Another Perspective

Disaster Spring

The Apocalyptic equivalent of a chipped nail.

By 6.6.08

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So far this summer I've survived an earthquake, several tornadoes and countless floods. These were a far cry from your much ballyhooed End of Times scenario -- more the Apocalyptic equivalent of a chipped nail.

The magnitude-5.2 earthquake arrived back on April 18. It was 4:37 a.m. and I was dreaming anxious dreams when my bedroom began shaking. Earthquake, I yawned. I waited to see if it would get any worse -- like worse enough to flatten the office building where I work, in which case I wouldn't have to get up for work. Then, when it didn't, I went back to sleep.

As for the tornadoes and floods, they've been occurring regularly about every other week, but except for one washed out road and a few power outages, they didn't really affect me either.

These disasters pale in comparison to the devastating cyclones in Myanmar, the magnitude-7.9 earthquake in China or the famine in North Korea. But then these genuine catastrophes happened in far away places that I am not even certain exist.

Sure I've seen Sichuan province on maps, but aren't maps obsolete the minute they're printed? True, there's been footage of weeping mothers holding bawling babies while standing atop piles of rubble, but that could have been taken almost anywhere, anytime, since rubble and devastation seem to be the norm in developing countries.

I find it more than a little insulting the way the press assumes that by going to these devastated regions it can personalize these far-away disasters, make "their earthquake, our earthquake," when the process of personalization -- up to the point where you really see these poor people as real human beings you care about and sympathize with -- takes more than a few seconds of air time between Benefiber commercials.

Natural disasters seem to have a special fondness for Third World despots. It is easy to spot the dictators who have sacked (or hacked up) their propaganda ministers and hired an American PR firm to hoodwink a supposedly cynical press into believing they have changed their evil ways. When the cyclones hit Myanmar the government remained true to form. "Dead peasants? Good. Saves us the trouble of wiping them out ourselves." When foreign aid agencies wanted to bring in food aid the generals sneered, "Just try it." China, on the other hand, has been undergoing phony sensitivity training ever since it started making a fortune off its foreign trade imbalance with the West.

The mailed fist is so 20th century. And why cut the throat of the golden goose when all you have to do is pretend you're partial to waterfowl?

ACTUALLY, NATURAL disaster stories are not all that interesting, even to the press. If reporters are still covering the Chinese earthquake it is only because a) they were already in China for the Olympics, and b) -- okay, there is no b.

I figure I can empathize as well as the next guy, but after a month of Chinese earthquake stories I am ready to flip the channel to reruns of Two and a Half Men. Perhaps I am easily compassion fatigued. Normally one fights fatigue by getting into shape, usually by exercising. But compassion fatigue isn't so easily overcome. Listening to more disaster stories does not make one more compassionate. It tends to have the opposite effect.

Worse than natural disasters are manmade ones. A natural disaster is pretty much out of our hands, or, as they say in the legal books, it's God's fault, but a Darfur genocide is strictly our doing. And yet most of us are more interested in hurricanes and cyclones than in genocide. There was probably ten times as much coverage of the China earthquake than in the bloody crackdown of Tibetan protesters, and not all of it had to do with the fact that the press are a bunch of wusses.

I suspect that the reason the media (and by extension the public) prefer natural disaster stories is that they are tales that can be told by an idiot. The themes, plot and characters are invariably the same. The hurricane (or earthquake or drought) is the obvious bad guy. He comes riding in, shoots up the place, then rides out, without the least bit of guilt.

When it comes to Darfur, 99 out of 100 people have no idea where the place is, or why whosit is butchering whatsit. Trust me, there are still marvelous opportunities for an enterprising cameraman to get moving footage of starving babies with flies on their eyes in northwest Sudan, but no one is getting any, and not because it is yesterday's news -- yesterday's news is news that happened yesterday; Darfur is happening now -- but because it is much easier to report on and follow stories about cyclones and earthquakes.

As I write, the National Weather Service is issuing yet another tornado and flash flood warning for my area. I say, bring it on. I've slept through far worse.

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About the Author
Christopher Orlet writes from St. Louis.