In the time it takes you to read this article, over 50 young girls will have their clitoris hacked out. What are you going to do about it?
It was the great 16th Century French essayist Michel de Montaigne who best expressed the idea that travel broadens the mind: “Je ne sache point meilleure école à former la vie”.* To travel, though, is not only to learn more about ourselves, but also to catch what we may be tempted to label brief glimpses of truth, glimpses that are rarely – if ever – afforded to those who live, day in and day out, in the pell-mell of our destinations. An outsider’s empiricism is often the best kind: nonpartisan, unflinching, honest.
“If you ask that, you’re dead”. Perhaps asking Philip Mudd, a senior CIA and FBI operative, what question he most feared was a naïve error of judgment. But I certainly didn’t expect a death threat. Fortunately for me, David Miliband’s congenial persona swept away the atmosphere of a Guantanamo interrogation room.
“You’re not anyone in America unless you’re on TV”. In one fell swoop, Nicole Kidman proffered a sad indictment of a culture on the brink. As the consequences of ‘celebrity’ metastasise day by day, we wallow in a mire of intellectual degradation. Leave your dignity at the door, and enter if you dare. In the age of celebrity for celebrity’s sake, it’s less a case of what’s in the public’s interest, than what’s interesting to the public. And we’re hooked.
“I can’t imagine so many people coming to see me in Tel Aviv,” Gideon Levy quips with a wry smile. Jewish Book Week is hosting a controversial interview session (some had threatened to boycott it) with one of the most hated men in Israel, one of the relatively few ‘nice Jewish boys’ gone bad, representative of an “anti-Zionism [that] has become stupid and evil” according to Irit Linur, an Israeli author. Described as a modern-day prophet by Noam Chomsky, Levy has reported from inside the Occupied Territories for nearly three decades, with the aim of “rehumanising the Palestinians”. Despite all the opprobrium his reporting has generated, including having been labelled “one of the propagandists for Hamas” by Ben Dror Yemini, editor of Maariv, he still considers himself an Israeli patriot.
“Prohibition is an attempted cure that makes matters worse – for both the addict and the rest of us.” Thus, the late Milton Friedman outlined the scourge of a generation: how we deal with the drug problem. It has become the misguided moral crusade of major global superpowers to act as noble warriors in the so-called “War on Drugs”, fighting the “good” fight in lands far and wide, myopically neglecting to respond to the bitter consequences and consistent failures. World leaders must wake up and smell the coffee; the criminalisation of drugs merely acts as the worst possible palliative. And we’re hooked.
Ignorance breeds intolerance; it’s just a shame to see the media fuelling it. The rapacious hounds of the tabloid press have played out the burn-the-Koran farce with their habitual feigned indignation, succeeding in whipping up a media tornado that serves only to fan the flames of hatred. A wisp of smoke billowing from a lonely Koran would hardly have changed the world. Yet as a media ruckus hysterically dramatises a non-event, we merely raise a plinth from which Pastor Jones’ contemptible preaching can reach a wider audience.
“If Jesus comes back, we’ll kill him again”. Johann Hari, award-winning columnist for The Independent, is telling me about a slogan on a t-shirt that got him into a little trouble in a library. He speaks with a kind of schoolboy exhilaration, a mischievous grin on his face and a glint in his eye. Very few people would sport such a provocative item of clothing in a public place, but I soon realise that Hari isn’t one to shy away from controversy. His articles are invariably outspoken and fearless; he has been the subject of numerous death threats from Islamic fundamentalists, had his effigy burned on the streets of India, and been called fat by the Dalai Lama. Yet despite this reputation, he immediately strikes me as a humane and congenial man. As we meet under the red-and-white awning of a Hampstead café, I am greeted by an outstretched arm and a broad, Cheshire-cat smile.
“Didier Drogba is just over there, but what does that do to help me?” As the harmonious discord of the vuvuzela imbues the glossy stadiums swathed in the sickening glow of African democratic pseudo-success, South Africa’s reality is laden with mass poverty, unemployment, inequality, crime and death. The World Cup simply acts as a diversion, fixing a shameless, unflinching barrier in front of the harsh actualities of day-to-day life. We flock to the Rainbow Nation in a forced migration of millions who will leave as quickly as they came; money is doubtless injected but where does it go?
As a veil of iridescence casts a forlorn shadow over the undulating waves of the Gulf of Mexico, and Mt. Eyjafjallajokull spews plumes of volcanic ash into the high atmosphere, we are left wondering. Albeit that the latter was unpreventable and not a result of humanity’s destruction of the environment, one thing is certain: these stark, humbling reminders of the fragility and power of Mother Nature should prompt action. We have been confronted by one warning too many.