The Time to Care About Disaster Victims
President Obama sent us an email a few days ago, and this time it wasn’t to ask for monetary support of his healthcare reform boondoggle. He was asking us (and the millions of others on his OFA database) to help Haitians.
He wrote: “Despite the fact that we are experiencing tough times here at home, I encourage those who can to reach out and help. It’s in times like these that we must show the kind of compassion and humanity that has defined the best of our national character for generations.”
It’s not clear why we must show compassion and humanity “in times like these,” as opposed to every day.
We Americans, some of the wealthiest and rapacious people on the planet, are pretty good at sending boxes of clothing to the Philippines when a typhoon strikes, and canned food to Samoa when there’s a hurricane. And no doubt we’ll give generously to earthquake victims in Haiti. But these kind acts of charity illuminate a dark flip-side: the other 51 weeks of the year we blissfully ignore the billions of poor people who don’t have enough clean drinking water, nutritious food, decent medical care, or adequate shelter –unless you believe cardboard shanties, open sewers, and strenuous prayer qualify as sufficient. It takes a natural disaster to rouse us from our slumber. Not even racially motivated genocide (Sudan), mass starvation (North Korea), or lifelong indignities (just about any “developing” country on the planet), compel us to examine our default viewpoint: that we’re entitled to everything and They, the distant Other, are entitled to whatever they can scavenge from our detritus.
It’s very nice to send $10 to Haiti. But helping our brothers and sisters on Hispaniola shouldn’t be a disaster-inspired event. It should be a daily imperative. If we complacent, narcotized, fatted Americans were more concerned with correcting the inequities and imbalances of our Global Village and less concerned with the sexual peccadilloes of our televised court jesters, thousands of lives could have –and would have — been saved.
Look at the labels in your closet. You may find something that was stitched in Haiti. Buying that shirt at TJ Maxx for $7 might have pleased you — so long as you didn’t have to see the conditions under which it was made, or the conditions under which the Haitian seamstress sleeps and cooks and loves. That same worker might need your Red Cross donation now, in the wake of the temblors. But she needs global capitalism to stop exploiting her, her land, and its resources, even more.
Most of our fellow citizens are either unaware of or uninterested in how bad life is for the majority of Earth’s inhabitants. The compassion and humanity that President Obama asks for ought not be fleeting. It should be a prominent and sacred part of our daily existence, imbuing our political policy, foreign and domestic. That would be a genuinely compelling form of charity.