Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Tsunami Shame

What the hell is wrong with us? Our government? Our media? Our people? We need look no further than our response to the devastating tsunamis in Indonesia and Africa to know that we have officially reached the status of a once-great nation.

Maybe I'm just in a post-holiday funk, but our reaction to potentially the worst natural disaster on record has depressed me incredibly. Take the government response: the President of the United States goes for a bike ride and clears brush at his ranch; he doesn't make a big statement because, according to his aides, he doesn't want to "just say something symbolic." Um. Why do you exist but to say something "symbolic" at such a terrible time for people? Do you think you can say something concrete and helpful? No one can! Your job as President is to make a statement that lets the people affected and the international community know that, diplomatically and humanitarianly, the United States of American feels compassion and loss at such a tragic time. Think of it this way: when 4,000 Americans were killed on 9/11, other countries of the world held candlelight vigils for us. Their leaders stood shoulder to shoulder with ours in making "symbolic" gestures that we were not alone. So compare our response to the death of almost 70,000 people (and rising), many of whom were Americans, many of whom have family in America. Our diplomatic response was lazy, ignorant and unbecoming of the richest nation in the world.

To be fair, the $35 million that has been pledged to relief efforts is just a beginning, but compare that to the ELEVEN BILLION DOLLARS sent to Florida alone after the hurricanes. Yeah, that was a "B." Billion. I bet Sri Lanka wishes they had some electoral votes, huh?

Our media response has been equally embarrassing: "68,998 people dead! But not to worry! The supermodel and Oprah's interior designer survived!" If I saw one more puff piece of Whatsername Nemcova and Nate Whatever, I was going to put my foot through the freakin' television. Why does our media continue to show its complete disregard for actual journalistic integrity by boiling down the sudden death of tens of thousands of human beings, many of them children, to the "brave survival stories" of two minor-pseudo-B-list celebrities? What is WRONG with us?! I hate when people play the race card after a disaster, but sometimes I do wonder if it is indeed because, as a people, we can't figure out how to empathize or identify with thousands of poor brown people. If 70,000 Americans from the suburbs were killed in the space of 15 minutes, we'd have no idea how to go on with our lives. And yet, when the same number of poor people "over there" are wiped out, we focus on a supermodel and a "famous" designer because who the hell can feel for a guy whose entire family has disappeared when he can't even speak English? If that doesn't convince you we have a problem, think about this: how many photos of dead Indonesian and Sri Lankan children, with their faces visible, lying in rows have you seen in the past few days? How many photos do you think would be allowed to be published of rows of American dead children? Wouldn't we assume they have identities and families and err on the side of not showing dead kids' faces? It's the same reason people in Britain saw photos of 9/11 jumpers that we have still never seen here. The American media made an editorial decision to not show such ghoulish images because of "the families." And yet, here we are showing ghoulish images of thousands of dead children. Why? Because, somewhere deep inside us, we don't register them as actual people with actual families, here or elsewhere in the world, who might see their cousin's child dead in a newspaper.

If we want to respond compassionately, now is not the time to clean out your garage of old clothes and send them off to Sri Lanka. It is time to open your wallet and make a cash donation to an international relief organization. Having worked for a disaster relief organization, I know all too well the incredible uselessness of tons of old clothes in the immediate aftermath of a disaster. I also know the snippy response you get when you politely decline such a donation and are accused of "just wanting money." Well, YEAH! Exactly! The logistical and financial nightmare of sorting, cleaning, transporting and doling out clothing from your basement would only detract from an organization's ability to feed, house, and protect survivors from malaria and cholera. Your cash gift allows these organizations to support the locally-devastated economy by buying relief supplies THERE. It allows them to save money on the transport of millions of pounds of supplies that can be bought THERE. It allows them to buy precious vaccinations and water-purifying materials that, I'm sorry to say, your old flannel shirts from the 90's grunge era just can't do. So, yeah, keep your yard sale stuff in the attic and write these groups a check. And pray for the people who have lost their families and their livelihoods; pray for their health too, because, as one international aid worker said, as many if not more people will die of disease in the weeks and months following the tsunami as died in the tsunami itself.

If you can't find it in your heart to give a moment to the thousands of victims of this disaster, at least pray for the supermodel.


Anonymous said...

Right on all counts. The president's silence is shameful (but explainable: the only words that can begin to describe this tragedy have more than two syllables, like "unspeakable, unfathomable humanitarian disaster). As for the media, sad to say but no surprise there. Our wallets should be open real w - i - d - e for this. PapaZ

Vigilante said...

Nice column! Just noticed 'some guy' has borrowed and linked it elsewhere!

More people should come to the REAL source and comment here!

Miko said...

100% in agreement, been saying these things myself (but not so well). Nice link to Atrios!

Whatever happened to Presidential leadership? this is where Americans are really longing for someone to set the tone. I am so embarrassed that when we lost 3,000 people, we enjoyed an outpouring of sympathy and support from the entire world, and our televisions showed nothing else for three days. Now the world loses 100,000 or more, and we barely shrug, and our televisions show "Everybody Loves Raymond."

What happened to the America I was taught to love?