Saturday, September 29, 2007

pet peeve

Hilzoy posts an excerpt from a recent Roger Cohen article in the NY Times:

Between January and August this year, Sweden took in 12,259 Iraqis fleeing their decomposing country. It expects 20,000 for all of 2007. By contrast, in the same January-August period, the United States admitted 685 refugees, according to State Department figures.

The numbers bear closer scrutiny. In January, Sweden admitted 1,500 Iraqis, compared to 15 that entered the United States. In April, the respective numbers were 1,421 and 1; in May, 1,367 and 1; and in August 1,469 and 529. (...)

When Tobias Billstrom, the migration minister, says, “Yes, of course the United States should do more,” you can feel his indignation about to erupt like milk boiling over. He notes that given the huge population difference, Sweden’s intake of Iraqis “is the equivalent of the U.S. taking in about 500,000 refugees.”

While I'm sympathetic to the underlying issues here, can I just say that it is not helpful when people extrapolate “equivalent” populations in order to inflate numbers for dramatic effect? We’re talking about 12,259 Iraqis, and there’s no way that I’m aware of to physically turn 1 Iraqi into 41 Americans. 1 person = 1 person, no matter where that person happens to be or what nationality she happens to possess. We don’t need numbers of foreigners “translated into American” so that we can understand them—numbers shouldn’t change value in translation. It’s another way that Americans demonstrate their persistent need to filter any and all data through an America-centric frame of reference.

Only slightly less bothersome is the tendency to measure large numbers of deaths, such as civilian deaths in Iraq, by the 3,000 or so people who died on 9/11. Again, a life is a life; there's no need to forever reference deaths elsewhere by the national trauma of 9/11. It only underscores how infrequently Americans face tragic loss of life compared to much of the rest of the planet. This post from Arthur Silber manages to combine both the above-listed gripes:

For ease of computation, we'll use approximate figures. Assume the U.S.'s war crimes have resulted in one million deaths. That is roughly 1/26 of the total Iraqi population. An equivalent number of American deaths would be 11.5 million people. 3,000 Americans were murdered on 9/11. In terms of casualties, 11.5 million deaths represent 3,800 9/11s -- or a 9/11 every day for ten and a half years.

Taken to its logical conclusion, this analytic tool tells us that if one of the 50 residents of the Pitcairn Islands killed one of his countrymen/relatives in a barfight, that would be the “equivalent” of 6 million American deaths, or one 9/11 every day for 5 ½ years!

The horror!!!!!!

(Noting, as above, that I agree with Silber on the underlying issues, just not on the use of this particular technique. Ironically, Silber’s principal complaint in this post is the narcissistic inward-looking tendency of American political discourse. Perhaps he is trying here to reach people in ways they have been conditioned to understand.)

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