Plato, who was never much of a populist, believed most of his fellow humans were blind to reality. He imagined prisoners in a cave who could see events outside only as firelight flickering on a wall. These shadows, cropped by the cave’s opening, were distorted in size, their details blurred. They loomed suddenly and then vanished. Twenty-three centuries later, these images appear on backlit screens with words like sony or dell stamped beneath them. Otherwise, Plato’s simile still seems squarely on the mark.
Back then, musing over philosopher kings and a utopian Republic was an affordable luxury in a Mediterranean universe at one corner of the little-known world. Now, blindness to reality is killing us.
Today, a widening abyss between the rich and the desperate erupts regularly into violence. Our planet is dying around us. Lies carry the weight of truth, just as George Orwell and Aldous Huxley foresaw. In practice, we are neither as free nor as democratic as we proclaim. And the world no longer trusts the only superpower it has.
This book is a cri de coeur from an American foreign correspondent who spent forty years in the wilderness watching soluble situations in remote backwaters escalate into world-class calamity. Unlike captives in a parable, we are not chained with our backs to reality. To save our world, we need only turn around, take notice, and do what matters.
In the 1960s, as a cub reporter wading into the blood-spattered intrigue of Mobutu’s Congo, I was sure my intrepid colleagues and I could right what was wrong. We would report reality; my ennobled countrymen would inspire a “world community” to do the rest. Not exactly. You can almost bank on it: When a crisis looms, Americans somehow manage, with the best intentions, to make things worse. Challenges we face demand sustained deliberation. Yet we approach them with the attention of hummingbirds in heat.
Foreign correspondents who could help us do better are endangered as a species. For all the words and images we call “media,” precious few trained eyes see distant reality up close, and these grow fewer by the year. When reporters do warn us of a crisis, we pay scant attention. We react to effect and ignore the causes. And then, overwhelmed, we cite that old saw as a path of least resistance: You can’t worry about what you can’t change. We must turn this around: You can’t change what you don’t worry about.
Not long after Plato, Christian prophets sized up their mysterious world. The Book of Luke assures: “And when you hear of wars and revolts, do not be alarmed by it; such things must happen, but the end is not soon. . . . Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes in this region or that, and plagues and famines; and sights of terror and great portents from heaven.”
But back then the extent of plunder was limited to the speed that any particular horde could gallop. Plagues spread no faster than the patter of rat feet or the swarming of locusts. These days, a match lit in any corner of the world can set fires just about anywhere. Electronic-savvy zealots whip up deadly riots over no more than, say, a cartoonist’s caricatures. Ignorance, whether in Arabia or America, is a weapon of mass destruction.
We are past blaming anyone for America’s collective blindness to a world we cohabit with 6,700,000,000 others. We can no longer assume we automatically come first. Of course, we love our nation. Other people love theirs, too. At a recent conclave of thinkers, Eric Schmidt of Google noted a simple truth we often forget: Nothing in the human genome says that Americans have a lock on brains. Charity or sympathy do not help “underdevelopment.” People in trouble need help in confronting the causes of poverty.
Journalism frequently fails us. Yet it also offers clarity and wisdom we ignore. Now the stakes are too high for this hit-and-miss approach. It is up to us—citizens, not journalists—to take notice, and to take action.
A nation of 300 million individuals with the right to vote, and with the freedom to direct their eyes and spend their paychecks however they choose, has ample means to do better. Big government and corporations we let shape our lives depend totally upon our collective free choices.
We can fit comfortably into a wider, safer world of allies who respect us and enemies who have fewer grounds to resent us. The crises we face are essentially man-made; we can undo much of the damage. First, however, we have to understand what is out there.
“You’ve got to scare people,” a veteran editor I admire said recently when we talked about public apathy. “Most people pay no attention until they see it is ten minutes to midnight. Then they panic and do something.”
It is now ten minutes to midnight.
Soon after terrorists leveled New York’s World Trade Center, I hurried to Quetta, on the Pakistan frontier, to find a way into Afghanistan. As the days dragged on, I tried to understand that devastating message a frustrated underclass had delivered into the heart of America.
One morning, I drove out to a huge lake that drought had dried to cratered moonscape. Long after 9/11 was a historical footnote, I believed, the story of our time would be ecological collapse and famine. During 2000 and most of 2001, I had traveled the world seeing evidence of this. If the news eluded any simple sort of headline, it was dead obvious: We have picked a fight to the death with nature.
Against this stark backdrop, I found three young Pakistani women who had come to visit their village. Each worked for the United Nations, part of that well-educated, multilingual caste of international civil servants that underpins the real world. They knew America and Europe from close friendships, as well as firsthand experience.
The women joked and laughed, but each was deadly serious. I expected to hear the usual opinion that emerges in such encounters: We have this or that quarrel with the United States government, but we know the people are different, and we like America. Not this time.
“If bin Laden were to come here now, I would invite him to my house,” one said.
“I would marry him,” another added. “I love him.”
Each deplored the deaths. But they knew that in most of the world sudden tragedy at the hand of God or man routinely blots out life in stunning numbers, and America barely notices. Osama bin Laden was a symbol. He had arrested the attention of a self-obsessed nation.
United States foreign policy, one woman said, was callous and far more inward-looking than statecraft requires. All three knew how Americans’ vaunted generosity translates into reality: Miserly on a per capita basis, U.S. aid is geared toward renting allies. They saw Washington walk away after its proxy ragtag Islamist militia drove the Soviets from Afghanistan. Pakistan, strapped for funds, left much of its primary education to radical mullahs.
The women colorfully excoriated George W. Bush. But they knew that Clinton and his Democrats also did little for Pakistan. If they did not hate anyone merely for carrying a U.S. passport, they were firm on the main point. When a rich, self-absorbed nation declares, “You’re with us or against us,” they knew where they stood.
That was 2001, before Iraq, Guantánamo, and the rest. Late in 2006, I talked to James Talbot, an Irish-born friend from London, sophisticated and smart, whose fondness for America had grown steadily since the 1970s when he was based in San Francisco to help the State Department attract European tourists. He loves what we are supposed to be, but he no longer comes near our borders. He was stunned that we reelected George W. Bush and his deluded little power cell by an even larger margin than in 2000. “America has become the Evil Empire,” James said, with a sad shake of his head. “I just don’t understand it.”
It is time to start listening to voices like these. It does no good if, via our interactive media, we argue with them. If I have learned anything watching firsthand as people trash what could be a perfectly good world, it is this: Their reality is the issue, not ours. And we cannot begin to address it sensibly unless we first understand it.
You can look almost anywhere. Resentments smolder among peoples in a separate “Third World” to which we give little help. We champion human rights while we find excuses for our own torture and indiscriminate murder. We outsource to contractors accountable to no one the most basic human dealings that should be guaranteed by our flag. We sneak into other peoples’ bank records and demand from allies confidential data on their citizens.
When we catch leaders violating our own constitution, we shrug and click on the next item in the computer queue. We seem immune to shock and contemptuous of principle. In time, sensible judges and lawmakers may veer us back toward our basic principles. But far too much is lost in the process. However we explain this to ourselves at home, we pay a staggering price abroad. Our allies no longer assume that we will do the right thing. Our ability to lead by example has eroded badly and risks damage that is beyond repair.
This failure of a lone superpower to see how other societies react to its actions provokes frightening variations on the much-debated “clash of civilizations.” When Samuel Huntington coined the term at Harvard in 1993, he used a question mark. These days, it needs an exclamation point.
In this clash, there is no single enemy. It is surely not Islam, a complex belief system of 1.3 billion adherents, which equals Christianity in number. Al Qaeda and other fringe offshoots typify Muslims no more than the cross-burning Ku Klux Klan represents Christians. Terrorism is a reaction, an expression of impotence or despair, not a structure against which we can wage war. Still, we charge blindly on, helping terrorist leaders swell their ranks.
America’s muscular pursuit of national interest strays deep into what Webster defines as imperialism. When we swagger, we sow fresh resentment among peoples whose memories burn on for generations. When we overreact to terror, we show pathetic vulnerability. This deadly blend of hubris and fear is what starts world wars. In the meantime, we enslave ourselves with fresh limits on our own freedoms. We need to understand this.
And yet sociopolitical conflict is not the half of it.
We Americans squander oil and pollute as if we cared nothing for tomorrow. We charge off in wrong directions, led by big business, which profits from our confusion. Are biofuels the answer? The world now eats more food than it produces, and we clear-cut Amazon rainforest for farmland. Where do we grow extra corn or sugar for yet more outsized gas tanks? Conscience-troubled rich people drive to the airport in hybrid cars and then burn fuel by the ton in private jets.
The Kyoto treaty was flawed. But rather than find better wording to achieve its essential purpose, a Congress beholden to business shunned it. Our underlying message to the world recalled that 1975 Daily News headline reporting Washington’s refusal to help New York head off bankruptcy: “Ford to City: Drop Dead.” On a global scale, “drop dead” is no mirthful exaggeration.
Soon our society, a 4 percent fringe of humanity, will no longer call the shots. When our kids grow up, China and India will total 3 billion—not “developing” people in a special category but real ones like us who want SUVs and backyard barbecues. Totalitarian leaders in Beijing and freely elected ones in New Delhi both understand the future. We choose bluster over diplomacy in the Irans and Venezuelas and Indonesias. They quietly make deals and build up, just in case, their armed forces.
We need to understand this.
It may well be too late by the time enough of us realize the extent of our environmental catastrophe. What difference does it make if man alone is not at fault, or if damage falls short of worst-case scenarios? Even the best case, over time, is curtains for billions of human beings.
Food production cannot keep pace with world hunger. Each year, China and India eat more but grow less. By 2001, the precarious balance had tipped into deficit. With free markets, cash crops earn more than food. And Earth is a small planet. In a few decades, we will need 40 percent more to eat. Yet aquifers are tapping out. Rivers run dry, and endemic drought is drying up fields. When scarce grain fill gas tanks while bellies go empty, more than our consciences will trouble us.
In New Orleans, a foretaste of new reality spiked our fairy-tale delusion that a Dutch kid could save a nation. When nature strikes back, a finger in the dike won’t do it. Hurricane Katrina, close to home, caught our attention. In a global setting, it was barely a major event.
As ice melts and seas rise, with harsh storms and seismic turmoil, a new category joins the 20 million “people of concern” the U.N. refugee agency already succors: climate refugees. If an aftermath can go so wrong in a rich democracy, with victims committing suicide and billions squandered, picture what happens elsewhere.
Big disasters make splashy headlines. Yet few people, even among those who pay attention, fathom the impact of silent scourges.
We often use a single word to symbolize the extent to which man can be indifferent to man: holocaust. War casualties aside, Hitler put to death 10 million people. When it was over, we vowed Never Again.
But if we tally the casualties of lingering wars, episodic famines, and endemic plagues—all as preventable at the outset as stopping a mad Austrian-German dictator—we snuff out 30 million lives a year. That is a fresh holocaust every hundred days.
HIV/AIDS has been killing us softly in the background for twenty-five years. We certainly talk enough about it. But what has been the result? Michel Lavollay, a French specialist who has tracked the pandemic since 1985, knows the numbers as well as anyone. When I asked him, in 2006, how many had died of AIDS, he replied, “Twenty-five to thirty million.” The margin of error alone amounts to half of a holocaust. He expects the death toll to surpass 100 million within a generation. That is ten holocausts, more than the combined populations of Canada and Britain.
In developing countries, AIDS hits educated classes the hardest. As a result, entire societies face collapse. Many of us know about Botswana from those lovely little books about a lady detective with a deep respect for her traditional-minded people. But how many of us know that nearly half of Botswana’s sexually active population is HIV positive?
If—and many experts say when—our worldwide food supply crashes, those fatality figures could be small by comparison. Rich nations may be among the last to suffer. But although dwindling stocks may go to those who can pay the most, at some point hungry people will storm the nearest Bastille. These crises affect us all, even if we are too fat and complacent to feel our ox being gored.
Count slowly to sixty. When you are done, a jumbo jet’s worth of infants will have arrived on our planet, each needing a lifetime of resources and a peaceful place to live, if not a flat-panel TV and a cigarette boat. Desparate populations grow faster than rich ones. Even in the face of famine and AIDS, Ethiopians before long will outnumber Japanese.
We have yet more to worry about. Major corporations and criminal organizations are remaking the world into their own image. It is sometimes difficult to tell which are which. When a company’s annual bar bill can approach a small country’s gross national product, persuasion is tough to resist. “Legal,” these days, is a flexible term. Some states, quite simply, belong to organized crime. As Muammar Qaddafi once put it, it is hard to be straight in a crooked world. We need to understand this.
The hard numbers we throw around so casually are rooted in reality. These days, when a million dollars amounts to chump change, we think in billions. One billion minutes ago, Jesus Christ was still alive. One billion dollars is the annual cost of maintaining only three thousand soldiers, not counting the weapons or bottled water they need while at war.
As a collective, we Americans have what Christopher Dickey of Newsweek calls a fleetingly brief “half-life of forgetting.” History we so quickly forget, as old wisdom says, condemns us to ever more costly repetition. Why were we surprised by what we brought on in Iraq? Just as in Vietnam, we misunderstood the nature of power. By the time we realized how much wrath we provoked in a place we did not comprehend, we were trapped.
Our Bill of Rights and Constitution were meant to get us through such times of peril. Faced with a changing world we do not understand, however, we allow the very underpinnings of our representative democracy to work loose.
Midterm elections in 2006 comforted many of us; in time, America’s inherent wisdom corrects our course. But think of the cost. Iraqi casualties, according to a carefully done Johns Hopkins survey, surpass 600,000, infants and grandmothers as well as combatants in a formless free-for-all. By population ratios, that is as if some foreign power caused the deaths of 6 million Americans. A holocaust.
Our squandered treasure in Iraq is heading toward $2 trillion. Remember those numbers? If you spent one dollar every second, it would take 634 centuries before you reached 2 trillion. But we have lost far more than money that could have been better used elsewhere.
A friend recently sent chills down my spine. “I want to write letters to the editor about what’s going wrong,” she said, “but who knows what list I’d end up on? I might get denied boarding on a plane.” That is the sort of thing I heard in Moscow during the Evil Empire days. And the scariest part is that her fear is based on a new reality.
We learned only in 2006 that federal agents had used, for four years, a secret list of Americans and others who cross borders to rate their potential as terrorists or criminals. Computers secretly profile driving records, meal preferences, and God knows what else. No one can see, let alone challenge, these arbitrary rankings. Civil servants we pay intended to keep this list for forty years.
There is some good news here. When enough of us notice and make noise, our representative democracy can correct its course. But this is not nearly often enough.
Editors who shape world coverage should not need their attention drawn to what is going wrong. It is their job to tell us. Far too many of them do not. And the problem is worse than that. When some of them do warn us, in no uncertain terms, nothing much happens. For our very survival, we need to understand this.
Cave blindness is hardly limited to any one nationality. Yet Americans have suffered from it acutely since John F. Kennedy’s well-intended folly in Vietnam. For better or worse, America is the dominant player. As Tony Blair put it, speaking as Britain’s prime minister, any solution to a global problem that does not involve the United States cannot be a solution.
In this crucial role, we see reality via the “media,” a collective noun that is hardly more specific than, say, “stuff.” This is a disturbing thought.
Since Revolutionary journalists defied the British, our society has depended on a functional if imperfect system of newsgathering. Publishers and editors took “conservative” or “liberal” positions on their editorial pages. Some distorted truth. But among the respected papers, news columns were sacrosanct. Professional reporters had a mission to find reality. Readers formed differing viewpoints around shared basic perceptions.
It works differently now. Never has so much data been so instantly available to so many people. Newspapers, in English or Urdu, are a few keystrokes away. Live pictures show events as they happen. If you miss them, you can find them on your laptop. Google Earth can take us anywhere. We have podcasts, RSS feeds, and streaming radio. Yet never have we been so out of touch with reality.
Taken as a whole, “the media” is a deeply flawed lens that distorts much of what it chances upon. It reduces complexity to tight little paragraphs or a headline crawl. Much of it misleads, willfully or unintentionally. There is still plenty of expert firsthand reporting and insight. But now you have to know how to find it and recognize it.
Knowledgeable voices are drowned out by pundits who guess with the rest of us. As satellites obliterate distance, commentators can form immediate opinions about places they could not find on a map. Actual reporting is no longer a prerequisite. Any real estate mogul can become an expert by buying “media” properties.
With a cheap computer at his mother’s kitchen table, anyone can be “media” by relaying headlines from Yahoo! and adding uninformed commentary to fuel a particular prejudice. “Citizen journalists” can call attention to unreported stories, but few have the expertise or the wherewithal to check facts and fit them into context. With so much at stake, a “reporter” must be a skilled worker, with education, on-the-job training, and a professional code. We have no citizen orthopedic surgeons.
What clearer, more costly, example do we need than Iraq? In early 2003, those few seasoned Middle East correspondents who saw the story up close tried to warn that George W. Bush’s mission was impossible. An invasion under anyone’s single flag could only unite Iraqis against the invader. But editors back home, mostly, blunted their message, if not rejecting it outright then diluting it with long-range guesswork. Unchallenged, official wishful thinking shaped a collective view. Four years too late, with no honorable solution in sight, we must somehow mitigate one of the greatest blunders in world history.
Neither pictures nor words necessarily add up to understanding. Without context and cut loose from the historical continuum, “news” is only confusing noise. What matters is how many practiced and fair-minded reporters are deployed to where reality takes shape. Because of cost cuts and a belief that complacent cave dwellers are happy with shallow fluff, these are diminishing fast. Too often, those who remain are filtered by fearful, unworldly, and inexpert editors.
During the first crucial moments of some distant disaster, Google flashes bulletins on a news site that boasts of 4,500 different sources. As often as not, that means 4,498 sources that are all rearranging the meager facts provided by a couple of local stringers at the scene.
By the time a badly gutted foreign correspondent corps arrives, it competes with “analysts” back home who cannot pronounce the names of the people and places they comment upon. Ranks of editors massage dispatches from the scene into news stories that are too often designed for a low common denominator.
Collective news judgment can venture deeply into the ludicrous. A while ago in Paris, the few remaining correspondents were obsessed for days because Hermès would not open after hours for Oprah Winfrey. Parisians could not figure out why an American tourist, unknown in France, was depicted as the victim of racial discrimination because of a simple “closed” sign. That is an amusing sidelight. The bigger picture is disturbing beyond description. Too many reporters are not only told what to look for but also advised of what they really saw.
News, by definition, is something no one knows about yet. That is, it cannot yet be found on the Web or heard at lunch in Washington. To find real news of this sort, reporters must have a long enough leash to move on their own, according to intuition and solid sources. Now our remaining watchdogs struggle against choke collars.
It is simplistic to dismiss the media out of hand. There remains much to admire, in the mainstream and at the edges. Skillful reporters venture into unpleasant places, and some wise editors back home help them do better. But the good ones are no longer enough. Many will tell you that pressures from their own companies gall them more than obstacles faced on the road.
As the spurs to competition dull, we are left in the hands of only a few influential editors. The New York Times is often a grand newspaper, yet it chose to wait fourteen months to report that George W. Bush was spying on us illegally—and broke the news then only because its reporter was about to scoop his editors with a book. When the Times finally ran the story, we did nothing about it.
During 2005 and 2006, large U.S. papers cut more than 2,500 editorial jobs. Editors brought home correspondents. This meant a greater reliance on news agencies, which, in turn, were stripping themselves of seasoned eyes and ears. What should be on-the-spot reporting is now often distant guesswork based on secondhand sources.
The effect is more apathy, and not only in America. Andrew Marr, one of Britain’s grand journalists, wrote in his amusing but tough-minded book, My Trade: “Because of its problems, one would simply try to opt out of the news culture. I know people who barely read a paper and who think most broadcast news is mindless nonsense. I think, however, they are wrong. They might go through their weekly round, taking kids to school, shopping, praying, doing some voluntary work, phoning elderly relatives, and do more good than harm as they go. But they have disconnected themselves from the world; rather like secular monks, they have cloistered themselves in the local. And this is not good enough. We are either players in open, democratic societies, all playing a part in their ultimate direction, or we are deserters.”
But this takes some work. No one can absorb reliable news without evaluating sources. We must know whom to trust—and why we trust them. For each “fact,” the obvious question arises: Who says? We don’t license journalists in America, happily enough, but we should evaluate them on our own. Would you ask some unknown amateur with a sharp scalpel to rebuild your ankle?
Above all, we must add our own human and historical context. At its heart, news is not about faceless nations or simple numbers; it is about people. What matters is to understand how different cultures see things, and react to them, in their own way.
That hoary truism is correct: Two broad oceans isolate the United States from a wider world. Into the twenty-first century, as travelers poked into every corner of the planet, one American in ten held a passport. With scant knowledge of other peoples, we assume people of every culture will respond to outside stimuli just as we would.
Take, for instance, the invasion of Iraq. Saddam Hussein, by anyone’s definition, was a perfect Hollywood barroom bully. George W. Bush, righteous and resolute, was just the man to face him down. In American lore, when the good guy punches out the bad guy in a bar fight, the story ends happily. In the real world, the bad guy’s buddies wait in the parking lot with tire irons.
After the smoke cleared, 56 percent of Americans who went to remake Iraq from within their isolated “Green Zone” fortress had to get their first passport ever. What mattered more was a de facto loyalty oath binding them to the administration’s narrow political philosophy.
There is a term for all of this: temper-centric. It means judging things within the context of your own place and time. But different peoples do what they do and think what they think. Reality bites whether or not we approve.
Temper-centric thinkers believe they can shape a world according to their needs. For a resourceful nation, there is a solution to every problem. Perhaps, but at what cost? If our grandkids will need Dune suits to trap water, and ray guns whenever they venture beyond their walled borders, we had better know about it now.
In America today, truth belongs to those who can turn a phrase; actual facts come second. Many people cannot even recognize a journalist when they see one. In 2005, the Pew Institute asked Americans whom they considered a reporter. Forty percent chose Bill O’Reilly, Fox News’s abusive, ill-informed opinionator. He skunked Bob Woodward, who exposed Richard Nixon’s Watergate secrets and now does his journalism in intricately sketched books.
An earlier survey was equally harrowing. The Carnegie Corporation of New York hired Frank N. Magid Associates in 2004 to break down how Americans aged eighteen to thirty-four get their news. Beyond the fast-expanding Internet, local TV scored well above network newscasts and daily papers. Many seemed curious about the world only if it was about to kick in their door. Close to half of those aged eighteen to twenty-four tuned out news as contradictory and irrelevant to their lives. They would rather shop and hang with their friends.
A bigger shock came in a Harris survey in July 2006. Fully 50 percent of respondents—up from 36 percent the year before—believed Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction when American forces invaded. In fact, after a sixteen-month investigation that cost more than $900 million, U.S. weapons hunters of the Iraq Survey Group confirmed earlier U.N. inspectors’ findings: Saddam scrapped his banned arms in 1991 under U.N. supervision. Yet White House spin, aided by talk radio, blogs, and misleading headlines about a meaningless find, made its impact.
Four years into the Iraq fiasco, other polls show a plurality of Americans still believe Saddam leveled the World Trade Center. And few see how our own national blindness is swelling terrorist ranks.
Beyond American frontiers, parts of the world flower with new promise. Much of it is eroding into moonscape or simmering at the edge of spontaneous combustion. With applied wisdom, we can make differences that matter. But we simply do not get it.
Copyright © 2007 by Mort Rosenblum. All rights reserved.