/ 26 October 2023

The weight of the dead

The Wax Candle Glows In The Dark.
Our grief for people we have not personally known is informed by the narratives and stories we are exposed to – but these stories are not equally told

Mourid Barghouti, the Palestinian poet, writes that “Each is equal to his death”: 

the cloud dies raining, 

jasmine dies spreading its fragrance,

the cypress dies on its way to the stars

In the ordinary course of things grief begins as fire. For a person immobilised by the first agonies of that fire the disjuncture with the ordinary flow of life generates vertigo. Later, as balance is regained, the work of grieving cools pain into memory, memory that brings what has been lost into the present. Jasmine still spreads its fragrance. 

Along with the recognition of the weight of loss the work of grieving requires time and space. Grief cannot be given its due when, in the words of the Greek poet Yannis Ritsos, “There is no room for sorrow to stand and braid her hair.” 

When we grieve for people we have not known in person, for people elsewhere in the world, the room for sorrow is built from stories. Good reporting, novels or films can build the space for us to develop some kind of understanding, some kind of empathy. 

When collective horror has befallen people and, whether through reporting or fiction, we find ourselves brought before even a few of their faces, a part can begin to give some sense of the meaning of the whole. 

It is one thing for a person with no familial connection to the Shoah to be told that it took six million lives. It is another for that person to have read Anne Frank’s diary or watched Schindler’s List as a child. The political work that has been done to insist that these six million lives are valued, and the wealth of cinema, novels, memoirs, memorials and more that give texture to this insistence, has built the room for sorrow. Each intervention enlarges it.

But for a person in the Western sphere of political and cultural influence there is very little room, if any, to sit with the sorrow of the more than five million lives lost during the war in the Congo, or the more than a million lives taken by the invasion of Iraq. 

The power relations that determine which books are in a high school library, what appears on the television news and which films are streamed are not entirely fixed. Sometimes there is the sort of steady cultural change that has enabled gay characters to be made visible and presented in respectful and empathetic ways in recent decades. 

There is always the possibility of unexpected insurgency. A film from Palestine may suddenly win a global audience. It may shape a child in Stuttgart or Lagos in profound ways, with results that will only become manifest in years to come.

But while these power relations are not wholly impregnable their dominance in the West and its wider sphere of influence is overwhelming, and very well fortified. For an average person in, say, London or Johannesburg, it is much easier to have some sense of the human cost of the war in Ukraine than the wars in Yemen or Ethiopia.

Estimates of the death tolls in these wars are all provisional and contested and will all be revised in years to come. One set of current estimates has the death toll in Ukraine at 230  000, Yemen at 377  000 and Ethiopia at 800  000. 

Running these numbers against the number of words and seconds dedicated to each of these wars in our media would give us a devastating ratio of the relative value placed on European and African lives. 

The huge differences in the value accorded to European and African lives is not just a matter of words and seconds, of who is given attention and who is not. There is also the matter of the quality of that attention, its degree of empathy, and so on, as well as the mode in which those with the power to make public meaning present themselves and their work. 

We have all seen the overweening and hectoring moral arrogance with which white journalists on Western television networks demand that anyone taking a position against the horrors being rained down on the people of Gaza condemn Hamas before they speak. There has never been a demand for a ritual condemnation of the US state and its military, or the Israeli state and its military, as a condition of entry to discussion of international affairs. 

The white protagonists in our public sphere who shill for the West are animated by a similar arrogance. They are wholly intelligent, mature, worldly and virtuous and their critics stupid, childlike, naïve, corrupt, captured and immoral. 

The motives of a person noting that the war in Ukraine has been treated very differently to the wars in Yemen and Ethiopia, or the devastation of Gaza, can only be perverse. The destruction of Iraq, along with the devastation of Libya, Haiti and other countries at the hands of the US and its allies, carries no moral weight.

The radical difference in the value accorded to the lives of European people and Arab and African people is rooted in an inability to see all people as people. Another name for this contempt is racism. A similar contempt is often evident at the point where race and impoverishment coincide at home.

Academic Jane Duncan has shown that in the immediate aftermath of the state massacre of striking miners in 2012 workers made up just 4% of the sources quoted in media reports. This is not the work of a democratic media, and it is not an anomaly. 

In July 2021, a leading online publication asserted, as fact, that gunmen, members of a dangerous criminal gang armed with ammunition previously stolen by rampaging looters, fired on the police in the Madala shack settlement in Durban. Readers were told that “officers were taking rifle and handgun fire from all directions, and police vehicles were peppered by gunfire”, that the police returned fire and that in “the mire a 33-year-old woman was killed”. 

The woman was not named, no sources were given for the story, no residents from the settlement, including the many people who witnessed the shooting, were quoted, and neither of the two people invited to give comment as “experts” had any knowledge of the specific events in question. The writer and both the people given voice in the story were white.

On four separate occasions since the publication of this article, people with a credible claim to knowledge of these events have placed a very different and consistent set of claims in the public domain. They are as follows. 

Heavily armed police and soldiers descended on the settlement. They did not have search warrants and broke into people’s homes looking for “stolen goods” and taking goods for which residents could not produce receipts, mostly food. 

Residents began shouting at the police, and some threw stones. The police and soldiers were not fired on at any point but opened fire, killing Zamekile Shangase, 32, who was not part of the crowd and was standing beside her shack when she was shot. 

It is impossible to imagine that the police or army could murder a wealthy white woman living in a gated community in this way, and equally impossible to imagine that if that did somehow happen that any major media organisation would cover the murder in this way. 

The article that criminalised a whole community, legitimised a police murder, saw no need to speak to any of the witnesses, and did not name the victim of that murder or present her in human terms, has not been withdrawn or corrected. A journalist has not been dispatched to write an adequate report. There has been no apology. 

As Frantz Fanon wrote, in the logic of colonialism “they die there, it matters not where, nor how”.

At its best the work of making public meaning is as much a vocation as it is a job. It can be undertaken with rigour, empathy, creativity and courage. It can make what has been rendered invisible visible, humanise people who have been dehumanised, speak truth to power, enrich debate and be a democratising force. But it is not always a noble project of defending some entirely unreflective idea of what counts as truth. 

It is also an exercise of power, sometimes directly embedded in systems of domination and often operating within their logic and assuming, as oppression always does, the virtue of that logic. When that assumption intersects with a sense of civilisational superiority on the part of the writer or editor there can be a blinding narcissism. 

The result can be a wholly uncritical acceptance of the algebra of oppression in which lives in countries like Yemen and Iraq count for very little, the horror crashing through Gaza counts for far less than the suffering of people in Israel or Ukraine, and the life of an impoverished African woman killed by the police in Durban is accorded a value close to zero.

None of us can do work that is equal to the weight of the world, to the deaths that make and remake it. We all inhabit and have been shaped by a world in which the room that has been made to enable us to sit with the sorrow of some deaths has not been made for others. To do what we can as well as we can we need a strong sense of the imperative of humility as ethic and method.

As Mahmoud Darwish, the greatest of the Palestinian poets, wrote, “Narcissus wasn’t as beautiful as he thought.”

Richard Pithouse writes about politics, music and poetry.