Ebola and America’s Childish Narcissism
We, as a country, have never been good at keeping things in perspective, and our nutty hysteria over Ebola is just the latest outbreak of this particularly American ailment.
I don’t start many columns like this, but kudos to Fox News and specifically host Shepard Smith for decimating this Ebola hysteria the other day. David Ignatius of The Washington Post picked up on Smith’s sentiment with an equally solid column. Ignatius quoted Smith thus: “Today, given what we know, you should have no concerns about Ebola at all. None. I promise. Unless a medical professional has contacted you personally and told you of some sort of possible exposure, fear not. Do not listen to the hysterical voices on the radio and the television or read the fear-provoking words online.”
I’ll go them one better. It’s moments like this one that bring out the absolute worst in the media, some political figures, and, it must be said, a hell of a lot of regular people, too—all of which is to say, the country. America is a narcissistic and inward-looking society at the best of the times. At the worst of times, it’s something even worse; a country with utterly no understanding of the pain and struggle and banal, recurrent death that the rest of the world lives with on a daily basis. So not only should we not panic, but beyond that, instead of turning ever-more inward, this Ebola moment should be precisely the time when we pause and look around the globe and realize how insignificant (though yes of course tragic on their own terms) three deaths are.
In the amount of time it probably took you to read the above two paragraphs, two African children died of malaria. That’s one every 30 seconds, every minute, every hour, every day, every month, every grinding year. And this constitutes a bit of an improvement over 10 or 20 years ago. Many of these children are under five years old. Such an abattoir would never be permitted to continue in the United States, or indeed the developed (and white) world. It would be very wrong of course to say the world does nothing about it. Many amazing people devote their lives to changing this, but somehow it does not change enough, and in recent years the malaria situation has been made even worse by what is to me the single most despicable human activity I’ve ever heard of in my life this side of the gas chambers—the sale of fake anti-malarial drugs for profit.
Want to worry about children? Read the speech given Thursday in the United Arab Emirates by Antonio Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. Half of the world’s millions of refugees are children, and they live lives of wretched, numbing upheaval and violence. Guterres: “We know that refugee children are at increased risk of child labor and recruitment, and more vulnerable to violence in their homes, communities, or schools, including sexual and gender-based violence. This is one of the reasons, along with financial difficulties, why more and more refugee parents agree to marry off their daughters as children.”
Queen Raina of Jordan also spoke, calling the refugee crisis in Syria “a slap in the face of humanity.” And, she might well have added, of her country, and of Lebanon, both of which have taken in millions of Syrians, placing burdens on those countries’ infrastructures that Americans couldn’t begin to imagine. Lebanon’s Syrian refugee population is equal to 25 percent of its native population. Could you imagine the United States taking in a like number of Latin American refugees? That would be 75 million people! Our right wing went absolutely ballistic this past summer over 60,000 kids, who came here for reasons we helped create. There is all this churning violence out there of which probably 90 percent of Americans are barely aware. In so much of the world, death and violence are just normal parts of life. And to the response “tough, that’s their problem,” there are at least three good retorts.
The first is that we shouldn’t be so holier than thou, because it wasn’t really that long ago in historical terms that death and violence were normal parts of American life as well. This was an extremely dark and brutal (and insalubrious) country well into the 20th century. It was only really after World War II, after the spread of the general prosperity, that violent death and disease were checked in most of the United States. Vast pockets of both continued to exist well after that—in Appalachia and the inner cities, for example—and some exist still. So our “right” to feel smug about these kinds of things is rather new.
Second, we can’t fail to acknowledge that we played a role in making some of this violence happen. It’s unquestionably true with respect to the countries of Central America whence the border-crisis kids were arriving in June. It’s also undeniably the case in Iraq, where our war created millions of refugees and is still doing so (1.2 million so far this year alone, according to the UNHCR). Where our culpability isn’t that direct—Egypt, say, or Gaza—there are regimes imposing violence on helpless people that obviously could not do so without American billions.
Third, well, I happen to be an American, but I recognize, and you should too, that that’s as accidental a reality as anything could possibly be. So I lucked out in the old ovarian lottery, and the little zygote that became me happened to have been formed inside a particular set of borders. I’ve never understood why that should free me of the obligation to worry about those who didn’t have my luck. All the more reason to, I’d have thought.
All societies are like ours to some extent. Lord knows, many are more chauvinistic. But here’s where I think we are unique: in our continued capacity to be shocked that anything terrible could happen to us. This has everything to do with the narrative we are fed and, in a continuous loop through the media (not just news media, but all media, Hollywood and the rest), feed and re-feed to ourselves. We are exceptional. These things don’t happen here. I remember thinking not long after September 11: Why was everyone so shocked? True, the audacity of it was shocking, so there’s that. But they’d tried to do it before to the World Trade Center, and anyway, nearly everyone else in the world lives with this kind of thing, albeit on a less operatic scale. I was surprised only that it took them that long to deliver a blow like that to our shores.
But the point now is that nothing is on our shores. Shepard Smith is right. So it isn’t happening to us, and yet we’re acting like it is, and while we’re not exactly forgetting the people it actually is happening to, we are certainly diminishing their far worse suffering.