It’s been an interesting week in history. The world’s attention has been torn between Japan and Libya. There is a new outpouring of sorrow and empathy, but of the sort where no one is actually doing anything about either situation really, because no one really knows how they could possibly do any good for either.
The Japanese situation with the earthquake and tsunami has people scared because of radiation risks, almost forgetting about the matter of interdependent production and the immense human tragedy already suffered. Tens of thousands of people have died, and a portion of their electrical supply equivalent to what it takes to run Finland, Sweden and Norway has been wiped out. And it could get much, much worse before it’s over.
There is some impressive video of the earthquake and the rush of sea water which followed there, and this has caught people’s attention, but unlike the Haitian crisis there is no big rush of empathetic support going on really. That’s partially because of the sheer hopelessness of the scale of the problem, partially because of an impression that one thing the Japanese people don’t lack is financial resources, and partially because the media has had a bigger fish to fry this past week: Libya.
Try to name popular heads of state, leading stable government coalitions, effectively using their country’s wealth for the good of their people, and open to concepts of democratic transparency and peaceful transition of power from one regime to the next in north Africa and the Arab world, and you’ll end up with an extremely short list. If you were to rank the leaders of these countries in terms of how close they come to such ideals (which in principle are supported by Islam as well) and Gaddafi would probably rank somewhere in the middle of the pack actually. But very few would deny that he has outstayed his welcome and usefulness to the country by at least a decade or two. Nor are there many who would deny that he has gone on a psychopathic rampage to kill off large numbers of his countrymen who are willing to challenge his right to remain in power. The relevant question is, what can and should be done about it? Is trying to stop a military dictator from killing off whoever he feels like killing within his own country just as hopeless as trying prevent tsunamis from sweeping inland after an earthquake at sea? Some might say so.
In the cases of both disasters there is plenty of hand-wringing going on, and even a bit of government action, but in the back of everyone’s mind here there is the question of what these governments figure is in it for them. In the Japanese case there’s the Russian prime minister magnanimously offering to help by selling Japan as much natural gas as they want. Other countries as well are willing to step up and sell the Japanese whatever they have on hand that might be useful in dealing with the immense catastrophe there. But can we really look at that and say, “Wow, how generous of them!”? A sense that they have their own interests at stake in the matter is inevitable. They want Japanese manufactured goods and economic resources flowing into their own countries, obviously, and whatever they do for the Japanese people will be related to these wishes.
In Libya this sort of strategic thinking is quite probably less profitable for any would-be protectors of the people, but the political impression of promoting Western interests there –– raising up specters ranging from the Crusaders to the Colonialists to the crudest of capitalists –– especially given the extent that the US military is already over-extended in the Middle East with adventuresome wars in oil producing areas that their last Commander-in-Chief got them into –– makes for good reason to think carefully about whose interests these forces are actually serving. But whereas earthquakes and tsunamis cannot play the media and issue public statements raising suspicions about the ulterior motives of those who would help their victims, military dictators can. In fact we’ve seen plenty of evidence of that in Libya in recent days.
But regardless of what our governments do or don’t stand to gain in the process, something about helping innocent victims in horrific circumstances –– be it in Benghazi or Sendai or Port-au-Prince or New Orleans –– deserves our attention and sincere efforts. So why is that so hard for us?
That might be a rather weak rhetorical question. In some ways it is obvious why it is so difficult for us to empathize with those who have recently been in a position of strength which has caused some to feel threatened by them even. In these terms it is also obvious why in cases of such disasters we can always find some tasteless publicity hound who can find ways to blame the victims for creating their own bad karma. In other terms there are immense technical challenges in trying to limit the effects of the disasters these people are experiencing; things which make the experts of the world throw up their hands in despair. But perhaps the greatest problem is one that Barry Schwartz has pointed out: when you give people both a moral imperative and a financial incentive to do the same good deed, they become less likely to do it than if you would have given them only the moral imperative. People become morally confused when they think they stand to gain by doing the right thing. Funny how that works.
Not that I claim to have any of the big answers, but hopefully we will find ways of getting these messes sorted out so that as few Arabs and North Africans die in fighting for freedom this year as possible, so that the Fukushima plant disaster does not rise above it’s current third place position among the worst nuclear power disasters of all time, and so both of these countries will be able to clean up, morn their dead and then rebuild enough so that they can get back to business. I realize that this might be a bit unrealistic and utopian, but it remains a set of goals worth pursuing.
If anyone has any concrete ideas of what we outsiders can do improve the odds of such solutions being realized, do let me (or someone important) know about them. If the do-gooders would stand to benefit from helping out, perhaps we need to find ways of helping them find justification for that, and help them to be able to help out anyway, even if they are accused of doing so for selfish reasons. Perhaps we need to set up more foundations or charities that can take charge of these gains to keep them from being used “selfishly”. Or perhaps we just need to help create an atmosphere where benefiting from from doing good is not so stigmatized by jealous individuals. As for myself, if I can help in a way that I also benefit from it, frankly I really wouldn’t mind.