Don’t get me wrong. The recently-concluded season of American presidential politics—the longest and costliest in the history of the universe—was a much-needed time of introspection for the American people. After eight years of constitutional degradation, unnecessary warfare, and the erosion of America’s reputation abroad, we’ve needed a period of internal dialogue, and there’s clear evidence that the great national soul search was beneficial for us. In Barack Obama we’ve chosen a thoughtful, intellectually curious, articulate, and inspirational leader at a time when even mediocrity would feel refreshing. Historians will forever remember this election because after 219 years of electing white men to the Presidency, we have elected a man with an African father, and we put two women within spitting distance of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
So three cheers for introspection; but unchecked introspection can turn to narcissism, and the last thing our world needs is a narcissistic America so self-satisfied, so pleased with the transformation in Washington, that it ignores what has not changed around the planet.
Here’s some of what remains the same: a staggering number of humans suffer from poverty that few Americans even can imagine. The World Bank estimates that 1.4 billion people earn less than a dollar and a quarter a day— the World Bank’s threshold for extreme poverty. Nearly ten million children die each year from hunger and preventable disease. As the world’s climate changes, impoverished communities living in the southern hemisphere who consume the least carbon fuels and who emit the least greenhouse gas are suffering the most from droughts, crop failures, and rising sea levels.
In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, a largely unnoticed (by Americans) bloodbath of a civil war—which some observers have called the most serious humanitarian disaster since the Holocaust—has erupted again after a few years of fragile peace. In the last few weeks the war has displaced a quarter of a million Congolese. It is perhaps the deadliest, but by no means the only conflict in Africa. Wars continue in Sudan, Uganda, Liberia, and goodness-knows where else. A humanitarian disaster is unfolding in Gaza. Kosovo’s declaration of independence threatens the peace in the Balkans. Georgians and Russians are rattling sabers in the Caucuses. Hindus and Buddhists are killing each other in Sri Lanka. The military junta in Myanmar continues to round up, imprison, and execute those who speak out on behalf of democracy and common decency. Eighty percent of the world’s 10 million refugees are women and children.
HIV/AIDS, cholera, and tuberculosis continue to ravage the populations of those living in the developing world. In developing nations, a lack of clean water results in 2.2 million deaths from diarrhea each year.
Every year 800,000 people are victims of human trafficking; 27 million slaves exist in the world today—more than at any other time in human history. No one knows how many women and girls are forced into unwanted marriages each year, though it is estimated that, per annum, 4000 British women and girls are wed against their will.
There’s more, but you get the picture. The national introspection necessary to elect Barack Obama has been palliative and cathartic, and I hope it becomes an abiding part of the American character, but we must look outside ourselves as well. While no amount of “yes we can do” attitude will solve all of the world’s problems, inaction and indifference are not morally viable options for a people who dare to call themselves good.