Monday, November 21, 2016

A few thoughts about the moral weight of a human life

I'm one of those people who like to skim through the end notes in a book I'm about to read even before I start reading the main text. Yes, I know: the received view these days is that books shouldn't even have them. But I like them for two reasons: (1) they point me to new stuff to read and (2) even in this post-fact world, I continue to set great store by documentation and think that facts and opinion are two different things. Anyway, when I bought Amtiav Ghosh's new book, The Great Derangement: Climate Change and the Unthinkable, which is partly about why people in general and writers in particular find it difficult to write and think about global warming even when they don't deny its existence (and are even deeply concerned about it), I immediately flipped to the back of the book to look through the end notes. Among those that caught my attention was this one:
Something like this was actually implied by Larry Summers when, as head of the World Bank, he proposed that polluting industries should be relocated to less developed nations: "After all, those living in the Third World couldn't expect to live as long as 'we' do, so what could be wrong with reducing their lifetimes by a minuscule amount..." See David Palumbo-Liu, The Deliverance of Others: Reading Literature in a Global Age (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), vii-viii. Other economists have applied a similar logic. As George Monbiot points out in Heat: "In 1996, for example, a study for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change estimated that a life lost in the poor nations could be priced at $150,000, while a life lost in the rich nations could be assessed at at $1.5 million."
The first time I read this [and yes, that's the same Larry Summers who made the invidious comments about gender and doing science], I thought of how the Dakota Access Pipeline project blithely decided that it would be better to damage the health of Native Americans than those of the mainly white residents of Bismarck.I suppose corner-office types like Summers think of Native American land as being, in a sense, "less-developed nations." Certainly they seem to think that the lives and health of people who live in poor areas worth less than those who live in cities with mainly white residents. This rerouting decision for the pipeline is such a commonplace choice by businesses sanctioned by city, state, and federal government authorities that I'm sure the executives who made that decision imagined they'd be long gone before their decision might face (if ever) public scrutiny. And in fact, most news outlets refused to cover the story for a long time.

I recalled Summers' infamous remark this morning when reading about the law enforcement heavies shilling for the Dakota Access Pipeline's interests (some of them imported from out of state) turned a fire hose on protestors standing on the other side of a razor wire fence. I suppose they're feeling frustrated: even after weeks dealing out abusive treatment of protestors and even Trump's election, the protests persist and the federal government has not given them the permits that would make the last step of the project legal. Assault by fire hose has never been considered humane treatment even in warm weather. (Fire hoses and vicious attack dogs, which have featured in the attack on those actively opposing the pipeline, were weapons of choice in the attacks against Civil Rights actions in the US south in the 1950s and 60s. Given that it's November in North Dakota, illness and hypothermia are not unlikely consequences. Which in turn conjures up another ugly image from US history.

I suppose the reason so many people like watching cop shows and reading murder mysteries is because they tend to portray the dominant outcome as a moral triumph, which, when we're reading, we're desperately hoping for. Hence the embrace of words like "Good Guys" and "Bad Guys." In real life, the institutions of law enforcement are only occasionally interested in working for moral (recently designated "social") justice, and the people who call themselves "Good Guys" are able to use the narrative designation to deceive themselves. If it were otherwise, you wouldn't see law enforcement officials routinely acting as enforcers for business interests, without regard for the health and lives of the people they've been sent in to silence. I imagine that many officers have mixed feelings about this. But how much, really, can such officers do to challenge the role that these institutions are often called on to play (besides, of course, quitting)?

Which reminds me of another thing. In a recent episode of On the Media, When Real Police Shootings Look Nothing Like the Movies, host Bob Garfield investigates the history of television and film narratives of police shooting civilians and how that has influenced the striking difference between real and fictionally depicted police shootings in US culture. Given how keen television police show writers are to get cop culture and the language of policing right, the question arises: now that we have so many videos of how these shootings actually go down, will the popular narrative actually start to change?

  ETA: I've now read in the Guardian that 300 of the protestors assault with rubber bullets and a fire hose have been injured and twenty-six hospitalized. Injuries include bone fractures, internal bleeding and hypothermia. Another proud day for US law enforcement.

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