Millions of Americans have been affected by the government shutdown, and many workers’ livelihoods are at the mercy of the decisions of powerful elites. While witnessing the news about the American government shutdown, another shutdown occurred in my home country of Zimbabwe.
On the week of January 15th, the Zimbabwean government blocked internet access throughout the country in response to protests. Even when the internet was switched back on a few days later, Gmail and certain popular social media sites such as WhatsApp and Facebook were blocked in the country. As an international student who was in America when all this was happening, I felt powerless. The internet, especially the messaging, video and calling application WhatsApp is how I communicate with my family in Zimbabwe. Someone in power could just cut off my communication to my family at the snap of a finger. I had no control over the situation and the worst case scenarios came flooding into my mind. It didn’t matter that I had knowledge from taking government courses at Cornell about why this was happening and what political science theories these events would fall into. I did not have the power to stop them or change anything. All I could do was sit in my dorm and refresh my Twitter feed which had alarming tales of military-orchestrated abductions, violence and human rights abuses. When I managed to get in touch with some members of my family, they were hiding in their houses afraid to leave their homes. Some members of my family ran out of food supplies and couldn’t go outside to restock. They were afraid of going into the streets, and shopkeepers had closed their stores, afraid to go to work themselves. No, this was not a scene from the movie Birdbox, this was real life.
These events reminded me of a scene in Game of Thrones in which Lord Petyr “Littlefinger” Baelish and Cersei Lannister have a conversation. Baelish is approached by Cersei who is flanked by four guards. Littlefinger tries to press the point that “knowledge is power” because he knows the secrets of those in power and he can use these secrets as leverage. Cersei responds by ordering her guards to seize Littlefinger and with a smug look on her face, tells Littlefinger that “power is power.” By using brute force and her higher rank, she drove home the point that no matter how much knowledge Littlefinger amassed, his power could never equal hers. At the snap of a finger, Cersei could end his life and no one would bat an eyelid.
As a Cornell student, we are taught that the ideas we talk about in class will change the world. When I couldn’t get in touch with my family as violence was erupting, I began to question my own fragile place in the world. I have all these political theories, gold stars and certificates, but at the end of the day, they couldn’t do anything for me when real life came knocking on my door. Whether you are American or Zimbabwean, in a world where one person can make a decision that can ruin your life, power is indeed power. Everything else just seems like idealism.
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