Skip to 0 minutes and 6 seconds One of the privileges of privilege is that you can give it up. And when you walk away from comfort and other privileges, that act can astonish and nourish the world. I think of Marla Ruzicka. Born in a small town in northern California, she was so charming as a child that on a flight from San Francisco to New York, she persuaded the pilots to let her and her brother ride in the cockpit. As she grew up, she became concerned about international affairs. And when the American War in Afghanistan started, Marla travelled to the region concerned about the innocent victims of American bombing– the people who were collateral damage.
Skip to 1 minute and 11 seconds In Kabul, she used her extraordinary skills of building trust with others to host parties that brought together expatriates and locals, earning herself the nickname the “love bomb”. And through her network, she was able to do an informal census of the deaths of innocent civilians. She would often go door to door with a translator talking to people to find who had lost family members to the American bombings. Then came the American invasion of Iraq. Marla travelled to Baghdad. At a time when most humanitarian workers had left the city, Marla stayed.
Skip to 2 minutes and 3 seconds She travelled around without an armoured SUV or bodyguards with simply her Iraqi translator trying to document the lives of innocent victims of bombing and to arrange medical care for children whenever she could. After two years of this, she was becoming burned out, exhausted. Her friends persuaded her to leave Iraq and go to New York City. On arrival, the billionaire George Soros gave her a job at his Open Society Institute and arranged an apartment for Marla in the East Village. Hollywood producers contacted her, wanting to make a movie about her life.
Skip to 2 minutes and 55 seconds You might think that nothing could be better for a 28-year-old than to be the protégé of a billionaire living in a cool neighbourhood of New York and courted by a Hollywood.
Skip to 3 minutes and 9 seconds But Marla was thinking about her friends back in Iraq, who couldn’t leave the way she did, who didn’t have that privilege of picking up and leaving. And she realised that they still needed her help, her solidarity. She decided to leave New York and return to Baghdad. One day, she and her interpreter were driving on the notorious Airport Road when a suicide bomber pulled up next to their car and detonated himself. Her interpreter was killed instantly. Marla’s body caught fire. A soldier nearby heard her last words. “I am alive”, she screamed.
Skip to 4 minutes and 4 seconds For me, it is people like Marla who are willing to leave privilege and safety to continue with something that they feel is more important than anything else in the world. It is people like this who remind me in our world of violence and indifference to other people’s suffering that it is still possible for our human species to shine so magnificently.
Skip to 4 minutes and 45 seconds It is not only a question of risking one’s life that one can give up privilege and comfort in less dangerous ways. I think of a professor of English at Harvard University, Elaine Scarry, who loves nothing more than to read poetry and tend to her flower garden. But Elaine Scarry has pressed herself also to write books about torture and about nuclear war, because she feels that these issues must be addressed, that we have to confront the horrors of our own historical moment. In her book about nuclear war, she argues that nuclear annihilation is an even more likely path of extinction for humanity than climate changes.
Skip to 5 minutes and 53 seconds And this too– turning away from the subject that she most loves to try to contribute to the struggles for a world that can survive– this too involves a sacrifice. But Elaine says that what comes with this work is the feeling of being truly alive, a feeling that I know that Marla also had in her days of labour and struggle.
Skip to 6 minutes and 35 seconds It reminds me of what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott once wrote– I want to be alive when I die.
On giving up privilege
In this video Brian Palmer puts a twist on the concept of privilege.
One of the privileges of privilege is that you can give it up. And when you walk away from comfort and other privileges, that act can astonish and nourish the world.
He talks about Marla Ruzicka, an American woman, who traveled to Afghanistan when the war there began, because she had become concerned about the civilians that were killed through American bombings. Through building an extensive network she managed to do an informal census on the number of people killed.
When the war in Iraq began she went there two for two years, continuing her humanitarian work until she began to feel burnt out and went back to New York city, where she was offered a job, an apartment and was approached by movie producers that wanted to turn her life into a movie. At this point, when the easiest option would have been to stay, Martha returned to Iraq, because she knew that the people there still needed her help and solidarity.
When she and her interpreter were killed on the airport road by a suicide bomber, a witness reported that her last words where “I’m alive”.
For me, it is people like Marla who are willing to leave privilege and safety to continue with something that they feel is more important than anything else in the world. It is people like this who remind me in our world of violence and indifference to other people’s suffering that it is still possible for our human species to shine so magnificently.
But Brian Palmer also says that giving up privilege doesn’t always mean risking one’s own life. He speaks about Elaine Scarry, a Harvard professor, that writes books about torture and nuclear war, because she believes that the horrors of our time need to be addressed - even though she would much prefer reading poetry and tending her flower garden.
And this too– turning away from the subject that she most loves to try to contribute to the struggles for a world that can survive– this too involves a sacrifice. […] What comes with this work is the feeling of being truly alive […]. It reminds me of what the psychoanalyst D. W. Winnicott once wrote - I want to be alive when I die.
Do you agree with Palmer’s view on privilege? How do you relate to privilege - and how do you think it manifests in a climate change context?
© Brian Palmer, CEMUS and Uppsala University