Since I began working in May 2019 at the International Rescue Committee (IRC)– one of the largest humanitarian aid organizations in the world working to bring support and restore futures for hundreds of millions of refugees, migrants and vulnerable populations in 40+ countries and 25 US cities — the world experienced eight coups. These coups shook countries from Latin America (including Bolivia, Venezuela– twice, El Salvador) to Africa (Mali, Sudan, Ethiopia), and vulnerable populations suffered immensely. In 2020, global humanitarian needs increased by more than 40%, and while Covid has decimated populations, its secondary impacts have destroyed decades of progress in developing countries.
While you may not have heard about all of these coups, I can assure you that these crises were a big focus in my world. Journalists reached out with surprising interest about the situation in Ethiopia, US producers are trying with all their might to cover Venezuela’s unprecedented crisis in a new way, US media asks how to finally speak up about El Salvador being mired in political turmoil that exacerbates violence in the region, and the list goes on.
Unfortunately, when I talk to clients and when I develop messaging, there is always a common thread:
“We used to be a thriving country. We knew things were getting bad, but we never thought they’d get THIS bad.”
“We knew politically things were in crisis, but we didn’t know it would affect everything else.”
“We knew uprisings had begun, and we knew there was corruption, but what could we have done? We are just trying to survive.”
Even in college, I studied Global Health, and the classes focused mostly on “corrupt” countries, “developing” countries, “forward-thinking” countries… I couldn’t help but be confused by the difference. Aren’t we all developing? Don’t we all do some things well and others horribly?
However, since working at the IRC, I also have been confronted by deep, deep inequality, a lack of human rights and rampant corruption that is so bad people fend for their lives and cannot leave their homes. While the US does suffer from intense inequality, it cannot — and never should be — compared to, say, Bangladesh, or Syria, or Yemen or Sudan. To suggest as much proves you have never visited a country in humanitarian crisis and that you have never been confronted with a lack of rights. To suggest as much is you relying on your privilege as an American, no matter what kind of American you are.
Though deep White privilege exists in America, deep AMERICAN privilege exists here as well. We ARE all considered citizens, even if some have far more privilege than others. In some countries I work with, there are simply limited to no rights at all — for anyone.
While we need to come to terms with the privilege of living in a country with freedom of speech and the recognition of citizens of all kinds, we cannot rely on this too heavily. In 2020, I realized just how easy it is to have pride in my country as I look at the disasters of others. This year, I have been confronted by levels of gender-based violence that have me crying on my computer screen, levels of famine in children that make me not want to eat for days and a lack of education that makes me want to read every night purely to honor the education I did receive. When I compare all of this to the US, I am proud that at least we TRY to bring education to our students, even if many in rural areas still miss out. I am proud that while many are going hungry in our country, we are not in famine. I am proud that while gross atrocities still take place every day in the US, you can post whatever you want on Twitter and you will more than likely not be beheaded. We have a long, long way to go, but we have come much farther than many.
But I am struck this week that while I am at least a little proud (not this week) to be American in the literal sense of living in a country with some basic freedoms that many others do not have, I am in no way immune to the problems of elsewhere and neither is my country. While I am working on coups in other countries, a coup is happening in the US. While I am faced with absurd levels of bureaucracy that end lives and keep people in need, the US can’t seem to deploy its National Guard or keep its Congressional staff safe — nor send a reasonable stimulus check ($600, my ass). While I am reading cases of immigrants and asylum seekers forced to leave their homes because gangs told them to get out, protesters stormed the Capitol and essentially told Black people, anyone who is not a fascist and the Left to get out. While I am writing about corruption across Latin America, I am witnessing abuses of power by the US President.
The United States of America is not immune to the rest of the world’s problems. Just like we need a vaccine for Coronavirus, we need a vaccine for corruption, political division, arrogance and nationalism. And you know what that vaccine looks like? It looks like sitting down with people different from you, reporting divisive social media platforms, not driving people away with your words or actions but instead offering your perspective in a productive and empathetic way, and humbling yourself to support — financially and physically — other countries whom for so long we’ve considered beneath us. We cannot beat Covid anywhere until we beat it everywhere; that’s literally how a pandemic works. We also cannot beat inequality anywhere until it’s beaten everywhere; inequality is comparative.
While I will always defend until the ends of the Earth that Americans have inalienable rights that people around the world would literally — I have seen it with my own eyes in Mexico — do ANYTHING for, we also have tons of problems we push under the rug and instead push a Holier Than Thou narrative.
The reality of the Gospel is that no one is better than anyone else. In fact, we’re all trash. To think anything else is preposterous, and is, frankly, synonymous with nationalism. I understand the argument that if it’s US tax dollars, we should support US efforts and strengthen our own country before strengthening others. It is true that the US has systemic racism and deep inequalities that need to be fixed with our money, and we need to be very careful that we’re not giving all of that away to developing countries. However, just 1% of US GDP supports developing countries currently, making a difference that is much larger than just a 1% difference; sometimes this aid is the difference between famine or no famine (like in Yemen). What we really need is for everyone who spends their entire day on Facebook or Twitter rabbit holes to get off those platforms and instead invest in people. Get to know someone different from you. Volunteer. Serve. Do something for someone else. Listen and actually enter into their pain, instead of throwing niceties, quick solutions or a Bible verse down their throat.
If you’ve watched The Social Dilemma on Netflix, you know that political division caused on social media platforms could be responsible for an eventual Civil War in our lifetime. (Yes, you read that correctly. The documentary also predicted a coup in the US in the next couple years, so I wouldn’t think they’re being dramatic.) We like to shift blame a lot, and there is a LOT to blame for the fascists that stormed the Capitol, but one key company to blame is Facebook. They create algorithms that send people down rabbit holes, believing so intensely that they are correct and fighting for “freedom” that they, oh I don’t know, storm the Capitol. Facebook’s own research revealed that 64 percent of the time a person joins an extremist Facebook Group, they do so because the platform recommended it.
Of course, political division will exist no matter what. In fact, if it didn’t exist, we could become a full-on dictatorship. So we need it. And I stand by that. But the level of political division that exists today is downright frightening. And companies that are CREATING MORE OF IT need to go. If you have ten minutes and are sitting at home and don’t know how to help the world because you can’t volunteer and social distance, you’re high risk, you don’t know what the needs are, etc etc etc, type in some popular conspiracy theory hashtags, and report every single account associated with it. You can do your part to shut down people, teams, groups and organizations dividing this country. Write a letter to Congress about how Facebook and Twitter need to be regulated. Call a friend who has different views than you and ask that friend how they got those views. If they’re from social media, ask if maybe they’d consider reading a book together or watching a documentary, so both of you together can learn a different perspective that’s not an AI-generated rabbit hole. More than likely, you’re both watching too many Facebook videos.
The problem with these rabbit holes is that they create a lot of anger. When someone watches the same types of videos for hours on end, they start to believe them really intensely. Think about your favorite sports team. Every time you watch them play a game, you just love them that much more. Imagine that magnified about an entire political party all day, every day, for an average of 11 hours a day (yes, that’s the average). You get really heated about your point of view, because it’s literally the only point of view you’ve heard for 77 hours that week. And every week.
And when anger festers, people rise up.
Sometimes this is good — like Black Lives Matter protests this summer where anger over generations had festered into a productive, peaceful movement to raise awareness of systemic racism in the US. But sometimes it is really bad. Like violent coups. [This is an entire separate post, but I hate, am heartbroken by and am still devastated that Trump deployed the National Guard and condemned BLM protests immediately yet took forever to do so about the Capitol Hill protests. That is white supremacy in its basic form. Everyone was so quick to talk about “violent” BLM protests, when the violence wasn’t even from the protestors themselves and the vast majority weren’t violent, yet so slow (if ever) to call the Capitol Hill protestors domestic terrorists.] The thing is, if we put our phones down more and talked to people, we could have seen both of these coming. From Black friends, I knew they were feeling angry, frustrated, disappointed and disturbed by killings of Black people by armed officers. That is not new. From family members and neighbors, I also knew people were really questioning the validity of election results and were tired of pumping money into a broken, bureaucratic government taking their taxes away, and that they felt left behind in political movements of the past. That is not new. However, somewhere along the way, we started going down our phone rabbit holes and stopped hearing anyone else’s perspective. For me, my attention, activism and commitment waxed and waned. At certain times of my life, I gave up altogether. And then an attempted coup happens on Capitol Hill and all of a sudden we’re surprised.
It’s really dangerous to be surprised. It shows we’re really not doing the work, that we’re really not listening. And I’m not talking about watching CNN and hearing that someone thinks something absurd and then going about your day. I’m talking about sitting down with a Venezuelan woman in Florida — who you have spent months getting to know through intentional, mutually beneficial relationship-building — who has escaped a dictatorship and is really concerned about potential socialism in the US. T H A T is listening to someone. I’m not talking about watching Fox and hearing them condemn the Left and laughing about how extreme the party is. I’m talking about sitting down with an activist and asking them why they are passionate about the topics they’re passionate about. I’m talking about visiting your Black neighbors and mourning with them over generations of systemic racism and the current pandemic which is affecting Black people far worse than White.
America can do better. We choose, instead, to be lazy. For the sake of democracy, I’m done being lazy.
***These views do not necessarily reflect the International Rescue Committee and are solely my views***
You can donate to the International Rescue Committee here: www.rescue.org