By Benjamin G. Davis, Associate Professor of Law, University of Toledo College of Law
With Cheney – key architect of the torture – speaking yesterday about Obama recognizing the ” pacific role of American power” and President Obama laying out the plans for addressing the problem of ISIS a couple of conversations today drew me to a couple of things that are most appropriate for this day of remembrance.
I. Rudyard Kipling
Cheney and Obama harken back to the British during its period of empire. And no one put it better then Rudyard Kipling. I may be called a racist as a black man being willing to go there, but reading again Rudyard Kipling’s White Man’s Burden was stinging for me today. It might be worthwhile to read and reflect on it in international law and national security law classes today.
Here is the poem in its entirety. (hat tip: http://historymatters.gmu.edu/d/5478/)
“The White Man’s Burden”: Kipling’s Hymn to U.S. Imperialism
In February 1899, British novelist and poet Rudyard Kipling wrote a poem entitled “The White Man’s Burden: The United States and The Philippine Islands.” In this poem, Kipling urged the U.S. to take up the “burden” of empire, as had Britain and other European nations. Published in the February, 1899 issue of McClure’s Magazine, the poem coincided with the beginning of the Philippine-American War and U.S. Senate ratification of the treaty that placed Puerto Rico, Guam, Cuba, and the Philippines under American control. Theodore Roosevelt, soon to become vice-president and then president, copied the poem and sent it to his friend, Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, commenting that it was “rather poor poetry, but good sense from the expansion point of view.” Not everyone was as favorably impressed as Roosevelt. The racialized notion of the “White Man’s burden” became a euphemism for imperialism, and many anti-imperialists couched their opposition in reaction to the phrase.
Take up the White Man’s burden—
Send forth the best ye breed—
Go send your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild—
Your new-caught, sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child
Take up the White Man’s burden
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple
An hundred times made plain
To seek another’s profit
And work another’s gain
Take up the White Man’s burden—
And reap his old reward:
The blame of those ye better
The hate of those ye guard—
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah slowly) to the light:
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
“Our loved Egyptian night?”
Take up the White Man’s burden-
Have done with childish days-
The lightly proffered laurel,
The easy, ungrudged praise.
Comes now, to search your manhood
Through all the thankless years,
Cold-edged with dear-bought wisdom,
The judgment of your peers!
Source: Rudyard Kipling, “The White Man’s Burden: The United States & The Philippine Islands, 1899.” Rudyard Kipling’s Verse: Definitive Edition (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1929).
Local Angle as a trope – examples
- Somalian piracy didn’t get serious coverage in the US press until Americans got taken hostage.
- “X [Insert Nationality Here] people feared dead in [latest horrific event]” – Stock tabloid newspaper response to anything short of 9/11.
o Prime example in recent times was the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, in which some newspapers mentioned the 140,000+ Indonesian casualties as an afterthought – in comparison, the number of foreign citizens abroad killed totalled about 2,200.
o That infamous and quite possibly apocryphal one about the paper that ran with “Local Man Lost At Sea” after the sinking of the Titanic has an excuse; it wasn’t until several days after the sinking that the full death-toll was known.
o Parodied on the Monty Python’s Flying Circus segment “News for Parrots,” which told the same stories as the regular news but from a parrot POV.
No parrots were involved in an accident on the M1 today when a lorry carrying high-octane fuel was in collison with a bollard. That’s a bollard and not a parrot. A spokesman for parrots said he was glad no parrots were involved.
Followed by “News for Wombats.”
- Subversion, this common saying: “If an American farts, half the world will know.”
- Any murder overseas by (insert person from insert home country here). Even if the murder was filmed on video and the foreign murderer confessed to doing it at the scene, expect the murderer’s home country’s media to get a year (and a TV movie) out of it as they call it offensive that the foreign police would arrest their countryman for a heinous crime.
- The Dutch satirical writer Battus once derived a formula to determine the perceived psychological impact of an event in which people died: the logarithm of (#dead / (distance * years past)). Impact goes down with distance, as well as with time elapsed since the event. It goes up with the number of casualties, and all of this logarithmically, as 1000 versus 100 casualties give about the same increase in sense of impact as 100 versus 10. The formula, he notes, is correct also for the edge case that time = 0 and distance = 0, which is indisputably a most serious event for the individual concerned.
o The newspaper examples below are roughly similar, but as Battus is a mathematician in Real Life, this one has a scientific basis.
o Finnish satirist news blog Lehti ran an article titled “A Finn Equals 4 Alligators “, also giving the “official” numbers of tragedy in news. Ten thousand Africans equal 1,000 Asians or other non-whites, equal 100 non-nearby whites, equals 10 nearby whites, which equals four alligators, equals one Finnish person “if you know them”. They also ran an article assuring that there were “No Finnish Casualties Among the Dead Pope”.
- A similar rule applied to some British newspapers: “One Brit equals 10 Frogs (Frenchmen) equals 100 wogs (non-Europeans)”.
o A different version of that is, “One dead in Putney equals 10 dead in Paris equals 100 dead in Turkey equals 1,000 dead in India equals 10,000 dead in China.”
o Parodied by Have I Got News for You: they showed a clip of a horrible accident and then assured the audience that “although that accident looked serious, nobody involved was actually British.”
o Some mid-market tabloids will try to link an international story to something its readership care about… like house prices. Private Eye ran a mock Daily Mail headline talking about how the Fukushima nuclear meltdown after the 2011 Japan earthquake was lowering house prices.
o Then there are local papers, which ignore stories like “global thermonuclear war breaks out” in favour of ‘local interest’ stories. London’s “Evening Standard” is notorious for reporting a rumour of a strike on the London Underground as its headline, pushing things like the assassination of the Pope onto page 2, while more provincial papers have archetypal headlines like “Edlington man has ferret stolen from back garden”.
o A (possibly apocryphal) extreme: when heavy fog prevented all traffic between England and Europe, one newspaper ran the headline “FOG IN CHANNEL, CONTINENT ISOLATED”.
- While Canadian news outlets tend to report non-local news reasonably well, if any Canadians were involved, they will mention numbers, if not names.
o Many news agencies will still mention the number of Canadians killed on 9/11 when doing stories related to the tragedy. Likewise for the Indonesian Tsunami.
- Whenever an earthquake or some other natural disaster occurs in a foreign country, Swedish newspapers of the sleazier kind will invariably feature headlines bemoaning the fact that there were Swedes among the killed and not even trying to look like they care about the other victims.
- When a big local story happens, the local newspaper will have quick access to witness accounts, police statements and photographs. With big international stories they have to get their stories from news agencies. So if two big stories happen the same day, they will often run the local story as the main story since they have most of the material for the story at hand. The international story will get top billing the next day when they receive something reliable to print. Since most people will be already aware of the big international story from TV, the newspaper will look like it is late on the uptake.
- Spoofed in National Lampoon’s Vacation where Chevy Chase is reading a newspaper with the headline: AMERICAN COUPLE MISSING AS JAPAN SLIDES INTO THE SEA.
- Parodied on Parks and Recreation. Leslie comments on how a local kid went to the Olympics once and the local media reported on it for over a year afterward. The punchline is that said kid was an audience member rather than a competitor.
- In many countries, national media will nonetheless focus on the local stories from the city where the paper itself is made, even if they are aimed at basically everybody in the country. Then you have national Argentinian networks going on a special report about how it’s raining in Buenos Aires…
III. Their meaning
Kipling’s White man’s burden and these proportionality memes sting to read on a day of such sadness as we look back over the past 13 years. One thing I noticed in Obama’s speech is that when he listed the recriminations against ISIS – and there are many based on the depravity so far reported – he did not mention they torture. That may be because the orange jumpsuits worn by the two beheaded American journalists were a direct referent to the orange jumpsuits of Guantanamo Bay and that it has been reported that ISIS took its cues from the US torture in the manner it tortures (http://huff.lv/1thnEIQ ISIS Used CIA Techniques To Torture James Foley).
Of course ISIS, I am certain, found its own way to torturing people. Rather this trope is about instrumentalizing the American torture and turning it back on us by ascribing to their forms of torture an American patina. That Obama did not mention that ISIS tortured is a shame because that suggests that the drafter of the speech does not have the courage to call out our horrendous fact even as we confront ISIS’ horrendous acts. It is that American and Presidential reluctance which weakens the power of what we do. This weakness is because we have rhetorically left the war crime of torture off of the table because we committed that crime and have been unable or unwilling to prosecute the torture ringleaders among us for what they did.
As in so many things, there is nothing new under the sun here. We cannot have it both ways in going after evil abroad and countenancing evil at home. It does not work. (Update 9/13) We are wide open to tu quoque defenses being asserted in any war crimes trials. Refluat Stercus!