The Professor winced when he got out of his flight capsule.  He had to keep reminding himself of how crucial his assignment was, that every little bit counted.  No matter how hopeless it seemed.

“Remember, you’re doing sacred work, Henrik,” he muttered under his breath.

A rag-tag crowd of natives was already beginning to gather, gawking at his ship. A few of them cheered and applauded, but most just stared, stone-faced.

Naomi bounded out to meet him.  She looked energetic as ever, no matter how much human misery she witnessed on a daily basis.

“Thank you for agreeing to come here, sir,” she said after hugging him. “This is a rough area.”

“Rough areas are my job,”  he replied, his Swedish accent making the word “job” softer. Not all of his colleagues at World United agreed that the charity missions to Merka were worthwhile. He couldn’t blame them.  Visiting a place like New York wasn’t too bad–it was quaint with all the red brick, and the traffic-clogged streets and old-fashioned subways, but one still felt connected to civilization.  Out here, though….

“What part of Virginia are we in again?”  he whispered to Naomi.

“Western Virginia, sir,”  she whispered back.

The Merkans continued to eye him with suspicion, but they also started quietly lining up, knowing that a World United flight meant food and aid packages for them.  It was a heart-wrenching sight: a long line of silent, ragged figures, pretending to be too proud to care about the hand-out they were waiting for.

But Naomi was beaming at him. “We’ve got something very special lined up for you today, sir.”

He gave her a weary smile.  She led him carefully down the steps from the landing pad, and then down a narrow, uneven sidewalk, manoeuvering him past a large pothole.  On the other side of the street was a row of the typical small shacks Merkans lived in, holes covered with blue tarp, walls stained by the smoke from the town factory.  He could sense the residents peering at him from their doorways, but they were blocked from approaching him by a mix of local police and World United security.

They stopped underneath a flashing blue sign which read Debbie’s Cafe.

“We wanted to treat you to the best Virginia has to offer,”  Naomi said, showing him to a table on the side patio of the cafe. A server immediately jogged up with a styrofoam tray of greasy fries.

He would never admit it to anyone back in Europe, but Henrik enjoyed some of these exotic Merkan foods quite a bit. They never did switch to the health service diet over here. Of course, they never did get a decent health service, either.

Naomi interrupted his fascination with the fries when she tapped him on the shoulder and pointed to a red-headed boy who had climbed a small podium and positioned himself behind a cheap portable keyboard.

After an announcement by a community center music teacher which Henrik didn’t pay attention to, the boy began to play.

It was a halting but graceful version of the old Cohen classic, Hallelujah. As the sounds melted away into the humid Merkan afternoon, Henrik was once again overcome with wonder. It was here, among these simple people in their slums, that he could find something akin to spiritual enlightenment.  He breathed it in.

The kid was talented.  He listened for a while with his eyes closed.  After the song stopped, the teacher and Naomi clapped with great enthusiasm.  Henrik walked up to congratulate the young musician, and the gaunt and nervous mother hovering behind him.

Henrik shook the boy’s hand. “Excellent job!  That was amazing!”  he said.  “Would you please give me your contact info?  I could get you a visa for anywhere in the Northern World Region.  You could study music at a real university.  What do you think, huh?”

The boy blushed and gazed at the ground.

His mother looked even more nervous. “I don’t know about that, mister,”  she said.  “I listen to the radio news and they’ve explained all about World United.  It might not be so good for him.”

He should’ve known. He had heard this so many times before. “Surely he won’t be able to get any real music training here, is he?”

“If we work hard and we save our money up, we might be able to get there,”  the woman said.  “At least here in Merka, we have the freedom to try.  My child isn’t going to be oppressed by a one world socialist government.”

“He wouldn’t have to live there forever,”  Henrik explained.  “And he would be free to make his own choices…”

“Yeah, if he chooses to be a gay snowflake,”  the woman shot back. “Look, his teacher wanted him to perform for you today, so I let him perform.  But I’m not letting you take him anywhere. We’re still the best country in the world.  I don’t care what anybody else says.”

The professor suspected that he was getting at least some of this hostility courtesy of his dark skin. The white Merkan natives always seemed to have an issue with that.

“That’s right.”  An older man standing nearby nodded vigorously.  Henrik couldn’t tell if he was a father or a grandfather. Most of his teeth were missing, his body bent from a lifetime of grueling labor.  “That’s right.  I thank God every day that I was lucky enough to be born in Merka.”

“Living in the rest of the world is not quite the nightmare you imagine it to be,”  Henrik said.  “We lead very normal lives.”

“Nope.  Nice try, but you can’t fool us,”  the woman said. “I listen to the Han Stannity show every day.  Good man.  He gives us all the information about what really goes on over there–how they tax you to death, how the only way you can get medical care is through the government…”

Her son stared at her, wide-eyed.

“We know the truth!”  the woman finished triumphantly.

Henrik bowed to her and her son.  “I suppose if you’ve found out the truth about us, there’s not much I can do to persuade you otherwise.  I wish you all the best for your future, young man.”  For a moment, his mask of politeness slipped.  “With all due respect, though, Han Stannity is a complete moron.”

He turned and slowly walked away.

“You can go fuck yourself!  You and your country!”  He could hear the woman screaming after him. “We will bomb the shit out of you!”

That would have been a scary threat, Henrik thought. A scary threat…about fifty years or so ago.

Naomi was waiting for him, her face drawn, her hands folded together.  “That was so disappointing, Henrik. I’ll have one of the event organizers speak to them.”

The professor waved his arms. “No, no, don’t.  It’s not necessary.”

He sat down and went back to sipping his beer. Now that the woman was done screaming, she and her family began making their way to the World United food and medicine distribution point.  There would also be doctors available there to give them free medical and dental exams.

He didn’t feel any anger as he watched these fiery warriors for liberty rushing to claim assistance from the institution they so hated.  He realized their fist shaking fury was a symptom of their total powerlessness.

He smiled at Naomi across the table.  “Please, don’t look so anxious, my dear.  I have never lost faith in the value of our mission.”

“It just breaks my heart that a man like you, who only wants to help others, gets treated like this.”

This would be the perfect time to hop on his return flight back to Stockholm.  In fact, it was way overdue.  He was done with this place.

“Naomi, this isn’t all about me helping them.  The truth is, these people help me.  They help me find gratitude–gratitude for what we’ve got in the rest of the world.”

And as she waved a tearful goodbye to him and he climbed back up to his flying ship, he added to himself:

“Where else could I go to feel this superior?”

 

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They’re always around.  When we’re going to get our pastries or our drinks, they’re there.  When we’re out on our Sunday morning stroll, their clothing is scattered on the sidewalks.  A constant presence, even though I only give them a quick glance and rarely say anything to them beyond “Sorry”.

On the weekends, I visit my boyfriend in the Pearl District, one of the pricier neighborhoods in Portland.  It’s the kind of place where you will find boutiques for little dogs and co-op organic grocery stores.  And it’s where you will also find a large population of homeless people.  There are encampments under the bridge and makeshift beds in the grass next to empty gravel lots.  Even when the homeless remain out of view, you can see that much of the neighborhood itself has been constructed to repel them.  Benches are made to be uncomfortable on purpose.  One of the trendy apartment buildings has what I can only describe as a moat of water around it.  The police try to clear out the sleepers, and residents are battling against an entire tent city which is planning to move in next door to them.

I can understand that.  It’s scary walking past the camps.  Many of the people are angry and mentally ill and unpredictable.  They should be receiving care for their illness, but they won’t be, because in an age of government shutdowns, there are no resources for that sort of thing.

The world I currently live in tells me that this is all as it should be, that the homeless and the poor made bad decisions and are now dealing with the consequences.  The people living in the glass homes above are smart, and the people living in the streets below are stupid and lazy.  In fact, the wisdom of our age is that it’s any attempt to fix the causes of homelessness that is the true evil–those horrible do-gooders!–and not poverty and homelessness itself.

As with most of us here, the extent of my involvement is that I’ve occasionally given money, so I can’t pretend to offer some great solution.  What I can say is that I’m unable to look around and believe that this is the good and natural way for human society to work, and that any change to it will ruin this perfect system.  Perhaps I have not yet become adult enough, even in my middle age, to accept things as they are.

It’s so easy to get caught up in the theatrics in Washington DC, the duelling banjos of Obama and Boehner, and to forget that what is going on has consequences which will extend beyond our own borders.  Whether this is still true or not, we continue to be perceived as the leader of the world, and when the leader of the world engages in absurd antics, the results might not be so great.

In an interview with CNN, World Bank President Jim Yong Kim reminded us that a United States default will painfully affect the world’s poorest as well.  As he put it, “it’s having an impact on the little guys,” with the cost of capital rising for those in impoverished countries trying to work or start businesses.  We may look at our own government and say  “To hell with all of them!”–I know I do at this point–but this thing has the potential to turn into a global economic crisis.

Of course, the fact that a default might crush “the little guys” probably means the Republicans will only support it even more.  After all, those Third World people should pull themselves up by their own nonexistent bootstraps instead of expecting a handout.  So I may be giving them one more reason not to raise the debt ceiling…maybe it would have been better to remain quiet about this one.

There has been much doubt and questioning of President Obama’s religious faith, even though he has professed many times to be a believing Christian.  According to some critics, he doesn’t go to church often enough, doesn’t flaunt his religion enough, and has made the serious mistake of not using the phrase “born again”.

As far as his Christianity goes, I will have to take the President’s word for it.  But I have to say that I’m okay with having a man in the White House who is uncertain about his beliefs once in a while.  And as someone who also worships the Divine, I’m grateful to God for saving us from those who are too confident about their faith.  I fear the people who think they have a personal phone line to God, those who are so sure that God shares their opinions, they believe that anyone who disagrees is lost and has to be forcibly rescued.

So thanks be to God for protecting us from those who are too sure of themselves.  Those who are so sure of what a woman’s place in this world should be, they are willing to tell women to surrender to their nature.  Those who are so sure they know that life begins at conception, they would put their signature on a bill which would outlaw even certain forms of contraception.  Those who are so sure that love can only exist in one form, they would forbid any other kind of it.  Those who know that this world was meant to be a special gift from God just for them, so that they are free to bomb people in other countries, kill off animals and use up its resources as they wish.  And of course, those who are sure that the poor and sick and weak are guilty of some sin which caused them to be in that situation–not being confident enough, perhaps?–so they have permission from God to be completely merciless to them.

President Obama is by no means perfect, and I’m not always happy with his policies.  My own liberal views turn out to be flawed and incorrect sometimes.  And that is why I would rather have someone in office who is imperfect and realizes it, than a perfect believer who doesn’t realize the size of the beam he’s got in his own eye.