Jul 08 2005

Americans Lack Clue Re: Value of Human Life

Yesterday afternoon on KUT, the Austin public radio station, they broke away from All Things Considered for a segment of “Central Texas News.” It was only a few hours after the bombs in London, so they had some vacationing University of Texas journalism professor on the horn from her London hotel room, talking about how she just didn’t have quite the same enthusiastic joie de vivre following the bombings. She invoked 9-11, since it is illegal in Texas not to. She mentioned how she had been taking the Tube everywhere, but now the thrill of sightseeing had lost its luster. She didn’t feel like watching the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace, or eating fish and chips, or having tea at the Savoy, or going to see the Elgin marbles, knowing that 37 people were dead.

Two things:

1) This was not Central Texas news.

2)  Nasty though it is when 37 people die in London, is this woman unaware that people are, in fact, dropping like flies all over the globe? The pointless deaths of 22,000 Iraqi civilians, for instance, didn’t stop her going on vacation. Hell, 30,000 people starve to death every day, yet there she was, booking her transatlantic flight, visions of pints of bitter in quaint little authentic pubs dancing in her head, imagining how hilarious it will be to drive on the wrong side of the road.

Why am I giving this gal a hard time? After all, it’s only human for a vacationing Austin journalism professor to get bummed when a bunch of people are murdered somewhere in town in a random act of senseless violence, and only natural that KUT would broadcast her response to the folks back home.

Or is it? Would, for instance, the Austin journalism professor have been on the radio in Texas talking about her sudden case of the blues, had she been in, say, Jakarta when 37 Muslims died, say, in a fire? Or even if the London bombings had turned out to be the work of the IRA?

No. She would not. Nobody in America gives a rat’s ass about random deaths of Muslims, or the IRA.

Of course, the Austin journalism professor’s views on the impropriety of post-tragedy sightseeing are irrelevant, but KUT’s having put her on the radio reminds me of that thing that Americans do. You know the thing. It’s responsible for our love affair with white teenage Christian cheerleaders who go missing. It’s what Judith Butler calls the narrative perspective of US unilateralism, and its flipside, the preoccupation with Third World culpability (see “Axis of Evil”).

The truth is that some deaths have more value to Americans than others. The truth is that Americans have an endless capacity to endure the suffering of brown people because it protects their notion of patriarchal American entitlement. The truth is that the 30,000 daily dead from starvation go unremarked because they didn’t have full human status when they were alive.

But Londoners, we imagine, are like us. Sophisticated. Civilized. White. Christian. Members of the First World. Totally down with American imperialism. So human they even speak English, the language of Jesus! So (to continue with another of Judith Butler’s themes), when brown people kill Londoners, the deaths are slaughter. Not like when, for example, Israelis kill Palestinians. Those deaths are justified.

Just so we’re clear, I’m no Al Qaeda apologist. What a bunch of male supremacist fucktards. It’s barbaric that they killed those 37 London civilians (if, in fact, it was Al Qaeda). But is it any less fucking barbaric that the US and its allies and what W calls his “ideology of hope” have killed 22,000 Iraqi civilians? No, it is not. In fact, in terms of sheer enormity, the Iraq war is 594.6 times as barbaric.

A comparison of the wall-to-wall news coverage of outrage over the London bombings, to the wall-to-wall news coverage of justification for the Iraq bombings, reveals that Iraqi lives have less value to Americans than British lives.

Patriarchy is fucked-up.


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  1. Crys T

    THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU THANK YOU!!! So far, you are the FIRST blogger I’ve read since the bombings that has said this! YES!! Terrorism is only tragic when it happens to white (preferably English-speaking) people. This is the message I’ve been getting all day long…..and from “left-wingers” as well!

    I’ve been reading lots of blogs today, almost all of them written by Americans or by people living in America, and seriously, most of them are being far, far more dramatic about it than the people here in the UK. To be fair, I don’t think the Americans are at all conscious of it, but they aren’t seeing that they’re giving yesterday’s bombings far more importance and getting far more emtionally involved in it than they do when the victims are brown, don’t live in Europe or North America, and speak funny languages.

    I expect “normal” people to respond this way, but shit: aren’t self-described left-wingers/progressives supposed to make these connections?

  2. cadence

    Great post, I just started reading your blog, and I am hooked. The governor of my state came on the TV yesterday and said that today “we are all British” and I couldn’t help but thinking WTF? When there was a bombing in Palestine this past Feb. I didn’t hear anyone saying today we are all Palestinian, they didn’t interupt Katie Coric. What happened yesterday is a tragedy. But not because it happened there. All day the last line of Zizek’s “Welcome to the Desert of the Real” (which can be found here: http://web.mit.edu/cms/reconstructions/interpretations/desertreal.html)
    was going through my head… “The only way to ensure that it will not happen HERE is to prevent it from going on ANYWHERE ELSE”
    Did America not wake up, even after 9/11?

  3. Former Jose

    Crys T – This may sound like a nitpick (I swear it’s not) but is it that people are overreacting to the London bombings or underreacting to these other tragedies? I would suggest it’s perhaps the latter is more accurate.

    Greg of the Talent Show has a similarly-themed post, by the way.

  4. Sara

    My thoughts exactly. I’ve even lived in London, and I’m aghast at how overblown this is in the media.

    Nice to hear a Judith Butler reference.

  5. Twisty

    Former Jose, I don’t presume to speak for Crys T, but my beef is not with the degree of outrage, it’s with the inconsistency of outrage. Americans took the WTC bombings completely personally, yet never batted an eye over any number of concurrent genocides of greater magnitude taking place in the less Americanized corners of the world. The WTC victims were just as much strangers to them as the starving Sudanese refugees, but, as has been pointed out by smarter people than me, a dead Sudanese stands a feminist’s chance on Kos of getting one of those sentimental biographical obituaries in the New York Times.

  6. Former Jose

    Yes, I absolutely agree. It’s either insane or criminal how only white Western folks are apparently worth media coverage and morning. (News articles about Darfur are just beginning to seep into the papers, from what I can tell.) Which is why my comment probably really was a nitpick, my disclaimer notwithstanding.

    My only real point is that – not that I think anyone was saying this, mind you – it’s not bad to feel sorry/guilty/outraged/SOMETHING for London, it’s bad not to feel anything for the rest of the world. I guess I was just too focus on the word “overblown.” I apologize, Twisty and Crys T. This is why it’s silly to nitpick.

    And since I feel like a dumbass, allow me to repent with flattery, Twisty: I love your blog, which I cannot read during my lunch break, because it makes me hate my crappy Ramen with all my soul.

  7. Jim McCulloch

    “Just so we’re clear, I’m no Al Qaeda apologist.”
    No sane person would think you are. The sad thing, scratch that, _one_ sad thing about the country we live in, is that people who think sane thoughts have to include such disclaimers, presumably to head off denunciations by disturbed patriots. I’m not sure such a disclaimer will work anyway–it’d be like a posted notice, “mad dogs, please stay out of my yard.”

  8. antelope

    Actually, I read somewhere that most of the people who died in the WTC incident WERE brown. Due to the hour it was mostly cleaners & servers & such. If this is true, our gov’t has piled hypocrisy on hypocrisy by pretending to care about the deaths of lower-income brown people in the U.S. for political reasons, when most of their other actions make it clear that they don’t care. (Maybe the terrorists should be expected to pay the same “value” for a human life that would-be polluters are asked to use in their calculations of whether development is “worth the cost.”)

    Anyway, does anyone know of a link to the actual stats on how many of the folks that died in WTC were U.S. citizens, how many of what ethnic background, etc? I’ve always had some morbid curiousity about it.

  9. Twisty

    Hey, Former Jose, don’t get me wrong. I am a big picker of nits, and invite same. Pick away.

    Meanwhile, if it’s any consolation, I had ramen noodles for lunch myself. I do this several times a month because I actually like’em. I keep the following augmentations on hand: a dried shiitake, a garlic clove, a few crushed red pepper flakes, a glob of hoisin, some sesame oil, and a smidge of rice vinegar. Makes all the difference. If there’s a green onion lying around, so much the better.

  10. rhondda

    Antelope Try http://cdc.gov/mmwr/pdf/wk/mm51sp.pdf

    It is the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report Vol 51
    from the CDC. Scroll down to pages 16 and 17.
    It is clear from that report that white males were the largest group to die; 61%. White females were the second at 15% 6% Hispanic males, 3% Hispanic females, 4% Asian/Pacific males and 2% female A/P. The study also breaks it down by education. Only 1% were actually foreigners. My country, Canada lost five people.
    (If my link does not work try googling the title.)

    Not to be too morbid, but I think it is true that we tend to sympathize more with someone we can identify with. It is the “oh my god, I could have been there.”
    The only way I have found to overcome that is to try and imagine what it would be like to be a woman trying to keep her family together in a place like Iraq where these things happen every single day. It is extremely sobering. The Brits’ stiff upper lip is to their advantage in this case.

  11. Sophie

    It is not something from the US or England, I’ve gone mad at one French guy once who openly told me (around December 2001) that Afghans were evidently “less worth” than him. He was certain he was better and used the exact words.
    It’s something from imperialist or used-to-be-imperialist countries, I think. Whites have been trained to despise the other colours. Here they were displayed in zoos in Paris in the early 20th century.

  12. Emma

    I agree with Rhondda that it’s true that we sympathize more with those we can identify with.

    Sharing a common language means that more UK, Australian, NZ and US citizens come in contact than ever before. We watch each other’s TV shows, read each other’s books, and have an enormous number of shared cultural touch stones. We also work in and visit each other’s countries, as never before. I think it’s precisely because we can so clearly picture such mundane things as rush-hour travel in NY & London, that it provokes so much horror and outrage when terrorist attacks bring death into those situations.

    Although I know a few of Iraqi people, I know them here, in Scotland, where they are fellow professionals. I’ve never been to Iraq, although I’ve been to other places in the Middle East, and so it’s not as easy to get a similar sense of bombings there rupturing daily life. Indeed, from the representations on the news and elsewhere, bombings ARE everyday life. Although horrendous, they’re not unexpected, which is why I don’t feel the same sense of outrage at them (or indeed, at the death of UK soldiers in Iraq).

    I was reading comments about the London bombings on the BBC website and there was a comment from a South Korean guy expressing concern for the UK, “South Korea’s dearest friend”. It may have been hyperbole, but I wasn’t aware that SK considered us to be their dearest friend at all. I don’t believe that I’ve ever read a book written by someone from SK, or seen one of their TV shows. I bet the reverse isn’t true, which is perhaps why (though the medium of movies with Hugh Grant in) they feel such a keen sense of what it means for the rush hour in London to be intruded upon by bombers.

  13. Twisty

    Rhondda and Emma, you are right of course. And the corollary to identifying with the familiar is fear of the unknown, which leads to all kinds of horrible crap. My argument–which, as I re-read my post, it seems I failed to make at all–is that the similarity of a person or a group or a culture to one’s self is clearly not the most useful criterion to use in judging whether they have a right to be alive. Clear evidence of the method’s inefficacy as a tool for just prejudice is that members of one’s own group–in my case, for example, fellow Texans Bush2 and Karl Rove and Tom Delay–often turn out to be the biggest fucktards on the planet.

  14. rhondda

    Yes, I know what you are saying. The cognitive dissonance I experience when someone from my group says something so stupid and others agree is f—king jaw dropping. I recently had a friend, well now a former friend who said that if the First Nations people want a group home around here, it should be put on their reserve and not in a white hobby farm residential area. This was from a woman who fostered native kids. Thank god she no longer gets any placed with her. My jaw dropped as others agreed with her.
    Yet, she would be the first to scream, if her human rights were challenged. Of course, her idea of human rights means she can do what she wants, but what others do violates hers.

  15. Crys T

    “I don’t presume to speak for Crys T, but my beef is not with the degree of outrage, it’s with the inconsistency of outrage.”

    Yes, that is exactly it. I don’t feel nothing for the people in London. Hell, I know people who live there, and go there myself every few months. it’s just that I’m getting annoyed that for many, apparently one English-speaking life–especially if it’s white–is worth so much more than one of any other type of life.

    And I have to add, this expression: “stands a feminist’s chance on Kos” made me laugh my head off.

  16. Sarah in Chicago

    Hey, first comment posted here! :)

    Thank you for saying this btw, I was actually thinking something similar and was thinking about posting myself … bugger, now I can’t given it would come across as unoriginal.

    Anyway, in combination with the post a little above I am giving up with main-stream media. The swarming slaughter-orgasm that they had regarding the attacks in London was beyond sickening. I stuck to bbc-world radio while at work, as not only was I concerned about friends (being a commonwealther from NZ), but I just couldn’t deal with the shit coming from the other spaces.

    One thing I did notice from the american view though was the “We feel for you, because we really know what terrorism is like”. I mean, yeah, like insult much? London has been under a state of terrorism strikes for decades now, and suddenly america is the expert on how to deal with terrorism attacks?

    Not to mention, of course, all the other countries where terrorism is a daily occurance. But no, america holds the patent on being victimised by terrorists. And those other countries don’t count because they aren’t white.

    Yes, London was Bad Thing. As was the trade centres. But why did muslim leaders through Britian and the world have to immediately offer a statement of repugnation of these attacks and how much Islam has really nothing to do with them? I mean, you don’t see chrisitan groups expected to speak for christian terrorists here in the US after a terrorist attack here that is committed by ‘christians’ (or, help us, christian extremists in south-east asia, but wait, they ain’t white).

    That’s because it’s only a terrorist act really when white people get hit. And it’s only the fault of a whole ethnic or religous group when those groups aren’t white or christian.

  17. Twisty

    Sarah In Chicago, you make great points. If you can stand a little unsolicited advice, please don’t let fear of unoriginality stop you from posting stuff. I promise, it will always be original enough. Il n’y plus de nouveau sous le soleil!

  18. TeenageCatgirl

    British people don’t actually have stiff upper lips, that is a myth.
    Certainly mine is quite soft and flexible. Which certainly helps with eating and speaking and that sort of thing.

    Seriously, though, the media attention has been somewhat hysterical, and also quite distasteful, on Thursday they were really obviously deperate to film injured people, and got as many accounts of how much blood there was as possible.

  19. jc

    My reactions were much like yours, 50 or so people are
    a poor score for a terrorist attack in Iraq. I did feel that the media was trying really hard to work up to the 9/11 and Madrid shock but the real enthusiasm wasn´t there. Of course it was a horrible and tragic crime which isn`t diminished by the fact that the equal or worse occurs elsewhere. However I do have problem with the “Americans don`t give a shit about what happens to brown people” litany. The statement is probably true but not necessarily its implications ie. that if we weren´t americans swamped in american cultural and media bullshit we would be more sympathetic to other peoples plights. As an expat of very long standing I can assure you that brown people and european people do not really give much of a fuck about anyone else either. Being brown and non american does not automatically endow anyone with superior moral virtues.

  20. Crys T

    Teenagecatgirl wrote: “Seriously, though, the media attention has been somewhat hysterical, and also quite distasteful”

    Well, yes, that is true. I couldn’t watch any of the “on-the-scene” reports because of all the trite, melodramatic (I mean, my God, could there be a situation that warranted LESS additional drama???) commentary. But when you compare it to the American responses, it does look quite restrained and sensible.

    JC wrote: “As an expat of very long standing I can assure you that brown people and european people do not really give much of a fuck about anyone else either.”

    Then how come outside of the US there is consistently more attention given to world events than there is within the US? I will grant you that in the UK, terrorist attacks and natural disasters are often only truly newsworthy if Brits are somehow involved, but world news in Spain is generally world news whether it necessarily affects Spaniards or not. And even having said what I have about the UK, compared to the US, the level of awareness about the rest of the world is much higher.

    Not that everyone outside US borders automaticaly has a bleeding heart, but fuck, most other countries take FAR more notice of what’s going on in other parts of the world. To say they don’t is generally flat-out untrue. All you have to do is compare newspapers or news broadcasts to see a dramatic difference.

    “Being brown and non american does not automatically endow anyone with superior moral virtues.”

    This sort of comment really pisses me off, mainly because no one has freaking said anything remotely like that. So please, can we pack away the straw man now? The whole point is CULTURAL and POLITICAL differences, not fucking inherent qualities.

  21. TeenageCatgirl

    I tried to avoid the whole media circus about it, to be honest. I find cameramen zooming in on people’s injuries unpalatable. So i wouldn’t really know about America’s reaction.

    It’s the type of thing you can expect though, if your prime minister wages a war his constituents don’t want, and blows up several thousand iraqi people. If it is an attack by them.

  22. Sarah in Chicago

    Thanks Crys T –

    I’ve actually lived in Europe and in New Zealand and spent a chunk of time in Australia, and I can tell you that world-news is a hell of a lot more about the world than here in the states where I am living now. There was a huge difference I noticed about the news here as soon as I arrived; namely, that unless it effected America/Americans in some solid way it simply wasn’t news, it didn’t get shown.

    Thank ghu for BBC is all I can say (and, of course, online news sources).

    And I echo your reply to that fucking idiotic throw-away line about ‘brown’ people not being more concerned with the world. Oiy. No one said that.

  23. Twisty

    JC, when I say that nobody in America gives a crap about brown people, what I mean is: “nobody in America gives a crap about brown people.” Not: “Brown people are morally superior to white Americans.” Is English perhaps your second language?

  24. jc.

    Dear twisty,
    a simple man of the soil
    ps. I like your blog very much anyway even if I don´t seem to be deserving.

  1. Sour Duck

    The bombings in London

    Echidne of the Snakes examines the link between misogyny, conservative religious ideology and politics, and I Blame the Patriarchy has a good piece on racism operating here. Brutal Women’s reminder that “terrorism is a tactic, not an adversary” is much…

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