a few notes about current events

1. Please, please follow what’s going on in Libya. The uprising began over a month ago, and now we’re throwing in the planes. What will happen? Have a look at this article on Al Jazeera, a military perspective on what the outcome might be.  I’ve been following Al Jazeera and the New York Times, my two usual news sources.

2. In Yemen, government officials are resigning in droves. It’s an incredible gesture, one I find heartbreaking and poignant. For a government official to find their own administration’s actions so appalling that they simply cannot support them anymore, and must resign as a protest or simply as a measure of absolute last resort… I think it’s a remarkable expression of integrity. There have been many, many occasions in the past when government employees of various stripes have resigned in America, though it’s not been much-publicized. Horse of a different colour when you’re looking at actually overthrowing the entire regime.

3. All hope and love to Japan – pretty much every catastrophic force of nature went balls to the wall on those islands, and the country and its people have responded with a grace that staggers the imagination. It’s fascinating to contrast all of these recent disaster responses – there have been far too many, as of late. Are we, as a global community, learning anything about how to respond? How to coordinate international relief efforts?

4. Egypt votes! Exciting!!

IN GENERAL (warning, opinions and ideals to follow)

I’ll confess: I don’t follow current events nearly as much as I should. Few of us do. I believe that as privileged residents of powerful countries, whose leaders we have the great good fortune to be able to influence, we have a responsibility to stay informed. Being a citizen of a democracy is a blessing, a privilege, and a responsibility. Like it or not, our countries are affecting the affairs of the world in a huge way, every single day. Our leaders make it happen. And we can influence them. That’s our job. That’s what it means to be a good citizen – to hold up our end of the democratic bargain and contribute in a thoughtful way to our country’s activities, be they domestic or international. There are a thousand ways to do this, be it voting or activism or simply conversation with your fellow-citizens about, y’know, things that matter.

Why bother what happens to other people? Why all this responsibility, anyhow?

I think it’s wired into us to care about what happens to other people. I think it’s a fundamental part of being human, an inescapable and beautiful part of our very makeup.

Stuck to my wall is an incarnation of the Humanist Manifesto. Without getting too far into it, this is a document I believe in and try to live by. Point 3 reads: “Ethical values are derived from human need and interest as tested by experience.” Point 4: “Life’s fulfilment emerges from individual participation in the service of humane ideals.” Point 6: “Working to benefit society maximizes individual happiness.” Taken together, these points tell me that we should be paying attention to what’s going on in the world, and working to improve the world based upon what we learn from our observation. We cannot blindly set out to make the world better, with a set idea of what’s right; no, we must learn and think and constantly examine and evaluate our notions of ethics. Ethics must be tested by experience. We can observe in the world how certain kinds of governance or economics are serving human needs and interests. Are they succeeding? Is there need for change? As points 4 and 6 assert, as human beings we naturally find our fulfillment and happiness in honestly seeking to further the ethical, humane treatment of ourselves and others. Our ideas about what constitutes ethical, humane treatment will always be changing. Each new situation requires assessment. It’s a constant task. It’s how we participate as fulfilled, social human beings.

I’m not trying to say that it’s easy. Back at the dawn of humankind, all of these highfalutin’ ideals only applied to participation in a small travelling band of people. You would live and die with the same 100 or so individuals, and would never be called upon to question the ethics of a government that oversaw hundreds of millions of people. You would never be called upon to think about the standard of living of strangers on the other side of the planet. Our brains, perhaps, are not wired for such considerations. I mean, twenty thousand years ago we were exactly the same creatures we are today, from an evolutionary perspective. We evolved as social animals, but only to deal with a small number of individuals, all of whom were known to us by sight and sound and touch, a physical reality. The complexity of our civilization has outstripped our ability to cope. We have an incredible capacity for abstract thinking which allows us to ponder these problems, but it’s not instinctive and it’s not easy. We’ve created these systems, which often escape our understanding and control, and now we must do our best by them.

So read the news, and think about it. Like it or not, you can’t deny it: you are a global citizen. It’s far too late to untangle the threads. You have the privilege of citizenship in a powerful democratic nation, literacy and education, and freedom of speech and expression. Be a citizen.

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