Monday, January 19, 2009

The Era of Statistics

Living in the Bay Area, I’ve become immune to absurd accusations and hate speech regarding George W. Bush. What else would we expect from people so assured of their moral and intellectual superiority, and who share a near total ignorance of history? What’s more interesting to me is how the language of social activism and resistance have infiltrated urban centers throughout Western Civilization, and by extension online communities such as Facebook, MySpace and even my favorite cyber-haunt, flickr.

Lo and behold, George W. Bush is not the only target of the venom. He’s merely the most popular. And reading through all the rants about this fascist or that war criminal, this corporate conspiracy and that Jewish plot, it strikes me that we may now be entering the Era of Statistics, a time when nearly any crime imaginable will be dismissed by the antipathetic masses who demonstrate the truth of Josef Stalin’s observation that, “A single death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic.”

Central to this assertion is the idea that at some point, people cannot (or do not) discern between varying levels of violence, or gradations of evil. What is the difference to a remote observer, after all, if a war claims 100,000 or 200,000 victims? Or if a tyrant imprisons 5,000 or 25,000 political rivals?

A second assumption in Stalin’s statement is that sheer volume of violence imparts a certain bureaucratic, academic quality to that violence. If one man slays his neighbor, it is a horrible tragedy sure to alarm the community. If the state, on the other hand, executes thousands of its enemies or undesirables, the act takes on an air of formality and routine.

The most troubling thing about the current trend of accusing all opponents of evil intentions is that the underlying weakness in human reasoning, or mental laziness and confusion, is amplified by semantic sloppiness and even outright deceit. When the mass of people become accustomed to terms like fascist, war criminal, murderer, terrorist, etc., being applied to such a wide array of politicians and military members, a mental process of conflation begins. Many are simply no longer able to discern between an actual war criminal who orders mass killings of civilians, and a political leader, bureaucrat or legislator who orders or plays a part in a war or other event that leads to collateral suffering. We see this all the time in posters in which George W. Bush is shown with a “Hitler mustache.” For an alarmingly large group of people, there is little or no difference between an American president who led his country in war and a would-be master of the human race who pursued the extermination of millions of men, women and children. They’re both war criminals. Both should have been executed.

As I said, Bush is far from the only public figure who suffers from this logical trick. A few days ago, I was amused and then increasingly alarmed when I read some comments on flickr about a British MP of the Labour Party, one John Prescott. A bio is here:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Prescott

A young British lady had commented kindly on a photo of my daughter. As I always do when someone takes the time to leave a note, I then perused that user’s flickr photostream and profile. Sometimes I find things that inspire me to block a user, such as when their profile or photos lead me to suspect they’re pedophiles or are otherwise creepy. But this lady had a pleasant collection of family photos and seems nice enough. What caught my attention, though, was a rather jolly photo of John Prescott that she’d snapped on the train. In it, the retired MP is smiling warmly and looking straight into the camera. In the caption, the woman patted herself on the back for being “polite enough to … keep the flash off so as not to startle his poor, war criminal eyes.” The list of tags used to describe the photo included “repulsive, toad-like” and “war criminal.” A link to the photo is here:

http://www.flickr.com/photos/timeandhour/2093858962/

Now I’m no expert on British politics, but I am quite confident John Prescott is no war criminal. And it’s really terrifying that so many otherwise rational people do not see this obvious reality. For them, politicians and others who did not directly oppose wars and other military operations with which they disagree are in the same category as the worst of history’s most merciless despots and henchmen. There is no difference between supporting military intervention in Iraq on the one hand, and designing, administering or enthusiastically operating a death camp on the other.

This semantic blind spot cannot but dilute the power of terms like war criminal, and cannot but soften the impact of the deeds of actual war criminals. If John Prescott is a war criminal, then Radovan Karadzic must not be such a bad guy. If Britain’s Labour Party is tainted by an evil intention to commit genocide, then the Nazis and Bosnia’s ultra-nationalist Serbian Democratic Party are in quite mainstream company.

What if this means that extremist ideologies and parties are legitimized by mere semantics? We’ve already seen xenophobes and ethnic nationalists gain electoral clout in France and the Netherlands, as well as other countries around the world. And if we in the West can no longer differentiate between mass murder and collateral death in war, and can no longer distinguish between the programs of mainstream political parties and extremists, then who will be the conscience of humanity? Who recognize true evil when it appears? Who will realize that a million deaths are not merely a statistic, but a million tragedies? And who will stand up against a real threat to mankind?

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