Ukraine, Africa, and Narcissistic Compassion

Last Wednesday, 3rd of May, Ishaan Tharoor, the brilliant Washington Post columnist, gave his daily newsletter a title that was particularly attention-grabbing: “The death toll in Ukraine is huge. It may still be far behind Tigray.”...


Last Wednesday, 3rd of May, Ishaan Tharoor, the brilliant Washington Post columnist, gave his daily newsletter a title that was particularly attention-grabbing: “The death toll in Ukraine is huge. It may still be far behind Tigray.” Tharoor reported Western estimates that Russia has suffered in Ukraine some 200,000 casualties with more than 40,000 soldiers killed in action since the start of its invasion last year and US (leaked) estimates of up to 131,000 Ukrainian casualties including up to 17,500 fighters killed in action. As for the toll on Ukraine’s civilians, the UN had confirmed until Tuesday 23,375 casualties, including 8,709 civilians killed since the start of the invasion, while acknowledging that the actual figures are likely to be far higher.

“And yet,” Tharoor commented, “for all the weight of its brutality and violence, the war in Ukraine was not even the single deadliest conflict in the world last year. That grim title goes to the conflict that nominally ended last November in Ethiopia’s northern Tigray region. Since violence erupted two years before pitting Tigrayan rebels against both Ethiopian and Eritrean troops, 600,000 people may have died…”

In conclusion, Tharoor quoted from a piece by Magdalene Abraha published by The Guardian at the very end of last year, appropriately during the festive season. Abraha concluded her article — titled “Think the war in Ukraine is the world’s deadliest conflict? Think again” — with these words:

“The question remains, how did the international community ignore hundreds of thousands of people dying? And what does it mean that such abuses of justice are allowed to occur? When all is said and done, our global consciences must reckon with the fact that, while this human bloodbath happened, we chose not to watch.”

Indeed. And there is nothing new about it. The disproportion between the attention given by countries of the Global North — what Abraha calls “the international community”, unfortunately falling into the trap of using that expression as a codename for the Global North, if not for the geopolitical West alone — to white victims and the attention that they pay to victims in the Global South — especially in Sub-Saharan Africa, but the same goes for Afghanis, Iraqis, Syrians, Yemenis, etc. — is enormous and shameful.

In a comment on the same issue written more than twenty years ago, in the book of mine that circulated the most widely (13 languages and further editions in each of English, French, and Turkish), The Clash of Barbarisms (scroll down at:, I dedicated a section of the first chapter tilted "Narcissistic Compassion and the Global Spectacle" to a concept that I called “narcissistic compassion”, which has been borrowed and quoted since then by different authors.

This section is reproduced below. It can be found pp. 33–36 in the second augmented edition published in 2006 (Routledge and Saqi Books, excellently trans. from the French by my good friend Peter Drucker):

Globalization and Narcissistic Compassion

For obvious reasons of affinity, those who identify the most with North Americans either live in the Western world or belong to the transnational social layers that share the same way of life, characteristic above all of New York yuppies. We could call it the “cosmopolitan bourgeois way of life,” an elite, updated, globalized version of the “American way of life” of the 1950s. Thomas Friedman, well-known New York Times columnist and bard of globalization/Americanization, is a prominent exponent of this way of life.[1] In his characteristically swaggering and ingenuous style, he recounted how he spent his weekend two weeks after September 11:

<I went to the ball game Friday night, took in Dvorak’s “New World” Symphony at the Kennedy Center Saturday, took my girls out to breakfast in Washington Sunday morning, and then flew to the University of Michigan. Heck, I even went out yesterday [Monday] and bought some stock. What a great country. I wonder what Osama bin Laden did in his cave in Afghanistan yesterday?[2]>

It is a safe bet that many fewer people in the world are familiar with a schedule like Thomas Friedman’s than with a life rather like bin Laden’s in his cave. Striking the same note but in a more precious style, Peruvian writer and former presidential candidate Mario Vargas Llosa was bent on singing the praises of the elite cosmopolitanism of the age of globalization/Americanization by telling everyone in the Madrid daily El País how exalting he always finds it to be in New York, a city where he “always felt [he] was at the center of the world,” where fortunately “the eggs Benedict and the Bloody Mary are still delights in the brick shrine P.J. Clarke’s on Third Avenue.”[3] Touched, the New York Times published an abridged translation of the article.

In reality, the exceptional intensity of the emotions elicited worldwide by the destruction of Manhattan’s Twin Towers is due primarily to what we can call “narcissistic compassion.” It is a form of compassion evoked much more by calamities striking “people like us,” much less by calamities affecting people unlike us. The fate of New Yorkers (in this case) elicits far more of it than the fate of Iraqis or Rwandans ever could, to say nothing of Afghans.[4] Located at the very heart of the premier metropolis of capitalist cosmopolitanism, the towers of the World Trade Center constituted in a certain sense the totem poles of the “cosmopolitan bourgeois way of life,” whose global adepts felt massively at their destruction.

Only this narcissistic compassion—going beyond legitimate compassion for any human being victimized by a barbaric act—makes it possible to understand the formidable, absolutely exceptional intensity of the emotions and passions that seized hold of “public opinion,” beginning with opinion makers, in Western countries and the metropolises of the globalized economy in the wake of the September 11 attacks.

Only this narcissistic compassion enables us to understand how in a country like France, supposedly in the grip of virulent “anti-Americanism,”[5] the most prestigious daily newspaper could have gone so far as to headline its front-page editorial the day after the attacks, “We are all Americans.”[6] This phrase had a double meaning. On the one hand, it expressed compassion; on the other hand, pride in showing solidarity with the dominant country, the “godfather” of the family Le Monde is very happy to belong to (particularly at the moment when it is about to burst out in one of its rages) and that not everyone is lucky enough to belong to.[7] This is what Freud called the “narcissistic satisfaction provided by the cultural ideal,” which he explained as follows: “No doubt one is a wretched plebeian, harassed by debts and military service; but, to make up for it, one is a Roman citizen, one has one’s share in the task of ruling other nations and dictating their laws.”[8]

Admittedly, narcissistic compassion is one of the most common features in the world. It is far from restricted to the emotions felt in some countries and by some categories of people about the victims of September 11. True, but the uniqueness of the narcissistic compassion shown by opinion makers and other “elites” in Western metropolises is that they camouflage it as an oceanic humanism indifferent to skin color or religion. Their pretension towers even above the former World Trade Center towers themselves. From this exalted height Western elites condescendingly summon other human groups and demand that they share the elites’ own feelings, in the name of the humanism that they assume to be their monopoly. Too often their “humanism” is nothing more than a masked expression of their own ethnocentrism.

This narcissistic compassion, added to a servile desire to show its zealous solidarity with its “godfather,” explains why the European Union decreed a European-wide day of mourning and three minutes of silence for the 6,000 victims in the United States (according to the then current estimates). This same European Union did not observe a single minute of silence for the 7,000 people massacred in Srbrenica, presumably “Europeans” all. It ended up finding a silver lining in Russia’s dirty war in Chechnya. The hundreds of thousands of people massacred in Rwanda scarcely troubled it, and the tens of thousands of victims dying each year in Iraq hardly at all—restricting ourselves to examples in Europe’s own geographical periphery.

This European Union, together with the United States and the other big powers, has organized a veritable conspiracy of silence around another war in its former colonial empire, which has led to a humanitarian catastrophe of genocidal proportions. The number of deaths caused directly or indirectly by the war in progress in Congo-Kinshasa since August 1998 was close to three million by spring 2001—yes, three million people in less than three years!—according to a study carried out by a highly credible source, the International Rescue Committee, headquartered in New York.[9]

The same European Union shares responsibility with the United States and the other rich countries for failing to help populations threatened by one of the worst “biogenocides” in history. The AIDS pandemic already affects more than 28 million people in Sub-Saharan Africa, fewer than one per 1,000 of whom are receiving adequate treatment. The result was 2,300,000 deaths due to AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa during the course of the year 2001 alone, the first year of the twenty-first century—meaning more than two September 11s each day!

“At current levels of intervention, the number of Africans dead of AIDS in 10 years will probably surpass the population of France.”[10] On a scale like this, failure to help the populations in danger constitutes in itself an immense crime against humanity. How is it possible not to see something deeply indecent, something deeply revolting, in the spectacle of the white world thrown into convulsions of distress over the “6,000” victims in the United States, while it hardly gives a thought to Black Africa in its horrible agony? [11]


[1] See Thomas Friedman, The Lexus and the Olive Tree: Understanding Globalization, revised and expanded edition (New York: Anchor Books, 2000).

[2] Friedman, “Terrorism Game Theory,” New York Times, September 25, 2001.

[3] Mario Vargas Llosa, “Novelista en New York,” El País, November 25, 2001, and “Out of Many, New York,” New York Times, December 11, 2001.

[4] “To the victims of the attack and their relatives one can offer our deep sympathy, as one does to people whom the U.S. government has victimized. But to accept that somehow an American life is worth more than that of a Rwandan, a Yugoslav, a Vietnamese, a Korean, a Japanese, a Palestinian . . . that is unacceptable” (Tariq Ali, “A Political Solution Is Required,” The Nation Online, September 17, 2001).

[5] Nonetheless, according to a survey carried out by the French marketing and opinion survey institute Sofres for the French-American Foundation, only 10 percent of the French population is “anti-American.” The group is defined as consisting of people who associate the United States with notions such as “violence, inequality, racism and imperialism,” “see U.S. foreign policy only as a means for the United States to impose its will on the rest of the world, and do not credit the United States with the desire to maintain peace in the world or assist the development of democracy in countries with emerging economies” (Philippe Méchet, “En France, l’antiaméricanisme structuré apparaît minoritaire et politique,” Le Monde, January 6–7, 2001). By a definition like this there are probably at least as many “anti-Americans” among U.S. citizens as among the French, if not more.

[6] Editorial by Jean-Marie Colombani, Le Monde, September 13, 2001 (actually published on September 12). Le Monde’s zealous solidarity went so far that for several days it published a page taken directly from the New York Times, in English—evoking protests from very many readers who do not read English.

[7] One of Newsweek’s editors-in-chief understood the title of Le Monde’s editorial as follows: “Yes, the United States had built an international system and it was powerful: Bush Senior’s new world order really had come into being after all. This was the meaning of the world’s reaction to the September disaster, summed up in the poignant headline in Le Monde: ‘We are all Americans’” (Michael Hirsh, “America Adrift,” Foreign Affairs 80 [November/December 2001], p. 161).

[8] Sigmund Freud, The Future of an Illusion, trans. and ed., James Strachey (New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 1961), p. 13.

[9] The results of the study are available on the International Rescue Committee’s website. See also Karl Vick, “Death Toll in Congo War May Approach 3 Million,” Washington Post, April 30, 2001.

[10] Barton Gellman, “An Unequal Calculus of Life and Death,” Washington Post, December 27, 2000.

[11] André Glucksmann cannot be accused of limiting himself to narcissistic compassion. He has devoted himself in a praiseworthy way to the Chechen cause and devoted the best pages of Dostoїeveski à Manhattan to this subject. Yet even he offers a striking example of “the mote in one’s brother’s eye and the beam in one’s own.” He only denounces crimes committed by the Russians, Chinese, and North Koreans. He does not have a word of sympathy in his book for the victims of NATO or allied countries, such as Kurds and Palestinians. He writes for instance: “[French serial killer Henri] Landru was fiercely, unanimously condemned for his few dozen killings [actually ten women and one man]. But the North Korean dictator, who has condemned two or three million fellow citizens to death by famine (who knows how many? who cares?), has not been. Nor has the Chinese government, which has allowed AIDS to devastate a vast province for years in order to protect the officials responsible for the disaster” (Glucksmann, Dostoïevski à Manhattan, p. 184). But what about the million Iraqis that have already died as a result of the embargo? As for AIDS…