Thursday, May 15, 2008

The politics of disaster

On cable television in Kathmandu, CNN is on both channel 05 and channel 20, both identical and both for the past two days showing news of only four things: the earthquake in Sichuan Province, the cyclone in Myanmar, fighting between Hezbollah and amoebicly defined "pro-government forces" in Lebanon, and Bush Junior's state visit to Israel to celebrate the 60th anniversary of its existence.

The focus has been mostly on China: because of the States' love-hate relationship with China, and this was, at least at first, a chance to further entrench China as vilely unresponsive to the needs of its poor, because of China's denser population and the ease at which CNN can report shockingly high death tolls and sensationalist stories about 900 children trapped in a school, and because Myanmar, whose rulers are far more evil and yet far less condemned on television, won't let CNN's journalists—or any journalists, or even most aid workers—in.

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Earthquakes are terribly unromantic, except possibly in the extreme macro view, where we imagine continents floating like oil scum on a bucket of water. There are no pictures of lonely survivors boating amidst the peaked roofs of their flooded houses, no charred, smoking, skeleton houses with singed and half-burnt shopping lists or guide to local birds, streets empty but for snowpack that rises to where trees trunks diverge into a bird's nest of branches. No: The earth shakes and liquifies, man-made structures fall or crack and burst, and mountains are raised a few feet higher. A slope, perhaps, slides in the aftermath.

Earthquakes involve none of the great verbs of hurricanes: rattling doors barred by two-by-fours, sluicing rain falling sideways with the force of hailstones, lashing winds that break windows and bend deep-rooted trees till they break like twigs. And where hurricanes (and tornadoes) involve a massive, physical alteration of human space—cereal crops are blown across counties into other fields, mobile homes are shot into the granite-tiled lobbies of office parks, once-empty fields are filled with wooden roof shingles, broken shudders, and crumpled outdoor furniture—earthquakes simply collapse things in place. What was there once is still present, but broken, devoid of the negative space that lets a bucket hold water or a house a family.

Indeed, how many earthquakes do we remember, and how many hurricanes? I can name five California earthquakes off the top of my head—San Francisco in the 1870s and 1906, Sylmar, Loma Prieta, Northridge—and five outside of California: Lisbon in the 1700s, New Madrid in the 1810s, the Great Alaska in 1964, Kobe, the quake near Seattle in 2001. But Hurricanes? Andrew, Dean, Hugo, Rita, and of course Katrina come to mind immediately, and then the less present, more vague storms: Charley, Mitch, the Bhola Cyclone that precipitated widespread famine in Bangladesh in the 1970s. It's hard to believe I would ever have heard of the early San Francisco earthquake or know the Sylmar quake if I weren't from California—even though it was a {7.6} on the Richter scale, most Californians my age are utterly unfamiliar with the Sylmar quake, including, as I recall, at least two of my three San Francisco housemates—and if we except these, I'm familiar with just as many hurricanes as earthquakes. And from a place without hurricanes or tornadoes.

There are of course many more hurricanes than devastating earthquakes, which is part of it, and at least in the United States the parts of the country susceptible to hurricanes is both larger (basically the enormous coastline from Brownsville, Texas around the peninsula of Florida and north all the way to New York or perhaps even Boston) and more densely populated than those susceptible to regular earthquakes, which is currently the Pacific states and, based on the past few months, northern Nevada. It's only to be expected, then, if the dominant culture in the US gives more weight to hurricanes than to earthquakes, for there are simply more people to reinforce the cultural memory of each, other impacts set aside.

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So the focus on China I found curious. Hu Jintao was on his way to Sichuan 3 hours after the earthquake occurred, at which time he had already mobilized the army to provide disaster relief. Even when CNN's reporters found that the army had acted dutifully and appropriately, the spin was still on horror—how there was not yet food, so the people were scratching through the remains of their houses for whatever dry scraps they could uncover; how it was beginning to sprinkle on the field or park now filled with makeshift tarpaulin shelters and the ground was turning to mud.

Perhaps because of the cyclone, and perhaps because of the Burmese junta's insistence that it has its disaster areas under control when all actual facts point otherwise, I began to think of Hurricane Katrina. The contrast in government reaction between this earthquake and Katrina is, in most respects, stark. I think of things this way: When the government of China is volumes more responsive to its neediest citizens during a disaster than your own government, something is seriously wrong.1

My suspicion is that this lesson—this moral, if you will—will be lost. CNN's news department was clearly most interested in finding ways to condemn the Chinese government and the Chinese in general—“The phenomenal boom of the past 10 years has come at a cost, it seems,” one reporter said2—and by focusing on the horrors of living under a tarp, which many of us have done by choice, as camping, there is strong undercurrent of aspersion cast on the Chinese response. Which they have, up to this point, done well.3

The report I mentioned earlier, by the reporter among the tents, was almost unbelievably offensive. Mentioned but little were the basic material possessions, the thin woks and thick-walled pots, the farming tools, sickles and baskets, the butchering knives and water jugs that in their replacing would entrench poverty further for each poor family; and not a survivor was interviewed, on camera or off. Instead, the reporter, white and European, talked obvious nonsense, like starvation setting in; complained of the mud, really only softened dirt underneath a thin lawn; and was incredulous that there was not enough water for the survivors to take a shower.

Just for the sake of comparison, I live off a dirt road than turns to a muddy pond during heavy rain here in Hadigaon, in Kathmandu. We don't have municipal water right now—it went off yesterday, while I was in the shower, in fact—and we didn't have municipal water for the first 8 days of May. What water we did have then was either 25-liter water-cooler jugs of drinking water that we had to truck over ourselves; or well water from the back that was only accessible when there was electricity to run the pump—load-shedding occurs between 20 and 40 hours per week, mostly when you're home in the mornings and evenings—and was good for little more than flushing the toilet, too putrid and oily even to boil and wash with.

But this is not a poor neighborhood: Hadigaon is just south of Baluwatar, site of the Nepali Prime Minister's residence and the headquarters of Nepal Rastra Bank; just east of Bhat Bhateni, where Crown Prince Dipendra used to make his liaison with his lover Devyani Rana before he offed the rest of the family and himself in 20014; and northeast of Naxal, where the Royal Palace and Police Headquarters are. Likewise, my landlord, who lives upstairs and whose profession I can best describe as real estate developer—he buys a lot, builds a house, sells it, starts again—claims to have just sold a house for 7 million rupees, about $105,000, which in Nepal is not so much small fortune as a large one. You have to understand: we are lucky to have the well, for most houses around are without.

What was so offensive about the CNN report was the complete lack of understanding of relative importance in the developing world, or in developing parts of the world: the reporter, I think, would be the world's worst triage nurse. The neutrality of the news is always a farce, of course; but for me at least—and I have no television at home in San Francisco—I am unaccustomed to seeing such misunderstanding of the world in the open, such bias.

For the reporting is not only a more-than-slightly xenophobic understanding of China; not only a type of repetitive, US-centric propaganda; not only sensationalism to keep grasp on tenuous viewers; but also is itself an expressly political view, and the reporting a political act. This idea of Why isn't the Chinese government doing more?—indeed, one of the CNN anchors asked the Scottish correspondent, "How can the Chinese government do more?"—is a way of absolving us of the survivor-guilt-by-proxy that can well up when we read about and see scenes of such devastation. That it's a hardship worth mentioning for the earthquake's survivors to go without a shower for, at that point, about 32 hours is not only an assumption on the reporter's part that our shower-every-day Western lives are the best kind of normalcy, but an assumption that they are the sole right normalcy, one that it is the Chinese government's duty to provide. It is also not a “hardship” that any of us viewers have agency to rectify, or one we should have foreseen, and it's this kind of framing that allows us to unquestion the externalized, aggregated impacts of our lives.5 And to the extent that people are starving in Sichuan Province, they're not starving because of the earthquake; and it falls to us too—for it falls to everyone—we who secure enough to eat more or less whatever we when whenever we want, secure enough not to horde canvas bags of cornmeal and rice in our damp cellars and cluttered garages, secure enough to take for granted that we will have a future, to ask why people are starving at all, anywhere.

I spent much of the evening flipping back to CNN, hoping to watch the report again, nodding off occasionally, hearing the same uninformed clich├ęs about searching frantically through rubble and children thirsty and hungry, until finally, past midnight—which is an eternity of a night in Nepal—I fizzed off the television and went to bed.


1 Or right, in a better world; but here: wrong.

2 My notes from the telecast read, “phe. ↑ lt. 10 yrs. at cost, it sms—cmmn ppl...” and then an illegible squiggle though I normally have pretty ok handwriting. I may have nodded off at this point, and I actually don't remember this line. My notes are not so much chronological as wherever-they-fit, but this line is next to some ranting about the blonde, American, rather ignorant anchor's live interview with Beijing bureau chief Jaime FlorCruz, whose name she repeatedly pronounced “Hi-me.”

3The long-term issue of construction standards notwithstanding, of course. But these issues are rife in the developing world—when Kathmandu is next hit by a large earthquake, it will be an enormous catastrophe, very possibly worse than this quake in China. The idea that you build building that are safe for hazards both regular and highly irregular—like earthquakes—is very much the perspective of someone who is privileged enough to be able to pay for security from earthquakes.

4 Or didn't, which is equally likely. He's the official killer, in any case, though the notoriously corrupt Nepali police refused the help of Scotland Yard, which Britain offered at no charge and with no strings attached.

5 Including flying to Nepal to write essays on disasters in China for 20 people half-a-world away.

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