I was born in 1950, and came to (albeit nascent) political consciousness about the time of the Kennedy assassination in 1963, by which all I mean is I knew some of what was going on in the world, the names of some of the players, and at least a superficial understanding of some of the issues, at least as presented by what was, at that time, the two-channel TV universe.
In that universe there were two orthogonal cuts. There were the First and Second Worlds, by which was meant this side of the Iron Curtain and that side of it. And then there were those two and the Third World. I say these were orthogonal cuts because the First and Second Worlds were in constant competition for control of the Third, so that Cuba and China, for example, notwithstanding they belonged at that time to the Third World, were regarded as falling on that side of the Curtain rather than this side of it.
What’s happened in the last half century, however, is that the Second World is no longer, and much of the Third World has joined the First, both in the quality of life of its citizens, and in the political systems sustaining that quality of life. Some of these countries – especially in the Middle East – remain autocratic. But where there’s been popular discontent it’s been the kind of tolerable discontent one finds in the former Soviet republics, or in its former satellites. People might prefer a government other than the one they’ve got, but at least no one is starving to death.
In short there are now a) the so-called Western democracies, which now include as many countries in the Far East as in the West, b) the no-longer-Soviet and no-longer-Third Worlds, including Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and most of South America, and c) a few countries in South Asia and those remaining parts of (mostly) Africa and Central America that Donald Trump has rather indecorously described as ‘shitholes’.
And why am I performing this far too course-grained sortal here? Because I want to talk about people with Third World problems, problems like civil war and hunger; people with First World problems, like which bathroom they might be required to use; and people transitioning from the former to the latter. And what I want to say is that, for those of us in the First World, developing a sense of proportion about our problems might not go entirely amiss.
In your air-conditioned office, some jerk patted your ass at the water fountain. Elsewhere women are being stoned to death for saying no. City council just voted, but only for this budget year, to cut the bike path that was promised for your gated community. This summer, like every summer for the last nine years, an average of six thousand lungs are filling up with salt water because the fare on that dinghy from Tripoli to Lampedusa didn’t cover the cost of a life jacket.
I know, I know. I’m virtue-signaling. And I’m the first to condemn virtue-signaling for the hypocrisy it is. I’m fully aware that a millionaire has as much right to life-saving surgery as a pauper. Being rejected, first as a man and now as a woman, is as painful for the American transsexual as it is for an African with albinism to be treated as a freak by his own community. And yet there’s something unseemly – is there not? – about our co-angsting with a Kardashian about what someone said about her latest shoe purchase on Twitter.
We’re told to act locally but think globally. That sounds so Oprah Winfrey-like profound. But one of the most difficult moral challenges we face is how we’re to do that, when in reality the infant left on my doorstep, or the injustice that’s been done on my watch, takes everything I’ve got. The $100 a plate dinner for charity, of which $99 goes to the caterer, the pittance from the collection plate that’s sent off to National Office to fund So-Sincere-Cindy’s full-year commitment to poverty tourism … These are shameful, not laudable. Co-angsting with the Kardashians is more honest, but still pretty cringe-worthy.
I don’t know what to say about this. Perhaps I’ve lived too long, or just seen too much. Perhaps all that can be said is that this too is a First World problem. Would I rather be terrified that the dinghy’s going to capsize?
Male white First World privilege is indeed a problem. But perhaps I should just keep it to myself.