They say in the news business that one dead person on your block is worth 3,000 dead in a flood in India. It’s a gruesome, cynical calculation but undoubtedly one streaked with truth.
I have an annoying habit of comparing tragedy. A college student walks onto a college campus with two guns and shoots 32 people. That’s tragic. But is it as tragic as the 120 people who died in an explosion in a marketplace bombing that same day? A mining disaster in China’s Henan province, the death of steel workers in Tieling city? Violent dictatorial oppression in Zimbabwe? Getting acid thrown on your face? The deaths of protesters in Guinea-Conakry? The deaths of Ugandans of Indian descent just because of their ethnicity? Political assassinations in Armenia? Russia’s 260,000 orphans? And the standard forgotten tragedy reference, Darfur? Maybe so, maybe not, I’ve never learned the formula for quantifying calamity.
My other annoying habit is that, based on this meaningless measuring of apples and oranges, I insist that we should base our attention and mourning on consistence rather than personal sorrow.
It’s too easy to claim that Americans only care about American events. Or, more generally, that we all care about what happens in our own country more than some other country. But on Global Voices over the past couple days, I’ve realized that that’s not necessarily true. Everyone, in every country, is writing about the Virginia Tech shootings. This story has had a profound impact on the entire world and I’ve been trying to figure out why. Maybe there is something universally mysterious and intriguing about the archetypical black sheep killer. Or maybe it’s just because America is such a famous country and everything that happens there counts as news for the whole world. Or, it’s because of the nationalities and ethnicities of the victims and the killer: everyone, everywhere has some cousin or friend of a friend who is studying in the US, which makes the story globally tangible.
I think that’s probably all true. But I also think that it’s something else that has the whole world talking about the VT shootings. In this weekend’s NYT Magazine, Duncan Watts describes the hopeless efforts of media executives in their hunt to find the next smash success. The point of the article though is that you can’t predict success because success is based on success. Not until something is judged successful or important by enough people is it in a position to actually become successful or important. When I first saw Borat with Nathan and Rosario (before the movie was officially released, before the hype), I was sure it was going to be a flop. Let’s face it, that movie just isn’t very funny. So how to explain its wild success? What about Madonna? What about Justin Timberlake? Is their music really that much better than everyone else’s? Or do we love them because everyone else does? Because we know that if we put Madonna or Michael Jackson on the stereo at a party, every single person will know the lyrics, everyone will feel included? There are no concerns about taste or leaving someone out. Are Catcher in the Rye and To Kill a Mocking Bird so widely read because they’re the best or because they are so widely read?
At We Media Miami, I had an interesting conversation with Alberto Ibargüen, a former publisher of countless major newspapers and now President of one of the biggest supporters of citizen media. Ibargüen is clearly a fan of new media, but he admitted to me a certain nostalgia for the days when everyone read the same newspaper and everyone could reference the same stories at the (then-non proverbial) water cooler. These days we depend on so many and so varied sources of information that there is little chance our neighbors … or even our partners … are reading the same stories, listening to the same music, watching the same
TV … I mean, YouTube videos. I had to agree with him.
Mexico, at least for those without satellite television, essentially has two channels: TV Azteca and Televisa. Teaching English to business managers in Monterrey, I knew that every day I would be able to reference something that happened on TV the night before and they would know what I was talking about. Nowadays, when my daily servings of information and infotainment come from thousands of different urls, I constantly find myself saying, “I’ll send you the link.” Not exactly a conversation starter is it?
I apologize in advance if this sounds cynical or cold-hearted, but we need stories like the Don Imus controversy and even the VT school shooting because they give us something to talk about. It allows us to form opinions along our worldviews and compare those views with those we agree with and those we don’t. Who knows what the next major story will be. All we can know is that there will be one.