Monday, November 30, 2009

History Worth repeating

Last week I helped facilitate a luncheon discussion of Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s book Half the Sky. Subtitled "Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide," the book has generated much conversation here in Pacific-Rim Seattle; it is full of ideas for action and extends its reach through the website The content is enormously powerful: stories of women’s oppression (slavery, rape, death) in the developing world, and their incredibly heroic and tenacious battles for just a tiny slice of the daily personal freedom, physical health and safety, and emotional and intellectual fulfillment that so many Americans take for granted.

The eighteen Seattleites at lunch were women ranging in age from their young twenties to their early seventies. They worked in different fields and most didn’t know each other. Some were already involved in organizations that support women’s educational, health, or employment initiatives in developing countries; some had lived for a time in Asia or India; others were just curious. Some had experienced gender discrimination or violence themselves, some had not. All appreciated the complexity of the issues, and were not afraid of the messiness of reality.

They came together at the invitation of an energetic young woman who has the trick of making tough conversation (slavery, rape, death) honest, productive and not paralyzingly guilt-producing. She arranged to have our lunch catered by a local farm and restaurant that sells its products to our neighborhood farmers’ markets. Our cook and server was the wife of the farm’s butcher. With cheerful panache, and her six month old son strapped to her side, she served up incredibly tasty soups, quiche, pumpkin pie and apple crisp made with the farm’s butter, eggs, cream, bacon, honey, chicken, pork and vegetables. Even the bread was made with wild yeast.
The growth of farmers’ markets and local food-buying reflects the “Think Globally, Act Locally” approach to problem-solving. The idea is to consider the problems of the world, but realize you probably can’t do much to affect global change, so you should focus your charitable efforts in your own neighborhood.

But Half the Sky pleads the opposite case. Imagine you cannot leave your house without your husband’s permission, imagine facing a one-in-ten chance of dying in childbirth, imagine being kidnapped as a 12-year-old, locked in a brothel and beaten daily for not smiling enough during forced sex. Imagine that world was local. Then act globally.

George Santayana wrote “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Often used to encourage students to study harder, the phrase assumes most of history is a record of bad and wrong things. In fact, there are a good many progressive lessons in history that we would do well to remember and repeat.

One of these lessons that Half and Sky urges us to emulate is the British effort to abolish the slave trade in the 1830’s, led by William Wilberforce and Thomas Clarkson. Slavery didn’t exist on the British Isles. It wasn’t local — unlike in America, the vast majority of British citizens never personally saw the degradation of human slavery, while at the same time they greatly benefited economically from their country’s participation in the global slave trade.

Wilberforce and Clarkson led an unrelenting campaign to describe the moral horrors of slavery in scrupulously fact-checked detail. Public outrage eventually forced Parliament to ban slavery and the slave trade, even though the country lost an estimated 1.8% of its GNP by doing so, effectively transferring wealth and power to its enemies France and Spain.

Half the Sky argues that Britain’s success at ending its association with human slavery in the early 1800s is exactly what Americans should do now with respect to ending our acquiescence to the oppression (out-and-out slavery as well as systematic discrimination in education and health care) of women in much of Asia and Africa. There are more women enslaved in brothels in the world today than were ever transported on slave ships across the Atlantic in the 1700s and 1800s. We don’t see it, it’s not local, but it’s what Half the Sky calls a “transcendent” moral outrage, one in which outsiders (us) can “truly make a significant difference.”

How did my luncheon conversation change me? The opacity of cultures, the overwhelming nature of the injustices, and the sheer “foreignness” of the developing world have been a barrier to thinking that I can, in any meaningful way, alleviate the suffering of an African child or a Indian teenager or a Afgan woman. That barrier is lower now. Useful action is possible.
I think I may start with introducing a few new conversational topics over the Thanksgiving turkey this year. I also have some creative gift ideas for those on my Christmas list who already have everything that truly matters, except, perhaps, the gift of helping oppressed women fight to live a fully human life.

[Kit Bakke is the author of Miss Alcott's Email: Yours for Reforms of All Kinds.]

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