January 9, 2005

Morality, Efficacy, and Tsunami Relief

The increasingly valuable Diplomad has a disquieting but important post on world reactions to the tsunami:
I see, however, no outpouring of support in most of the world's countries. The oil-rich Arabs? Where are they? But most frustrating and even angering is the lack of concern exhibited by average and elite members of the societies most directly affected. This was driven home in the course of an interminable meeting a few days ago discussing some silly resolution or another calling on the UN to appoint a "Special Representative for Tsunami Relief." A relatively senior Sri Lankan official leaned over and said to me, "Why do we want to bother with this? We all know you Americans will do everything." A nice compliment, I suppose, but on reflection a sad commentary not only about the rest of the world but presumably about Sri Lanka, itself. One would expect the affected countries to take the lead in relief efforts. None of the most seriously affected countries (Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Maldives) is a dirt poor country; all have well-established governments and national identities.

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.

Begging the pardon of the cultural relativists, but might we not be allowed to raise -- ever so gently, of course -- the possibility that these differing reactions to human suffering, show Western civilization as the best we have on the planet? Maybe, just maybe Western civilization is morally superior.

One can fathom all kinds of explanations for individual countries. Indonesia is dominated by Javanese, with overseas Chinese extremely influential in the economy, even years after the anti-communist and anti-Chinese massacres depicted in The Year of Living Dangerously. The Achenese, on the other hand, have been in constant rebellion against the central government for decades, with much bloodletting on both sides.

Of course, as archy said to mehitabel, "hells bells mehitabel that's just an explanation not an excuse."

The question of whose values are superior is an important one, but not terribly easy to address for people who recognize the sin of pride.

Leaving aside the moral question, let's look at some practical ones. Isn't confidence in the power and will of rich foreigners to solve these problems morally debilitating for the recipients, and does it not discourage them from taking responsibility for their own people? Of course, a starving person doesn't worry about these issues when driven by hunger, but as with social welfare programs domestically, does overseas largesse create a mixture of passivity and resentment in the recipients? And if this is so, is that really an excuse for us not mobilizing to help when things like the tsunami happen?

A separate question is whether, if we were less forthcoming, that would change behavior in poorer countries.

An analogy is federally subsidized flood insurance, which may relieve the afflicted, but also fosters uneconomic construction in danger zones.

Even if less generosity on our part might ultimately encourage the locals to be more responsible, can we allow that possibility justify or tolerate a refusal to feed hungry children? Thus Herbert Hoover led missions that fed starving Russians in the 20's, probably strengthening Stalin to a degree, and perhaps leading in the end to more suffering.

The Berkeley linguist George Lakoff, of late a Democrat guru, distinguishes between the "nurturing family" metaphor, generally characteristic of what today is called liberalism (really a socialism that dare not speak its name), and the "strong father" metaphor, which emphasizes discipline and individual responsibility. Michael Barone talks of "hard" and "soft" America, along similar lines.

When it comes to huge natural disasters, to which moral blame is not easily attached (even though early warning was well within the technical capacities of most of the hard-hit countries), our visceral answer is to nurture, guided by such precepts as Matthew 25: 40:

"Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me."

In the name of humane values, to which we rightly seek to cling, our good works may inadvertently and paradoxically promote indifference, passivity, and resentment in recipient countries.

Most of us reject the pure fatalism of looking at events like the tsunami as random "acts of God" or as punishment for sinful conduct. Our notion that we must act, at least in the face of huge natural disasters, to "take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them," is very basic to our ethos, and responsible both for our huge material success, and our restlessness, frequent dissatisfaction and self-questioning.

In short, even if we doubt the efficacy of government to government foreign aid in ordinary times, we are nevertheless constrained by our ethos to offer both public and private help in times like these. If some co-religionists and countrymen of the afflicted do not feel the same impulse, and are morally the worse for it, that's unfortunate, but it seems to me, that can't deter us.

HT: American Digest.

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