In 1935, British journalist James Agate admitted to obsession with a juicy but fundamentally parochial murder case, while from Quetta—now in Pakistan, then in the Raj—came news of a quake which had left 20,000 dead. He told readers of his diary, Ego:
“This trial has moved me immensely, while the dreadful affair at Quetta makes no impression. The thousands who perished in that earthquake might be flies. I see no remedy for this, since one can’t order one’s feelings, and to pretend something different is merely hypocrisy.”
(Alistair Cooke and Jacques Barzun have been but two of the nine-volume Ego’s admirers.)
A decade after Agate’s musing, George Orwell either offered in person, or saw somebody else offer, to a woman (whom he only identifies as “intelligent”) a book that dealt with Nazi atrocities. The woman responded to this offer by begging: “Don’t show it to me, please don’t show it to me. It’ll only make me hate the Jews more than ever.”
To watch the coverage of Port-au-Prince’s latest and most spectacular descent into Hobbesianism is to wonder how widespread, in the West, similar sentiments now are apropos Haiti. Of course no-one—at least, no-one who wishes to hold down a responsible job—will now actually admit to being as indifferent to suffering Haitians as Agate was to suffering Quettans, or as shockingly malevolent as was the female whom Orwell mentioned toward exterminated Jews. We are all weepers now; have been ever since Dianamania first compelled the entire West’s population to check into Heartbreak Hotel. (“Now hear this. You will sob your heads off when contemplating the death of the People’s Princess in a car crash. And you will like it.”) Of global citizenship’s public demands on the tear-ducts, there is today simply no opting out. In private ... it might, just might, be another tale.
It would be even more obviously another tale if more Westerners were to acquaint themselves, or reacquaint themselves, with the outcome of a disaster almost as great as Haiti’s in terms of lives lost (approximately 100,000), but on the other side of the world. The earthquake in question, starting two minutes before noon and finishing at approximately seven minutes after noon on September 1, 1923, precipitated the wiping-out of Tokyo and nearby Yokohama. There is no improving, for sheer evocativeness, upon the words used by Richard Storry (1913-1982), Professor of Japanese Studies at Oxford, in his History of Modern Japan:
“Nearly everything ... redolent of Yedo [the medieval Japanese capital] was a heap of ashes. In its place there rose a city of a striking beauty, with wide streets and high modern buildings at its core, surrounded by a vast jumble of new wooden houses clustered along undistinguished thoroughfares; some of these resembled country lanes and so acquired a certain pensive charm. Within three or four years there was little sign that Tokyo had ever known calamity.” [Emphasis added]
Does anyone not a moron seriously suppose that within three or four years, or within 30 or 40 years, Haiti will be similarly furbished? Does anyone with the smallest knowledge of the devastation which the December 2004 tsunami inflicted on Indonesia and Sri Lanka, in particular, imagine that Tokyo-style infrastructural improvement will take place in those miserable lands? Confronted with the ample evidence that successive Indonesian regimes since the 1940s have diverted all foreign aid either to Zurich bank accounts, or to improved military methods of turning subject races into glue (or, of course, to both), it would necessitate a Bono—worse, a Bob Geldof—to conclude that the average post-tsunami welfare donation was ever put to anything even vaguely resembling post-tsunami welfare.
But we can’t continue thinking on these lines now, can we? The horrible suggestion that Japanese can run a country, and that Haitians can’t, might lead to the equally horrible suggestion that Japanese have a recognizable civilization and that Haitians don’t. Or the comparably unmentionable conjecture that the Marshall Plan did good to Italy and the Netherlands but would probably have been wasted on, say, Liberia. Which in turn—gasp!—foreshadows the appalling premise that some groups of people might conceivably be worthier of our practical help than are other groups of people. And once we’ve taken that diabolical idea on board, well, it’s Auschwitz all over again by Tuesday next.
With Haiti, then, as with most of life in 2010, it is quite simply better (as well as easier) not to think. Deciding which charities we can legitimately support, and which charities are merely shills for Idi Amin’s heirs, is a procedure too risky to be tried. Let us suppress all tendencies to the evils of Thought by recalling Steve Sailer’s words from 2005: “the economics of mass media are: ‘Clever things make people feel stupid and unexpected things make them feel scared’.”
So when the next natural catastrophe occurs—in Togo or Nicaragua or Laos or wherever—let us operate feel-good campaigns on the same non-principle we now employ, the one spelt out by Woodrow Wilson in 1915. “I am going to teach the South American republics,” he harrumphed, “to elect good men.” He was really talking about Mexico—not about the South American republics at all—but then, geography and foreign history were never his strong points. Heaven forbid that they should ever be ours.
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