January 31, 2008

War and the Clearance Sale

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I had an interesting exchange in one of my classes this past week. Our assignment in this class for the day was to rank a given list of issues in order of importance from 1 to 10. Not only did they include standard political issues like “the economy and jobs,” “terrorism and war,” and “healthcare” but a myriad of environmental ones including “human population growth” and “climate change” (which makes sense as this is an environmental studies class). What struck me though was when we were asked to form a consensus among ever larger groups (from two to four to eight) and how few students were concerned about “terrorism and war.”
Now it’s often said that survey results are defined by the wording of the questions, so by saying “terrorism and war” instead of “Iraqi and Afghan wars” or “U.S. troops abroad,” less students connected with the issue, especially since it’s been so long since a terrorist attack was carried out on U.S. soil. But even so, it never ceases to amaze how far away the war is from the average Cornell students’ minds. No matter how many prelims you have or what the newest episode of “The Office” is like, nothing changes the fact that there are many thousands of U.S. soldiers in Iraq and that many Americans and Iraqis have died in the conflict. And then beyond Iraq, there is Afghanistan, which is even more obscure in the minds of most people.
Given the sacrifice that our soldiers are making abroad and the continuing suffering of the Iraqi and Afghan peoples, one failure rises above all of our failed policies, and it isn’t Bush’s fault. Our greatest failure instead has been our ability to forget. We have quite simply forgotten we are at war, in two countries. And despite the victories of anti-war Democrats in the 2006 election, people remain disengaged and willing to forget. Our willingness to forget extends beyond two wars and to humanitarian crises from Darfur to Burma. Despite flurries of activism that lead to increased awareness for a time, we are a generation and a society without accountability.
After September 11th, no one asked the American people to make sacrifices like they had in years past. After the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, no one asked for sacrifices. In fact, the President told us to continue consuming. And in the face of Darfur and Burma there are no calls for boycotts of companies, or changes in habits of consumption. Our obsession with consumption drives us to undervalue serious domestic problems, such as our crumbling infrastructure, as well as disregard both our involvement abroad and the events that are shaping our world. Until we decide that we value each other more than a new iPhone or car, then we cannot truly have “change” in 2008, no matter the candidate we vote for. Change starts with us and goes upward, rather than emanating down from above. Then maybe, one by one, we can change the world.