Sixteen years ago, I was trapped in a war zone for five days with two people--one stranger and one colleague. We survived sniper-lined roads, a paramilitary ambush, hunger, cold and fear. Just as an escape route opened up, our jeep broke down.
Five days before we had been a reporter, a photographer and a hired interpreter. We had just met the interpreter--Hisen, a Romani refugee from Kosovo. But after five days of surviving on our wits, we had the kind of bond that forms in military combat units. To the accompaniment of automatic gunfire in the night, HIsen fixed the fan belt with a piece of string and we drove the last couple of miles through dangerous territory. The jeep died just as we cleared the worst area, so we were able to find a terrified taxi-driver who gave us a lift to the border.
I still have a corny nylon rose that Hisen gave me. It sits in the place of honor above my desk, though I haven't seen him in person for more than a decade.
A few days ago, one of his on-line messages reached me.
I have always known his life was hard. I knew about how, before we met, he was chased out of his village at gunpoint and his fiance was killed by an ethnic-cleansing mob. I saw the terrible, squalid refugee camp he lived in for years. And he sent pictures when he was finally able to return home and move into a little house. But in all those years he never asked for help.
But now he has.
He now has a wife and three kids ages 15, 13 and 9. He has worked hard over the past sixteen years to make a life for them and he succeeded in that they had a home, food, clothing and school supplies. Not much by western standards, but enough.
Then three weeks ago, robbers broke into Hisen's small house and ransacked it, taking everything of any value, including clothing, cooking utensils and school supplies. It's a poor country and "any value" is a different concept there. The corrupt local police still consider Hisen's family to be part of an unwelcome racial minority. That's what the war all those years ago was about after all. And they won't help.
So finally, he asked me for help. And I would send him a chunk of my savings. I would start a GoFundMe campaign. That's the kind of bond this is. I would walk a hundred miles for this man who stood by me through hell and knee-deep mud.
But guess what? GoFundMe will not allow you to raise money for someone in Kosovo. Neither will any of the similar fundraising engines. Even PayPal will not send my savings to Hisen. You are not allowed to use PayPal in Kosovo.
There is a borderline you see. Those who did not stand in the mud and the freezing rain with us think there is big difference between Hisen and me, a difference meriting a big fat line to keep us from helping each other. An international bank transfer would cost most of what I could afford to send or manage to fundraise.
This is one of the lines THEY draw between us. It is not so different from the line they draw between Texas and Puerto Rico when it comes to disaster relief. It is the same line they want to draw between white and black in city streets in America and the line they want to draw between Muslim and Christian.
Also this week, I tried to buy the mechanical doll my child is asking Santa Claus for. Amazon's new European hub is less than 20 miles from our house and that doll is no doubt sitting on a shelf at that hub. But the doll cannot be purchased in the Czech Republic. We have no Amazon. Amazon is happy to allow Czechs to work like frantic robots in their giant warehouse, but they don't want us getting our grubby little fingers on the goodies--like talking dolls--meant for the "real people" in the west.
The standard trick has been to set up an Amazon account in Germany or Britain. I have both and at times in the past that has worked for some items we needed. But now the UK sellers won't even put a package in the mail to the Czech Republic, international visa card or no. And German Amazon demanded $150 in postage and handling just to send the $35 doll a few hundred miles across the border to me.
Wait. Except that the doll isn't physically in Germany. It's at the Amazon warehouse from which all Amazon.de shipments come and that warehouse is only 20 miles from me.
That's it. The borderline again. Not so much a physical line but a line between people--the worthy and the unworthy, those inside and those outside.
There is even a line between the wealthy west and the modestly well-off in Central Europe. There is another line between us and the marginalized and poor elsewhere. All around there are lines meant to divide us.
Here are the kinds of things they want you to recognize as divisions:
- Borders on a map
- Skin color
- Language spoken
- Ability and disability
- Physical attributes and body shape
- Sexual orientation
Take a good look at that, Can you play the old Sesame Street game and figure out what these things have in common?
That's right. They're all things none of us can do anything about. Largely we were born that way or ended up that way without a choice. I'll tell you another thing that these things have in common. They harm no one. Yup, even sexual orientation. It may offend your religious doctrine, but it doesn't actually harm you or anyone else. It just is.
But you're already wondering why I use the word "they," if I am so against division. Aren't I just as guilty of "us versus them" thinking?
True enough. That's precisely what THEY want you to say. Because if they can't get you to hate and divide yourself from your allies based on the above list, then there are some things they definitely DO NOT want you thinking of as dividing lines.
We are not allowed to draw lines between us and people who:
- Own far more than they need for a comfortable life
- Waste resources on things that are not just luxuries but extravagances
- Support unlimited proliferation of guns and other weapons
- Display symbols of hate, violence, slavery and oppression
- Hate and proliferate hate of others based on things on the other list
- Make decisions affecting other people based on how much profit it will gain them
Play the Sesame Street game again. How is this list different? What do these things have in common, other than the fact that we are NOT allowed to divide people along these lines in modern society?
They are all choices a person can make. None of these depend on how you were born. Sure, you might have been born wealthy and privileged. I know people who were born with great privilege, who do not do these things. You don't have to procure your own personal indoor swimming pool in your home or paint your ceiling with gold paint or even get that new iPhone X when your iPhone 7 is in perfectly good shape and does everything you need it to.
Being wealthy or poor may not be a choice but what you do with it is.
I'm not saying all wealthy people must give all their wealth to the poor, though some do and thus have a legacy worth remembering. Put your money toward solar panels for your community or a documentary on something you care about or even "selfishly" supporting the artists and musicians you love so you can enjoy their work. But do something meaningful with it, beyond just amassing more wealth for you and your descendants.
"You can't tell me how to spend my money!" I've heard that one before.
Nope, I can't tell you how to spend your money. But I can draw this line in the sand. I will divide people on what matters. These are choices. And even more importantly, they are all choices that do harm to others.
Whenever I hear rhetoric today, I look at these two lists and ask myself which dividing line in the first list the rhetoric is trying to draw or which line in the second list it is trying to erase. That's how you can tell the good guys from the bad guys today. And yes, I'm one of those people. I believe there are good guys and bad guys.
It may not be pure good or pure bad. But we put ourselves in those categories by the choices we make.
By en large, it is corporations and their minions which are doing the greatest harm today and choosing to knowingly continue to cause harm. These are the choices against which I draw the line.
Still, if we focus on those making harmful choices--the bad guys if you wish--we fall into their traps. The only way to win is to draw our own lines of protection and focus on mutual support, be kind and open to one another. Remember to be wary of divides manufactured based on things people cannot change about themselves.
And it is good to focus as much as we can on those things that corporations cannot divide, such as:
Sunlight and other natural forces - corporations don't like solar and wind power because they can't parcel out and monetize sunlight. Even if it didn't have the potential to save us from catastrophic climate change, that would be enough of a reason to focus on sunlight and its many uses.
Gardening - Anywhere, even in the most bleak circumstances, if there is sunlight, dirt and water, you can grow something. It may not be much and it may not grow perfectly. But it will grow. There have been many attempts by corporations to monetize all gardening and agriculture, but the basic laws of life are still in force.
The joy of learning - I love that moment when I meet a person from a new culture, a culture I don't know too much about. I especially love it if we don't speak one another's language too well. Yes, I do. I rarely find it awkward. It is like opening up a crisp, new book just out of the crate from the printer. It has that new adventure and new knowledge smell. It can be hard to bridge the language barrier, but I've done it many times and it is always a thrill.
Music - People ask me what my favorite music is and I have always had trouble answering. That is because the music I love most is the music people make for fun without electricity and often with makeshift instruments. The most memorable music (and some of the best moments of my life) were a drum and signing circle under the full moon in a Zimbabwean village and Czech hikers stopped by a campfire, playing folk songs with a guitar, spoons, sticks and the box of quickie rice. I'm not just being charitable. This is my favorite music.
Art with words - Language is one of the most quintessentially human things. I don't particularly care if it is one I understand. There is a beauty in artfully used language that crosses all artificial borders. Delight in the craft of wordsmithing to which we are all heirs.
Hugs - They've already tried to taint hugging with the brush of sexual harassment but hugs are kind of the antithesis of divisions. Real hugs, not sexualized contact, connect us primally and I very much doubt they can ever be corporately controlled.
Connecting with animals and plants - There is also a divide between us and other life. In some cultures dogs are favorite pets while in others dogs are intensely feared. The same goes for cats. But all cultures have some close bonds with some animal or plant. And again this connection is something corporations cannot monopolize.
Rallying in public - People of every culture understand the will to be heard. Public rallies and protests are less prevalent in some societies but everywhere we understand that coming together in public to take a stand and defy artificial divisions is at our human core. Yes, politicians and corporations profit off of some public rallies and there are rallies for division and hate as much as there are rallies against it. But the important thing is that they cannot completely control such gathering. They have tried in many places at many points in history and they have always eventually failed.
None of these things are unpolitical acts. Gardening, playing music, hugging, putting up solar panels, joyfully learning about other cultures--these are all acts of resistance to harm and the breaking down of manipulative divides. They matter. Please add more to this list in the comments.