Saturday, June 8, 2013

tragedy and statistics

The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin (1879-1953) is credited with the icy and unnervingly-accurate quote, "One death is a tragedy. A million deaths are a statistic."

Joseph Stalin
The observation is true in the public square. But more tellingly, it is true in the human heart. Some things are just too huge to find an appropriate reaction and so the statistical sound bites are brought to bear: For example, war is "awful," however inadequate the word "awful" might be.

By contrast, when the house cat slaughtered by a gang of thoughtless boys ... the gorge rises with an enfolding and comprehending revulsion. A tragedy.

But little or large, tragedy or statistic, one element seems to be constant -- the need/willingness to forget. Those who assert they will "never forget" may honor a particular tragedy or statistic, but the actual ability to remain in a high state of horror or despair or even joy dwindles in the course of time. Is it laziness or willfulness or just in the nature of things to pigeon-hole and displace what once blazed like fury?

Currently, the news is delighted and aghast at the tendrils of governmental intrusion into Americans' private lives -- secretly collecting millions upon millions of communications as an alleged means of assuring the safety of the nation. Like the Roman Catholic church, the government is busy defending its actions by asserting that the safety of the nation, which is defined in decidedly unsafe terms, comes at a price. You can't have heaven without swallowing a hell we will define for you.

Millions upon millions of emails and other communications ... it's so huge as to defy the mind. Oh well.

The news media are all over the story like white on rice. A feeding frenzy.

Meanwhile the story of a single cat drops off the front pages. Pfc. Bradley Manning, 25, was news when his trial began Monday. The army intelligence analyst is accused of the single biggest release of classified documents in American history. The tale that might tell all secrecy tales is put aside because ... well, because to keep the eye focused on a single point, however horrific or serious, is not a choice the media (or perhaps anyone else) is willing to make. It takes too much energy.

Today, for example, the BBC, a pretty good news service, could do no better in the tragedy exemplified by Manning than to offer up a five-day old story and 'analysis' by Mark Mardell, the North America editor. The news was stale and the analysis was as brief as it was bereft of any compelling observation ... tepid, mediocre and it made me wonder why the BBC would bother to run such lack-luster observation. If you don't have anything to say, well, don't say it. It's not that I wanted it to agree with me but rather that I wanted it to agree with its own substantive self. But there was no 'there' there ... or if there was, it was more worthy of a high-school sophomore.

Manning is a tragedy in my mind, I'll admit. But as I watch the upsurge in concern about the demeaning of American rights, I can see why Manning, like the secret harvesting of American communications, may be consigned to the realm of statistics. Even the slaughter of a house cat cannot maintain a lofty, if tragic, perch.

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