Saturday, September 1, 2007

A better thought out response

I received a few replies, both from friends and from people we don’t know who read the blog, about my rant against the American media when Hurricane Dean hit Mexico. Some agreed with me, and a few, including some very dear friends, were a little annoyed with me. I responded via email to a friend, and Tom said I should post excerpts of that response on the blog. I was a little resistant because I don’t want to appear to be back pedaling just to make other people happy, but Tom pointed out that I don’t change my position in the response, I just think through and better explain a few of the points. So here it is, with no apologies attached.

The first thing I have to say is I’m glad that you and other people are a little perturbed with what I wrote. That was the point. That means you thought about it enough to take it personally and get annoyed, which is exactly what I wanted, because I think for the most part we all tend to read/hear/see what the media feeds us and not think any more about it.

The next thing is that my response was a quick response to articles that were obviously written and published very quickly in an attempt to get news about the hurricane out as soon as possible after it made landfall. I think that probably means that the things that pissed me off were the opinions (conscious or unconscious) of the individuals who wrote the articles, and if there had been more time between writing and publishing some of things would have been caught and changed or deleted by the editors. And, my response was pretty knee-jerk; the blog entry was posted before noon my time, which was only hours after Dean came ashore. I did read some very good, very informative, and very well balanced articles in the past week, so it’s not the entire American media that annoyed me, just the initial articles. And I also have to admit that the Belize news isn’t any better, but the difference is that it seems that everybody knows that the news we get here is slanted, not always well researched or documented, and presented for effect rather than accuracy, where I think that too many people take what they hear/see in the American media as the truth when the American media has the same problems as the Belize media, and probably media outlets anywhere in the world.

These knee-jerk responses one on top of the other created some poor word choices, both by the writers of the articles (which, by the way, were posted on MSN, NBC, and Fox – not exactly bush-league sources) and by me. On the part of the writers, words like “fortunate” should never be used in the face of a natural disaster or any other human tragedy. There’s nothing fortunate about a hurricane for anyone involved. And the word “only” implies the minimalization of whatever words it is associated with, so when it’s used in front of “indigenous people” and “wooden shacks,” those things are being minimalized and their importance is negated; I read that as it just didn’t matter that the hurricane wiped them out, even though those people lost 100% of whatever they had, and it was “fortunate” that it hit the indigenous people in the wooden shacks. Which brings me to another thing that bothers me, in general, and this is true anywhere in the world – the metrics used to quantify these things are always number of deaths, which I can buy, and money, which doesn’t really cut it with me. If a hurricane wipes out Cancun, that’s a bigger tragedy because there are millions of more dollars’ worth of damage done than if it wipes out a bunch of villages where none of the homes are worth more than $5000US and the total net worth of the population of that village is probably well under $100,000, compared to the millions of dollars of damage if it hits a major tourist area. But, the people in those villages are still losing everything they have, but because it’s “only” a fairly minor dollar amount, it’s a good thing, or at least a significantly less bad thing. I realize that almost everything comes down to money and it’s used because it’s a metric that everybody can understand, but it still shouldn’t be the be-all, end-all measurement for the scope of a tragedy.

I’m sorry that my reference to the suburban tract houses offended you, but again, that’s exactly what it was intended to do, and the fact that you, and probably most Americans who live in that type of housing – which is probably a very significant percentage of Americans – find it offensive that I ridiculed it, shows that you (generic you) do place a value on the type of home people live in, and you value the wooden shacks less than the suburban tract houses. However, just as the suburban tract houses are the norm in the US, the wooden shacks are the norm in Mexico and Belize, and probably most of Central America. And there’s nothing wrong with the wooden shacks – they meet the needs of the people who live in them, just like your suburban tract house meets your needs. In fact, Tom and I now live in one of those wooden shacks, so when you read my slur on your home, you probably felt just about like I felt when I read the news articles de-valuing the wooden shacks. And my point was that I don’t think it’s any more “fortunate” that “only” the wooden shacks were wiped out because of where the hurricane made landfall. It’s on a par with the destruction of the homes in the Midwest and I feel equally bad for Mexicans/Belizeans and the Americans– which isn’t how I’d feel if I allowed my feelings to be swayed by the way the two tragedies were presented in the American news articles I read, since the American losses were presented as much more significant.

My other poor word choice was, in retrospect, my use of “ashamed.” “Embarrassed” would probably be a better word. I didn’t mean for that sentence to be the sum of how I feel about the USA; it was more a feeling like we get when our parents say something in public that we find offensive for some reason, and we don’t want whoever is listening to let that reflect on us. I remember being ashamed/embarrassed once when my mom was visiting us and a Japanese friend who was born in the US but whose parents are Japanese was there for dinner. My mother made some nasty crack about “the Japs who bombed Pearl Harbor” and how the Japanese deserved the atom bombs. I remember talking to my friend afterwards and apologizing, and he told me not to let it bother me, but I still had that uncomfortable feeling, whatever you want to call it. I think this happens pretty frequently between generations, and I’m pretty sure most people my age felt that way about their parents occasionally, and that people my age who have kids are probably doing it to their children. It doesn’t make us love our parents any less, but it’s definitely not a positive feeling, even though we know that based on their values, it’s not a “bad” thing to say. Having the American media make that kind of crack about a place where we’ve recently been and where we’re now living just made me want to tell people that Americans don’t REALLY mean it’s fortunate that their lives were wiped out rather than Cancun’s – but that is what they’re saying.

That said, I guess I do have to admit to a slight lack of patriotism as well. I know in part it’s arrogance on my part, which isn’t a good thing, but I don’t think I’d be a significantly different person if I wasn’t an American. I think I would have done okay and been happy no matter where I was born. I’m not saying that I don’t appreciate – and use – the rights and freedoms we’re afforded by being American, I’m just saying that I think it’s very possible to get along without them. I also think – and I thought this before we moved out of the country and I believe it even more now – that Americans tend to have an almost childlike ego about being American, thinking we’re the world superpower, thinking everybody wants to be us – and the rest of the world doesn’t really give a damn. I think I started thinking this quite a while ago when we were visiting a friend in Quebec, and I realized from what she said that while we (Americans) were impeaching Bill Clinton, the rest of the world was laughing and thought that his antics were more deserving of a sitcom than an impeachment. I have a little bit of a problem here in Belize because right now the Iraq war seems to be the political and possibly even cultural center of our American lives, but we don’t meet anybody here who says anything more than “Why are you doing that?” and then goes on about their business and doesn’t give it another thought. And it’s not just Belizeans; there are lots of people from lots of other countries here for many of the same reasons that Tom and I are here, and that seems to be the consensus of everyone we meet.

Finally, I’m aware that it could be bad PR to publish stuff like this on the blog since potential future guests could be alienated. But, if somebody doesn’t want to stay here at some point because they don’t agree with my politics, I guess I don’t really care. I also had a few very positive responses about that posting, so for every person that doesn’t come because they don’t like me because I think and say things they don’t agree with, we may have another who wants to come because they believe we’re politically like-minded. Tom and I actually did discuss whether it was wise to post something like that, and we agreed that it’s our blog, and we can say what we think. Tom’s parents have recommended numerous things be censored at different points in time, but I don’t want to write only the generic vanilla things that are sure not to offend anybody, because they’re also not very interesting. Everybody is not going to agree with me all the time, and I learned when I was teaching that I’d just make myself sick if I always tried to say and do things to make everybody happy, because it’s just not going to happen. Of course I don’t want to offend my friends or piss off perfect strangers, but my real friends won’t hate me for it (or they wouldn’t have been friends way before now!), and we’ll just have a good discussion about it, which is sort of fun. As far as the perfect strangers go, I’d hope that people wouldn’t dislike each other based on individual opinions, and if they do, I don’t really care to meet that type of person anyway.


Sandy Azancot said...

Yes Ma'am I do believe you hit the nail on the head!

Julian Foster said...

Well, Marge... you said it correctly -- it is your blog. And I agree with your views on the mindset that is exposed at these times.

Which I am thoroughly enjoying reading!!!

Julian Foster (Spartanburg, SC)