Cruising for a Bruising

The Carnival cruise story's framing says about the U.S. perspective of the world. Even if only in a very muted way, the ship's passengers got a taste of Third World conditions.
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They had to eat spam and Pop-Tarts. They had to shower in the dark with cold water. The toilets overflowed.

When the Carnival Cruise ship finally docked in San Diego last week after three days on the high seas without electricity, CNN interviewed two of the youngest passengers in an attempt to play up the drama of the ordeal. Frankly, the kids didn't look particularly discomfited by the 72-hour experience. They got bored playing board games. They didn't like the smelly toilets. The cheese sandwiches really sucked. Still, if given another opportunity, they would go on a cruise again.

The cruise ship mishap was big news last week. When the ship reached shore, The Washington Post put the story on A2.

Only further into the paper could you find out about the other tragedies that took place elsewhere on the planet. In the digest of world news, the Post reported on the release of 17 Chinese sailors held by pirates for four months. In Sudan, a parasitic tropical disease outbreak killed hundreds. In Indonesia, the eruption of the Mount Merapi volcano killed nearly 200 people. And in Haiti, the cholera epidemic's death toll rose to 800. The word count for these four stories combined didn't equal the copy devoted to the cruise ship.

Ah, you might point out the people on the cruise ship were (mostly) Americans, It's our media's duty to cover what happens to Americans. America is the home team. What happens to the other teams is relegated to small box scores at the bottom of the page. If we end up battling another team in the playoffs -- Iraq, Afghanistan -- only then does the news hit the front page (which is generally not good news for the other team).

I didn't bring up the Carnival Cruise story to rail against the America-centrism of our media coverage. After all, here at Foreign Policy In Focus (FPIF), we too focus on U.S. foreign policy in our effort to change the game in Washington. Rather, I'm interested in what the cruise story's framing says about the U.S. perspective of the world.

We often speak of America's exceptionalist tradition. We act as if we are the exception to the rules that govern other countries, other peoples. But perhaps what we're looking at here is our entitlement tradition. We Americans believe that we are entitled to special treatment.

In comparison to the bulk of humanity, most Americans travel first class through life, with all the privileges that come with this status: more leg room, better food, lots of entertainment options. Even those born poor believe that they are eligible through the American Dream program for an upgrade. If by some quirk we lose that status and find ourselves in global economy class -- or worse -- it challenges our very notion of what it means to be American. The U.S. passport is like a gold card that gets us into the special lounge. When that passport ceases to have its magical effect -- or when, in an age of anti-Americanism, it becomes an actual liability -- then we Americans become bewildered. We call our lawyers, we demand our rights, we say, "do you know who you're talking to?"

The Carnival Cruise narrative isn't just about a vacation gone sour. It's about privilege lost. Americans eat spam and Pop tarts all the time, of course, but usually because we want to. We take cold showers on occasion when camping. To be forced to do so as a result of an unexpected downgrade, that is the existential horror.

And a cruise, after all, is supposed to be a glorious confirmation of our global status. A cruise is all about seeing the world from a safe, insulated distance. At the ports of call, with the cruise director's warnings fresh in our memory, passengers don't stray far and thus only see a sanitized version of the outside world. We're vaguely aware of piracy and parasites and volcanic eruptions and cholera epidemics -- all the news that appears at the margins. But vacation is about having fun, not rubbing one's nose in the suffering of others. And we certainly don't want eco-killjoys lecturing us about the monumental waste and pollution of cruise ships. (For instance, a large cruise ship generates as much air pollution in a day as 12,000 cars.)

But then, suddenly, the electricity goes out. The privileges are revoked. The horrors of the world at large begin to intrude, even if only in a very muted way. We get a taste of Third World conditions -- food shortages, electricity outages, poor sanitary conditions -- precisely what we didn't want to experience on a cruise, precisely what being American is supposed to protect us from. Then, after three days of discomfort, the ship returns, we are restored to our Spam-free world, and real tragedy is averted.

But even as CNN viewers warm to this story of hardship and redemption, a niggling thought remains. In this age of dwindling energy reserves and burgeoning population, perhaps even Americans aren't fully insulated from a slippage in status, from a loss of privilege. And another, even more troubling thought beckons: perhaps our very sense of entitlement, and the disproportionate amount of world resources that sustains such entitlement, is pushing the world to the brink. In this way, we Americans -- along with our wealthy compatriots throughout the world -- are literally cruising for a bruising.

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