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December 03, 2003

Life Can Be Awful

Dear Friedrich --

Do you look at The Economist much? I'm a longtime subscriber, though I blow hot and cold on the magazine. Minuses: smartypants attitude, goofy about immigration, bossy about how America should conduct itself. (Like, we're supposed to take advice from the Brits? Nice job they've done with their own country: from #1 to insignificant in a couple of generations.) Pluses: sophisticated, cheeky and well-written, and straightforward about its point of view. You never don't know where they stand.

But one of the main reasons I continue to enjoy the magazine is that it's far more honest than most American publications are about how awful life in some parts of the globe can be. A few examples from recent issues:

* In the provinces of Afghanistan, where virtually no modern medical care is available, girls usually get engaged at ten, are usually married at 12, and usually start giving birth at 14. These girl/women have the highest rates of maternal mortality ever recorded -- 500 times higher than the rate in developed countries. Superstition and bizarre traditions run rampant. Midwives refuse to tie off umbilical cords; babies are born into bowls of dirt; and one way people have of trying to cure a woman's infections is by placing dead mice in her vagina.

* The country of Congo has had a five year war, in which over 3 million people have perished.

* Canaan Banana, the first president of Zimbabwe, just died. He was a mere figurehead, apparently, with a light workload that left him "plenty of time for his hobby, which was raping his male attendants."

* Kenya's legal system has long been a joke, even to Kenyans. In the late 1980s, a chief justice "took his trousers off, balanced a shoe on his head and goose-stepped around the high-court car park chanting pro-government slogans." Justice comes at a literal price: "$250 to escape a rape charge, and $500 for murder." One investigation concluded that "only three of the country's 310 judges were neither corrupt nor incompetent."

Reading passages like these, horrifying though they are, never fails to brighten my day. Reminds me to be grateful for whatever peace, calm, tranquillity, fairness and health we enjoy, of course. But perhaps the real reason I'm fond of reading about this kind of thing is because it makes life in NYC seem more rational and humane than it often does. The cable guy who showed up hours late? Annoying, yes. But by comparison to Canaan Banana, let alone mice-in-the-vagina? For a moment at least, I've got things in perspective.

The Economist's web site, which I really should get around to making a little use of, is here.



posted by Michael at December 3, 2003


As my late granny with her 4-year kheder education used to say: "When life is intolerable for you, remember - throngs of people are much worse right now - and you'll feel much better".
As with 90% of what she told me, life proved her right.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 3, 2003 9:58 AM

Odd...this kind of thinking never makes me feel any better. It seems to convey a lack of empathy---to feel BETTER because others are going through misery?Why? It isn't as if it isn't happening, just because it isn't directly happening to you. My reaction is just to feel worse that this kind of ignorance and cruelty exists in the world and still to be pissed off that the cable guy is hours late. Why doesn't the cable guy understand the misery in the world, and just do his job?

Posted by: annette on December 3, 2003 11:56 AM

Annette, it isn't so much feeling better because others are struggling for their lives and I'm only dealing with a flat tire; it's the recognition that things could always be a whole lot worse. That's what leads me to shift my thinking from "lousy city leaving huge potholes in the street to break my tire when I'm trying to get to so-and-so's wedding and I'm wearing pantyhose & heels" to "I'm lucky to have a car, lucky it isn't raining while I'm trying to change it, lucky no one has tried to mug me while I'm rooting around in the trunk for the lug wrench...." It just tends to lighten up the ol' outlook, you know?

Posted by: Dente on December 3, 2003 12:16 PM

By the way, Canaan Banana would be an excellent name for a rock band. Or a male stripper.

Posted by: Dente on December 3, 2003 12:19 PM

A law apparently had to be passed in Zimbabwe specifically forbidding people from making jokes about Canaan Banana's name.

By the way, I don't mean to be suggesting that I feel better because others are suffering. Anything but. Just that being reminded occasionally of how bad life can be (and even tends to be) sparks off some appreciation for how good we lucky Americans generally have it.

I do marvel that American news outlets are so timid about reporting facts about awfulness. Is anyone else? When you look at news sources from France or England, you find that the awfulness of things isn't muffled in the same way it so often is in the American news.

Any thoughts from anyone about why this might be so? I guess my working theory is that it's a consequence of two things:

* Americans are wimps and love everything sugar-coated and hate getting too upset. And
* We generally aren't much interesteded in the rest of the world. And it's generally somewhere out in the rest of the world where the real horrors are happening. I mean, 3 million people have been killed in that civil war. Yet how often have we even been made aware that there's a civil war going on? Let's see, where was that? Oh, right: Congo.

But seriously: any thoughts about why our chubby American consciousnesses so seldom regiester how really, really awful life often tends to be for many, many people? Instead, we spend a lot of time feeling sorry for ourselves because we can't afford that flat-screen TV.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 3, 2003 1:43 PM

"Like, we're supposed to take advice from the Brits? Nice job they've done with their own country: from #1 to insignificant in a couple of generations"

Unfair, surely. Not number one any more - but insignificant? I don't think so. All empires pass, as the US will find one day (and I say that as a fan, not a knocker), but at least we lost our hegemony in a good cause - holding the line in two wars of German aggression until America belatedly came to our aid.

I'm saddened by this comment, because it has tarnished (a little) my favourite blog, which I thought was immune from the casual anglophobia that blemishes so much American journalism, the reason being, I suppose, that PC has made it impossible to gibe at anyone else. (I exempt the Blowhards from the charge of PC-ness - that was a general remark.)

Posted by: Graham Asher on December 3, 2003 1:52 PM

Sorry: the crack was aimed (if ineptly) at the brainy, know-it-all twits who put together The Economist, not at Brits in general.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 3, 2003 1:56 PM

I think MBlowhard's second point is more valid than the first. I think it's that horrors are more horrific the closer to home they are. It's why an earthquake in San Fransisco is more major and riveting to us than an earthquake in Italy. George Carlin actually includes this in a comedy routine he does. He sits full of attention in front of the TV when he hears about a building collapsing. But if he then finds out it happened in Tokyo, it's like, oh, who cares. I think Americans have come to truly believe the world revolves around them (in many ways, it does) whereas others in the world are painfully aware every day that it does not revolve around them at all. Part of why Yanks are hated.

Posted by: annette on December 3, 2003 2:20 PM

To your second point, Michael:
I think this general American indisposition to the bad news could be illustrated in the textbook example I was given @ the English classes for new immigrants 10 yrs ago - When American asks you , How are you, don't start actually describing your dire circumstances. (S)he is not interested; nobody will ever be interested; put on a smiley face forever; if you repeat "n" amount of times "Don't worry, be happy" - you will be; etc., etc.
Vs., for ex., in Russian - strangers don't ask each other "How are you", only people who know you and actually care do, and they expect your expanded answer.
I don't think it has much to do with geography, more with cultural environment.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 3, 2003 2:35 PM

We shouldn't let happiness in being part of a more-or-less rational and humane nation become smugness, as we Americans have much room for improvement.

But I do reflect almost every day how lucky I am that my own forebears got on a boat to the right place.

Perhaps it is aging, or the world situation, but I truly observed this past Thanksgiving.

Posted by: David Sucher on December 3, 2003 3:50 PM

Isnt part of the problem that we can now hear about all the nastiness in the world thanks to better, faster, more efficient communications. And because of that, we are so bombarded with murders and kidnappings and corporate scandals that really dont effect us that we become hardened to much that is more tragic. The average Joe reads his daily paper, not The Economist and that's enough to sap his ability to absorb nastiness. Most people I live around dont live in the Global Village. They live in a community, large or small, and tend to worry more about how the kids are doing in school or how the bills are going to be paid than what's happening halfway across the world. I dont see that as being obtuse. Maybe I'm provincial but there it is...

Posted by: Deb on December 3, 2003 4:22 PM

Hmmmm....just heard a story that may require that I amend my earlier remarks. A co-workers 11-year-old nephew died of bacterial meningitis the day before Thanksgiving...after just getting sick 12 hours earlier. This thing kills fast, apparently, and seems so close to the flu that it's difficult to catch in time to do anything. When the swab college students, 10% show the bacteria, but medicine hasn't figured out what causes it to move to the bloodstream and brain in some while many others don't get sick. (A vaccine exists, BTW). This family who suffered this loss also had another 18-year-old cousin die in a car accident about two years ago. The 19-year-old female sister of the kid who died in a car crash has just found out she's pregnant, and is not sure by whom.

Maybe this kind of stuff does remind you that life isn't so bad, or that it could be worse...although I think this is more on a personal basis rather than a national one...I mean, all this stuff happened in Atlanta, Georgia...not Afghanistan.

Posted by: annette on December 3, 2003 4:29 PM

BTW---on an evo bio note, what causes this? The kid who passed away is the son of my co-worker's wife's sister. They came back from Atlanta on Sunday and his wife is going back on Friday to spend another 3-4 days with her sister. This co-worker, who is generally "a nice guy", said, "I really kind of resent the fact that Lee (his wife) is going back down there. I mean, I'M an AFTERTHOUGHT at this point..." As if this is sort of unacceptable.

I think Michael Blowhard said recently that guys are about as complex and inward as golden retrievers. So...what?

Posted by: annette on December 3, 2003 4:44 PM

Michael: Shortly after Sept. 11, a few French journalists made the very point you made about the way the tragedy was covered. Specifically, they quibbled over the lack of attention given to the people who jumped out of the windows to their deaths. Sure, we were all dry-humped by that pornographic image of the airliners repeatedly striking into the twin towers. But it could have been infinitely worse. What we didn't see on CNN were the bags of limbs, the unrecognizable body parts, and the terrible no-win scenario of having to die from a conflagration or leaping out of a high-rise window (the thumps heard outside, but not SEEN, in that September 11 documentary that aired on television).

Death and horror, I would suspect, are things we intrinsically keep under wraps. Sure, just about any newspaper will have a police blotter. And just about any local news broadcast will report on some massacre. But the actual presentation of these things has been perfected to a clinical, abbreviated science: to the point where a newscaster or a lead beginning, "Two people died today," means utterly nothing. Because we know we're not going to see utter carnage displayed and we're only just a commercial break away.

Posted by: Ed on December 3, 2003 5:41 PM

Good job!

Posted by: FREE PORN on May 29, 2004 7:25 PM

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