When Do We Pay Attention to a Place?
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ROGER ROSENBLATT: Something bad is happening in Central Africa again. It involves Zaire, I think–Zaire and Rwanda–or perhaps Burundi. It involves the Hutu and the Tutsis, I’m pretty sure. And refugees, it always involves refugees, and starvation and warring factions and sick people. Fragile children, mothers with doleful eyes–it always involves them.
That is how America has come to see Central Africa and a lot of other places as well. After the Cold War went South and there was no reason to compete for the minds and bodies of millions of the world’s endangered species, ours, a great deal of the globe became elsewhere. Elsewhere is deliberately unfathomable territory. It is another name for the places we do not wish to understand, a mental state we’ve imposed on areas that are someplace to themselves but are elsewhere to us.
They might as well have fallen off the earth, like chips of land in a mud slide, and they are always far away, even if they are on the next block. The television becomes a telescope. We take note, shrug, sigh a little sorrow, and flip the remote. The movie “China Town” dealt with the idea of elsewhere nicely. China Town was the place where dark, terrible things happened and were left to happen, untouched and unexplained by the outside. It was simply assumed that China Town meant elsewhere. Obscured by its own rules and morals, it was never to be understood by the West, even though it existed under Western eyes. But many parts of America are elsewhere. There are quarters of the inner-cities where the police have given up and no longer patrol, affecting a kind of triage. The poor are bound to stab, club, and drug one another to death, but that is elsewhere.
Pockets of China are elsewhere. Pockets of the Russian republics too. Does anyone know or care what is happening in Afghanistan these days? You remember Afghanistan. We didn’t participate in the 1980 Olympics because of Afghanistan. Where there is little American governmental interest, there is little journalistic presence. You think it would work the other way.
But even when there are pictures, there are only pictures.
Bosnia was elsewhere for a while, but it’s getting there again. Somalia, a brief somewhere, is back to elsewhere. Slavery and slaughter in Sudan has been going strong for six years or so. There, unlike Bosnia, the Muslims are the ethnic cleansers and the Christians and animists the victims. That’s the main difference between Sudan and Bosnia. “Any man’s death diminishes me.”
But not in places for which Americans have developed a heart neither warm nor cold, just distant. Perhaps one’s conscience has become elsewhere. The situation in the Sudan is to be lamented and regretted, so people say. But most of all it is to be consigned to mystery, like China Town.
If you determine that murder is incomprehensible, it relaxes the moral obligation to do something about it, or if you decide to help out a little, you don’t stick with it because you’ve prejudged the situation to be fated, to by cyclical, to be there. Something bad is happening in Central Africa again, or is it Detroit, or Denver, or China Town, or your own mind, whatever. It’s inexplicable, beyond us. That’s the phrase, is it not? Beyond us.
I’m Roger Rosenblatt.