Is It a Big Deal If the Paris Attack Gets More Coverage?

There is a distinction between “sadness” and “shock.” Most people have been assuming “sadness” is the motive for the international community’s condolences towards the victims of the recent string of global tragedies, since few other emotional responses seem reasonable. The obvious political implication from this narrative is that only Western lives matter. However, what if shock were the motivation for the world’s responses? Does that still mean there is a double standard?

Consider an analogous situation in your life. Would you expect your friends and family’s response to you being attacked in your own house compared to on a high-crime street late at night to be similar? For myself, being attacked in my own house would be more noteworthy, since I expect my home to be much safer than the dangerous street. This doesn’t mean that my life is valued differently in each situation, and I presume my friends and family would feel equally sad no matter where I am attacked. But surely an attack in my home would garner a greater reaction. This is because “shock” is determined by the violation of an expectation, not by valuations of the tragedy’s magnitude. Although it is unfair, Europe is meant to be a safer and more stable place, so an attack comes at a greater shock. Let us compare France with Lebanon for instance: Wikipedia lists 59 attacks in Lebanon since 2004 to France’s 13. In saying this, I do not mean to compare suffering, but only to illustrate expectations. This theory would also predict that an attack in Japan, where violent crimes are largely non-existent and radicalized demographics are uncommon, would receive wider coverage than France.

When unstable regions are attacked, we understand the tragedy, but we only see it as a representation of an existing trend of violence that we expect to continue. However, when the West is attacked, we are disturbed that such events could even occur. The West sees extremism as something we have already defeated, a remnant of weak governance that our strong democracies have overcome. Even the rest of the world shares a similar view, in which they look to Western political structures and stability as models for theirs. The shock of a Western attack is surprising to all. Does this mean that we are saddened more by destruction in the West? I don’t think so. We can still show equal sympathy to all sufferers.

One may make the argument that the loss of human lives is such an atrocity that all instances of it should be received with the same level of outrage. I find this unrealistic, as the psychological strength of desensitization is too strong for us to will away.

But the West is not completely off the hook. The disparity in coverage also reveals things about the underlying structures of the international system and West. First, it reveals our pessimism. In order to be outraged, we must first be able to conceive of an alternative. But the neglect of Beirut and Iraq underscores the belief that nothing could have been done, that the Middle East is destined for violence, and that only the West has control over history. To shield ourselves from the guilt of this perception, we retreat from the global world so that the daily suffering of others do not faze us. And it is only when this shield is breached, such as through a terrorist attack, that we are forced to confront the world. Even those outraged exhibited this bias; if they were truly as conscientious as they claim, then we would have seen social media bombarded by images of Beirut before Paris. Yet, not even my international or Arab friends did so. Instead, it takes an offensive against the powers that be to motivate cosmopolitanism.

Next, it shows how little the international system is based on rational design and institutions. Perhaps in a more self-conscious world, the same precautions and effort taken in the North would be applied to the South, but the international system has faith that it could rise to the occasion without much institutional force. The problem isn’t in our ideas however, but our institutions. The actions of many would have you believe that cultural shifts are what make or break the world, and that somehow we can end global oppression through heavy introspection. If we want to change the world though, then we must think materially. We must ask what policies and incentives make Beirut expected and Paris shocking, not what ideas do so. International forums for discussions and soft power are not sufficient. Put more bluntly, sovereignty makes us complacent to our allies, and internationalism – the belief that equal, but separate nations can create utopia through cooperation – is innately flawed.

Finally, the disparity in coverage further confirms the West’s dominance. Counterterrorism has not always been a science, and for the longest time, it was governed through intuition. But 9/11 was the beginning of a new regime. Since then, the War on Terror became an innate feature of the world order, in the same way poverty or climate change is. That is to say, terror is not something we think we can realistically defeat, but only manage. So, through the backing of the US, counterterrorism became technical and precise. This showed that only the great powers of the West can fundamentally change the system and realign every single other nation’s goals. This is necessarily frustrating for most. Here lies the motivation of China, Russia, and the developing world: greed for sure, but frustration that they cannot control their own destiny as well.

How to Intellectualize the Yale Protests

Progressives are having a difficult time justifying the Yale protests, as well as similar events such as the Black Lives Matter interruption of Bernie Sanders and the Baltimore Uprising. These “social justice warrior (SJW)” movements often lack overarching consistency and intelligible discourse, and so it is difficult to academically rationalize them. The consequence of this difficulty appears to be a split in the Left’s support. However, I think the Yale protests represent two mutual forces in progressive politics: identity politics and emotional suffrage.

The Yale moment provides damning evidence for the follies of identity politics. Such politics have been a staple of American liberals since the formation of the New Left in the 60s, to the dismay of Marxian Old Leftists. Identity politics fails because it assumes a static world of categories, and thus doesn’t attempt to liberate people from their identities. It refuses to acknowledge how identities have been shaped by capitalism’s elites, rather than being innate features of the human condition. As such, identity politics aims to elevate different groups to the level of their oppressors, ultimately establishing a world of inward-looking and alienated groups that shield themselves from any traces of discourse, criticism, and civility. Marxists and humanists however, see identity as arbitrary, constructed, and thus, irrelevant. Although they will passionately engage with the emancipation efforts of various perceived groups, these struggles are only on the sidelines. Materialist concerns – class, poverty, and even the concrete goal to attain full citizenship for Africa-Americans – remain central. To Marx, labor is the source of value for everything, and identity politics violates this by placing value on what one is perceived to be rather than what one actually does. While white males dominate the world, the oppressive framework is not the “white male power structure.” To socialists, oppression comes from the capitalist power structure, through which racism, sexism, bigotry, and yes, identity, arises. To clarify, this doesn’t mean that issues such as racism and sexism are secondary to economics, but that these forms of oppression are themselves forms of class struggles. Therefore, we shouldn’t compartmentalize various kinds of oppressions, but treat them as part of a cohesive unjust system. The difficulties of identity however, are not completely lost to the New Left, and so they fill the void with intersectionality theory. But, I believe we will soon realize that the problems of identity will not go away just because we further specify them.

Yale’s protests illustrate these problems in major ways. First, the protests demonstrate the twisted bargaining incentives of a politics based on identity. An identity group primarily cares for itself, and so it makes radical claims that best attain its narrow goals. The ends is to equalize groups, and the means to get there is not important. The consequence is that these groups can make inconsistent demands. For instance, Yale’s protesters demand administrative policing of student costumes since it aids their goals to end a racist culture, but simultaneously oppose actual policing as oppressive. Granted, police brutality has been harmful, but you would think that a community well-experienced with violations of civil liberties would be hesitant to extend the reaches of another official body into daily lives; as one Yale instructor noted, it is odd that the protesters at Yale decided to project their anger at administrators rather than at the racist fraternity itself. But such is not the case, because when administrators enforce political correctness, it becomes the will of the SJWs – the in-group – that are forced. This is not to say that bullying and oppression is protected under the guise of “free expression,” and thus free from official control, but that not all offensive acts should be considered bullying. And while cultural change requires top-down management, we must be careful not violate our right, although surely immoral, to be racist (in my opinion, Yale’s original email represents a valid approach to official management, while the extra provisions the protesters call for do not).

Second, the Yale protests show how identity politics highlights in-group/out-group distinctions. To SJWs, Leftist critiques no longer exists; all that remains is an “us vs. them” mentality. If you are not an ally, which is to say a non-judgmental and silent partner, then you are the enemy. Consider the video of Nicholas Christakis, which shows how he personally sympathizes with the views of the protesters; like them, he considers cultural appropriation immoral. Likewise, his wife’s email only sought to question the authority of the administration, not to challenge the obvious bigotry of racist costumes. I would imagine both of them share similar views, if not methods, with most progressives. However, since they do not adhere 100% to the beliefs of the protesters, they are cast as conservative bigots. But not even Marxism should gets a pass from emphasizing in-group identity, and when French Marxists began to do so, Marx declared, “I am not a Marxist.”

In some ways, identity politics wants everyone to be their mother: compassionate and irrationally supportive, tirelessly working to create a safe home. However, socialists see their comrades as siblings: on their side, but willing to kick their butts if they are being stupid. Leftism ought not to adopt the symbol of mothering “safe spaces” or the language of “solidarity” and “allies,” because such tactics presumes that our support of movements is only in name. In reality, at least to socialists, fighting oppression always helps us, no matter where that fight is held. There are no such things as allies. Only soldiers. To quote the aboriginal activist Lilla Watson, “if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

That being said, I do not think we should dismiss Yale’s SJWs. These movements are emotionally-charged, which you should know if you saw the confrontational Yale footage. As such, they represent a justified symptom of a corrupt system. They are irrational and emotional reactions to an oppressive environment, and they should be approached with sympathy, not intellectualization. It is akin to how one ought not to punch someone who insults her dying mother since it would lead to escalation, but it is still understandable if one does. Or I’m sure many of you have dealt with a frustrated friend, in which even though both you and your friend knew you were right, you still found it prudent not to bring it up.

Perhaps the emotional explanation not only underlies the SJW movements of the past few years, but of identity politics as a whole. After all, the 60s was characterized by a disillusioned Left vis-à-vis Stalinism. It appeared that the “rational” method for emancipation that socialism promised has turned into oppressive authoritarianism. Therefore, if intellectual progressivism doesn’t work, then fuck it, let’s yell and scream since that is all we have left. But while the reaction of marginalized groups are not only justified, but expected, they do not offer a practical way to achieve freedom. We would be wise to remember that ending oppression is not the only goal, because equally important is how we do it.


Anarchism is More Oppressive

Being relatively ignorant of anarchism, and its American cousin libertarianism, I read James Scott’s Two Cheers for Anarchism to see what all the fuss was about. The fear of the anarchist is legitimate; history has often shown States abusing their power. However, it seems to me that anarchists and libertarians are too concerned about “official” forms of oppression, which is understandable as these sources of power are more salient. But as far as I know, anarchists lack a compelling argument for how to deal with informal sources of oppression, and because of that, I must remain pro-government. Even if government is inefficient and oppressive, it would still be a lesser evil to the alternative.

Oppression can broadly be categorized into two forms: official oppression and informal social oppression. The former is wielded by the so-called State, which presumably acts as an autonomous agent, and the latter is located within the community or family. My problem with anarchism is that it takes for granted the oppression that society can impose on its members. Scott for instance, notes examples in history of “anarchists” societies existing in peace and stability, but neglects to mention how these societies possess rigid social hierarchies that enforce class and gender-based roles. Even if we go back to idyllic tribal societies, power is centered in the patriarchal family.

The implicit claim for anarchists and libertarians is that the family and community are justified in exercising power, while the government generally is not. For instance, libertarians may find the government oppressive for forcing their kids to go to school or for over-regulating vices. Yet, these same people may find it legitimate for a parent to force a child to go to school or to beat a child for smoking pot. Perhaps I am missing something, but I don’t see any reason a priori that a parent should be able to conduct these acts, while the government shouldn’t. Oppression is located in the act, and oppression is oppression is oppression. If it is oppressive to beat children, then it doesn’t matter who commits the act. If it is oppressive to tell children to go to school, then it doesn’t matter who issues the order. Often times it seems like rather than fighting oppression, libertarians and anarchists simply desire to give the patriarchal family a monopoly on oppression. The consequences of this policy would be terrible, as it will allow the family or community to oppress its members rather than to pursue what is best for them. An anarchists/libertarian may say that only a community knows what is best for itself, but I am not as optimistic. Societies may know what is best to maintain their stability and efficiency, but I am skeptical that they knows the best way to ensure human freedom.

Consider crime. The typical anarchist arguments I find for crime is community-based. The community will self-enforce laws, and a community tribunal will dictate punishments for crime. But is this really just? History has shown community tribunals executing and ostracizing members, which I don’t find a very liberating philosophy for justice.

Freedom means more than freedom from structural boundaries. It also means freedom from social judgement and norms. A society cannot be free if it forces people to adhere to arbitrary community norms. The cliché examples are racism and sexism, but consider less visible forms of social oppression. The child bullied for dressing a certain way. The man in an African tribe that doesn’t want to participate in rituals. The rural American who doesn’t believe in God. In my opinion, subtle social oppression is less desirable than official oppression. At least when the government oppresses me, I have a locus for aggression. When my friends and family oppress me, there is no one I can turn to or attack. While State oppression may make me fear for life, social oppression can turn me suicidal.

The most consistent basis for anarchism I can think of is some type of moral relativism. The argument would state that since morals are inherently relative, there doesn’t need to be a government force to promote “moral” policies. As such, it is alright if communities dictate their government and social norms differently. Perhaps one anarchist society will find corporal punishment for children acceptable, while another will not. Perhaps some will find executing heinous criminals justified, while others will find it cruel. Since there is no overarching morality to dictate these decisions, all we can rely on is community consensus. I admit there is basis for this argument, and a similar argument forms the basis of even a big government ideology like democratic socialism. But this argument is self-defeating for anarchists and libertarians. If there is no moral basis for anything, then how can one make the moral claim that State oppression is bad? It’s contradictory. Personally, I think certain moral norms exist independent of culture. For instance, no matter who or where you are, rape is immoral. Furthermore, the reason I support democracy is because I recognize the fallibility of humans, and so a democratic market of ideas is the best system to minimize injustices we may not recognize. And one of the ways representative democracy avoids the relativist and “mob rule” problem of anarchism is its constitutional framework, which provides a knowable and structured way for people to organize their lives.

I will admit though, that I still do not have a comprehensive understanding of anti-government theories. For instance, many anarchists protests social issues that are upheld through culture rather than official institutions. However, as far as I can tell, the anarchist solution for social problems appears to be “yell at bad people until they start acting good.” That’s not a tactic I can support, and until I hear a more practical anarchist strategy, I must remain a government-loving socialist.