Disaster porn

Hallowe’en came to the eastern seaboard of the USA this year via Hurricane Sandy, & most memorably to NYC, burning out a neighbourhood in Queens, crippling Con Ed, flooding subways & tunnels. Up here in the GPA (Greater Parkdale Area, as we call the conurbation that radiates from the western shores of Lake Ontario), there was much less than the promised damage & excitement; the storm relaxed quickly once inland, & its track deflected east. We now see the best of New York showing again, as it cleans up the mess with its own immediate resources. The last city to hold out against the American Revolutionists, it still shows its “British” qualities under stress; & its “Irish” in the real men who still staff its fire, police, & rescue services. God keep them.

The rest of the world has been sharing in the photos & videos: the best natural disaster footage since the tsunami in Japan. We watched plenty of this material on our laptop, until self-disgust caught up with our declining curiosity. Science, as Don Colacho said, has impressively increased velocity & range for the dissemination of idiocy; but long before the Internet, the media were feeding the public’s “right to know.”

Human empathy inspires generous giving to disaster victims, & much more is usually commandeered through tax systems. Human corruption is such that most of this aid gets into the wrong hands. In Japan, for instance, where something like 150 billion dollars was raised for reconstruction after the tsunami, government auditors now find about half has evaporated within the bureaucracies, & half of what remains was spent to enrich purveyors of “economic recovery” whose projects had nought to do with the tsunami. It does not follow that the remaining quarter is being well or even honestly spent.

We argued once that, over the years, far more damage had been done to Haiti by foreign aid, than by earthquakes & hurricanes & floods. We were greeted of course with howls of execration, from the sort of people whose livelihoods depend on fundraising for such causes. None of those were Haitians. The photogenic core of rescue & medical operations that actually save lives cost a tiny fraction of the money that is raised; & almost all of that is delivered by agencies that function almost anonymously, out of existing budgets. The real heroes are e.g. the men & women of the U.S. Navy (almost always first to arrive), & quick-responding field hospital teams from countries like Israel. The demons are those who administer “recovery,” reinforcing the power of the State to hold the poor in subjection, & prevent their modest efforts to help themselves.

Some evils lead to goods, but most evils, so far as can be traced, lead to other evils. This, we think, is at the root of our self-disgust, in being the consumer of voyeur media. Those who do not suffer themselves derive illicit pleasure from those who do, then become easy marks for emotional manipulation. The do-gooders make their livings exploiting deep veins of unexamined guilt. Meanwhile, the dignity of those who truly suffer is compromised; for it is humiliating to be put on camera in the moment one wrestles with grief & loss. The media make their money from this, but what they do is unspeakable.