Recently, Time magazine has given us Donald Trump, the United States President-elect, as its choice for ‘Person of the Year’ for 2016. Looking from a Third World perspective, Time’s selections are based on power, wealth, glamour, drama and controversy. They rarely highlight the hopes, pains, toil and contributions of the people from the non-western world. Since it started publishing it’s ‘Person [Man] of the Year’ 90 years ago, the magazine has selected only a token number of people from the non-western world for the title. It is as if nothing happens in the rest of the world. At least nothing that is worth considering in the standards of the magazine and the tastes of its captive audience.
It doesn’t matter if the whole Syrian people are massacred, displaced and their cities and livelihoods destroyed. It doesn’t matter if mothers in Aleppo have only their tears as consolation for their dead and hope for maybe another daybreak where they can at least see the faces of their remaining children and hug them.
It doesn’t matter if one child dies every 10 minutes in Yemen according to Unicef and at least 462,000 children suffer from acute malnutrition with 2.2 million in need of urgent care. It doesn’t matter if tens of thousands of non-western refugees risk their lives to cross the high seas in search of a safer place to feed their children or to dream of a better life. It doesn’t matter if terrorism devastates the streets of African or Asian cities. It matters only when terror strikes the streets of the developed world, as if human life has to be weighed and measured in different scales and standards.
Time editors say their selection is based on the person who had greatest influence, for better or worse, on the events of the year. But the question is whose events is it anyway and to whom do they matter? Yes, Trump, like Brexit before him, was a great event for the western world. But to the rest of the world, it seemed to be a non-event. Neither Brexit nor Trump’s election spectacles would change anything about the reality of the rest of the world. To say that news-worthy events only take place in the West and that the rest of the world should cry when they cry, laugh when they laugh and grieve when they grieve — while the cries, laughters and sorrows of the rest of the world do not matter — is a throwback to the days of racism and colonialism.
One could be reminded here that to call other people barbarian was a characteristic of western culture from the Greeks to the Roman Empire, through slavery to colonialism. Looking how western media measures life and events today one wonders if this fallacy still holds water even in the 21st century. Because it is amazing how despite the advancement of the horizons of knowledge, that people intransigently insist on living in the past where people, events and empathy were judged on the basis of race, religion, colour and wealth.
This is why if I was asked what events mattered in 2016, the first that would have come to mind would have been that person or those people who had the greatest positive impact in saving lives. And I cannot think of anyone better positioned to carry this title than the members of the Syrian Civil Defence, known as ‘White Helmets’. These men and women sacrifice their lives to rescue others’ lives in the war zones of Syria. They are the first respondents who rush to the scene of a bombardment as soon as they hear the explosion and even before the dust and smoke can settle down. You will find them among the rubble and the ruins as soon as bombs are dropped. To be a minute late is often too late for a life that could have been saved. They race against time, death and bombs, sometimes using their bodies as shields against bombs, shrapnel and falling concrete, to protect the body of a mutilated child, a mother who has just delivered a baby and an elderly man who was about to draw his last breath.
The White Helmets, who lost a number of their volunteers during operations and who were recently awarded ‘Alternative Nobel Prize’, do what they do not for fame, entertainment, drama or controversy. They do not work for material profit or spiritual satisfaction. They do not follow a planned PR gimmick to influence events or to manipulate opinion. They do what they do because they have to do it. They do it because they see hope and life among the ruins, they see that the goodness in human beings is stronger and more enduring than the monster in man. To them, every minute matters and every minute they save a life is a minute worth living. And most definitely, it is a minute worth celebrating.
Another major event that stands at the threshold of life and death, hope and despair, destitution and prosperity, is the tens of thousands of Africans and Asians who risk their lives on the high seas to escape wars, poverty and oppression.
According to latest figures from United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) 327,800 migrants crossed the Mediterranean Sea to Europe since October 2016, compared to 1,015,078 last year. UNHCR also reported that 3,740 lives had been lost so far in 2016 — just short of the 3,771 reported for the whole of 2015. This is an earth-shattering event of human movement. An event that deserves not only to be recognised as Time’s ‘Person of the Year’, but as a human tragedy that deserves a global outcry and a concerted global action to address it. And as we all know when Europe faced such catastrophic situation, America came to its rescue with its generous life-changing Marshall Plan to restore hope and build a better future for the continent. But western reaction to this unprecedented human tragedy from the Third World is to call for building walls to ward off the hordes of beggars and to whip up racism and xenophobia.
These events that are all crisis situations of life-and-death faced by millions of people in developing countries due to wars, climate change and poverty driven by actions of global capitalism are worth grabbing world media attention more than the glamour and profit-laden escapades of the western political and cultural titans.
But it seems the world is destined to remain forever divided and the focus for media attention to events will be evaluated by wealth and power — not by the true value of life.
Bashir Goth is an African commentator on political, social and cultural issues.