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Monday, July 14, 2014

How Many Ethnicities Are There?

The title of this post is a trick question. It depends on the subject. If the subject is culpability in killing people, Richard Fernandez of the Belmont Club claims there are only two ethnicities: poor and non-poor.

Rule 1 is that if poor are killing other poor, nobody much cares:
The deep dark secret of media coverage is that poor people killing other poor people is page 20 news.
For example, he asks, how much did you hear about the poor-on-poor conflict called the Second Congo Civil war?
The Second Congo Civil war has killed more people than any conflict since World War 2, perhaps five million people, fifty times more than the combined US casualties of the Korean and Vietnam wars. Have you ever heard of the Congo Civil War?
I had to go to Wikipedia to refresh my memory. I vaguely remember hearing a little something about it, but I don't recall it being headline news:
By 2008, the war and its aftermath had killed 5.4 million people, mostly from disease and starvation, making the Second Congo War the deadliest conflict worldwide since World War II. Millions more were displaced from their homes or sought asylum in neighbouring countries.
Poor-on-poor killings within rich counties are page 20 news as well.  For example, can you remember seeing a news article about even one of the "260 [poor] schoolchildren who were killed in Chicago over a recent three-year period?"

That is in contrast with Rule 2, which is that non-poor-on-non-poor killings are front page news for days on end for each event.  Certainly you've heard of Columbine, Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, and many other such massacres?  Even though the number killed during those events were tiny compared to the number of inner city poor children who were killed during the same period?

Rule 3 is that, at least at the international level, everybody roots for an underdog, so poor can get away with killing non-poor with limited or no condemnation.  For example, many twist rationality beyond recognition (to me) justifying Palestinians lobbing rockets from Gaza into Israel:
It’s those Palestinian rockets that that are dominating the headlines, and that cause even normally sympathetic progressives to waffle in their condemnations of Israel’s ongoing collective punishment of the 1.7 million people corralled in Gaza. Yet there is very little direct, probing discussion of the topic. Is the line between provocation and retaliation really that clear? Is the use of violence to fight violence by some Palestinians somehow abnormal or unique? And what proportion of the population in Gaza is actually involved in the rocket attacks or supports the practice?
But Rule 4 is that non-poor countries may not kill, even to defend themselves.  When Israel retaliates when rockets rain from the sky on their children, an awful lot of the world is outraged.  Yet it's clearly not about merely killing Palestinians as shown by the following graphic from the Belmont Club article:

Syrian civil war casualties vs Gaza

You've probably at least heard of the recent Syrian conflict. But given the vitriol directed at Israel relative to Syria, would've you guessed that almost 50 times as many people died in the Syrian conflict. It's an easy guess when you remember that Rule 4 is used for the Israeli conflicts while Rule 1 is used for the Syrian conflict. Therefore, the Palestinian deaths at the hands of Israel are intolerably outrageous, while the Syrian deaths are page 20 news.

There are, of course, many exceptions to these very general rules, but I find it interesting just how often they accurately predict the reactions to murder and slaughter.


Clovis e Adri said...

I think Rwuanda 1994 makes for a better and more brutal example than Congo, but it makes no difference for your rules.

By focusing on poor/non-poor, or death toll, IMHO you missed the main differentiation among those cases: the general sense (by the public) of possible control to influence the situation.

The poor-on-poor killings in the African case, or Syria, are generally beyond the control of our opinion and actions.

Likewise, the poor-on-poor Chicago kids killings is seen as a general problem of urban violence beyond our control.

Now, due to Israel history (being instituted under the arms of the U.N.), and its partial dependence on the USA, many get the illusion that, if pressured enough, Israel could be influenced to exercize restraint.

So instead of interpreting the outrage as unfair or biased, you could consider it as expressing the higher expectations many have from Israel. The day people start seeing Israel as not that different from Syria, much of the outrage will fade away, but I feel Israelis would regret that far more.

erp said...

Higher expectations that Israel should sit still while their citizens, many of whom are children, are wantonly slaughtered? They've been there and done that. IMO they would have taken care of the problems in the ME quite handily decades ago if they weren't muzzled by the U.S. All Israel's restraint has done is allowed anti-Semitism to rear its ugly head this time with a whole new generation of rabid haters.

Kudos to Hollande who stood up for what's right.

Anonymous said...


Isn't your explanation of the differential treatment of Israelies and Palestinians a rather brutal indictment of rampant racism of such people? In essence it is equivalent of "we can't expect Palestinians to act like people".

Clovis e Adri said...


I don't know what you are reading between my lines that I do not get, but your comment above reflects only your own opinion.

My comment was based only on perceptions of the possibility to influence others. People expect more from Israelis because they believe to be able to influence them more. If I do have no influence over other people (be it Syria or Palestine), does it make me racist? What a strange concept you have of racism...

Bret said...

Clovis wrote: "IMHO you missed the main differentiation among those cases: the general sense (by the public) of possible control to influence the situation."

You're certainly entitled to your (humble) opinion, but then let me ask you this: how would it look different if it was just that people didn't much care?

Clovis e Adri said...

I don't know if I understand your question, Bret.

There are a lot of people who do not care at all, be it poor or rich people dying.

But among those who care a bit, the feeling of being able to influence things do play a greater role, in my (humble) opinion, than your other hypotheses.
My reasoning is truly basic: we instinctively give more thoughts to things we can change than things we can not.

Harry Eagar said...

'For example, can you remember seeing a news article about even one of the "260 [poor] schoolchildren who were killed in Chicago over a recent three-year period?" '

The cry of the man who doesn't read newspapers. Of course I can.

While it is true that most single child murders are treated as local news, at least one was treated as national news for weeks, because it reached into the White House.

Furthermore, big city papers have done long, multipart reports into the child murder issue, repeatedly, and for decades.

It would be more accurate to say that the news editors respond to multiple-death stories, just as they do not report the bedroom fire that kills one person as anything but local news but cover nationally the apartment fire that kills 3. Or the school bus crash that doesn't kill anyone.

These 'rules' of news are traditional and may not be easy to justify by logical argument, but poor/not poor is a minor part of the decision, and usually not part at all.

As for foreign deaths, I recall a lot of attention paid to Serbia-Croatia, full of poor people. It would be accurate to say that directors of national policy are usually reluctant to commit resources unless resources are at stake. But when they do commit, reports follow.

I have followed the Congo warfare in my newspapers for years now.