The Whole World In Your Hands

My least favorite genre of online discourse, whether it’s on Facebook or email, is the hortatory appeal. Sometimes this comes before a petition or request for donation. More often, coming from the liberals and progressives who make up the majority of people in my networks, it is a sort of shaming exhortation, that there is some neglected object or story or problem to which we must now urgently call attention. The hortatory address to a network generally exempts the people reading the message from the accusation: because we are reading it, we are presumed to be paying attention to what our fellow citizens (in our towns, our states, our country, our culture, our world) are ignoring. With that presumption, we are also discouraged from disagreeing or questioning the appeal: it is offered as common sense, preceded by an invisible “of course”.

Sometimes I’m perfectly happy with the message or idea behind the appeal. If Glenn Greenwald pops up in my feed asking why progressives give the current administration a pass for behavior that they were stirred to fury over in the previous administration, I’ll look over any hortatory rhetoric involved because I think it’s a fair point. The blindspots that hortatory shout-outs address are often that way: strange absences in our collective thinking, distasteful contradictions. The energy spent worrying about the costs of mitigating natural disasters or maintaining infrastructure seems magnitudes greater by far than the minimal energy spent worrying about the massive costs of military action and security aimed at countering terrorism.

But the shout-outs usually imply that these blindspots are the result of malicious action by the powers-that-be, that to call attention to them is to reveal a secret, to midwife an epiphany. Often there are far deeper foundations embedded in our culture, our hearts, our minds. Sometimes our blindspots make some kind of sense–and sometimes the exhortation is calling for a kind of imagination or selfhood that really doesn’t make much sense or have much plausibility once you stop to consider it.

I’ll give the example that was on my mind earlier this week, enough to trigger a small rant on Facebook. Friends passed on several messages pointing out that Hurricane Sandy caused devastation in the Caribbean too, that there were other tropical storms elsewhere in the world that had or were at that moment causing devastation, and that these events were largely absent from our national conversation and our collective expression of sympathy.

It’s always at least empirically right to point out the uneven attention of the American mass media on this and many other issues. Sometimes those asymmetries are profoundly consequential: some crimes are in the imagination of the media spectacular news when they happen to or are committed by people who aren’t “supposed to be” criminals or victims, and ordinary or banal otherwise, and that in turn shapes systematic outcomes in our criminal justice system. And at least some of the worst of this unevenness is peculiarly pronounced in US mass media. European mass media, for example, pay much more systematic attention to the news of the world as a whole than US media do, and that also surely has consequences for American policy and American politics.

But step back for a moment and consider the self that we are being exhorted to have in paying an even, distributed attention to the whole of Sandy, or to all disasters everywhere. This is the selfhood of liberalism: cool, rational, objective and striving to universality even in its tears, its pangs of conscience, its allowances of sympathy. What you feel for a neighbor, a countryman, a familiar place, it’s suggested, you ought to feel for the stranger undergoing a similar crisis, particularly if the stranger is more vulnerable to its devastation.

The late George McGovern starred once in a wonderful sketch on Saturday Night Live when he hosted the show. The premise of the sketch was that McGovern had been elected President and ushered in a utopia. At one moment, an aide bursts in with news of an emergency: a child had gone to bed hungry last night somewhere in the world. McGovern springs up in outrage and demands that his officials get out there and fix the situation this instant.

What that sketch (and McGovern himself, who was clearly having a ball during it) took as parody, some of the more earnest hortatory calls treat a similar call to arms with all the earnestness of a starched-collar missionary lecturing to the heathen. Here is where liberal cosmopolitanism, made into a passion of dispassion, becomes less the deeply-felt ethical project that Anthony Appiah has outlined and more a backdoor conferring of privilege upon those anointed as cosmopolitans. Even though other societies, other mass media, other local cultures may be less parochial than Americans often are, just about everybody cares first, second and last about the local, the known, the familial and familiar. There isn’t a town, neighborhood or country on Earth where folks would put aside worrying about the neighbor or friend or countryman’s house that fell in an earthquake simply so they could devote an exactly equal measure of feeling for a stranger’s house that fell in another earthquake a thousand miles away. Human hearts are big, with room for deep wells of compassion, and the common experience of suffering and crisis can create abiding bonds between strangers. But we get there just fine in our own way and time.

The urgent demand that we should always feel at all times that equality of sympathy is another way of saying: we should be better than anyone else. Better than everyone else. It’s the humanitarian equivalent of wanting a Ferrari while others drive Yugos.

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4 Responses to The Whole World In Your Hands

  1. J. Otto Pohl says:

    Of course people care more about their neighbors than strangers. But, why do Americans care so much more about some strangers than others? Why for instance were Americans, particularly liberals so upset about South African apartheid while at the same time strongly supporting Israeli apartheid? Why are the Nazi atrocities against Jews so well memorialized while Stalin’s genocide against people like the Volga Germans and Crimean Tatars is only remembered by a few people in the US, most of them with an ethnic connection to the victims? Why is the fact Greece is now a slightly poorer, but still rich white country such an issue for the US, UK, and Australian “progressives” and “leftists” at places like Crooked Timber, but there is absolutely no concern about the fact that Europe is unjustly much richer than Africa in large part as a result of colonialism and neo-colonialism? This is the real question. Eastern European Jews, Israelis, Black South Africans, and modern Greeks are no more neighbors of most Americans than Volga Germans, Crimean Tatars, Palestinians, and Ghanaians.

  2. Deb says:

    Whenever I or someone in my family returned from an extended stay ‘abroad’ [what does one say?] our reactions were always “how much stuff we have” and “how the newspapers/tv/media in Japan/Italy/Scotland only reported news about (you guessed it) Japan, Italy, or Scotland. Or, once in a while, a Japanese or Italian or Scot who had been murdered or caught in an avalanche somewhere outside the country. It takes resources to broaden the circle of our attention. Spend a week with the Halifax Chronicle-Herald sometime!

  3. LFC says:

    J Otto Pohl:
    “Why are the Nazi atrocities against Jews so well memorialized while Stalin’s genocide against people like the Volga Germans and Crimean Tatars is only remembered by a few people in the US, most of them with an ethnic connection to the victims?”

    First, there is the issue of scale. The Holocaust was arguably unique (note “arguably”). Second, there is a much larger Jewish population in the US than Crimean Tatar population. Third, there is the particular place the Holocaust has come to occupy in American public life, for reasons probably discussed here.

    Pohl knows this, of course, which makes what he’s doing little more than trolling.

  4. Keith Wilson says:

    I don’t quite understand. Do you reject the ideal of equality of sympathy? Do you also reject other ideals, such as fairness and objectivity, because they are similarly impossible to achieve?

    You say “we get there just fine in our own way and time,” but there seem to be plenty of examples where we don’t. There really is disproportionate suffering in some parts of the world. But perhaps I misunderstood what you meant.

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