Saturday, January 23, 2010

Helping Haiti

I don't think I need to view endless images of human suffering to feel empathy and concern for the poor people of Haiti. About a week ago, my friend Mimosa pointed me to an interesting opinion piece in the Washington Post that questioned the barrage of graphic and intrusive photos coming from Haiti. How come we never see pictures of the horribly injured, both American and local, in Iraq or Afghanistan? There is a double standard, and the columnist in the Post was saying that in the case of Haiti the amount of disaster porn (my term, not his) paradoxically signals to the same disregard everybody has ever had for the wellbeing of Haitians. It's as if they don't deserve their own dignity. Starting from the year they tried to free themselves from France and the world conspired against the first independent nation of free slaves. Racism, is what I'm saying.
Having said this, I stayed home last night to nurse a vicious hangover, and so I watched the Haiti Telethon. I believe the effort is noble. Good for George Clooney for organizing it. I saw it streaming live on the net. A lot of manpower and human ingenuity worked very fast to make it happen and it was impressive. American can-do at its best. Even Madonna showed up looking like Cher with her new, waxy, extraordinarily scary face. No time to recover from whatever she is doing to it, but charity is first.
But something about the effort makes me cringe. It feels unseemly. It feels self-serving. Alexandra Stanley in the NY Times praised it for its restraint. Sure, Clooney made sure it was not a free for all of shameless self-promotion, and it was done with as much taste as possible under the circumstances, but I think she is living in LaLa Land. Celebrities manning the phones is a novel concept, and I'm sure it helped raise a lot of money, but it was, how shall I put it, ridiculous. And, as far as I'm concerned, horribly anxiety producing, because celebrities who have something coherent and intelligent to say are few and far between. It was like watching a car crash, seeing them interact with the callers. Plus I kept thinking of the jostling on who was going to get to sit in the first row. Call me cynical.
Some of the artists rocked. Stevie Wonder singing Bridge Over Troubled Water was the highlight of the night. God bless him, he gave it his all, which as you can imagine, is a whole lot. As was Mohammad Ali and what he wrote. You know that he feels the outrage; his eyes still dart with fire behind the mask of his incapacitating illness. Mary J. Blige: Amen, sister. Neil Young and Dave Matthews, Justin Timberlake and Matt Morris, even Kid Rock, Sheryl Crow and Keith Urban, their version of Lean On Me was very pretty. The music was mostly well executed and tasteful, if not particularly inspired. Mary J. Blige should sing the blues and gospel more often, and Jennifer Hudson is a wonder, but I could have done without Shakira and her vulgar, overwrought vocal stylings and without the Aguilera, and that salad of a song between Bono, The Edge, Jay Z and Rihanna which was a smorgasbord of hideousness. I love Beyonce but that wig was killing me. The Boss and Sting didn't do it for me. They increasingly feel like they are believing their own hype too much. I couldn't fail but notice that in most instances, most of the background musicians were kept in darkness. Why? They are helping too. So this is what's wrong about stuff like this, it puts too much emphasis on the stars.
But now that we've put the frivolity out of the way, I'm going to try to put my finger on what exactly is bothering me, which I think is precisely the frivolity, the grandstanding, and the milking of sentiment.
Maimonides says that the second most noble kind of charity (after giving someone an interest free loan or helping them be self-sustaining) is that in which the recipient does not know who helped them and the giver doesn't know who he is helping. He is obviously referring to individual cases, because he wrote in the times before CNN and the internet, but the point is that givers should not make a show of giving, that giving anonymously, without expecting recognition, without boasting of generosity does not put the burden of gratefulness or indebtedness on the recipient. It does not make them feel ashamed of their shortcomings.
I understand that celebrities and artists help encourage regular shmoes to donate, but I think it has gotten out of hand. Will people call because they want to chat with Julia Roberts, or will they simply give?
Also, the American penchant for the story of triumph and survival is effectively grating my last nerve. Do people ever get tired of it? Americans are better served by a more realistic and balanced view of life and not this fantasy of the triumph of the human spirit that has little to do with reality. Haiti is a perfect example of the callousness of the human spirit prior to the quake. As is the Ninth Ward. As is Darfur. Why do we need to wait for a catastrophe to pay attention to what already is disastrous and unfair? We only help the poor when disaster strikes? The rest of the time, you are on your own?  I'm not saying not to help, I'm saying there is something morbid and exploitative about disaster.  Selective philanthropy exposes our indifference elsewhere. The New York Times reports that Israel sent a crack team to Haiti with the only makeshift hospital with surgical capabilities, plus their experts on rescuing people from debris, as they did in Mexico City's 1985 earthquake and every time they can put their vastly superior expertise to work (they have to have it because that's their reality).
Its response to Haiti has been exemplary, but of course people in Israel can't help but think about their next door neighbors in Gaza that are being crushed by poverty and despair. Not to simplify a situation that is complicated by extremely difficult politics, which is not the case in Haiti, but those Israelis have a point. You can't be good to some and indifferent to others.

1 comment:

  1. i like this post judy. thoughtful and well-put.