"The abscence of alternatives clears the mind wonderfully."
-- Henry Kissinger
Recently, I was reading the new biography of J.F.K. that's currently out in paperback, and a Khmer colleague asked who the handsome man on the cover was.
"It's Kennedy," I said.
A pause. A nod.
"Who?" he asked.
"John Kennedy? The American president who was assasinated?"
Another pause. Another nod.
Not a freakin' clue.
In a country like Cambodia, information, let alone knowledge, is still somewhat restricted. A luxury, if you will, reserved for those with satellite dishes and access to the Internet.
Unlike most of us in the west, who basically have access to everything, all the time, whenever we want, whether we want it.
Do we need it all?
Do we need any of it?
There's a certain cultural, snobbish level of awareness that seems to exist back home -- meaning, if you don't watch this program, or read this book, then there's something wrong with you. The inverse works too -- if you do watch this kind of program, or that kind of book, then there's something wrong with you. You're either too intellectual, too refined, or you're too ignorant, too trailer-park. You either follow Oprah's book club, or disdain it. (I think it's a great idea, in case you're wondering -- anything that gets people reading.)
We often judge ourselves, and others, by what they like to watch, or read, and not necessarily by what they do. (Which is a very scary thing, I'm starting to realize; people who are as passionate as all get out about their books and movies and the world's reactions and accolades to their particular fetishes are often the same kind of people who don't do jackshit about any real injustice in the real world.) Some of the biggest jerks in the world are the most educated, erudite people you would ever want (or not want) to find; some of the nicest people in the world haven't read a goddamn thing in their lives.
Shouldn't it be the other way around? Shouldn't it be that the more we read, and think, the better people we become?
I don't think it ends up that way, though.
Don't know why that is. Maybe it's because we're simply assaulted on a daily basis by, well, everything. Billboards and ads and our parents and our teachers and our co-workers, all of them saying: This, this, this, you gotta read it, watch it, BE it.
How much is enough, though? How many really, really good movies come out in a single year? I'm talking exceptional. One? Maybe two?
How many amazing, life-changing books?
Do we need all this, all this, all this stuff jammed into our heads to inform and enlighten us? Can't we just step outside of our house, look up at the sky, feel the sunshine, taste the snowdrops, and wait for enlightenment to come in its own sweet time?
Not that I'm saying that illiteracy is a good thing, or ignorance, or indifference. I'm guilty of all the sins I describe, and they may not even be sins; they may be what's necessary to survive and compete in a competitive world. We do have to know what's going on in the world, and why, and what we can do about it. No question.
Living here, in Cambodia, you see the simple. You see the farmers. You see the bicycles. You see TV channels that play only government approved speeches or endless, endless song-and-dance shows. You see a conformity, yes, and political repression, true, but you also see...
An engagement. With the real world. With daylight and tarmac. (Not by choice, no, but once can't deny that, despite genocide, despite mass murder, despite the wrenching heartache that exists here, and will exist for decades to come, there is, in the end, innocence. I don't know how it's here, or why it's here, but it's here, I swear, I see it.)
Change is coming to this country, yes, and it's a good thing, and a welcome thing, but when I begin to hear everyone talking about how they must, absolutely must watch the latest Desperate Housewives, well, that may be the day that I pack my bags and book my ticket home.