Sunday 02 February 2003

Nothing inappropriate

What an extraordinary juxtaposition of viewpoints in the comments on Oh No, Burningbird’s first post on the loss of the space shuttle Columbia:

“the space program is an inherently risky money drain… astronauts are heroic and selfless… without the space programme we might be richer as a people, but poorer as a race… it’s a risky job, and safer statistically than lots of other jobs that pay crap and don’t have great benefits… [space exploration is] an act of adoration to God and His creation… the astronauts did risk what most of us will never risk—they faced the risk of dying alone and in space… the U.S. has a very poor track record when it comes to “exploration” of anything”

To that last (anonymous) comment, Burningbird replied:

Not one simple expression of sadness at the loss of good people doing good things. I’ve had it.

At first glance, it seems a “simple expression of sadness” is exactly what’s required. Not arguments about whether they were “heroes” or whether money spent on exploring space would be better spent elsewhere. Not eagerly latching on to a tragic accident and using it as an excuse to lambast America.

On the news tonight I saw a brief interview with the mother of one of the astronauts. She said that her son had told her that only the takeoff and landing were truly dangerous, that once you were in space there was very little risk. So we knew, she added, that he wasn’t safe until he’d actually landed. She appeared remarkably stoic, as though she’d accepted a long time ago the possibility that her son might not return.

There was video footage, shot perhaps by an “amateur” through a tangle of tree branches, of the Columbia plummeting towards earth trailing smoke, that made me think of Auden’s poem, Museé de Beaux Arts:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
Had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

The video footage was accompanied by a voiceover describing how the families and friends had gathered to welcome the astronauts home, only to witness the disaster that engulfed their loved ones.

So I empathized with Burningbird’s exasperation: her “Enough!”, her “I’ve had it!”. While at the same time wondering whether the supposed weakness of weblog comments—that we give a voice to the “inappropriate”—might be one of their greatest strengths. Instead of the usual carefully controlled, mediated, and sanitized version of events presented by “media professionals,” we get an unrestrained, messy, and often “unseemly” series of responses. And it’s these unprogrammed observations—the kind we’d only hear or voice in unguarded moments—that force us to consider what such an event might truly mean. In this sense, it’s not that those who comment get it “right” or “wrong” but rather that their comments place me in a situation where I need to think and feel for myself, rather than swallow predigested media pap.

For me, it was that mother’s astonishing fortitude, the fact that as much as she may have wanted to protect her son from danger, she (and, I assume, his father) had instilled in him the curiosity and courage to risk his life in pursuit of an ideal.

Auden’s poem and some of the comments on Burningbird’s post dramatize the ease with which the remarkable is met by indifference. But indifference is a choice, as is engagement. Burningbird’s demand for the “simple expression of sadness at the loss of good people doing good things” is one that we ignore at the risk of losing, not our lives, but our souls.

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Well said Jonathon. I wonder if the same people who are upset that this gets more attention than 40 people dying in a train wreck, for example, felt the same way about 9/11? If you compare the number of people who died compared to who die in traffic accidents every year it looks like a small event. What about death by big Tobacco? You just can't look at things that way, as much as we would like to believe all lives are equal in the eyes of the media they are not and this was important news that will be covered, and we'll each deal with it as we need to.

Blogs are the media, like it or not, and as such we add to the frenzy. Here is what is amazing to me - within a couple hours of the accident William Gibson (Neuromancer) had posted an article on his blog, which I found to be extremely touching. I love the direction we are going here.

Posted by john on 2 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

I agree and what you're seeing in Shelley's comments maybe more typical then it appears. In private conversations I've found much of the same sentiments. Our skin has grown thicker.

Posted by Karl on 3 February 2003 (Comment Permalink)

This discussion is now closed. My thanks to everyone who contributed.

© Copyright 2007 Jonathon Delacour