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September 5, 2015

Forces of nature
Posted by Patrick at 05:50 AM * 22 comments

This morning’s Guardian has an editorial about the sudden turnaround in British public opinion regarding the need to help Syrian refugees, a shift clearly caused by the heartrending photographs of young Aylan Kurdi’s drowned body washed up on a Turkish beach.

The turnaround in the British tabloid press has been astonishing. The Murdoch Sun, which just months ago published a column describing the refugees as “cockroaches” by a woman boasting that her heart could not be touched by drowning children, now puts “For Aylan” on its front page and demands that the government provide places for 3,000 orphans. That is very little compared with the need, but it is still 3,000 times more than the paper would have considered Britain had room for three days ago.

Almost everyone now sees that there is a moral imperative to help the Syrian refugees, even if this means letting them into the UK. It may be that this is just a spasm of sentimentality and that in a fortnight the same papers will be back to denouncing the “migrant” hordes in Calais, and demanding that dogs, or the British army, be deployed to protect holidaymakers from refugees as they were three weeks ago.

It’s a good piece about two important issues—the moral imperative to help refugees everywhere (an imperative that applies as much to editors in Brooklyn, New York as it does to the British public), and also the fact that we humans are far from rational in what affects our daily inclinations. We’re unmoved by hundreds of pages of dry facts, but show us a photograph of a small child in tennis shoes washed up dead on a beach and suddenly we’re ready to act.

Likewise, I’m as small-minded and focused on the local as anybody else. Normally the displacement of millions of innocent Syrians tends to weigh on me as merely one of a seemingly endless series of humanitarian crises for which there is never enough attention or care. But put one particular namecheck into a Guardian editorial and you have my undivided attention:

[I]t is also an astonishingly vivid demonstration of the inadequacy of statistics to move our moral sentiments compared with the power of pictures, and still more of pictures that bring to life stories, to affect us in ways that reasoning never could. As the critic Teresa Nielsen Hayden observed, “Story is a force of nature.” One single death and a refugee family have moved a nation to whom 200,000 deaths and 11 million refugees had remained for years merely a statistic, and not a very interesting one at that.
That was…unexpected.

(SF&F-related sidebar: Neil Gaiman has been working for some time to change the way we think about Syrian refugees from “problemic foreigners” into “people like us who we’ve got to help”. And much credit to him for it.)

Comments on Forces of nature:
#1 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 06:48 AM:

I'm a little surprised that a British newspaper didn't use a Terry Pratchett quote for that, because he certainly used the idea: Witches Abroad I'm pretty sure of, and he promptly subverts the idea with the little old lady joining the game of Cripple Mr Onion. The card sharps think they know the story...

#2 ::: praisegod barebones ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 07:25 AM:

This is probably a bad time to cavil (when isn't?), but I'd like to protest just a tiny bit at the equation of 'opinions expressed by large British media outlets' and 'British public opinion'. The two are not necessarily especially closely aligned, any more than their American equivalents. (I guess it's to be expected that people who work for newspapers should make this kind of elision, but let's not encourage it.)

On a more positive note, while I undertand your reaction to the namecheck it surprises me not a whit that someone on the Guardian editorial team reads Making Light.

#3 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 08:39 AM:

Story is a force of nature.

Aphorism is a force-multiplier.

(In other words: TNH is right about stories. But she expressed her insight, not by writing a story, but by crafting an unforgettable aphorism to encapsulate it. Which is really cool, too.)

#5 ::: Patrick Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 09:08 AM:

#2: "I'd like to protest just a tiny bit at the equation of 'opinions expressed by large British media outlets' and 'British public opinion'."

Praisegod, good point.

#6 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 01:13 PM:

I'm a little surprised that a British newspaper didn't use a Terry Pratchett quote for that.

The Guardian might be a little wary of bringing up Sir Terry at the moment, given their publication of that terrible Jonathan Jones column.

#7 ::: Clifton ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 02:46 PM:

So Teresa's brilliant coinage has hit the big time. I confidently expect to see it in a GIF on Facebook any day now, attributed to Mark Twain.

#8 ::: Lila ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 03:07 PM:

Dave Bell @ #1, demonstrating that Granny Weatherwax is ALSO a force of nature.

#9 ::: David Harmon ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 04:23 PM:

Clifton #7: Give it another couple of decades, and I suspect that Teresa will herself be a "quote magnet", with all sorts of aphorisms awarded to her by association.

#10 ::: janetl ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 06:53 PM:

It is an excellent change in newspaper coverage, and wonderful to see Teresa's beautiful quote.

For readers in the States, I'd like to point out a petition to resettle some refugees here.

#11 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 09:42 PM:

There's another picture out there, much less circulated, of Aylan alive and happy.

I'll let my tweet speak for itself:

#12 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 09:59 PM:

Clifton @ #7, that is excellent!

Then the pedants will show up to say "no, it's Mencken." And other pedants will remonstrate that it's really Ambrose Bierce.

#13 ::: Stefan Jones ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 10:04 PM:

Oh: And congrats to Teresa for the reference.

#14 ::: Xopher Halftongue ::: (view all by) ::: September 05, 2015, 10:59 PM:

That's brilliant. But then, so is Teresa.

#15 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2015, 07:56 PM:

Clinton, Linkmeister: And someday, if I'm very very lucky, I'll see a remark of mine misattributed to Dorothy Parker.

#16 ::: Megpie71 ::: (view all by) ::: September 06, 2015, 08:55 PM:

Here in Australia, the Murdoch press (guided by the hand of their apparently sociopathic overlord, whose only interest has always been the sales figures, and never the people hurt by the harm he causes) has been having their way practically non-stop for years. As a result, we have two major political parties who think it is a right, good and politically expedient thing to do to cater to the opinions of the xenophobes, and "turn back the boats". We have asylum seekers from Afghanistan, from Sri Lanka, from Myanmar (Rohingya) all turned back and sent to resettlement camps on places like Nauru and Papua New Guinea, where we tell them they are not welcome in Australia. These camps are basically prison camps, and the evidence emerging from the inquiries into them indicates the people who wind up in them are being treated cruelly by the contractors paid to guard and administer the camps. There have been reports of waterboarding, and repeated reports of rape and child abuse. Our government's response? They've made it illegal for the people who work at the camps (medical practitioners, teachers, social workers etc) to speak out about these things, and the government of Nauru has made foreign journalist visas a lot more expensive recently.

I hate what is happening. I hate what this government is doing in my name. I hate that if we do the right thing, vote the bastards out, and get rid of them, we're going to inherit an opposition party which has all but adopted their policy position on the matter wholesale, because they feel this is necessary in order to be elected.

And I really, really hate that this is all coming from the callous opinions of one sociopathic old man who sold his Australian citizenship for a chance at making money in the USA. Do NOT trust the Murdoch media to give you news - they're not giving you news, they're giving you vicious old Uncle Rupert's opinions, dressed up in someone else's words.

(I will also note that for a nation which was founded by a bunch of criminals who arrived here in boats from a far-away country, our national position on this matter is the basest hypocrisy of them all).

#17 ::: Dick Gregory ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2015, 04:22 AM:

Kenan Rahmani:
The ultimate injustice one can commit to Aylan Kurdi and his family is to omit the parts of his story which explain why he ended up dead on the beach. The details matter:
1) Abdullah Kurdi, the father, was detained for 5 months in Air Force Intelligence in Damascus. While in detention, he was tortured and his teeth were pulled out. He had to sell his shop in Damascus in order to bribe the officers to let him out. This cost him 5,000,000 Syrian Liras (around $25,000)
2) After he bribed his way out of jail, Abdullah fled to Aleppo with his wife and sons, Alyan and Ghalib. The situation in Aleppo became dangerous due to the constant aerial bombardment, so he fled again to Kobani, his hometown.
3) When ISIS attacked Kobani last year, the family could no longer live in their hometown, so they fled to Turkey. Once in Turkey, the Turkish government did not provide them with assistance, so they paid almost $6,000 to secure 4 spots on a rubber dingy to the Greek island of Kos.
4) While on the boat, rough waters caused the boat to flip. The lifejackets they were given were fake. His sons and wife all drowned in front of his eyes, in his arms.
5) Kurdi had applied in June for refuge to Canada, but was rejected. After Aylan's photo became a media story, he was reportedly offered citizenship to Canada. But he doesn't want to go to Canada or Europe anymore. He says he will go bury his family in Kobani and stay there to fight against ISIS, because everything has been taken away from him and he has "nothing to live for."
So if the world wants to no more Aylans on the beach, someone needs to do some combination of the following based on above: (1) stop torture and arbitrary detention by the Assad regime, (2) stop the regime's aerial bombardment, (3) stop ISIS, (4) make traveling to Europe safe, (5) get Canada and the USA to accept more refugees.

#18 ::: Dave Bell ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2015, 06:16 AM:

The UK media this morning seems to be pushing the "bomb Syria for Aylan" idea.

Words don't fail me, but they're not the sort I would wish to use here.

#19 ::: Dick Gregory ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2015, 08:55 AM:

I wrote this a couple of years ago, when supposedly, the US was threatening to bomb Assad.
"And so we come to the story of the Boy Who Cried Wolf, which if anybody doesn’t know it, spoiler alert, when the wolf finally does come nobody believes the boy. If the Left claims that thousands will die in carpet bombing, that depleted uranium will be scattered across Syria, that American soldiers will be dying to help al-Qaida, and none of these things turn out to be true, it will discredit the Left, and because the Left does not control the media, that impression will stay for a long time, and when the US does want to intervene, the pendulum will have swung back to it being easy again for the US to do what it wants. And if the situation in Syria takes another step towards Hell, then there is a greater likelihood that American, French or British power will be brought to bear on Syria, rather than the empowerment of those rebels that we just don’t know about from what we’ve read in the press.
If the Left commentary on air strikes has been to see them as the main problem, it will be a bystander to the debate. If it correctly identifies the regime as the problem, and arming the FSA as the solution, it has a better chance at being part of the answer to the Syrian crisis and the instability that comes with it, posing a better solution than imperial imposition (which both a hawks’ invasion and the peaceniks deal with the Russians would be), and not just part of the furniture."

#20 ::: oldster ::: (view all by) ::: September 07, 2015, 09:04 AM:

Megpie71 @16

"(I will also note that for a nation which was founded by a bunch of criminals who arrived here in boats from a far-away country, our national position on this matter is the basest hypocrisy of them all)"

As a proud citizen of the US, I'm not sure I can concede your claim to "basest hypocrisy of them all" without a challenge.

I mean, sure. Sure, Australian hypocrisy is pretty base. But you really want to say it's baser than ours? Have you ever read that poem on the Statue of Liberty?

Maybe you'll win on points. But we deserve a shot at the title.

#21 ::: David Weingart ::: (view all by) ::: September 11, 2015, 05:43 PM:

oldster @ 20: And we have enough guns and ammo to KEEP shooting if we miss the first time.

#22 ::: pericat ::: (view all by) ::: September 15, 2015, 03:51 PM:

Teresa is a wise woman. Pleasing to see that so noted in the larger world.

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