that they could call you

I've just finished reading James Meek's excellent novel We Are Now Beginning Our Descent. His anti-hero, an insufficiently deracinated British journalist (clearly, in part, Meek), moving between Afghan airstrips and Islington dinner parties, describes at one point the "battle for distance", on which the practice of journalism depends. And human rights research. And war.

There was a cult of seeing without knowing and watching without touching. The generic foreign faces on television: you knew them, because you could see them, you could hear the foreign sounds they made. But you had to avoid knowing enough about them to prevent your imagination making them out to be what you wanted them to be. You had to turn away from the knowledge that you could reach them on the phone. That they had phones. That they could call you. The horror of the labour required if these truths were accepted drove people to celebrate the distance and nurture it, to turn their will towards preserving the difference between a here and a there, in a world where there was no there any more, where everyone was already here.

As a nascent (and insufficiently deracinated) professional voyeur of human misery, I'm beginning to have a few of those experiences. Where you're sent 'abroad' and you meet people, real people, who might as well be ghosts, and you store up their stories for research reports and self-aggrandising dinner party anecdotes. And you file each encounter in the compartment in your head which is condescendingly labelled 'source', or even 'victim'. But which is really labelled 'people from that place on the news'.

And then the ghosts materialise on the end of a mobile phone. And occasionally, which is worse, after a while they don't.

There's a second myth which goes along with the myth of distance. The myth that you are powerless to help, because they are so far away. And they are so many. And so you're helping as best you can, because you're helping to tell their story or lobby their government or support their court case or their counselling or their compensation. When of course you are perfectly powerful enough to help directly and concretely, with your airline tickets and bank transfers and phone calls and consular letters. If only you pulled out your finger and did something in time.

There's no trite lesson at the end of this post. Except to glumly remark that our liberal Ummah doesn't stretch anywhere near as far as we would like to think. That our (or my) habit of picking and choosing the acquaintances we maintain at a distance - between the friendly, well-educated, useful ones we want to keep up with on Facebook, and the ones who aren't on Facebook at all - is repellent. And that there must be a way of doing better?

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