Now that everyone has forgotten about the tidal wave in Southeast Asia, there’s a few things I’d like to imprint on you.
One was a person: Ari Afrizal, the resourceful 21 year old kid from Indonesia’s Aceh province who was rescued in the middle of the Indian Ocean after two weeks. He’d built a raft by collecting debris, and had constructed a shelter atop it, with a roof. The front page newspaper photo of the raft raised the issue of what our collective future holds. There was Afrizal’s raft, and behind it, the looming container ship that rescued him, with its piled up blue, red and green containers full of useless junk crossing the deep blue sea, probably heading for that discount mall they just opened a few blocks from where you live. Here’s hoping the future has more guys like Afrizal and fewer container ships.
Among the other details that struck me was the curious way in which, as the death toll of locals rose, the estimate of “unaccounted for” Canadians dropped from 376 to 285, while missing Canadians plunged from 146 to 37, all without any explanation of how “unaccounted for” was different from “missing”. In the end only about 5 Canadians were declared dead before the mass media got bored with the whole thing, leaving the suspicion that the mass media and the Federal Government think so little of the general public’s intelligence that it was inflating the local angle because it didn’t trust us to remain interested otherwise.
Dunno about you, but the Canadian tourist angle was about the least galvanizing element in the process. If the resourceful Afrizal was the most inspirational figure the disaster produced, the most depressing counterpoint were the two tourists who were photographed lying on chaise-lounges working on their tans while the disaster relief crews and the locals cleaned up around them. No goddamned wonder they want to shoot tourists, eh?
Canada did end up declaring $425 million in aid, but it isn’t clear whether that much was actually delivered, in what form it got delivered, and how much of it actually got to the victims. I hope it wasn’t Bill Gates-style aid, where you give people something and then force them to buy technology updates, normally at the cost of what used to be subsistence. I don’t mean to be cynical, but it all leaves me wondering which auto manufacturer will be the first to produce a new all-terrain vehicle called “The Tsunami”.
Among the becoming-more-visible fact sets that became apparent before the mass media lost interest in what was happening with humanitarian efforts across the different parts of the disaster impact region—as witnessed by the shitty behaviour of the Sri Lankan and Indonesian governments—was that human starvation almost always has a political component. A few years ago, a controversial Scientific American article made a comparative study of the Southern Indian province of Kerelia (which operates by unique blend of Asian communitarianism and adapted communism) and Bangledesh (which runs an Islamic capitalist state). The article argued that the reason no one starves in Kerelia when disaster strikes (it does so fairly regularly) while hundreds of thousands do in Bangledesh is grounded in fundamental political choices and not in good or bad luck, Mother Nature’s heavy hand or Acts of God. Kerelia’s per capita income runs slightly below that of Bangledesh, but it has organized itself socially and economically to distribute resources and wealth in ways that forfend the kinds of catastrophes that regularly afflict more sectarian kleptocracies like Bangledesh and a depressingly long list of other countries. The non-response to the ongoing political atrocities in Dafur reflects a growing understanding of this, and so does the generous global response to the Tsunami disaster. The victims in Dafur are just as dead as the victims of the Tsunami, but the hard-ass logic behind the understanding that humanitarian disasters often contain a powerful political component suggests that we may be better dispersing aid where it has some chance of getting to the people who need it. It’s only a short leap to making democratization—or at least the suppression of kleptocratic sectarianism—a condition for aid. It’s a cruel condition, but there it is.
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Before Pope Jean Paul II died and left the Roman Catholic Church in the hands of a member of the Hitler Youth, he invented the concept of “challenges of life” to justify the Vatican’s antideluvian policies opposing abortion, gay marriage and stem cell research—while ignoring starvation, disease and war as “natural structures”. I won’t go postal over what this says about the grip on common reality within the upper elevations of the Roman Catholic Church, but it’s worth pointing out once again that we ought to do away with nature as a model for anything except cruelty and waste.
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If the world wide pogrom against smoking cigarettes is starting to make smokers feel like they’re living in a remake of Invasion of the Body-Snatchers, it’s hard to blame them. Bhutan, that paragon of progressive thinking, has leapt into the vanguard by becoming the first country in the world to actually ban tobacco sales. With India, Ireland, Italy and California’s Death Row joining the raft of countries banning smoking in public places, we’re looking at the closest we’ve ever come to a global bureaucratic consensus. It’ll be fun watching the Italian smoking Nazis trying to ban smoking in places like Palermo, but elsewhere, there’s little to this that’s very funny. I can’t help noticing that there’s something rancorously heartless about this consensus, not to mention unscientific. I haven’t been a smoker for years, but the zealots riding this donkey have me convinced that alcohol will be next, and after that, fun.
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One more thing: In case you missed it, lawyers for Charles Graner, the alleged ringleader and the only soldier other than Lyndie England charged in the Agu Ghraib prison scandal, defended piling naked prisoners into pyramids this way: “Don’t cheerleaders all over America form pyramids six to eight times a year? Is that torture?”
Once I stopped laughing, I realized that this may not be a rhetorical question, given the way that the trial and the assignation of blame has subsequently petered out.
951 w. July 10, 2005