Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Paris attacks and dependency theory

A few weeks ago I read an article about the worldwide outpouring of sympathy in the aftermath of the Paris attacks, contrasted with the relative paucity of news coverage and general solidarity in the face of many other terrorist attacks and massacres (in Kenya, Nigeria, Lebanon, etc.).  Or maybe it was about our collective dismay at the San Bernardino attacks, contrasted with our relative apathy about the Syria crisis.  The fact is that I've been looking for this article for the past few days, and can't find it again.  The fact that Paris was unlucky enough to have two major massacres in 2015, and both very heavily covered and commented by mainstream media and the blogosphere, makes my search all the more difficult.

The reason I want to find this article is because it offered an interpretation (based on dependency theory and world systems theory, though I don't think it used these terms) that I had not seen much elsewhere, and it really encapsulated many of my thoughts on the matter.  But since I can't find it to link to, I'll just try to summarize its argument here.  Maybe one of my elite (meaning very small) group of faithful readers will run across the original article after reading my description of it.  If so, please share the link in the comments section.

Anyway, here goes what the article more or less said:
Many have expressed shock or outrage at the Paris attacks, and many others have expressed shock or outrage that the world should care so much about attacks on Paris while not really caring about violence in the poorer (or less white) parts of the world.  I don't understand the surprise of either of these groups.  Of course most people, both in the rich world and even in the poor world, value lives lost in Paris more than lives lost in Beirut or Nigeria or Kenya.  We have constructed a world (or at least a conception of the world) in which there is a small, privileged sphere of safety, largely limited to the US, Europe, and a few other generally wealthy places, in which widespread violence is not supposed to happen, juxtaposed with a large, peripheral rest of the world in which we all expect there to be disproportionate, inhuman levels of violence.  In fact, through the legacy of the slave trade, colonialism, and now postcolonial neoliberalism, the safe, rich sphere has indeed exported violence, its own violence, elsewhere, thus effectively lending truth to the conception of a safe half of the world and a violent half of the world.  So when terrorism strikes New York City or Paris, we care because it punctures our system, our conception of how things are supposed to be, while if such violence affects other places most of the world doesn't care, because those places have been assigned the role of recipient and receptacle of violence.  All this is to say that it doesn't surprise me at all that the world seems to care more about Paris than about Kaduna, Nigeria.
I'm not totally in agreement with everything the author of this vanished article argues, but I think that he or she offers a very insightful explanation of why our reactions differ to tragedy in the rich world vs. tragedy in the poor world.  My main debate with the author would be that these spheres of safety and violence aren't so neatly delimited by country, but rather they exist within countries.  Black folks in the US have lived under ebbing and flowing levels of terror and insecurity for as long as there have been black folks in the US, and our society accordingly assigns them to the sphere of violence.  In other words, the general public in the US reacts with much more surprise and dismay if a white, middle-class person is massacred than if blacks suffer the same fate, again because the former challenges our conception of a sphere of safety, while the latter conforms to our conception of the rightful role of those who inhabit the sphere of violence.  In almost all societies I've seen, there exist such internal divisions of those who count, who aren't supposed to suffer violence, and those who don't count and are expected to suffer.  That said, in many of the countries outside of the rich world, violence and misfortune seem to be more real and ever-present concerns even for the wealthy than what I've seen in the US.  The cocoon of safety for the privileged is more visibly an illusion in places like Colombia or Nigeria, where even a well-off family may be afflicted by "poor people problems" like lean times, violence, addiction, etc.

In my search for this article, I found quite a few that argued something similar.  The difference is that these other articles decried the hypocrisy of our collective concern and apathy for Paris and Beirut, respectively, while the one I've tried to paraphrase here didn't decry it or even consider it hypocrisy but merely the outgrowth of a well-established oppressive world system.

In any case, I'm including a few good articles discussing the recent Paris attacks.  This one comes the closest to articulating our "hierarchy of valuation" of human life, from those that really matter to the mere "collateral damage" of Western drone strikes on hapless villages,

Sort of on this note, I'd been meaning to write about the Charlie Hebdo attacks in Paris ever since they happened, just over a year ago today.  My take was that the mass advocacy for "freedom of speech" looked less like a defense of the speakers of difficult truths against encroaching oppression, and more like support for French society's widespread bullying of its beleaguered Muslim populace.  But I didn't and don't have a very eloquent way of sharing these admittedly shallow impressions of mine.  So here are a few eloquent bits from others:  Teju Cole on the difference between supporting Charlie Hebdo's right to free speech and supporting its depraved, racist, Islamophobe agenda.  He also posits that a few lone Islamist fanatics do not by a long shot comprise the only or even the principal threat to freedom of expression in the West.  A Guardian article about "how the secular ideology used to break the grip of the powerful is now used to discipline the powerless, [and how] the right to single out one religion for abuse has been raised to the status of a core liberal value".  

Here is an article claiming that the rich world lives "in a 'cupola' where terrorist violence is a threat which just explodes from time to time, in contrast to countries where (with participation or complicity of the West) daily life consists of uninterrupted terror and brutality".  

Contrasting with this vision of a safe sphere of the world opposed to a violent sphere is Teju Cole's critique of people complaining about "First World problems", as if those in the Third World only spend all their time suffering and looking haggard in Sally Struthers ads:
Yes, Nigerians struggle with floods or infant mortality. But these same Nigerians also deal with mundane and seemingly luxurious hassles. Connectivity issues on your BlackBerry, cost of car repair, how to sync your iPad, what brand of noodles to buy: Third World problems. All the silly stuff of life doesn't disappear just because you're black and live in a poorer country. People in the richer nations need a more robust sense of the lives being lived in the darker nations. Here's a First World problem: the inability to see that others are as fully complex and as keen on technology and pleasure as you are.
Anyway, if anyone out there finds the article I'm looking for, the one that says of course people care more about deaths in Paris than in the Third World because our system is set up to keep Paris safe and the Thrid World violent, then please pass it on to me.

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