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Eric Alterman

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February 4, 2003

Room at the table. The Slacktivist addresses a point often raised at times of mourning:
Inevitably when something like this happens, someone will feel the need to point out that seven other people somewhere else were killed the same day and we’re not making a big deal about them. There may be some value to this egalitarian sniping about priorities, but this is probably not the most constructive way to raise this point. This argument reminds me of the communion scene from Places in the Heart and I imagine Sally Field and Danny Glover breaking bread with the Columbia astronauts, and with the nameless Nigerians killed in that bank explosion, and with Gus Grissom and Ed White and Roger Chafee, and I remember that there’s room at the table for all the forgotten and the honored dead and all of us, the living.
[05:42 PM]
Welcome to Electrolite's comments section.
Hard-Hitting Moderator: Teresa Nielsen Hayden.

Comments on Room at the table.:

Scott Janssens ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2003, 06:44 PM:

Glenn Reynolds addressed this [http://www.instapundit.com/archives/007211.php#007211]

It's not that astronauts' lives are worth more than those of anyone else; it's what they do, and what it stands for.

kla. ::: (view all by) ::: February 04, 2003, 10:58 PM:

the astronauts are what we aspire to be when we are children, our lives and every possibility still before us. they, in our still-child minds, are the best we can be. this is why it hurts when they die. that astronaut who dies a firey death in the sky is the you you dreamed of being. they're not better than we are. they are us.

Soren deSelby ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2003, 10:54 AM:

I addressed this in my livejournal a couple days ago, and it seems to have been the most linked-to and discussed post I've ever made there.

http://www.livejournal.com/talkread.bml?journal=baldanders&itemid=79528

and

http://www.livejournal.com/talkread.bml?journal=baldanders&itemid=79646

pablo ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2003, 01:35 PM:

'm srry bt fnd th snctmns blbbrng vr fw dd ppl jst bc thy hppn t hv shrd yr ntnl bndrs t b dsgstng, whthr thy wr strnts r stckbrkrs t th WTC. t's slf bsrbd drm mngrng. t sys "lk wht snstv sl m." h b th wy, hlf mlln ppl n Rwnd wr klld fw yrs g bt t dsn't mttr bcs thy wr y knw...

Jennie ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2003, 01:45 PM:

Very few would say that a half million Rwandans, or an equal number of Bosnians, Palestinians, Israelis, Afghans, Iraquis don't matter. But the human capacity for active grief is limited, and we grieve more actively for those whose stories we feel we share. I don't feel like a hypocrite for mourning a friend's death more actively, more personally, and with greater grief than I mourn the deaths of nameless Rwandans. Friends of friends died at the WTC, this makes me sad. The American astronauts are part of a story I love, and I mourn their deaths. I don't think that diminishes any other death. It doesn't make me any less committed to wanting to prevent unnecessary deaths in Iraq, and it doesn't diminish my grief over a world in which lives are lost for no reason I can discern or understand. But I'm human, my comprehension is limited, my imagination equally so, and I respond to story with greater emotion than to statistic.

Arthur D. Hlavaty ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2003, 03:31 PM:

My tribe says that grieving is not something you grade people on.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2003, 04:52 PM:

So, "pablov24," since the Rwanda massacres are so interesting to you, tell me without doing any further research what's going on with the UN tribunal?

And by the way, the figure for the Rwanda massacre is 800,000 -- and where I come from, that's closer to a million people than your "half a million" statement. If it's so important to you, how could you be so wrong about that?

It's okay, you can stop salivating now, there's not really a bell ringing: that's just the clanger you dropped in your attempt to be sanctimonious.

By the way, look "sanctimonious" up in the dictionary and then perhaps explain why a word that essentially means "hypocritically pious" applies more to people honestly grieving the loss of their countrymen in a cause those grieving consider important is more hypocritical, more falsely pious, than attacking another's grief using their supposed indifference, of which you have no evidence, toward an event which you yourself care so little about that you haven't even acquainted yourself with any details beyond the bare fact that it happened. If you are looking for disgusting sanctimony, you need not read anything but your own filthy little mind.

Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: February 05, 2003, 07:42 PM:

Why we mourn especially publically and especially elaborately for a "vr fw dd ppl:"

Because they were representing us on a great endeavour. Because they put their lives on the line expanding the frontiers of human knowledge. Because, dangit, they were especially skilled and ambitious people who presented a model for young people to aspire to.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2003, 06:51 PM:

Because we send our own hopes with them when they go.

I'm just sorry I was in a meeting yesterday afternoon and didn't get to pablov23 faster.

pablo ::: (view all by) ::: February 06, 2003, 10:34 PM:

Smn stl my vwls!

Hy Bb, gd jb wth th dcnstrctn. 'm srprsd y ddn't fnd ny spllng, grmmr, r pncttn t crrct whl y wr t t. Tht wld'v bn mr pnts fr y. n vrll cmprhnsn thgh? Wll, kp wrkng n t.

T th mr cvl pstrs- wn't rg th mrts f th mnnd spc prgrm, bt fc th fcts flks; y mrn ths ppl bcs thy wr hgh prfl nd thy wr (fr th mst prt) mrcns. Th dd n TV nd s thr nythng mr mprtnt thn bng mrcn nd bng n TV? Y my fl lk y knw thm bcs y sw thm n TV, bt y dn't ctlly knw thm. S why ct lk y jst lst lvd ns?

Sylvia Li ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2003, 01:19 AM:

Pablo, read Frederic Brown's _The Lights in the Sky are Stars_.

No, I take that back. It's an awful book, awkward, badly plotted. Don't read it now.

Go back to the late fifties, before Sputnik, and read it as a teenager in a world where adults are still saying space flight is impossible. Read it then, for the raw longing, the passion, the grasping need to aspire to a life for humanity beyond Earth. Read it when nuclear weapons are new, when John Foster Dulles is engaging in "brinksmanship", when there is a real possibility that a nuclear exchange will render the planet uninhabitable.

Read it and understand the message: We have to get off. Up. Out there. Spread among the stars.

When you've done that, live a while. Watch the miracle of our species' first faltering, fumbling steps in the right direction. Hold your breath, hope, pray, as each crew takes us one small amount further towards the ... no, it's not a dream. It's a need. Still a need, even if nuclear Armageddon has been postponed, because this earth is so fragile, and looking down the centuries ahead, how can we not need to find new worlds, that humanity may not perish?

Ahh... no, you are too young. You do not understand. You have never been forced to believe in the possibility of extinction.

If you had, you would know why the Columbia astronauts are far, far more than "Americans who died on TV".

Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2003, 08:02 AM:

Pablo's more recent post, before disemvowelment, read in part:

"Face the facts folks: you mourn these people because they were high profile and they were (for the most part) Americans."

Pablo may think the negative reaction he's gotten is because some people disagree with him about the value of manned space flight.

Of course, weblogger Kevin Drum is opposed to further US-sponsored manned space flight, and yet he's one of my favorite online writers.

Pablo is getting negative reactions because he's making categorical and unprovable claims about other people's thoughts and feelings. It's not offensive to disagree with me about space policy. It's even possible to make colorful and speculative remarks about the feelings of broad masses of people ("Americans", "the Arab street") without being a jerk about it. But he's making specific claims about specific people--the people in this discussion. If he was doing this in my living room, he would either be apologizing immediately or he'd shortly find himself being thrown out of my house. It's not acceptable.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2003, 08:43 AM:

Dear, you're making it too complicated. Pblv23 is one of those nasty little gits who, as Slacktivist observed, always turn up at moments like this. The content of the discussion doesn't actually matter to him. He just gets off on poking people where it hurts. Hear that gleeful, cackling tone? The man's typing one-handed.

Bob Webber ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2003, 12:06 PM:

I vowelled-by-numbers on the follow-up, and found some fairly typical troll spoor: compares my response to a spelling flame, ironically also criticizes my reading comprehension, acts as if I'd taken the bait on his original ellipsis and he was now correcting me. Uses "deconstruction" pejoratively. Accuses all people who care about the loss of Columbia and her crew about not caring about anything else, a complete non sequitur.

At least he drops the sanctimony on the follow-up post: clearly he couldn't care less about the Rwandese massacres. But claiming knowledge he can't have about specific individuals contributing to this comment thread is just shifting from sanctimonious to presumptuous, still with no apparent purpose other than being nasty to random strangers when they express genuine grief.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2003, 12:46 PM:

One of these people commented on Morning Edition. It pissed me off, so I wrote them:

Dear Morning Edition,

I'm writing to respond to the person who complained about all the mourning of the Shuttle astronauts, since all sorts of other people died that week, and there was no outpouring of national grief for them.

Humans do not mourn our dead based on their value as people. We mourn them based on what they meant to us. The shuttle astronauts represented our hope of visiting the stars, and of using space to improve life on Earth for the overwhelming majority of us who will never go there. They were not just husbands and wives, fathers and mothers, brothers and sisters: they were the couriers of our dreams.

Christopher Hatton

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2003, 04:39 PM:

I don't read things by people who don't use vowels. That having been said, timing is a really important part of tact in times of grief. Most of my conversation concerning the demise of the Columbia with my space activist sister -- whom I occasionally refer to in fun as "the goddess of tact" -- consisted of me advising her that this was not a good moment to make her case that a moon base would be a much better expenditure of NASA funds than the shuttle program. An important part of tact is knowing when to keep one's mouth shut.

Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2003, 05:27 PM:

Kathryn, he didn't write it without vowels. On this site and Teresa's your post loses its vowels if it's uncivil.

Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: February 07, 2003, 06:48 PM:

Lots of troll spoor, Bob, though for me his tone was enough.

His content was obviously a crock. There's been grieving all around the world for the Columbia and its astronauts. Misplaced national chauvinism had nothing to do with it. He didn't even bother to figure out which of the people posting here are from the USA and which aren't. The whole riff was meaningless, a thing said only for effect.

I started seriously despising trolls when I was the person answering Tor's general e-mail. You know that species of internet jerk who thinks it's funny to start false rumors about this-or-that author being dead? You should see the genuinely distressed letters we get from that author's fans. I'd tell them "No, really, he's just fine"; but for as long as they'd believed the story, their sense of loss had been real.

Trolls are two-bit sadists. I have no use for them.

Kathryn Cramer ::: (view all by) ::: February 08, 2003, 07:03 AM:

Ah, I thought he was being cute in addition to being difficult. Teresa runs a tight enough ship that I'd never seen one of those before. A good rule.