Flags are flying at half-staff in honor of the tsunami victims. Probably this will be seen around the world as another empty American gesture. They don't get our flag fixation. When Luke and I were in Europe, I don't think I even saw a national flag anywhere except on a post office. (Lots of Bavarian flags in Garmisch, but that's another story).
But here, where every other business and homeowner seems to have a flag, and show it, the national gesture will seem into people's daily routines, encourage them to think and remember. The Amazon.com donation system is topping $13 million this afternoon. That represents the "real people" here, opening their Paypal pocketbooks for $20 or $40 apiece. Hokey or not, our flag means something to Americans, which is why other people burn it to be offensive and the offense often hits home. They understand that; I hope they understand the importance of a generous gesture, too.
I hope, but I'm not naive enough to expect it. Count on the Guardian, specifically Polly Toynbee, to make it ugly:
"Charity begins at home" is the mean-minded dictum of the right, unwilling to spend on foreigners, unwilling to spend on those outside the family fortress at home, either. But there may be a lot of truth in the old maxim. Countries that tolerate vast wealth gaps are unlikely to concern themselves greatly about the poor even further from their door. Countries that give most - the Nordics - are the ones that have created the most socially equal societies at home first. Can America be anything but unjust in dealing with foreigners when it cares so little about the third world poverty within its own borders?
Now, it seems that Polly's equation of Nordic socialism and tsunami victim generosity screwed the pooch, but that's typical. Never let the facts get in the way of a good ideology. It's safe to say I'm closer to America than she is, and I notice the opposite.
It's not a scientific survey or anything, but the U.S. blogs I read offer a wide disparity in their coverage of the tsunami disaster and relief efforts. The gap between left and right is remarkable. Maybe it's just my choice of blogs, but other people seem to be noticing the same thing.
On the left, Kevin Drum's blog has just two short paragraphs on the whole biblical calamity, posted on Dec. 27. Since then he's written copiously about Bush's evil Social Security plan and still found time to play an Iraq = Vietnam drum solo.
On the right, Hugh Hewitt starts every day of posting on his blog with a reminder to donate to a victims' relief fund. His topics often have turned to the subject of the suffering. Michelle Malkin, far to the right of me, has ten posts on the disaster and the relief drives just since the new year. On her blog, not from a liberal site, I read Arthur C. Clarke's letter from Sri Lanka and learned of the generosity of Hollywood figures like Sandra Bullock.
The "right" seems to have been stung particularly by the "stingy" sneer from the U.N. Perhaps that helps ratchet up their focus on the relief work, to play smackdown with the U.N. fool. That could be a partial explanation. But how does that explain the relative lack of interest on the left? Unless you want to factor in its desire to prove that America is, in fact, the evil, niggardly, self-righteous place many of their leading lights tirelessly tell us it is?
More likely the overall difference I notice (if it is genuine, and I am sure there are some left blogs hard at work on raising relief money) reflects the right-left perspective shift that left me often on the "right" side of things.
When I was little, my parents told me to eat my lima beans because it would be a crime to waste them when there are "starving children in India." (I gladly would have given them all the lima beans in the world. Their texture makes me think of diseased dog kidneys.) But now that Indians are rapidly becoming a world-class economy, I look forward to the day when hunger there will be no worse than it is in America, and perhaps even less of a problem.
I think that's great. But when I hear my friends on the left mention India today, it's only to grouse about the evil corporations that outsource "American" jobs there. What, sending lima beans to Calcutta was noble, but giving them jobs and a chance at prosperity is not?
Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times notices this, too. He writes about Sam Brownback, the Kansas Senator who he descibes as "to the right of Attila the Hun." He notes his extreme conservatism and Christian fanaticism, and he reports that "I disagree with him on just about every major issue." Yet he writes:
Members of the Christian right, exemplified by Brownback, are the new internationalists, increasingly engaged in humanitarian causes abroad - thus creating opportunities for common ground between left and right on issues we all care about.
He cites the work of the late liberal senator Paul Wellstone, who "led an effort with Brownback and others to pass landmark legislation in 2000 to battle sex slavery around the world. But since Wellstone's death in 2002, the leadership on the issue has passed to the Christian right and to the Bush administration." He mentions Darfur, human rights in North Korea, immigration reform, prison reform, increased funds for AIDS and malaria, construction of an African-American history museum "and even an apology to American Indians" as issues where Brownback can be found at the political cutting edge.
So Democrats should clamber down from the window ledges, roll up their sleeves and get to work on some of these issues. Democrats have been so suspicious of Republicans that they haven't contributed much on those human-rights issues where the Christian right already has staked out its ground.
Brownback recently told me insistently about his trip to northern Uganda and urged me to write about brutalities there. I was disoriented. I thought I was the one who tried to get people to pay attention to remote places.
One of my etymology correspondents today reminded me that the word "serendipity" holds an old name for Sri Lanka. It was coined by Horace Walpole, who said he formed it from the Persian fairy tale "The Three Princes of Serendip," whose heroes "were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of." The name is from Serendip, an old name for Sri Lanka, which is transliterated from Arabic Sarandib, which is itself from Sanskrit Simhaladvipa, which means "Dwelling-Place-of-Lions Island."
Lions devour and destroy, and they can kill. But there is another image of the Lion King, one Americans have absorbed in this generation, as powerful but benign protector of the herds, the balancing principal of the "circle of life."
A friend from Europe writes:
Bush and South Asia, that's typical.
I don't see this as a situation of "doing good plus PR" trumps simply "doing good."
He lacks that instinctive grasp of world affairs that other leaders have.
It took him days to react.
What he said after that made a lot of sense to me, but I had to translate every single sentence in my head. He says things like "the USA will lead" and says them like a babbling child, without any reflection of what he says and how it will be recepted by others.
The USA is good-hearted and generous, far more than most others. And Bush too incooperates that streak. But they are bad at communicating. (although it seems they are getting it fixed now in the second run)
The German government pledged 20 million EUR and hasn't increased that sum later -- but it made good PR work from day one.
In actions the USA are much more use to the people of South Asia than Germany is. And one would say it is that which counts. And I believe that is what should be said.
But Bush effortlessly made every effort to make it as difficult as possible to say that.
What good would it do for Bush to "pledge" a vast sum of money, just to keep the U.N. and the Europeans from calling us stingy? "America will give ... (drumroll) ... a millionbillion dollars!"
Most of the money "pledged" to Bam, Iran, after the earthquake last year hasn't left the station yet. Apparently, $1.1 billion was promised, and only $17.5 million has been sent. Private citizens see governments offering vast billion-dollar sums, and they think that everything is being taken care of, and they don't have to do anything as individuals. Yet the money never arrives. All the public relations moves have been made according to form, and the people of Bam still don't have roofs over their heads.
I call that failure.
What the U.S. does in this case is say, yes, we're going to help. Just naming a dollar figure is not "helping." There's a big bottleneck of relief supplies that have been donated, but can't reach the people. The Chicago Tribune today quoted Jan Egeland, the U.N.'s emergency aid coordinator:
"The immediate relief problem had more to do with logistics than with money. We see now as our biggest challenge not the availability of funds nor the availability of supplies that are in the pipeline, but the logistical constraints on getting it out to people."
John Budd, UNICEF spokesman in Jakarta, said "Getting aid into Aceh is very difficult. You can get to the Banda Aceh airport, but there are no trucks and no fuel to move it out of there." He said the airport at Medan was also receiving tons of aid, but noted that there was only one road from Medan to Banda Aceh and that it was very rough and took 12 hours to traverse."
I'm glad my friend makes the point that the U.S. aid will, in the long run, be more effective. I bet he hasn't heard Word One in the German media about the U.S. Navy aircraft carrier groups now at work delivering supplies by helicopter to the people who can't be reached any other way. Can Europe send a carrier group to Indonesia? Of course not. But then it has no way to get that 20 million Euros into the hands of the people who are dying.
I don't give a crap about PR. I want to help these people. The people who slam the U.S. for not taking the lead in disaster relief are the same ones who slam us for being "unilateral" at other times. You can't please some people and I don't lose a minute of sleep worrying what France thinks of us.
Here's how the U.N. "helps" in Afghanistan, according to one who has worked there for years:
"....An enormous and highly profitable international aid apparatus has assembled in Kabul and has largely ignored the input of the Afghan people or their largely American liberators; the latter stand by in disbelief as taxpayers contributions to Afghanistan disappear into outfitting the extravagant needs of European aid community. The UN pays $400 a day (more than a year's pay for an average Afghan ) plus a generous per diem. This enormous aid infestation has fostered rightful resentment. The UN and associated NGOs ran through years of aid funding in a matter of months. Now when money cannot be found for reconstruction, the UN issues reports criticizing the parsimonious Americans. Meanwhile, the UN and NGOs live like pashas. Hundreds of millions of dollars earmarked for Afghans have been transformed into fleets of top-of the-line Toyota Landcruisers, villas and estates to house their workers complete with swimming pools, an endless supply of underpaid servants, luxurious furnishings (accented with looted antiquities,) the latest laptops, video equipment, cases of Johnny Walker Blue and the bling bling ... perks that might even seem excessive to Ken Lay are justifiable expenses charged off to the US. No accountability, no oversight. They don't bother cooking the books, they don't even keep the books!
I'd rather do it the U.S. way. Sometimes it takes a village. Sometimes, when the village is in trouble, it takes an aircraft carrier battle group.
Afghan citizens fear that vocal objections to this patronizing treatment will result in economic reprisals by the UN...."
Varifrank, at an international gathering, is told by a sniggering European, "See, this is why George Bush is so dumb; theres a disaster in the world and he sends an aircraft carrier ...."
To which he responds angrily but accurately that a carrier battle group has its own inexhuastible power supply, can churn out 900,000 gallons of fresh water a day from sea water, can communicate with anyplace in the world, comes equipped with four complete hospitals and tons of space for emergency supplies, and serves as its own airfield.
Europe didn't send an aircraft carrier to Indonesia. (Yes, Virginia, Old Europe does have a carrier. It's French, and right now it's still parked in France, doing no good to anyone.)
Then his Hindi friend, who had lost family in India, spoke up, too.
"Can you let your hatred of George Bush end for just one minute? There are people dying! And what are your countries doing? Amazon.com has helped more than France has. You all have a role to play in the world, why can't you see that? Thank God for the U.S. Navy, they don't have to come and help, but they are. They helped you once and you should all thank God they did. They didn't have to, and no one but them would have done so. I'm ashamed of you all ...."
America is not alone in doing the necessary hard work, of course. I'm frustrated in trying to find it online, but the Wall Street Journal had an inside article recently on the disaster relief work Singapore is doing. Singapore deserves its place on the "A" list of donor nations; it is providing millions of dollars and essential logistical support for the U.S. and Australia.
But there's more. Singapore is practiced in the role of being capable, but overlooked, in world affairs. It knows what the big muscular superheroes will do, and it knows what they will forget to do. And it adapts itself to what it anticipates.
The "Journal" article shows a good instance of this. When word of the disaster on Sumatra spread, the world responded with an enourmous outpouring of money and materiel. Most of it quickly got to the provincial capitals on the island -- and then stalled. The west coast of Sumatra, hardest-hit by the tsunami, is still largely cut off. Overland routes from the cities are capillary-thin.
Singapore anticipated all this, and dispatched its small but efficient military and fleet to concentrate on opening up an access on the west coast, just 30 miles from the quake's epicenter, in the small city of Melulaboh.
Exploiting its local knowledge and close contacts with the Indonesian military, Singapore's armed forces concluded that what remained of the flattened coastal towns and villages would be out of reach of most of the food, clothing and medicines pouring in from abroad. The solution: Dispatch a Navy landing ship packed with motor vehicles, earth-moving equipment and its own smaller landing craft to establish an aid beachhead for an area where all infrastructure -- roads, landing strips and harbors -- had been obliterated.
Supplies now are moving into Meulaboh at 20 times the rate before the ship arrived, the "Journal" reports.
The strategy paid off this week, when Singapore Army engineers and Navy divers secured two landing sites on the still-shifting shoreline to enable the ship to start unloading bulldozers, mechanical shovels and forklifts to begin heavy-duty relief work. That will allow Meulaboh to become a hub for restoration work along Aceh's west coast, where tens of thousands of people are believed to have been killed.
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