If media covered America the way we cover foreign cultures

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You really need to be following the writing of Sarah Kendzior this week as she rips the major media outlets for their utter incompetence in understanding the role of race, ethnicity and nationality in the Boston Marathon bombing. The fact is: we don’t know what motivated these men. There will be a trial – and then we will know more. In the mean time, the American media has been throwing out every possible stereotype (indomitable mountain men!!!) and disjointed factoid from Wikipedia their interns could gather.

Now, Juan Cole isn’t really “the media,” and I normally enjoy his analysis of Middle East affairs quite a bit – but I was perplexed by his trying to use 19th century literature to explain Monday’s actions in absence of thorough knowledge about the motive’s of the alleged bombers.

They were playing the nihilists Arkady and Bazarov in Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons,” explained scholar Juan Cole, citing an 1862 Russian novel to explain the motives of a criminal whose Twitter account was full of American rap lyrics. One does not recall such use of literary devices to ascertain the motives of less exotic perpetrators, but who knows? Perhaps some ambitious analyst is plumbing the works of Faulkner to shed light on that Mississippi Elvis impersonator who tried to send ricin to Obama.

Cole’s connection to philosophical nihilism might be a stretch, but it’s sure a lot better than those hyperventilating that one of the suspects was named after a brutal Mongol warlord!!! As my own son is named after the Norman conqueror who slaughtered Saxons to dominate England, I find this analysis unhelpful.

Why can we not just say, “I don’t know. Nobody knows. This was horrible. Our justice system will tell us the rest?” That would be honest, calm and dignified – but this is the American media we are talking about.

Now, for those of you without backgrounds in intercultural analysis, maybe this doesn’t seem too ridiculous. Let me illustrate how inaccurate such wild speculations would sound if it were about a culture you did understand.

Let us say that a guy got drunk at a bar outside of Mobile, Alabama,  got in a fight with some dudes about University of Alabama versus Ole Miss college football, and ended up shooting them dead in the parking lot.

Terrible, right? Stupid, violent, too many damn guns, shame, right?

Now imagine that some foreigners slapped a crappy pseudo-anthropological analysis on top, full of weird historical references, non-sequitur references to the church, and misguided assumptions about ethnicity.



Yet another massacre has occurred in the historically war-torn region of the Southern United States – and so soon after the religious festival of Easter.

Brian McConkey, 27, a Christian fundamentalist militiaman living in the formerly occupied territory of Alabama, gunned down three men from an opposing tribe in the village square near Montgomery, the capitol, over a discussion that may have involved the rituals of the local football cult. In this region full of heavily-armed local warlords and radical Christian clerics, gun violence is part of the life of many.

Many of the militiamen here are ethnic Scots-Irish tribesmen, a famously indomitable mountain people who have killed civilized men – and each other – for centuries. It appears that the wars that started on the fields of Bannockburn and Stirling have come to America.

As the sun sets over the former Confederate States of America, one wonders – can peace ever come to this land?

Sometimes, people are in a cult of violence tied up with religious fundamentalism and nationalistic terror groups.

Sometimes, they are just savages who come from a place that might have churches and politically-motivated knuckleheads.

Being a real analyst of international affairs, you need to understand how subtle that difference can be.