arguing tragedy with a communist

Kelly, UBHH newbie Tim and I had a run-in with the ever-opinionated 27th Comrade over the Virginia Tech tragedy at this week’s UBHH. Our passionate young communist argued that Americans deserve what they get and shouldn’t make a big deal out of things like this because far more than 33 people die from violence, preventable illness or sheer neglect each day in Africa because of things America has done or failed to do. Kelly and Tim were ruffled, and I think the appropriate response to insensitivity and callousness isn’t more of the same. Still, I get his point…sort of.

The VA Tech shootings earned far more American media coverage than any event in Africa last week, despite the fact that Nigeria had hotly contested elections, Somalia is exploding, the Ugandan peace talks resumed and Zimbabwe is always in trouble. What makes the fates of these students any more media-worthy than the fates of thousands of Africans?

Well, location, for one — Americans want to read news about other Americans, and papers need to sell. Ugandan coverage of Somalia is from the Ugandan peacekeeper angle, and neither the Monitor nor the New Vision talked at all about the unrest in Kirkuk last week, so you can’t blame just the American media for being narrow-minded.

So let’s talk about foreign policy. By now pretty much everyone admits that American involvement in the Horn of Africa in the 1990’s was worse than worthless — approximately 85,624 books have been written about the terrible things we did there. I’d be one of the first to say that the HIV/AIDS programs we’re pursuing aren’t always the best course of action — supporting Martin Ssempa’s public condom bonfires is probably contributing to, rather than stemming, unprotected sex among infected teenagers. But Janet Museveni’s championing ineffective family planning methods just as hard, and the West isn’t exactly rallying around Mugabe’s latest antics or trying all that hard to keep Obasanjo in power.

Yes, America has been and continues to be stupid and occasionally harmful when it comes to Africa. But the majority of deaths on the continent aren’t solely attributable to the U.S. any more than to colonialism or corruption or lack of media coverage or an environment hospitable to rapidly spreading fatal diseases, and the students who were murdered last week don’t deserve to be used as part of a transatlantic morality scale that needs to be balanced.

Pointing fingers only goes so far, and that’s where I start to butt heads with the 27th Comrade. Tragedy is tragedy wherever it happens, and I think you could have picked your argument — and your audience — a little better.