Not a joke

I have little faith that John McCain's latest "joke" about killing Iranians with tobacco will get any more play than his "Bomb Iran" one did a few months ago. I think Orwell is instructive here.


When you walk through a town like this--two hundred thousand inhabitants, of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags they stand up in--when you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact. The people have brown faces--besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects? They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone. And even the graves themselves soon fade back into the soil.
Obviously, today's Iran is not Orwell's Morocco, and the United States is not a colonial empire in the same way that Britain was, but the underlying premise is the same--if we are to exploit a land and not feel guilty about it, we must not look on its inhabitants as our equals. They must be less than human.

Notice, for instance, the way Ted Koppel discusses the present situation in the Middle East.



Not a word about the people living there. In fact, the only people mentioned are the troops--US troops. Not a word about the inhabitants--only about the natural resources in the region. Iran and Iraq are not made up of people; they are oil and natural gas, just as Orwell's Marrakech was made up of "the curious up-and-down motion of a load of wood": laborers living in crushing poverty.

It's pretty simple, but that's why people like McCain can make those jokes and his supporters--both in the electorate and in the media--laugh at them. Because it's easy, if you're white and privileged, to forget that there are people in those countries. As Orwell said:
In a tropical landscape one's eye takes in everything except the human beings. It takes in the dried-up soil, the prickly pear, the palm-tree and the distant mountain, but it always misses the peasant hoeing at his patch. He is the same colour as the earth, and a great deal less interesting to look at.
Emphasis mine. If someone had called Koppel, or anyone else, out on that statement, he probably would have harrumphed about the harsh realities on the ground and the realpolitik of the situation--but those are real people living there, with real lives and families, dreams, aspirations. The Middle East is not oil and natural gas, much as the "tough-minded" among us would have us believe.

I think Barack Obama understands that about the Middle East because he's lived it as an African-American. He knows what it is to have someone's eye pass over him because of his skin color. He's certainly not perfect in that regard, but he gets it in a way that John McCain and the white power structure refuses to. And it's important that we have a leader who gets it, because one last thing Orwell mentioned has come to pass.
"How much longer can we go on kidding these people? How long before they turn their guns in the other direction?"
They're turned on us already.

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