A Nation of Narcissists

Robert S. Turner
March 22, 2017


Of all the disturbing and nefarious aspects of the chaotic rollout of the Trump Administration, one that may be the most insidious, even deadly, is the way it dominates the news cycle in this country, to the detriment of other, more important stories. I confess to having got caught up in the drama myself, every day checking the news to see what new outrageous statement the President has made or what new scandal has erupted overnight. Despite the culmination of the World Baseball Classic and the looming start of the MLB season, speculation on what giant political galosh is about to drop next has become our real national pastime.

While all this has been going on, however, in another part of the world a humanitarian crisis has been building that the UN declares to be the worst since World War Two. That means they consider it worse than the Ethiopian famine of the early 1980s; worse than the genocides in Cambodia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Rwanda, and Darfur; worse than any of the devastating floods in Bangladesh or earthquakes in Pakistan, Iran, or Haiti; worse than the 2004 tsunami in south Asia. That is a bold statement, to put it mildly.

The UN estimates that as many as twenty million people are at risk of starvation or death by hunger-related causes across four countries in Africa and the Arabian peninsula: Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria. Twenty million. To put that in perspective, consider the following:

  • 175 countries and dependent territories have populations of less than twenty million, based on the latest UN Population Division estimates;
  • the seventy-six smallest countries and dependent territories have a total combined population of less than twenty million;
  • twenty million is more than three times as many Jews as were killed during the Holocaust;
  • it would take more than twenty-four Columbuses (and ten of the Columbus metro area) to reach twenty million;
  • nearly our entire tri-state area (Ohio, Kentucky, and Indiana) would be devastated if this crisis were taking place on American soil.

These numbers are startling. Imagine seventy-five percent of the nations on earth starving to death. Imagine the entire population of Romania—dead. Imagine getting in your car in International Falls, Minnesota, on the border with Ontario, and making a circuit—south through Iowa and Missouri, west at Kansas City, north through Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, and ending at North Dakota’s border with Saskatchewan—without seeing a single living soul.

If a catastrophe of this magnitude has been brewing long enough for that many people to find themselves on the brink of death, why have we heard so little about it? The US news media’s obsession with all things Trump, and our complicity in that obsession, tends to push aside every other story of note, including this emergency of unprecedented proportions. But imagine for a moment that this crisis was indeed taking place on American soil. Imagine that it was white Americans who were at risk of starvation, not dark-skinned Africans and Yemenis. Would we know about it then? You bet we would. If it were happening here it would be the most monumental story of the century. Hurricane Katrina, the Iraq War, the Great Recession, and even 9/11, would all pale in comparison to the Great American Famine.

We are a nation of narcissists—always have been. Have you ever noticed when a plane crashes or a bombing takes place somewhere in the world, how the reporters and news anchors always make a point of mentioning the number of Americans who were killed, if any? The not-so-subtle message is that American lives are more valuable than the lives of foreigners. In fact, there seems to be a ranking system for how to evaluate the worth of human lives. Citizens of the US, Canada, and Europe are at the top of the list, while sub-Saharan Africans rank at or near the bottom.

Remember 9/11? Round-the-clock coverage for many weeks parsed every minute detail of the attacks, did in-depth profiles of victims, and offered massive doses of irresponsible speculation and jingoistic patriotism. And the shadow of that one day’s events hung over us for years. I remember wondering in 2005 or 2006 if a single day had gone by without some mention of 9/11 by a reporter, newscaster, or commentator. Now consider that for every American citizen who died on 9/11, 7,677 persons in Yemen, Somalia, South Sudan, and Nigeria are at risk of death. Yes, you read that right. A 7,677-to-one ratio, and we have, comparatively speaking, radio silence.

We are a nation of narcissists, and we have elected a Narcissist-in-Chief who tends to suck the air out of every room, building, and nation he’s in. But some balance is in order. Especially as people of faith, we need to be aware of what's going on in the world outside our borders. And when we find out, we need to act.

Last week Sarah and I made donations to the UN’s World Food Program. This morning I called Senators Brown and Portman and Congresswoman Beatty to urge them to provide leadership in Congress for addressing this crisis. Rob Portman is in a particularly advantageous position to act, as he serves on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and on a subcommittee with oversight of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), whose budget President Trump wants to slash because of his “America First” ideology. What the President fails to acknowledge is that the US is stronger when other parts of the world are strong and stable. Twenty million people on the verge of death is, needless to say, not a recipe for stability.

The US is a nation of narcissists, but we who call ourselves Christians hold dual citizenship, and as citizens of the reign of God, we are called to care for those outside our natural circle of concern. We are called to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, and Jesus teaches us that our neighbor is anyone in need. May we answer the call with faithfulness and joy; with prayer and action; and above all with love.

Robert Turner