Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Good and Bad of Bad News

It benefits creatures to become aware of dangers as these arise. The presumption is that they will flee or shelter themselves in ways proper to each. But animals have no access to media of mass communications. They will perceive dangers that genuinely threaten them, but they don’t have to agonize over disasters even a hundred miles away, never mind those taking place on other continents. It was during the Crimean War, midway through the nineteenth century, fought by Russia on one side and assorted other powers (France, Britain, Ottomans) on the other that the telegraph brought instant news of the dreadful slaughter to London and Paris—and hence gave rise to the profession of nursing when Florence Nightingale and others were horrified by reading current, almost instant news. Now, of course, that was a good thing. Not much later (1859) another dreadful butchery, the Battle of Soliferno in Lombardy, gave rise to the Red Cross. Another good thing. Institutional reactions to human-caused disasters continued at a grander scale yet; there is the formation of the League of Nations which the Great War stimulated, and the UN, its successor, arising from World War II.

In the Civil War, the telegraph had the same aura and importance as the Internet still has. Soldiers took every opportunity to communicate home using it. Since then communications have surpassed anything known before: TV, satellites—I wave a hand. It is now possible to warn us of dangers arising in places we shall never see (except on television) and never visit (unless we happen to be soldiers). A veritable downpour of bad news greets us at any time we choose to turn the faucet. The very density of this messaging—and the frequency of our realization that we can’t do a damn thing about this mayhem, except, perhaps send money—leads to a numbing. The scale is too vast, the actors are beyond the human scale. Media-based all-purpose soothing issues as promptly as each upheaval of danger—from the Oval Office, from learned professors speaking of Nigeria, but from Harvard, of Kurdistan, but from California. The rising impulses of today’s Florence Nightingales flicker and then die as fast—unless they morph into an urge to join some meaningless protest or other sure to have absolutely no effect at all.

In Kyrgyzstan the Kyrgyz Turkic majority is killing Uzbeks. Lordy, lord. We can’t even spell these words. And that’s just one story of some evil boil erupting thousands of miles from us...while hundreds of miles away the Supreme Court contemplates whether to review the case of a man from Canada we sent to Syria to be tortured...

If my trees had communications of this sort—never mind my squirrels or my flocks of sparrows—would we be safe in our homes? Or would the whole environment begin to writhe in horrid agonies and the sidewalks buckle as the roots revolt?

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