One thing I did not mention in my last post is that I traveled in Burma with my family when I was young. It was 1981, and I was 12. The memories I have are so vivid -- and, what is more relevant to this meditation, they are from a child's perspective.
I believe that the direct, non-analytical nature of these experiences, even dating back 26 years, adds to my feeling of connection to the people there today -- and my sense of political urgency about the situation.
Let me share some of my memories with you:
In Rangoon (now Yangon) we stayed in a creaky, gorgeous colonial British hotel. It had slowly circling fans in the lobby, where we drank lime juice on ice to stay cool. Vintage 1940s and 50s cars lined the streets -- used without thought to their antique looks, but simply because those were the models of car available. I suffered a mysterious allergic reaction (never repeated) one night as we returned to our hotel room, and I began breathing frantically, trying to get air. In retrospect I can only imagine how frightening that was for my parents. I remember they called the front desk to try to get medical assistance, but by the time they had communicated the problem my attack had subsided.
I remember the beggers and the monks, the gleaming, gold surface of the central Buddhist temple (the Schwedagon pagoda), the talk of the Buddha's tooth once preserved there. We then traveled north to Mandalay, and we also visited the most fantastic place I had ever seen, Pagan (now called Bagan).
There are hundreds of temples dotting a flat dusty plain in Pagan. They have secret stairways, ornate carvings, impossible balconies, and dark tunnels. Each one is different in design. My sister (a year older at 13) and I raced around these temples, laughing and gasping for air while my parents took a more leisurely pace and considered the history.
My sister and I felt as if we had discovered the real Disneyland, the one that wasn't at all ersatz -- a true lost kingdom with crumbling stone and stange aromas and odd shafts of sunlight. We rode from temple to temple in a horse-drawn cart, with our driver occasionally giving rides to villagers. The people smiled and some spoke broken English. It was the most memorable single day I experienced in all the travels that my family took through Asia during those years (we lived in Hong Kong from 1979 through 1981 and took the chance to travel extensively in the region).
How do these memories bear on politics?
The simple point I take from this excursion into my private archive of sights and sounds is this: We are driven poltiically as much by what we FEEL as what we think. I feel sorrow (and anger too) when I think of Darfur -- as when I watched the documentary by a friend of mine, Annie Sunderberg, "The Devil Came on Horseback," at Sundance this year. But because I have no direct, sensory connection to that part of Africa, my motivations are more analytical than visceral. When it comes to supporting aggressive action again the regime in the Sudan, I am all for it -- but out of calculation rather than the force of conviction. When faced with similar suffering Burma, however, my childhood memories provoke me to brood on it more. I am more inclined to talk about it with loved ones, check to see what my government is doing about it, even take to the streets (if the chance arises).
This makes me think of a great essay by Richard Rorty on human rights. It's called "Human Rights, Rationality and Sentimentality." Read it if you want to be provoked.
Rorty's argument is, in a nutshell, that we should forget claiming that we are on the side of reason, that we are "right" and those who abuse other human beings are "wrong" in some absolute sense. Rather, the only effective way to change people's behavior (short of the use of force) is to appeal to sentiment. Show them photographs of their victims. Make them confront what they are doing directly through some method of storytelling (film, TV, theater, writing). Get them to see, and smell, and feel the consequences of their actions. And then ask a simple follow-up question to provoke them: Is THIS the world that you would like to live in?
As David Hume famously wrote: "Reason is the slave of the passions." It doesn't work as well the other way around.
When it comes to Burma, I find that my reason is at work, trying to find ways to alleviate the suffering, because my passions for that country were ignited 26 years ago as a child.
What passions are we igniting in our children today that will motivate them 26 years from now?