“The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
-Karl Marx. 18th Brumaire
It is no longer our ancestors who most haunt us. If anything, they seem but pale spectres compared to the horror which afflicts us daily in every paper, on every news channel and site, torn from the restless grave to be conjured up again and again for so many indignant statuses and tweets: the ghosts of dead children.
And what is the political significance of these dead children whose countless lurid stories permeate any and every discussion of current affairs? Perhaps the fact that to even broach such a question feels horribly inappropriate and heartless is somewhat indicative: by virtue of their a priori innocence, the death of a child is the universal tragedy par excellence, for which no rationalization or justification can be offered.
This very true fact, however, has been subtly elevated into a deafening taboo on contextualization: a child’s death is so utterly beyond explanation that to even discuss, in any meaningful way, its particular conditions is taken as a loathsome muddying of a crime so purely despicable as to make desperate handwringing the only remotely acceptable response.
But, of course, children do die in particular circumstances– as do many men and women often elided by this discourse for lacking the same ability to shock and disturb. And they almost always do so under conditions which intentional human acts played a significant part in bringing about.
However emotionally unpalatable a terrain it may be to navigate, the discourse of dead children which dominates so much media coverage and public discussion, particularly of foreign affairs, must be soberly recognized for what it is: part and parcel of a concerted war on context. If theory strives to grasp particular events in their dialectical relationship to a historical totality, ideology offers us the, at best, sterile juxtaposition of pure particularities and hollow ‘universal truths.’
The potency and utility of this coupling of the event devoid of context on the one hand, and the empty universality of the cliche on the other, should not be underestimated: it is often mobilized towards a sort of reactionary synthesis of thought without abstraction and abstraction without thought– the culmination of which is perhaps best illustrated in what we might call the growing phenomenon of ‘news’-cum-’Human Interest Story.’
For quite some time, one could say with relative confidence that few modes of ‘journalism’ were more attractive to the savvy media mogul than that of “Human Interest Stories.” Simple, vapid, neutered– no one to offend, no sponsors to upset, and some saccharine sweet takeaway, always ‘non-partisan’ and commonsensical in the most ideological way: “Wow, forget the big stuff, a few simple good deeds on all our parts, really will make the world a better place!” But perhaps a human interest story’s most attractive characteristic is precisely what it is not: news.
Human Interest stories are journalism without content, non-events in any sort of world-historical sense and as such offer much more pliable clay than those stubborn facts about this or that tricky geopolitical issue. To wrangle up the details of some real, important issue into a narrative palpable for sponsor and ‘base’ alike is no easy task, particularly for those with, say, a conscience or vague concern for the truth– somehow, bless their souls, dedicated journos from the New York Times to CNN do these fardels bear. But a man saving a cat from a burning building, or someone defending a homeless person, or founding another masterbatory charity: these are supple subjects, liable to all sorts of narrativization and presentation.
There is, however, one unfortunate setback to Human Interest Stories, at least in their traditional form, which severely delayed their ascendance: however naively, many journalists have quite stubbornly insisted on being able to call the bulk of their work actual journalism; the population, too, has persistently held on to the notion that they want the news, or at the very least held on to the warm, self-affirming idea that they’re ‘aware’ and ‘up-to-date’– have held onto the idea, that is, that they would very much like to be the kind of person who reads the news. Even what would probably best be understood as journals of imaginative fiction, like the Daily News, still come packaged in that old Newspaper format– a sort of ironic anachronism, like how you can buy iPod Cases that look like cassettes.
Of late, however, it must be said: something better has indeed been found. Instead of merely replacing news with Human Interest stories, it may very well be accurate to suggest that we’ve entered the era of News as Human Interest story. News as the universal outrage of ‘dead children’. News as the timeless tragedy of the depoliticized ‘refugee’. News as executed journalists and the grief of their families. In short, News not as facts, nor even stories, but as cliche morality fables.
This mode of presentation fixates upon the ‘relatable’ ‘human’ element in the event– in its more left-oriented guises, often under the pretext of using this to stimulate empathy or identification that might be mobilized towards some vague future action. In reality, however, these real events, in all their concrete horror, become transmuted into empty tropes easily stripped of such ‘cynical’ and ‘cold’ analyses of their broader causes and reconstituted as empty tropes easily absorbed into the dominant ideology which masked and enabled their occurrence in the first place.
This is why decontextualization of this sort, it must be stressed, is not merely de-politicization, but re-politicization. If capital ‘vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks,’ the peculiar perversity of modern imperialism is its penchant for zombification: unsatisfied with leaving its victims mangled and lifeless, it re-animates and re-casts them as set pieces in narcissistic bourgeois morality plays.
This is why when the more virulently reactionary voices try to reduce Palestinian children to “little terrorists,” or inform us that unarmed teenage African American victims of police brutality are “no angels,” the left must resist the temptation to collapse in desperation into the liberal discourse of decontextualized innocent victims. Even the most cursory scan of one’s own twitter or facebook feed should be more than enough evidence of the fact that those of all sorts of liberal imperialist to reactionary political persuasions can join in the sanctimonious choruses impotently bemoaning these tragedies as such.
The whole framing must in fact be inverted: the geopolitical coordinates in which these tragic events occurred ought to be foregrounded, not made background noise, in our discussions of them; the melodramatic characterization of victims in terms of cliche archetypes not only repudiated but deemed irrelevant. The innocence or age of this or that victim of Israel’s wanton terror; the criminal record or lack thereof of the latest African American victim of the white-supremacist state– in short all these particular narratives which may be pulled in this or that direction (that is to say, between liberal and outright reactionary) have no bearing on the structural injustices of which the particular instances are particularly provocative manifestations.
The way in which we engage with ‘newsworthy’ events ought to be through the analysis of facts, not the consumption of stories steeped in ideology ripe for repurposing. There may be a certain practical utility to the striking anecdotes or statistics that are often absorbed into these discourses; their potential to do any good, however, hinges precisely on our ability to articulate them in the context of the politico-economic forces which undergird them.
What is more, these ‘victims’ which populate reports figuring either as the inhuman objects of reactionary contempt, or the helpless and innocent objects of impotent liberal pity, must be identified first and foremost as oppressed agents with a right to resist– which is to say, with a right not to be ‘innocent.’