Wednesday, January 05, 2005

My take on government and personal donations to tsunami aid effort

Sometimes it's not so easy being a cynic. But I might be in good company this time around.

You don't have to be a pinko leftist to think that George W. & Friends would have been content to donate just $35 million to tsunami relief had the media not made a big deal of Washington's relative stinginess, thus raising a small outcry among emotionally-swayed Americans. (Let's not forget that taxpayers spend nearly three times the eventual $350 million donation every week in Iraq for Operation: I'm Not Sure.)

More heartening has been Joe Lunchbox's contribution to the effort - the money that private individuals of all economic backgrounds have donated for whatever reason, even in light of our own mini-recession. I am genuinely impressed by what is seemingly a genuine effort on behalf of most Americans to help people whom we can't see or hear or necessarily relate to from a geographical or cultural standpoint. I wish this sentiment and united effort could continue without the prompting of media hype.

Which brings me to my more contentious pearl of cynicism: I speculate that there are less heart-warming reasons that the private donations have proven so bountiful, not least of which is the more or less constand media attention the disaster earned in the last week of December.

One Chrinicle reporter posed this query about the plentiful individual aid:

But why didn't other natural disasters, albeit smaller, move this many people?

One year before the tsunami struck, more than 43,000 people died in an earthquake in Bam, Iran. Two months after the quake, $52 million had been pledged to the Red Cross, an amount that was nearly matched within a week after the tsunami.

And while the AIDS crisis has devastated Africa and India for years, there hasn't been this type of widespread public sympathy or attention.

I believe it all stems from media coverage. For starters, late December is a slow news period...footage of fat Americans standing in line to buy Christmas gifts or standing in line to return Christmas gifts only captivates a nation for so long. (This is the same reason the Scott Peterson trial became a headline event. Creeps kill their pregnant wives all the time. Just not photogenic wives during a lame news month.) Had the tsunami occured in the hours before Super Tuesday, coverage would have been a fraction as laborious, and Americans wouldn't have been as motivated to shell out cash.

Second, the media have done a splendid job of emphacizing the stories of American, European, and other white victims in this disaster, implicitly and explicitly injecting a "this could have happened to me" sentiment into the average American viewer. I was outraged to find that two of the biggest human interest stories to bubble up from the tsunami aftermath were of the Swedish boy reunited with his father and the Czech model to clung to a tree for twelve hours and suffered a broken pelvis, not of the average Thai whose life had been washed away. As always, brown people are easier to ignore because, hey, they all look the same anyway.

This might be why the African and Indian AIDS epidemics have never been on the lips of the nation. It is difficult to get worked up about dead African babies if we cannot even locate five sub-Saharan nations on a map, or if their way of life seems primitive and alien to us. (There is also the prevailing idea that AIDS is the fault of the beholder, and that certain groups of people are too ignorant and uneducated to even make AIDS relief worthwhile. It also doesn't help that many on the Religious Right insist that US aid not go toward condoms or condom education. But I digress.)

Similarly, though the Iran earthquake also happened during December, and though tens of thousands were killed, it would be surprisingly bold of media groups to tell Americans to spend their money to save the lives of Iranians, or any Muslims for that matter. Iran is a bona fide enemy of the United States, replete with real life nuclear arms, and neighbor to our failing war; the suffering of Iranian citizens is perhaps less newsworthy because of their geographic, religious, cultural, and political similarities to Iraqis. If we were to decry the death of Iranians, a comparable response to the death of innocent Iraqis would be in order. That would be bad for ratings.

I am not contending that individual media personnel or American citizens are racist; I do believe, however, that the race and nationality of victims determines in large part how American media cover a disaster and, therefore, how citizens respond to the event.


Post a Comment