing what is before our very eyes. And then I thought of Dwight Macdonald's tortured efforts, after the war, to come to terms with this unprecedented crime of mass murder, along with the unprecedented murders of civilians by the bombings of Hiroshima and Dresden, in a series of essays that Macdonald aptly called The Responsibility of Peoples. Which made me think of Rwanda.

But then it occurred to me that this line of moral reckoning was not quite right, since the misery and premature death brought on by poverty have, until quite recently, been understood as both a perennial and irremediable feature of the human condition. In this, the widespread passive sympathy toward the poor today resembles not the unconscionable inaction of the world that might have prevented or stopped the Holocaust or the Rwandan genocide--both of which were historically specific, premeditated actions of the state--but rather the passive sympathy of many people of conscience toward slavery during the nineteenth century. Some of our most thoughtful historians (for example, David Brion Davis and Thomas Haskell in their many exchanges over the antislavery debate in the mid 1980s) have seriously considered the question of why, after thousands of years of largely uncontested existence, the ancient institution of slavery was finally abolished in the middle of the nineteenth century. Given the depth of slavery's roots, it is astonishing that a small group of abolitionists was able to move beyond the conventional belief that slavery was part of the natural order and instead became convinced that it was an intolerable moral blight that could and must be wiped from the face of the earth, eventually persuading a good number of other people to believe it.

Such radical expansions in the reach of moral responsibility are so rare in history as to appear miraculous, yet with the emergence of the United Nations Millennium Project, we seem to be living through just such a moment. Where the eradication of slavery, in the end, required a protracted, murderous civil war, the Millennium Project has devised a strikingly simple, painless plan to reduce poverty by half over the next decade: Wealthy countries need only donate 0.54 percent of their national incomes to poor ones. Sweden, Norway, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg, as always, are leading the way, having already reached 0.7 percent, which wealthy countries agreed upon in 2002. The Bush administration, true to type, has increased foreign aid to just fifteen hundredths of one percent, giving America the distinction of being the most miserly rich nation in the world.

As I grasped how much good could come from so preposterously little sacrifice on the part of wealthy nations, it was maddening to see the unwillingness of our leaders (and who knows, maybe of some ordinary people, too) to honor their pledge to the poor, let alone to hear the chorus of skeptics who predictably dismissed the plan as "utopian." What could account for this indifference but a failure of imagination, especially for the kinds of misery that cannot easily be captured in photographs or videotapes. This, of course, has not been the case with September 11 or the recent tsunami. When it comes to those catastrophes, most people have proved extraordinarily adept at imagining themselves flying on a plane that crashes into a skyscraper, or trapped at the top of a burning office building, or washed away by an enormous tidal wave. Such is the familiar stuff of disaster movies and nightmares and, in theory at least, such dramatic, random events could happen to any of us.

In an effort to give the dire, yet more quotidian, plight of the chronically poor a more momentous feel, Jeffrey Sachs, the head of the Millennium Project, has spoken eloquently of the "silent tsunami" of global poverty; 150,000 children die from malaria alone every month--the same staggering number of people killed by the tsunami. The problem, then, facing those who would save these ill-fated children is largely one of imagination: how to make the deaths of these children and the anguish of their parents touch strangers in the same immediate, unbearable way that led so many people to send money and goods halfway around the world to the tsunami victims, especially since the enormous geographical range of Africa makes it impossible for photographers to take heart-rending pictures of these dead children en masse, as they notoriously did with the tsunami dead, and since the various forms of suffering that come with a life of perpetual poverty cannot be made to fit into the ridiculously sped-up cycle of commercial news.

As I thought about the difficulty of stirring other people's imaginations, my mind wandered--as it often does when I think about what is wrong with our world--to John Ruskin. His impassioned words from "The Nature of Gothic" (1853) came back to me. I went to my bookshelf and found the passage: "And now, reader, look round this English room of yours, about which you have been proud so often, because the work was so good and strong, and the ornaments so finished." No matter how many times I have read these words, I still find it shocking to be addressed so personally; certainly it is a rare experience in reading to be censured for one's pride in "accurate mouldings," "perfect polishings," and "unerring adjustments of the seasoned wood and tempered steel," or to be reproached for the blindness that comes with such pride: "Alas! if read rightly, these perfectnesses are signs of a slavery in our England a thousand times more bitter and more degrading than that of the scourged African, or Helot Greek." (Recall when Ruskin wrote these words that slavery had not yet been abolished.) The slavery Ruskin was deploring was the modern system of English manufacture, in which men are "divided into segments of men--broken into small fragments and crumbs of life"; where the "multitudes are sent like fuel to feed the factory smoke, and the strength of them is given daily to be wasted into the fineness of a web, or racked into the exactness of a line." He refused to allow his readers to be complacent about the soul-destroying process that turned men into mere "tools." Nor would he let them forget that it was their desire for perfection that was directly responsible for making men's "fingers measure degrees like cog-wheels, and their arms strike curves like compasses," and in the bargain, "unhumanizing them."

This stirring word picture of degradation and suffering appears in the second of his three-volume study, Stones of Venice, a book ostensibly devoted to Venetian art and architecture. But a soul so intensely attuned to the world as Ruskin, who experienced every object and institution as a tangible sign of the spiritual and moral condition of the individuals and nations who made them, unsurprisingly found it harder and harder to write about art. Unlike most of us, Ruskin was not able to go on with his life, business as usual, once he fully took in the magnitude of the misery and squalor all around him. In the first installment of Fors Clavigera, his "Letters to the Workmen and Laborers of Great Britain" (1871), he announced:

     For my part, I will put up with this state of things,
     passively, not an hour longer. ... I simply cannot paint,
     nor read, nor look at minerals, nor do anything else that I
     like, and the very light of the morning sky, where there is
     any--which is seldom, now-a-days, near London--has become
     hateful to me, because of the misery that I know of, and see
     signs of, where I know it not, which no imagination can
     interpret too bitterly. Therefore ... I will endure it
     no longer quietly, but henceforward, with any few or many
     who will help, do my poor best to abate this misery.

And so in the latter half of his life, though Ruskin never entirely abandoned his love of art, he more and more dedicated himself and his large fortune to a number of reform projects, mostly unsuccessful, and in the process, suffered the fate that is assured to anyone as excruciatingly sensitive as he: He went mad.

Rochelle Gurstein is the author of The Repeal of Reticence (Hill and Wang).

By Rochelle Gurstein