Nine questions about Britain you were too embarrassed to ask. (Before we begin surgical strikes on Oxford, Bath, and Hull.)— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
1 Q. What is Britain? A. Britain is a country in Europe. Its people are called the Britons. Elizabeth II is the Queen of the Britons.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
Last week, one Washington Post columnist by the name of Max Fisher, a well known foreign policy analyst, wrote a list disguised as an article, also known as a listicle, called "9 questions about Syria you were too embarrassed to ask" in an attempt to explain the situation in Syria. While well-written and very detailed, the nature of the listicle clearly displayed a bias toward American thinking, and eventually revealed itself as very silly (as is shown by question 5, "Can we take a music break?"). Teju Cole, a rising novelist based in Brooklyn by way of Lagos, Nigeria, responded on Twitter by writing "Nine questions about Britain you were too embarrassed to ask," which skewers not only the nature of listicles, but also how we create a bubble by perceiving others in such a narrow way.
2 Q. Why are the Britons selling nerve gas chemicals to Syria? A. Money, innit.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
3 Q. That's horrible. How did it all go so wrong in Britain? A. It's an old country with a violent past. Old habits die hard.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
Teju Cole built his fun list of questions on the premise that British chemical weapons may have been sold to Syria and used in the chemical weapons attacks in eastern Damascus in late August 2013. This premise has since been mostly rebutted. However, despite that, Cole's point still stands in satirizing listicles, and how shallow they tend to be. There is a general silliness about listicles that tends to skip over any thoughtful consideration or analysis in the name of "getting the basics."
4 Q. But don't Britain and the US love each other? The US sells chemical weapons too, no? What about the Geneva Convention? A. Hush, puppy.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
5 Q. This is all feeling really bleak and hopeless. Can we take a music break? A. Sure. British music is great. http://t.co/qXnEZVF5CD— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
It is reasonable that people want information to be as easy to absorb and understand as possible. Admittedly, it is partly why we do such articles here. But to write a listicle like every person reading the article is five years old, like Max Fisher did, comes off as obnoxious and crass. Teju Cole was right to skewer him for that. The tone of the article, which was also the tone for several other articles in recent weeks about Syria, needed to be questioned, especially in its offhanded, patronizing nature.
6 Q. Why hasn't the US fixed this yet? A. It's complicated. To burn down Oxford would be sad. Do nothing, and Britain remains dangerous.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
7 Q. So why would Obama bomb the UK if it won't solve the problem? A. To wipe that smirk off Cameron's face. They won't cross us next time.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
More importantly, though, Teju Cole showed that we tend to view situations like Syria as something that is happening to "others," people that are far away and have no connection to us. It is more a spectacle, a fictional drama to us than it is something that directly affects us as a whole. By shifting that "other" to our allies the British, Cole revealed the ease in which a person can create an "other" and be completely separate from what is going on.
8. Q. What's the big deal over chemical weapons? Conventional weapons sales kill millions. A. [redacted]— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
9 Q. So, what's the big take-away? What's going to happen? Are we going to bomb the Britons? A. LOL. No. Because. Reasons.— Teju Cole (@tejucole) September 3, 2013
Teju Cole followed up the questions with an interview by Max Fisher himself, who took the parody list in stride. Cole made clear that his list was about the "other," which shapes much of his writing. By examining what being an "other" means in this context, Cole shows that by trying to keep things simple for people, there is no willingness to understand and appreciate "others" in total.
(Image Sources: Flickr: US Consulate General Barcelona, Lorianne DiSabato)