“We have to tolerate the inequality as a way to achieve greater prosperity and opportunity for all.” These were the words of Lord Brian Griffiths, Goldman Sachs international adviser, when he spoke at London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral last fall. With inequality at historic levels here in the United States and around the world, it’s a reassuring message we all might wish to be true.
Unfortunately, scientific research reveals a sharply different reality: inequality is a driving force behind many of our most profound social ills. The Equality Trust reviewed thousands of studies conducted by the US Census Bureau, the World Health Organization, the United Nations and the World Bank. Consistent patterns emerged, both among and within countries. Inequality is associated with diminished levels of physical and mental health, child well-being, educational achievement, social mobility, trust and community life. And it is linked to increased levels of violence, drug use, imprisonment, obesity and teenage births. In short, Lord Griffiths’ claim – despite the venue – was a self-serving fiction.
In the early 1960s, it was the Irish of Derry who would phone late at night, speaking in a single breath, spilling out stories of discrimination and injustice. Who listened to their truth until the violence began? Bengalis from what was then East Pakistan did much the same. Their urgent whispers described terrible state crimes that the news ignored, and they implored us reporters to “let the world know”. Palestinians speaking above the din of crowded rooms in Bethlehem and Beirut asked no more. For me, the most tenacious distant voices have been the Tamils of Sri Lanka, to whom we ought to have listened a very long time ago.
It is only now, as they take to the streets of western cities, and the persecution of their compatriots reaches a crescendo, that we listen, though not intently enough to understand and act. The Sri Lankan government has learned an old lesson from, I suspect, a modern master: Israel. In order to conduct a slaughter, you ensure the pornography is unseen, illicit at best. You ban foreigners and their cameras from Tamil towns like Mulliavaikal, which was bombarded recently by the Sri Lankan army, and you lie that the 75 people killed in the hospital were blown up quite wilfully by a Tamil suicide bomber. You then give reporters a ride into the jungle, providing what in the news business is called a dateline, which suggests an eyewitness account, and you encourage the gullible to disseminate only your version and its lies. Gaza is the model.
From the same masterclass you learn to manipulate the definition of terrorism as a universal menace, thus ingratiating yourself with the “international community” (Washington) as a noble sovereign state blighted by an “insurgency” of mindless fanaticism. The truth and lessons of the past are irrelevant. And having succeeded in persuading the United States and Britain to proscribe your insurgents as terrorists, you affirm you are on the right side of history, regardless of the fact that your government has one of the world’s worst human rights records and practises terrorism by another name. Such is Sri Lanka.
President Obama is clearly trying to reach out to the Muslim world. I watched his Inaugural Address on television, and was most struck by the line: “We are a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus, and nonbelievers.”
He gave his first televised interview from the White House to Al Arabiya, an Arabic-language television channel.
But have these efforts reached the streets of Cairo?
One would have expected them to. Obama had substantial support among Egyptians – more than any other American presidential candidate that I can remember.
I traveled to America several days before the election. The Egyptians I met in the United States told me – without exception – that they backed Obama. Many Egyptians I know went to his website and signed up as campaign supporters.
In Cairo, which is seven hours ahead of Washington, some people I know stayed up practically all night waiting for the election results.
When Obama won, newspapers here described Nubians – southerners whose dark skin stands out in Cairo – dancing in victory.
Our admiration for Obama is grounded in what he represents: fairness. He is the product of a just, democratic system that respects equal opportunity for education and work. This system allowed a black man, after centuries of racial discrimination, to become president.
This fairness is precisely what we are missing in Egypt.
That is why the image of President-elect Obama meeting with his predecessors in the White House was so touching. Here in Egypt, we don’t have previous or future presidents, only the present head of state who seized power through sham elections and keeps it by force, and who will probably remain in power until the end of his days. Accordingly, Egypt lacks a fair system that bases advancement on qualifications. Young people often get good jobs because they have connections. Ministers are not elected, but appointed by the president.
Not surprisingly, this inequitable system often leads young people to frustration or religious extremism. Others flee the country at any cost, hoping to find justice elsewhere.
Tiberi showed tremendous insensitivity to a significant portion of his constituency in the October 13th debate, saying “To hold the same standard for my daughter growing up in American household and an illiterate coming from another country like Somalia…is a little bit problematic.”
That may be, but I bet there are 50,000 Somalis that can read more than well enough to cast their vote for someone other than Pat Tiberi.