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January 11, 2005

Eloi

The Diplomad offers a disturbing commentary on southeast Asian reaction to the tsunami catastrophe.

In Jakarta, aside from flags at half-staff, we have seen no signs of mourning for the victims: while employees and dependents of the American embassy spent their holiday loading trucks and putting together medicine kits, the city's inhabitants went ahead with New Year's parties; nightclubs and shopping centers are full; and regular television programming continues. At least 120,000 of their fellow countrymen are dead, and Indonesians hardly talk about it, much less engage in massive charitable efforts. The exceptionally wealthy businessmen of the capital -- and the country boasts several billionaires -- haven't made large donations to the cause of Sumatran relief; a few scattered NGOs have done a bit, but there are no well-organized drives to raise funds and supplies. We have seen nothing akin to what happened in the USA following the 9/11 atrocity, or the hurricanes in Florida of this past year.

The Sri Lankan's words echo in my mind every day, ""Why do we want to bother with this? We all know you Americans will do everything." With the exception of handful of Western countries, most of the world would appear inhabited by the sort of Eloi-type creatures depicted in that old sci-fi flick based on H.G. Wells' The Time Machine, passively watching as flood waters or Morlocks drag their fellows away.

The Diplomad then asks if this state of affairs suggests a moral superiority of "Western civilization". Well, I can only imagine what it is like on the ground and how sickening it must be to watch the showboats of the international organizations doing nothing, taking credit and getting well paid for it even as untold human misery takes place under their aegis. But, respectfully, I do not think Western civilization has much to do with the success or failure of genuine helping intervention unless that category excludes Canada's manifest unpreparedness and includes the generosity of Japan. A better comparison is between the reaction of informed, enfranchised citizens of liberal democracies with that of people living in (and, for those few in power, governing) the dictatorships and theocracies that still blight the world.

I had a friend who grew up in Dubai who, as a non-citizen and as a woman, had no rights whatsoever and whose life was lived entirely at the sufferance of the ruling kleptocracy and its surrogates. My assumption was that she would be pleased to find herself in Canada and to take the opportunity to do and say the things she could never have done or said in the U.A.E. Far from it. Her horizon was restricted to fashion and partying and yearning for the lost shopping malls of Dubai. Now, I say this as someone who is pro-fashion, pro-shopping and, at least in principle, pro-partying. There is, however, the rest of life in which we have responsibilities to ourselves and each other and that ethical core seemed to be entirely undeveloped. The kind of consumer oblivion and indifference to calamity the Diplomad describes can be a consequence of the cynicism of those raised in political cultures of nihilism and deceit. But then we too in "the West" have plenty of people who could care less about anyone but themselves.

Posted by Ghost of a flea at January 11, 2005 06:00 AM

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