19 March 2011

Opium addiction and cultural imperialism ch. II

This time the nonsense comes from The New Republic. As a refresher, CNN ran a piece back in January about how opium addiction was an un(der)reported scourge affecting destitute Afghanis. I wrote about the flaws of that piece. Unsurprisingly, many of the same flaws are evident in the New Republic dispatch from Anna Badkhen. Badkhen does CNN writer Arwa Damon one better and opens her story with an infant who has an overdose of opium, rather than just an infant being fed it.

I don't mean to diminish the tragedy or heartbreak attendant to infant deaths and near misses. Any death, particularly a child's is dreadful. However, consider the words of Dr. Mohammad Akbar whom Badkhen interviewed:
Every month we receive two or three babies like this, not breathing, overdosed,” he said. “It is very common for people in this area to give opium to children when they cry. If he had gotten here twenty minutes later, he wouldn’t have lived. Last year, we had three children who were brought here dead.
This terrible epidemic is killing… three children per year. Wait, what? Here's the worst part, Badkhen's description of just who Dr. Mohammad Akbar is, "Dr. Mohammad Akbar, the sole pediatrician here, told me the hospital receives approximately 1,000 child patients each year." To recap, the sole pediatrician at the sole hospital north of Balkh sees three deaths from opium overdose per year.

While that may be heart breaking, what Badkhen doesn't mention is that infant mortality in Afghanistan is a stunningly high 133.7 per 100,000. That is approximately twenty times (2,000%!) the rate in the US. In this context the relentless and obsessive focus of US reporters on the "horrors" of opium addiction in Afghanistan are absurd. Millions of Afghani children are dying from malnutrition and disease, yet we insist on perpetuating and inventing an insane narrative about opiate deaths. I can only speculate that media outlets are shifting their drug reporting assets/responsibilities to Afghanistan since it's safer than the alternative.

The entire construction of Badkhen's piece is designed to obfuscate the fact that the opium has nothing to do with these children's problems. Take a look at this sentence:
[Children] are growing up with no access to electricity, health care, clean water, and education—but with easy and constant access to cheap opium.
This is downright deceitful. Nowhere in her entire piece does Badkhen enumerate potential consequences of regular opium ingestion writ large, instead she uses a single vignette of a child's overdose to indict the habit (incidentally, it is considerably safer than Western culture's alcohol use). Here's another example of her manipulative writing:
Every single one of them, [Dr. Mohammad Akbar] said, has some degree of opium poisoning. “Most of them have other diseases—tuberculosis, dysentery, pneumonia,” the doctor explained.
Take a very hard look at where the actual quote begins. Now look at the term that is just before it, i.e. is the journalist's own addition. In a passage that is entirely about what the doctor sees, his own words are preceded by a medical term, "opium poisoning," that is not, in fact, attributed to him verbatim. When we actually meet these children a paragraph later they are said to have opium addiction—which is very different from opium poisoning. To wit, the second most common symptom of opium poisoning (behind miosis) is unconsciousness; i.e. none of the children Badkhen is interacting with have opium poisoning.

Moreover, the doctor's (and Badkhen's) "explanation" gets the causality precisely backwards in this case. The doctor's "explanation" for the childrens' "opium poisoning" is that they have other diseases. Yet a paragraph later the doctor tells us:
“They are either giving opium to them when they cry, or the child is ingesting it with the mother’s milk”

In a truly masterful display of spin, the opium has gone from being given because they are ill to being the cause of the illness. Do you want to know how I can confidently say this isn't the case? It's easy. Sick infants cry. Badkhen makes abundantly clear that in rural, destitute Afghanistan, crying infants are given opium to palliate their pains. (In case I haven't sold you, read on, a villager is about to prove me correct.)

What makes this article so infuriating is Badkhen's crazed and insistent focus on the opium. Read her last paragraph for instance:
A child by the door hawked dreadfully, a dark, sinister cough. What about doctors, I asked. Are there any doctors around, for when the children get sick? “The nearest doctor is in Dawlatabad,” the men replied. “But we rarely take the children there. Mostly, we give them opium.”
In this quote the lack of adequate medical care receives nary a mention. Instead we are to blame "the men" for giving these children opium. With her unrelenting vilification of opium use Badkhen diverts attention away from everything that leads these people to use opium in the first place. Were she, or any other journalist, to endure the tragic conditions of Afghani peasant life: manual labor, hunger, harsh winters, malnutrition, and frequent infection—to name a only few—they would be clamoring for palliative care. Especially if there simply were not any available curative care.

As long as children like Abdul Bashir grow up without access to electricity, health care, clean water, and education (Badkhen's list!) it is callous and inhuman for Westerners to visit their village and indict their opium use. Articles like this leave me disgusted at (some) reporters' nadir of self awareness and make me angry at how oblivious they are to their rampant cultural imperialism.

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