"The greatest giver of alms is cowardice." - Nietzsche
In his novel "Père Goriot," Honoré de Balzac has a character observe that it's often easier to share our most intimate secrets with a stranger than with someone close to us. It's a simple yet somehow profound observation, and it gets at something deep and mysterious about the mechanism of human compassion.
Could it be that some similar mechanism - albeit on a grand, collective scale - is at work in the monolithic swell of public and private aid following in the wake of the tsunami in South Asia?
Worldwide pledges to countries devastated by the tsunami have topped $10 billion, with $2.2 billion of that coming in private donations. Earlier this month, the international aid organization Doctors Without Borders stopped accepting donations, and other groups are following suit.
Bud Crandall, head of Indonesian operations for CARE, said his organization has been literally overwhelmed by the amount of money received - so much so that they are scrambling to create projects into which to funnel funds.
To put this in perspective, Crandall pointed out that tsunami aid is likely 10 times the amount that was raised for the one million refugees who in 1994 fled the ethnic bloodletting in Rwanda.
Enough is enough, folks. We are beginning to see with the tsunami disaster the same collective process that eventually warped the terrorist strikes of 9/11, turning a legitimate tragedy into a loaded symbol by which to judge the social and political response of individuals and organizations. Major events such as these, so replete with raw emotion, unfortunately can be converted to a kind of humanistic capital used to draw attention away from things we'd rather not confront.
The problem is not the aid itself, which, almost by definition, is beyond reproach. As the extraterrestrial observed in "Starman," human beings are at their best when things are at their worst. Unfortunately, too many things are at their worst right here at home to justify the surplus piles of cash being sent so far away.
What's disturbing is the vast array of problems that are thrown into sharp relief by this orgy of giving. The sheer magnitude of money donated in this instance has the unfortunate effect of magnifying where and when and why we choose not to give.
Local and national nonprofit agencies are drying up for lack of support. The current administration in Washington, D.C., is cutting funds to programs that form the so-called social net. Our homeless population is growing, and overburdened shelters nightly must turn folks away. In Seattle, there is talk of closing schools.
The list goes on.
This tsunami effect is simply the flipside of our much-ballyhooed "ownership society." It is the belief - nay, the bad-faith propaganda - of the neo-cons that, after we've privatized everything from Social Security to education, the corporations, hand in hand with the private sector, will pick up the slack in aiding the needy.
We all wish for the lion to lie down with the lamb. But it ain't gonna happen. Individuals, bless them, are compelled to give according to the emotional imperatives of the moment. And corporations? At worst, corporate philanthropy is a sure sign of wickedness; at best, it is the selective cream skimmed from the leftovers of the profit motive.
It's impossible to fault the way the young are responding to the tsunami disaster; kids' reaction to global catastrophe, as we saw in the instance of 9/11, is visceral and immediate. Young minds absorbing the phenomena of the wide world are not expected, nor should they be encouraged, to be rational. But adults should know better.
When we start collecting tennis gear for Indonesian schoolchildren - which is happening right here in Kirkland - it's time to slam on the brakes and start asking some serious questions. What is it about the recent tragedy that is compelling such an incommensurate - some might say obscene - opening of pocketbooks?
Could it be the relative safety implied by the circumstances of distance and natural causes, as opposed to the hard, social fact of suffering confronting us in this country? Have we become so depoliticized and immune to our own problems that we respond most vigorously to non-human-caused violence occurring thousands of miles away?
It seems there's something of relief in all this tsunami fundraising, as though we were thankful at last for an opportunity to display our exceptional beneficence. Finally we're free to help, no strings attached. Thank goodness it's not Iraq, we think. Thank goodness it's not Sudan or Congo. Thank goodness it's not East Pike Street.
In the end, though, we may be creating another kind of monster. Odds are strong that, with such a rapid influx of money to Indonesia, we will see some familiar problems spring up over the next decade: carpetbaggers and scam artists with their faux aid projects; lawsuits over misappropriation and missing funds; internecine rivalry; a corrupt military eyeballing an advantage. Guns are expensive.
Undoubtedly there are a lot of good people working right now in Indonesia - even some heroes. Very inspiring to contemplate. Too bad it takes a tidal wave.
It was reported last week that some tsunami aid organizations have received so much money they are going to start channeling those funds into longer-term projects such as building schools and health clinics.
Must be nice. Open the floodgates.
Rick Levin is the editor of the Magnolia News, associate publication of the Capitol Hill Times. He can be reached c/o editor@capitolhill times.com.