Empathy is Futile? Media, War and Empire from the Classroom

Curator's Note

It has been noted repeatedly that within 48 hours of the horrific Virginia Tech massacre, five car bombs killed 147 people on the streets of Baghdad. Killings that were no less senseless and tragic, eliciting few public displays of empathy in the United States. Without minimizing the tragedy in Virginia, the two disparate responses forces us to interrogate the absence of empathy in the current context of an indefinite war on "terror". I selected this clip based both on the images of the violence of the war in Iraq set to the popular medley by Hawaiian artist Israel Kamakawiwo'ole as well as the comments posted on YouTube in reaction to Iraqi Death Count; although there are many posts expressing outrage against the war, what caught my interest was the familiar logic of arguments made by those like 26seekr who writes "Fuck you guys, of corse theres (sic) going to be civilian casualties, people blow themselves up and then blame it on Americans". Even for those against the war, it remains awkwardly "un-American" to openly empathize with the Iraqi victims of war. In the classroom, the rationale for the war is overwhelmingly questioned, the role of the US media in blindly supporting the invasion initially is also discussed critically along with what this has meant for the fate of "our" troops. But when it comes to the mounting violence in Iraq today, it is "their" doing: the Sunnis and Shiites, primordial hatreds that might have been inflamed by "us," but ultimately "their" issue. This is a more often than not a shared point of view across both liberal and conservative students alike. Media studies students, growing in numbers, across the US are likely to confront how the US media covers war, particularly the illegal invasion of and on-going war in Iraq. Even today, with public discourse shifting against the administration's support of the war, there remains limited US mainstream media attention on the war’s impact on Iraqi civilians. It is not surprising given the entrenched history of selective censorship of US involvement in the ugly and brutal "hot" wars that raged across the Third World during the Cold War, techniques which were then modernized and perfected in the post-Cold War era through Gulf War One. In this context, how do we read the impact of freely available—free that is for those in the world with sufficient cultural capital and broadband access to download youtube videos—videos and images like this? While new media scholars studying the video file-sharing phenomenon are likely to disagree with political economists pointing to the fate of other "revolutionary" media of the twentieth century, my interest here is different. It is not simply the fact that many of the students that I teach in a large public US university readily admit that they have never thought of what the war has meant from the Iraqi perspective, a problem that can be solved with more information. This could include, perhaps, these images that visualize the findings of a 2006 Johns Hopkins University study that estimated 600 000 civilian deaths since the invasion of Iraq. It is a more chilling fact that many (most?) US students today, whether they are for or against the war, simply cannot empathize with the humiliation, violence and death of Iraqis, a direct result of being the beneficiaries of a longer hidden history of empire.


Thanks Paula. Here's a couple of thoughts; 1. For a country that elected a President to protect the so-called "culture of life," we sure do fudge the numbers: trading in 5,000 Kurds to justify the death of hundreds of thousands. When it comes to Darfur, the Tsunami, and yes, 9/11, our foriegn policy just doesn't add up. 2. Clearly, American apathy is due to a combination of physical distance, cultural misapprehension, racism, and a blissful denial of our military and economic impact around the world...a tough code to crack. 3. On a brighter note, Jon Stewart, a frat boy favorite, recently tried to bridge the divide when he asked how Ali Allawi how Iraq deals with having a "Virginia Tech" everyday: http://www.pbs.org/moyers/journal/04272007/transcript1.html

but I wonder, Chris, if Stewart's efforts, in some ways, don't further prove Paula's point about Americans lacking empathy. Why must we need an intermediary, no less a white male suffering from liberal guilt like Stewart, through whom to experience rage or sorrow for other people's losses? Why can't their rage and sorrow be enough? Why is it that when Stewart asks these questions, Iraqis are humanized, but images of angry, crying, or screaming Iraqis only make us more afraid?

The intermediary is nearly always required in any story of grief, though, as evidenced for instance by Fordham's (and I'd suspect many other campus papers') Observer's framing of the Virginia Tech rampage in terms of Fordham students trying to contact missing friends, family members, etc. The sad fact with Iraq is that much/most of Americans' news comes from white men, so they're bound to be our intermediaries, guilt-ridden or otherwise, most of the time. While not ideal then, I'm resigned to a *first* point of contact being a white male like Stewart here, but my concern lies with whether that contact is at all maintained: in other words, does Stewart's intervention point us in the direction of more appropriate intermediaries, or does the white man's guilt allow viewers confidence that he's intermediary enough?

Avi - I see your point. We Americans are fascinated by "Acts of God" that create victims, but tend to dismiss the long standing poverty/conflicts of others as things that they "brought upon themselves." How we could dare think this about Iraq (of all places) is beyond me. Jonathan - As for the white liberal news anchor, I recall Edward R. Murrow's special on the desperate plight of migrant workers. "Harvest of Shame" was aired just after Thanksgiving. Thus, a long-standing problem (hardly "news") was cleverly tagged to an American tradition of gluttony and excess. So, for me, to tie the ongoing violence in Iraq to our own national grief over a sudden tragedy is a master stroke.

Two points: "public grief" or empathy etc. about such horrors as civilian casualties in Iraq is **never**shown on television broadcast (just like the anger of anti-war protests is for most part censored), so **of course** there are intermediaries....which is a separate question from when and how sheltered North Americans experience "empathy." As media scholars, it seems we would be savvy to how these emotions are shaped and filtered through images and broadcasts! Second...Jon Stewart's conversation with Allawi took place on April 18--two days after...and one must see that Stewart was likely the only "national" anchor brave enough to suggest that American perspective vis VTech and Iraq was out of whack...one should really listen to Stewart in this interview with Allawi (easily found online as it created huge chatter): when these court jesters deliver with serious sincerity instead of satire, it has a **powerful** effect (and white liberal guilt i think is almost beside the point, b/c the point is the power of corporate owned media and getting ANY critical word in edgewise! See the online chatter abt JS and Allawi!) and also, in Bill Moyer's PBS interview with Stewart a few days later (also a must watch) they discuss this watershed moment and its political implications w/in journalism.

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