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I don’t think I can finagle this into being about the news media, but since (as previously discussed) House sometimes gets almost as large an audience as the three network evening news shows combined, I think its sociological messages are fair game.

I am a pretty faithful House fan—Hugh Laurie’s misanthropic commentary and my love of weekly mysteries (even trite ones) provide enough enjoyment to make up for what I perceive as a decline in the show’s quality over the last couple of seasons. But tonight’s episode about a brutal dictator from a generic African country rubbed me wrong, and not just because of it’s corny gestures toward wrestling with Big Philosophical Questions.

For those who don’t schedule their Monday evenings around the show (I’m ashamed to admit that we actually got a digital converter box two hours before this year’s season premier in order to catch it), today’s episode found Dr. House and his team treating a genocidal African dictator and wrestling with the implications of restoring him to health.

The problematic element for me was the generic country, which I thought fit too neatly into uncomplicated Western ideas of an unstable African nation. The script’s use of details picked from various African conflicts (ethnic violence, an uprising “in the south,” genocide perpetrated against a once-powerful ethnic minority that sounded an awful lot like “Tutsi,” child soldiers abducted, drugged and forced to commit atrocities, a charismatic and ruthless leader, etc.) and lumping of them into one generic African genocide seemed to play on the audience’s expectations about the Bad Things that happen in Africa. The conflation of conflicts separated by decades and thousands of miles undermined the unique horror of the real conflicts. And it erroneously suggested that those conflicts were interchangeable, apparently bound together by some vague tie of “Africanness.”

And I do know that shows like this have to simplify complicated ideas in order to create satisfying one-hour units of entertainment. They often pull similar tricks of conflation without raising anyone’s hackles—drawing together details of several famous crimes, for example, into a Frankenstein’s monster of a crime that resembles many but duplicates none. But Western thinking about Africa, and especially African conflict, is too important and too fragile for the the usual one-hour drama treatment. I would rather House had avoided the topic entirely than reinforce such simplified and un-useful conceptions of conflict in Africa.

[EDITED to remove photo due to rights concerns.]


From today’s Washington Post story about Supreme Court Nominee Sonia Sotomayor’s heritage and ethnic identity, regarding her years as an undergraduate at Princeton: “She was active in Latino student affairs but not a bomb-thrower.” That is the whole sentence, and there is no context that I can find to justify the assumption that the audience would read “active in Latino student affairs” and immediately imagine that the young Sotomayor was a radical hyperpartisan.

The latter description reflects my new-found understanding of the idiom “bomb-thrower,” which I have to admit to reading literally when I came across it. While I am fully prepared to believe that reporters Amy Goldstein and Jerry Markon didn’t really feel the need to disambiguate “active in Latino student affairs” from “violent domestic terrorist,” I still wonder why on earth they conflated the former with radical political activism, or partisanship of any type.

Perhaps they meant that she was involved in “political activism centered around Latino issues”? The bomb-thrower comment would make more sense that way. Or perhaps they meant “bomb-thrower” as shorthand for political involvement, which would make a more reasonable contrast to Latino student affairs? We shouldn’t have to guess. And the fact that several editors must have seen and approved this sentence suggest some bizarre assumptions about how the audience would interpret Sotomayor’s past.