Countries Seen Through Comments

The comments on the news are more revealing of a culture than the news itself. Journalism too often has a commitment to a sort of sanitized neutrality, and certainly tries for clarity, smoothing away complex disagreements. That has its uses, but the comments are a much messier, more divided, more personal look at a culture. They have the texture of life at street level.

First, America. On January 30 New York Times ran an article headlined “U.S. Suspends Haitian Airlift in Cost Dispute” which described how the US had stopped medical evacuations to Miami because of a state vs. federal arguments over who would pay for their medical care. The comments reveal a deeply divided country:

The richest country in the world bickering about who is going to pay before it treats patients who need critical care from the poorest country in the Western hemisphere! We Americans should be very proud of ourselves!

Another wave of third world, uneducated people of an alien culture is about to hit our shores, helped this time by the Obama administration’s desire to show compassion. Unfortunately, the tax-paying citizens of this country will have to pay, in more ways than one.

Meanwhile, Nigerians are talking about the Underwear Bomber. Global Voices has helpfully collected some of the blogger reactions. For America, the story was about fear and terrorism and security. For Nigeria, it was about reputation and identity:

Be honest, when you heard a Nigerian man tried to commit a terrorist act in America, how many of you immediately thought ‘Please don’t let him be [insert your ethnic group]?

There’s an Igbo proverb that says, “If one finger touches palm oil, it spreads to all the other fingers.” This is indicative of how Nigerians the world over felt when they heard the news of a young man who attempted to detonate a bomb on U.S. soil in the name of Al Qaeda. Many of us worried that the actions of this one finger would spread to cover the entire 150 million of us.

How does disowning him help Nigerians understand what role extreme Islamic ideology played in causing him to attempt detonating an explosive device on board a US-bound airliner? How does it help Nigerians understand the complex interplay of religious faith, access to extremist religious groups and ideological brainwashing?

Meanwile, the ever-wonderful ChinaSMACK took a break from pop-culture scandal (on the site right now: Hong Kong Girl Shows Off C Cup Breasts To Ex-Boyfriend) to translate online Chinese reactions to news of US sales of arms to Taiwan. And the Chinese, often portrayed as uniformly nationalist, are just as diverse and divided as any other country:

We don’t need to fear America selling arms to Taiwan, as soon as a war started these advanced weapons would be quickly consumed by our lower-quality but numerous weapons and many soldiers.

I only know that without America, the whole world would be chaotic.

As long as America exists, the world cannot be peaceful.

What I want to know is, where are the foreign voices in these conversations? Right now each culture is talking about the others like they’re not in the room. And they’re right. Our global conversation is fragmented and unmapped. It’s not a small world after all.