Friday, April 10, 2015

Tending to our own gardens, while the world outside is burning

If the world were perfect, if societies across the globe were free from the ravages of poverty, violence and extremism, if these forces were not constantly pulling at the threads of civil society from Baghdad to Burma, then we could certainly be content to spend our days at home, blissfully ignoring whatever happened beyond our own backyards. And yet, without having fed all the hungry people around us or found a solution to the problem of violent extremism, it feels like more and more of us are nonetheless retreating from engagement with one of the most pressing challenges of our time.

Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about this retreat from public life in the context of the rise of violent extremism and Voltaire’s Candide. In this 18th century French satire the author chronicles the life of the title character as he runs a gauntlet of increasingly violent and absurd scenarios, incessantly abused and harassed by circumstance. Eventually, exhausted by everything he has experienced, he arrives at the conclusion that the best thing to do is to remain quietly at home, tending one’s own garden. Surely there are people who read this book and immediately empathize with the protagonist: perhaps on a personal level, they too feel battered by life, and the idea of retreating into a safe corner is appealing. For others, the themes which drive this work may resonate on a larger scale, offering a compelling argument for American isolationism, borne of a desire to avoid the complexity inherent in international issues and a misguided belief that as long as the United States seems strong at home, all will be right in the world.

If we choose, we can follow the example of Candide, so beset with horror and grief that we turn away from the injustice happening all around us. We can ignore the political upheaval and violence roiling large areas of the Middle East and North Africa, where innocent civilians bear the brunt of chaos wrought by Al-Queda, ISIS and others. We can pretend we don’t know that there are people living in our own cities and towns with hate in their hearts, whose own violent fantasies are fueled by the consumption of racist, anti-Semitic or anti-government social media. This is one path we can take.

We should never forget, however, that we have the power to stand up for the things we believe in, for the people who don't have a quiet place to turn to, who have no garden of their own. In my mind, this is both the nobler, and the wiser, course of action, paying dividends not only in the impact we can have directly on our own communities and in the messages we send to the international community, but in reminding others that they can do the same.

If we want to live in a world where human rights are respected and where the rule of law is upheld then we must avoid at all costs the example of Voltaire’s hapless hero. Those of us with the capacity to help others in need should never let the minor setbacks and distractions of everyday life push us back home, away from the uncomfortable truths, messy reality, and the obligations that come with living in a free society.

Perhaps originally intended as a meditation on the absurdity and cruelty of life, I read Candide today as a call to action for leaders and everyday citizens alike. The choice is ours to make; if we so choose, we can tend our own gardens, ignoring the violent persecution of Yazidis, minority Muslims, Christians and others, but shouldn't we want to live in a world where we expect people not to cut themselves off from debate and discussion? Shouldn't we expect better things from our leaders, from our friends and neighbors?  Shouldn't we expect better things from ourselves?

Copyright Daniel E. Levenson 2015.

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