The Orientalist Nature of Western Media’s Coverage of Conflict

As I write this, it has been just over one week since Russia reinvaded Ukraine. Over the past eight days, Putin’s War has already resulted in hundreds of deaths, both civilian and military. Coverage of it has blanketed American news channels around the clock. Yet, the Russia-Ukraine conflict is far from the only ongoing conflict in the world, and the incredible amount of attention directed towards it is in large part due to orientalism and the direct impact that it has on Europe compared to the other conflicts.

Take, for instance, CBS reporter Charlie D’Agata. Last Sunday, D’Agata reported on this conflict from Kyiv, saying, “This isn’t a place, with all due respect, like Iraq or Afghanistan, that has seen conflict raging for decades. This is a relatively civilized, relatively European — I have to choose those words carefully too — city, one where you wouldn’t expect that or hope that it’s going to happen.” Note the adjective “civilized” to describe Kyiv, as if to contrast with the “uncivilized” cities of the Orient. D’Agata even seems to recognize how his words could be (rightly) perceived as orientalist and white supremacist as he notes that he has to “choose those words carefully” — as if instead of by describing Kyiv as “European”, he really means to describe the city as “white”.

It’s not just that coverage of Putin’s War has been in many ways a thinly-veiled embodiment of orientalism and European supremacy — it’s also that its coverage has been at the expense of other conflicts that take place in other countries in Asia and Africa (i.e. the Orient). Wikipedia lists four ongoing conflicts in addition to the war in Ukraine as “major wars”: the Tigray War (a civil war in Ethiopia), the Taliban’s efforts to maintain control over Afghanistan, internal conflict in Myanmar, and the Yemeni Civil War, which have led to about 400, 500, 3,300, and up to 5,100 deaths so far this year, respectively. Apart from coverage of the Afghan conflict several months ago following the American withdrawal of troops — itself only covered due to western involvement — there is zero coverage of any of these conflicts. In fact, I would venture to guess that the majority of Americans had no idea the Ethiopian, Myanmar, or Yemini wars are even happening, or would even be able to identify the three countries on a map.

Now, I do agree that in many respects, this most recent conflict does necessitate more coverage than most others. Russia is, after all, a nuclear power, led by a reckless and dangerous dictator who just a few days ago threatened the use of nuclear weapons, and whose forces set fire to the largest nuclear power plant in Europe just hours ago, whereas none of these are true for the nations involved in other wars. The potential for global ramifications are absolutely greater here than with any other conflict in my lifetime. But that doesn’t mean other conflicts, in which thousands of people have been killed, can simply be ignored.

The Power-Love Dichotomy

In line 289 of Act IV, Scene vi of King Lear, as Edgar reads the letter from Goneril to Edmund plotting to kill Albany, Edgar laments that “To know our enemies’ minds, we rip their hearts” — which is to say, in order to maintain power for himself and his father and prevent Edmund from gaining power, Edgar had to sacrifice his loyalty and love for Edmund. This is one of the most important topics of King Lear: when it is worth it to sacrifice love for power, and when it is worth it to sacrifice power for love. I’ve color-coded these two sides of the Power-Love Dichotomy to make it easier to keep track of the examples listed below:

  • In Act I, Lear appears to sacrifice his power in search of his daughters’ love as he splits his land between them; yet, later in Act II, Lear sacrifices the love of Regan and Goneril because he wished to maintain his own sense of power through the housing of his 100 supporters.
  • At the end of Act III, Regan sacrifices her husband (by refusing to save him from his stab wound, as portrayed in the film) in order to take over his power
  • …however, Regan and Goneril feud with each other — and ultimately kill each other, in Act V — for the love of Edmund, each willing to sacrifice their own power for his love; in fact, Regan even tells Edmund, “Take thou my soldiers, prisoners, patrimony. / Dispose of them, of me; the walls is thine” (V.iii.89-90), effectively pledging to surrender her entire land and power to Edmund in exchange for his love.
  • Cordelia, on the other hand, contrasts with her sisters’ initial prioritization of individual power over love for Lear — in Act IV, Scene vii, Cordelia tells Lear “you must not kneel” (IV.vii.67), showing how she is willing to sacrifice her power over Lear solely because of her love for her father. Lear appears to mirror this sacrifice of power for love as well as he rejects Cordelia’s submission to his own authority: “When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down / And ask of thee forgiveness” (V.iii.11-12)
  • At the end of the play, Albany proposes that he and all others who still have power would give it all up and give Lear all of the power of the kingdom until his death, out of a combination of regret, guilt, and most relevantly to this analysis, love: “we will resign / During the life of this old Majesty, / To him our absolute power” (V.iii.362-364)

Out of curiosity — can you all think of any other examples of the Power-Love Dichotomy in King Lear?

What lies beyond the illusion of life

Disguised in recognizable electric guitar riffs, a distinctive organ solo, and catchy rock enthusiasm, Kansas’s hit 1970s rock song “Carry on Wayward Son”, written by band member Kerry Livgren and included in the album Leftoverture, is, at its core, a philosophical exploration of the purpose of life.  

Following the first chorus and instrumental riff, the narrator begins the second stanza by describing their life as full of “noise and confusion”.  They wish to escape this chaos, to “get a glimpse beyond this illusion” — which is to say, they wish to find a higher purpose to a life of pain.  Yet, they fail in their attempts to discover this higher purpose to life, revealed through an allusion to Greek mythology — specifically, the myth of the inventor Daedalus and his son Icarus.  In this myth, Daedalus fashions two pairs of wax wings to allow himself and his son to escape imprisonment; however, Icarus becomes overconfident and ignores the warnings of his father, deciding to fly higher and higher until the sun melts his wings and he falls to his death.  In alluding to this myth, it seems that Livgren implies that finding a higher purpose in life is not a simple act of will — rather, it requires anyone seeking this higher purpose to remain grounded in reality.  But, this allusion does not hint at what Livgren believes to be the higher purpose of life, only how to achieve it.  The former is the job of the chorus:

Carry on, my wayward son
There'll be peace when you are done
Lay your weary head to rest
Don't you cry no more

Spoken to the narrator by “the voices”, the chorus is the key to understanding what Livgren implies is the higher purpose of life.  The first step in understanding the meaning of the chorus is deducing what, exactly, the narrator must be “done” with in order to have peace.  The aforementioned second stanza describes the narrator as attempting and failing to escape a chaotic life of “noise and confusion”, so we can make the relatively safe assumption that “the voices” are telling the narrator that there will be peace when he is “done” with these vain attempts to escape chaos — that is to say, “the voices” promise peace when the search for the meaning in life is abandoned, and the chaos is accepted as a part of life.  Though it seems counterintuitive at first, this philosophy is notably reminiscent of that of Meursault in The Stranger — life is unchangeable and must be accepted for what it is, without any higher purpose at all.

In the following stanza, the narrator describes themself as “Masquerading as a man with a reason” — which is to say, they are portraying themself as someone they are not, implying that after hearing the advice of “the voices”, they have accepted life as not having reason or a higher meaning, but are just not willing to publicly show this.  This hesitancy to reveal their belief is entirely understandable — after all, one of the most important features of The Stranger is the constant societal dismay towards Meursault’s nonemotional and existential mannerisms.  In order to avoid this societal dismay, the narrator goes to long lengths to hide his existentialist beliefs, even setting out in search of “winds of fortune” — that is, material profit and benefit — in order to appear to broader society as holding the belief that there is actually a purpose of life: to profit materially, a widely-shared belief in modern capitalist societies, allowing the narrator to blend in well and avoid the consternation of society.

But in the eighth stanza, we run into an issue with this entire assumption that “the voices” are offering the narrator an existentialist perspective on life.  “The voices” tell the narrator that his life is “no longer empty”, implying that he has found a purpose in life, and the following line tells the narrator that “surely heaven waits for you”, clearly establishing that “the voices” were telling the narrator from the beginning that a higher purpose of life does, in fact, exist: religion and reaching the afterlife.

But how is this reconcilable with all of the evidence that I used to argue that “the voices” were existentialist?

Well, one of the beauties of poetry is that it is open to interpretation. The interpretation that “the voices” were existentialist is entirely valid — it just likely is not the songwriter’s intended interpretation.

Going back to the chorus, in order to explain that “the voices” were existentialist, I assumed that the chorus was telling the narrator that there will be peace when he is “done” with his vain attempts to escape chaos.  But another, equally valid interpretation is that the chorus was telling the narrator that there will be peace when he is “done” living — that after a life of chaos comes an eternal afterlife of peace.  Under this interpretation, the narrator is not hiding his existentialism when he is “Masquerading as a man with a reason” or plotting “a course for winds of fortune”; instead, he seems to be resisting the advice of “the voices” to continue living life with the purpose of reaching an afterlife, and instead is only pretending to live a religious life as he continues to seek profit from material fortune — at least, until “the voices” return and tell the narrator again to trade the material for the spiritual.  And of course, the myth of Icarus teaches us that to ignore the advice of authority would be a dangerous decision.

I’d love to know — what do you all think?  Do you think Livgren intended to teach the audience that religion and reaching afterlife is the ultimate purpose of life, or that there is no ultimate purpose of life at all?  Or do you have a totally different idea of the purpose of life that Livgren and Kansas promote in “Carry On Wayward Son”?

Migrant Vignettes: A Global Story in Local Vernacular

In the textbook The Modern Middle East, historian and author James Gelvin describes the history of the Middle East as a “global story told in local vernacular” — which is to say, the region’s history of modernization, colonization, development, and role on the world stage is reflected similarly in other regions across the world. In Exit West, Mohsin Hamid takes a similar approach in telling the global story of immigration with local vernacular, focusing on the single story of Saeed and Nadia and their experiences of emigration (coincidentally, from a country implied to be in or near the Middle East) and resettlement and adaptation while still holding on to their past.

Yet, Hamid also interjects the book with vignettes into different regions of the world, from Australia to Dubai to the Mexican-American border. Some find love, like the elderly man from Amsterdam and the wrinkled man from Rio de Janeiro (173-176), while others find new life, like the suicidal accountant from London (129-131). Some find a cause to fight for, like the young woman in Vienna (109-111), while others use it as a means to act for cause they are willing to die for, like the second man who is implied to be a terrorist from Saeed and Nadia’s home country traveling to Vienna (66-58). Even those who don’t immigrate are faced with immigration all around them, such that they end up in a place very different from the one in which they started, like the old woman in Palo Alto (207-209). The characters of these vignettes are all unnamed, with the implication being that their experiences are representative of the varied yet similar experiences of all humans.

Hamid tells of the global possibilities of the effects of immigration through individual, localized stories written from individual perspectives. It seems that Hamid intends to say: everyone is affected by migration, and though each individual’s experiences are unique, they are all comparable.

NOTE: I took the “global story in local vernacular” quote by James Gelvin from his textbook, which is used in Mr Wolman’s Modern Middle East History course.

Retributive Justice, Cancel Culture, and The Stranger

Under the policy of retributive justice, any harmful act is punished by an act of equal harm to the perpetrator; this policy is often summed up in the biblical phrase, “an eye for an eye” — if someone stabs another person’s eye, their own eye is stabbed as punishment. Retributive justice can be found throughout The Stranger, most notably when Meursault’s murder of the Arab is found to be punishable by death.

Yet, much of the prosecutor’s argument against Meursault stems from his complete lack of emotion, particularly with regards to his mother’s death, stating during the trial that “‘Tomorrow, gentlemen, this same court is to sit in judgement of the most monstrous of crimes: the murder of a father . . . I suggest to you that the man who is seated in the dock [Meursault] is also guilty of the murder to be tried in this court tomorrow” (101/102). In essence, Meursault is sentenced to death for a lack of emotion — clearly, this punishment is significantly disproportionate to the charge.

To continue the analogy of “an eye for an eye” punishment, this sort of disproportionately retributive justice would be as if someone breaks another person’s glasses, and as punishment has their eye stabbed.

In the modern day, this is comparable to cancel culture, in which people are essentially blacklisted from society for relatively minor offenses. One notable trait of cancel culture is that all individuals are punished equally through societal exclusion, regardless of the severity of their actions, and this is portrayed in a similar fashion in The Stranger in the two drastically different reasons provided for Meursault’s execution.

The Black and the Blinding Sun

Meursault is, in a word, straightforward. He says things as they are, ignoring (or perhaps, is unable to perceive of) the emotional elements of a situation and instead focusing on the visually obvious. Take, for instance, his mother’s funeral procession — rather than reminiscing on his mother’s life, he instead observes his surroundings and feels lost in “the monotony of the colors around me — the sticky black of the tar, the dull back of all the clothes, and the shiny black of the hearse” (17). However, Meursault’s description of the visual setting is not solely a description for the sake of painting a picture — it sets the stage for color and brightness to subtly communicate to the reader the emotion of a situation (in this instance, the gloominess and general feeling of mourning that is associated with the color black) that Meursault is unable to perceive directly and thus is unable to relate to the reader directly.

Camus also uses the visual appearance of a situation, and brightness in particular, to show Meursault’s capacity to reason. It seems that both the darkest and brightest extremes of light leave Meursault with a weakened capacity to reason and remain coherent. During the funeral procession, for instance, he complains of “blood pounding in my temples”, and the events that followed “seemed to happen so fast . . . that I don’t remember any of it anymore” (17). Elsewhere in the story, rather than monotonous dark colors, Meursault is in a setting of “blinding” bright light and contradictory details that Meursault imagines in the light despite being blinded. These are perhaps the few times his imagination goes further than reality in this story, because he believes that his imagination is reality. This is most notable at the end of Part 1 as he kills the Arab in a blinded stupor, but this interpretation of imagination as reality is first explored nearer to the beginning of the story as Meursault sits next to his mother’s casket in a room so white “it made my eyes hurt”. He watches his mother’s friends come in to pay their respects, and he sees them “more clearly than I had ever seen any one, and not one detail of their faces or their clothes escaped me” — yet, he says “it was hard for me to believe they really existed”, as if they were angels (9). His imagination leads him to see the impossible, and his otherwise lack of creativity leads to him believing his hallucinations, because he interprets what he seems as the absolute reality.

It seems that only with color is Meursault coherent. Throughout Part 1, he describes the sky as taking on “a reddish glow” (23), blue (24), and even green (26), the last of which makes him feel “good”. But as color fades and is replaced with the “thick drunkenness” of the bright sun or the “dark mass” of shade (57), Meursault is blinded into disorientation, revoking him of his characteristic straightforwardness.