Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Crunching Numbers, Exploding Minds: Us, Us, Them and Us

Coming home from work today I listened to XM Public Radio's daily replay of old "This American Life" episodes. Yes, XM Radio is one economic splurge I suggest everyone take, especially when it's possible to hear "TAL" every weekday at 4:00. Anyway, today it was a 1999 episode entitled "The Kids Are Alright". Act One was an interview with Wen Huang, student protestor during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protest. Here's the episode from the TAL site (Real Audio).

In a remarkable Ira Glass interview (and any Ira Glass interview tends to be remarkable), what struck me most from Mr. Huang was his observation that growing up in China citizens always felt they were the privileged of the world and that kids were always told by parents that they better clean their plate at dinner because "there are people starving in America". Just like here. In reverse.

Huang's point brought me right back to a couple of things I've been obsessing about recently to the point I can't remember who's heard the rant and who hasn't. Pardon me if you been subjected to it already, throatily roared across tables at Chama River Brewing Company.

First, I noticed a story at the BBC regarding the growing drought/famine in Kenya. It noted that with "corpses of cattle and donkeys...lying everywhere", the Kenyan government was putting aside $14 million for emergency purchase of maize to feed "the 2.5 million people at immediate risk, almost 10% of the population". $14 million. The story goes on to mention that neighboring countries, particularly Somalia are also at high risk for drought-borne famine.

$14 million. Now go to Democracy for New Mexico or other site with that National Priorities Project "The War in Iraq Costs" running toteboard. Stare at it long enough to count up $14 million. By the way, at present the Iraq count is pushing $235 billion. Kenya needs $14 million. 2.5 million people. $14 million. Oh, also by the way, the Kenyan government says the maize is desparately needed to avoid widespread famine by the end of February.

Yes, I realize that the point is as naive as it is childishly obvious. Still, I just gotta think most people would rather the $14 million go to Kenya than the occupation of Iraq. I gotta think that, or my head will explode. Fissures are already forming like that Alaskan volcano.

Second is this killing al-Zawahiri, Pakistan bombing thing. Yeah, you've already heard tons about it, and no, I have no new news, gossip or information to provide regarding the story. None.

Still, I wonder what the U.S. response would be if, say, the country of, say, Belgium was flying drone planes over U.S. airspace and felt compelled to take out some most wanted mass murderer ex-Belgian guy who had holed up outside, say, Cody, Wyoming. I wonder what folks in the U.S. would think. I wonder what folks in this country would say if the Belgians bombed the compound in Cody, and along the way killed a few children. Would our initial reaction be "well, that's too bad about the kids, but did you get the mass murderer....is he dead?", or "those kids were probably gonna grow up to be mass murderers anyway", or "feel free to fly Belgian spy planes and drones containing bombs over our cities, villages and compounds whenever you like, as long as it keeps Belgium from having any more mass murderers".

What's this got to do with Wen Huang and "people starving in America"? Well, it goes along with my little theory that if every single "American" was forced to travel to every country in the world we might be just a smidge less politically egocentric. In fact, maybe instead of spending $235 billion and counting in Iraq we could go to Orbitz and buy every U.S. citizen a five city multi-destination ticket. I'd go for the Budapest, Recife, Accra, Colombo, Ho Chi Minh City combo, myself. I'd bet we'd open some eyes, and save some bankrupt U.S. airlines to boot.

Or maybe we could just let Belgium fly some drone planes over the country one weekend. Kind of a trial, "getting to understand others" kinda thing.

By the way, I stuck it out and counted a million or two on the Iraq occupation costs. By my calculation we're burning through $14 million about every 90 minutes in Iraq. A long lunch. A decent sized "Happy Hour".

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