Alien-nation

Yesterday I was at my family home in Massachusetts, and so instead of getting my headlines from the internet, I got them from the Boston Globe. Above the fold, there were stories about the recent mayoral election, a feel-good piece with a nice picture of a young girl with cancer kissing a sea lion at the Aquarium. Below the fold, in the left-hand corner: “10,000 Dead in Philippines, Number Rising.”

I went to church with my parents and the new minister talked about Veteran’s Day. His children’s message was about the 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, the first all-African-American regiment and a coalition of free black men who volunteered to fight in the Civil War despite the US Army’s not recognizing them as soldiers until the Emancipation Proclamation was passed, and not compensating them fairly until they announced that none of them would accept a wage until they were all paid the same as white men.

Today is Veteran’s Day, and my gratitude and wishes for safety go out to everyone who is currently serving in the armed forces or who has ever served. It’s got me thinking, though. I’m thinking about how, a hundred and fifty years ago, people living in this country were not considered enough of a part of this country to be allowed to officially fight for a cause they believed in. I’m thinking about how, in the age of globalization, when we know very well that people on the other side of the world are human beings just like us, trying to live a decent life and to provide the same for their families, we still manage to break things down into “us” and “them.” What else, at its root, is nation-building?

I understand that it is difficult to govern large populations, and that we are not yet anywhere near being able to sustain one global civilization, but sometimes I’m really struck by how myopic individual governments–not to mention the media–can be. It makes me wonder if no one else remembers that “national boundaries” are imaginary lines in the sand, drawn where they are through a combination of military force and compromise, and that real live human beings live beyond them just like they do within them.

Can you imagine what attention and help we would be demanding from the world if ten thousand people had just died in a natural disaster? For some context, Hurricane Katrina killed 1,833. Almost 3,000 died on 9/11.

I’m reminded again of the movie “The Impossible,” whose subtext seemed to be that true devastation was something that happens to white people who happen to be at the wrong place at the wrong time. I understand the appeal of the narrative–it’s pure horror story, the idyllic vacation gone terribly wrong, and a way to get self-obsessed Westerners into the head-space of someone experiencing the tsunami without asking them to do something tricky like identify with someone from South-East Asia–but I was, and I still am, disappointed that the first major motion picture about such a disaster had to be the one from an outsider’s perspective for us to get invested.

What does all of this have to do with Veteran’s Day? I want to believe that the wars that our veterans have fought in have, in the final tally, brought the world closer to the understanding that despite our differences in culture, in religious belief, in ideology, we are all human beings, worthy of respect and of opportunity and deserving of recognition for our suffering and our strength. I want to think that it wouldn’t have to take an Independence-Day type alien attack scenario–the imposition of a bigger, badder “other”–to see unity and understanding between people. I just want to see that information about vitally important world events gets recognition, and isn’t relegated to the margins.

I’m still sorting out the ways in which this all ties together in my mind, but I know the link is there. In the meantime, my heart is with the people suffering in the Philippines, who may not be from my nation, but who are all the same part of my family.

Here’s a link to the Red Cross for anyone looking to donate to disaster relief in the Philippines: Red Cross.

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