Wednesday, August 30, 2006

There is an Urdu joke that I remember from many years ago and it goes something like this: a man has a guest at his house and wants only the best to drink for him. They go from place to place asking what the healthiest drink is, each time receiving a different answer and the regress ultimately has the guest drinking a simple glass of water. I remember this joke because I'm reminded of both its farce and truth whenever social plans with whiny friends or relatives fizzle ("why bother going to a movie, we can't talk anyway, so let's just stay at home"). Today, however, while thinking of writing about the stunning destruction of New Orleans, I imagined criticism for being overly Americo-centric and then thought of writing about the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004, maybe falling back to some even more catastrophic earthquake or flood, before jokingly deciding to write about World War I instead. After I wrote that, I decided instead that the flu epidemic following the war is the issue I should think about since it killed more people than the war. If you come up with something else, let me know.

A co-worker once poked fun at a friend who was similarly harsh in providing free doses of supposed perspective, though such perspective often comes across as a smug intellectual superiority. "What's that? Eighteen people died in a car bombing in Jerusalem? Who cares? One hundred and eight died in -- oh, wait, I've actually got 121 in floods in Ethiopia; that's the winner, that's the one that deserves your emotions." It is, of course, important to not fly off the handle concerning tragedy (shark attacks were all the rage in the summer of 2001) but at the same time, deciding which deaths mean more and why is not only macabre but ultimately a meaningless proposition. Five accidental deaths at home are the equal of how many callous murders in a remote corner of the world? I guess it depends on how many children died.

What the co-worker and I agreed upon is that supposed answers to this question, couched in the form of "oh, that's nothing" statements, do nothing but obscure the issue at hand. If the only response to this summer's war between Israel and Lebanon is that only 1500 people died whereas more no doubt perished from AIDS in that timespan, then the respondent has spoken meaninglessly and completely missed the point. After saying something about the issue at hand, it would make sense to discuss a different issue, but the negation of discussion with pretentious mention of something supposedly more important is absurd in relation to the original discussion. It is also meaningless with respect to the secondary topic, because it invites a regress. I might respond to the AIDS pandemic by screaming about nuclear proliferation, which could theoretically kill everyone on the planet, so on and so forth. It is best, then, to can the pretense and speak intelligently about present matter.

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