The earthquake-tsunami combination that hit most of the Indian subcontinent as well as Indonesia and parts of East Africa was a catastrophic misfortune. It will probably go down, after the disease and disorganization and massive rebuilding efforts have taken their respective courses, as the worst natural disaster in human history. It is another of life’s periodic warnings that life is precious, fragile, and entirely dependant upon random forces and unforeseen consequences.
Understand then that when I refer to other catastrophes throughout the remainder of this piece, they naturally pale in comparison. But that said, there are others taking place and they are infinitely more accountable and, in most cases, preventable than a natural disaster. They all, in different but complimentary ways, are the result of sentimentality taking the place of rational thought and genuine emotion.
Sentimentality holds a place in both my head and my heart alongside totalitarianism, tribalism, and, for that matter, most other “isms” as well which are, in my opinion, a nasty combination of ignorance and emotion. The irony of sentimentality is that, while it pretends to ascribe emotional significance to terrible events –September 11th is a particularly recent example of sentimentality run amok – it replaces genuine emotions with ersatz ones that tend to use the event for other purposes, be they political objectives or best-selling “tribute” CDs.
The culprit in the tsunami disaster, as tends to be the case in all disasters, is the Western media. Lured by the spectacle of a vast death count and an endless supply of heartrending personal stories they abandon their responsibility as journalists to provide insight and clarity to unclear events. In so doing they have abandoned the real stories of the Tsunamiquake, ones that deserve telling.
Why, for example, has nobody asked the real questions? Why, for example, is the media obsessed with identifying foreign nationals and telling their stories to the exclusion of the hundreds of thousands of locals that have been killed? The Globe and Mail finally ventured a comment on the sickeningly disproportional weight given to the deaths of tourists versus locals, albeit in a sidebar column on page A7 in the January 2nd edition. I would estimate – and, if I had the resources and time of a paid journalist, could probably pin it down in a more rigorously scientific way – that one foreign life is worth approximately 10,000 local ones in the coverage of the Tsunamiquake. Find an island village in Indonesia that has been completely obliterated, resulting in 6,000 additional deaths? Page A3. Receive confirmation from the Department of Foreign Affairs that a Canadian has broken their leg? Page A1, complete with pictures and an interview.
Or what about the aid situation in Sri Lanka, where it appears increasingly likely that the government is deliberately suppressing aid to Tamil-controlled regions of the country? It would, of course, require a little bit of effort on the part of a particularly enterprising journalist in the region, but it’s a story that deserves coverage. Then again, maybe I’m asking too much; journalists, as Peter C. Newman observes in his surprisingly readable autobiography Here Be Dragons, tend overwhelmingly to be passive conduits of reportage rather than active surveyors of the news landscape. To expect them to traverse the now washed out Sri Lankan roads and negotiate their passage into Tamil territory in search of a story is apparently beyond them.
That said, there are stories that wouldn’t require the journalist to leave his laptop or, for that matter, his feet. Why did the Canadian government tab Ruby Dhalla, a Toronto-based Sikh MP, to discuss the plight of Sri Lankans? Isn’t that as ridiculous as asking an Ulsterman to shed tears of sympathy for a few dead Irish Protestants? Or does it betray a kind of lazy racism – Dhalla’s brown and so are Sri Lankans so they have common cause – both on the part of the government for assigning Dhalla to talk about the issue, and the CBC radio journalist who conducted the interview (and forgive me for not remembering his name but he was one of the B-Teamers CBC trots out during the holidays when the starting lineup all take their vacations simultaneously) for not asking the obvious?
There are, thankfully, a few exceptions. Paul Wells, the best journalist in Canada, has pointed out on his blog – www.macleans.ca/paulwells – the hypocritical response of the Canadian press corps to the government’s response to the emerging travesty. Wells asks “how many reporters working the where-are-our-leaders story would be, uh, working on something else if their colleagues weren’t on Christmas vacation?”
Maybe I’m being unfair here. I’m sure some journalists are filing stories of governmental incompetence, human cruelty, and a racist media bias, and these are being deliberately buried by publishers more interested in selling papers than the truth. I suppose the fact that they haven’t given the Tsunamiquake a human name – Tsunami Tristan, for example – is a sign that they aren’t completely engorged in the orgy of sentimentality. But the gravitational force that sentimentality exerts on events and the coverage of them is powerful. Sentimentality massively distorted – perverted, in fact – the coverage of the suicide attacks of September 11th and the death of Princess Diana of Wales. It seems likely that, yet again, the search for concealed truths and news that’s actually new will become a casualty of the event itself, done in by sentimentality’s insatiable appetite and the media establishment’s willingness to feed it.
Ottawa, January 2, 2005 – 947 w.