Saturday, January 01, 2005

Personal Commentary on the Tsunami Tragedy

January 1, 2005

Dear Students, Friends, and Colleagues,

I don’t know how else to bring in the new year except to share with you my recent reflections on recent events in South Asia. So if you will indulge me just a bit.

Like most, if not all, of you, I have been glued to the news on this stunning event of colossal proportions. With our two young daughters, ages 8 and 11, we as parents have had to come to grips with what meaning this has for our lives in terms of our understandings, responses, and responsibilities. So much can and should be said about what the meaning of this devastation is for us as individuals, states, and nations.

Brooks (see below) addresses some very fundamental questions about God and nature that are naturally raised in these situations, including, at present, by my own children. And yes, we mourn at the very same time that we are trying to grasp the incomprehensible. The media itself is saying that the pictures and footage simply cannot capture the extent of both the environmental destruction and loss of human life.

To Brooks’ concerns, what is apparent to me is that this tragedy forces us as nations to ask ourselves what our role is to be in a global society. Our corporate state most frequently casts this role in sterile economic or political terms where globalization most typically refers to market conditions, access, and creation. Wherever market interests are at stake, this value finds unfortunate expression in military dominance and expansion.

Yet another clear dimension that this event brings to light is our moral and ethical conduct as global citizens, leaders, and global economic partners or “players” in the international arena. What is that to be? And what form (or forms) does such expression take? Does this not require another kind of discourse that draws on our own social justice values and traditions, as well as on an ethic of mutuality or care? I agree with Brooks who concludes that “It's wrong to turn it [the disaster] into a story about us, who gave, rather than about them, whose lives were ruined.” At the same time, however, I prefer a “giving race” to an arms race and the opportunity for a more profound kind of conversation that acknowledges and respects our shared humanity and predicament.

The Great Book of this event will never be reduced to a mathematical equation or econometric formula. Indeed, other forms of knowledge and an invigorated discourse on democratic values must be brought to bear in order for us to embark on a progressive path of international cooperation—even should such solutions entail market solutions to social and economic problems in poor countries. For example, Columbia economics professor, Jeffrey Sachs’ maintains that our problem is not a need for solutions, but rather for effective international cooperation in order to put those solutions into practice (

I agree with Brooks that “It's wrong to turn it into a story about us,...” at the same time that I think that this is an unprecedented, and indeed historic, challenge and opportunity for all of us to reflect on what our responsibilities are to humanity, in both this specific situation and in general. I just discovered, for example, that we lose at least two million people annually to malaria alone. About 1000 people die in the Western Pacific Region of tuberculosis every day despite the existence of an effective cure. And we probably all know by now that AIDS is ravaging entire countries in Africa in similarly staggering proportions.

Finally, in light of what shall be predictable human-made calamities of possible comparable proportions to that of the earthquake and tsunami of South Asia (check out this piece in Orion Magazine—, it seems important for us to try and get all of this right, right now. Indeed, it is to our own peril that we fail to address the moral and ethical dimensions of our global relationships—particularly between rich and poor countries—as these have direct bearing on our very own survival on this fragile earth and global village that we inhabit.

As for myself, this task begins with me and my family. Best wishes for all in the coming year.



January 1, 2005
A Time to Mourn

I have this week's front pages arrayed on the desk around me. There's a picture of dead children lined up on a floor while a mother wails. There's a picture of a man on the beach holding his dead son's hand to his forehead. There are others, each as wrenching as the last.

Human beings have always told stories to explain deluges such as this. Most cultures have deep at their core a flood myth in which the great bulk of humanity is destroyed and a few are left to repopulate and repurify the human race. In most of these stories, God is meting out retribution, punishing those who have strayed from his path. The flood starts a new history, which will be on a higher plane than the old.

Nowadays we find these kinds of explanations repugnant. It is repugnant to imply that the people who suffer from natural disasters somehow deserve their fate. And yet for all the callousness of those tales, they did at least put human beings at the center of history.

In those old flood myths, things happened because human beings behaved in certain ways; their morality was tied to their destiny. Stories of a wrathful God implied that at least there was an active God, who had some plan for the human race. At the end of the tribulations there would be salvation.

If you listen to the discussion of the tsunami this past week, you receive the clear impression that the meaning of this event is that there is no meaning. Humans are not the universe's main concern. We're just gnats on the crust of the earth. The earth shrugs and 140,000 gnats die, victims of forces far larger and more permanent than themselves.

Most of the stories that were told and repeated this week were melodramas. One person freakishly survives while another perishes, and there is really no cause for one's good fortune or the other's bad. A baby survives by sitting on a mattress. Others are washed out to sea and then wash back bloated and dead. There is no human agency in these stories, just nature's awful lottery.

The nature we saw this week is different from the nature we tell ourselves about in the natural history museum, at the organic grocery store and on a weekend outing to the national park. This week nature seems amoral and viciously cruel. This week we're reminded that the word "wilderness" derives from the word for willful and uncontrollable.

This catastrophic, genocidal nature is a long way from the benign and rhythmic circle of life in "The Lion King." It's a long way from the naturalist theology of Thoreau's "Walden" or the writings of John Muir.

The naturalists hold up nature as the spiritual tonic to our vulgar modern world. They urge us to break down the barriers that alienate us from nature. Live simply and imbibe nature's wisdom. "Probably if our lives were more conformed to nature, we should not need to defend ourselves against her heats and colds, but find her our constant nurse and friend, as do plants and quadrupeds," Thoreau wrote.

Nature doesn't seem much like a nurse or friend this week, and when Thoreau goes on to celebrate the savage wildness of nature, he sounds, this week, like a boy who has seen a war movie and thinks he has experienced the glory of combat.

In short, this week images of something dark and unmerciful were thrust onto a culture that is by temperament upbeat and romantic.

In the newspaper essays and television commentaries reflecting upon it all, there would often be some awkward passage as the author tried to conclude with some easy uplift - a little bromide about how wonderfully we all rallied together, and how we are all connected by our common humanity in times of crisis.

The world's generosity has indeed been amazing, but sometimes we use our compassion as a self-enveloping fog to obscure our view of the abyss. Somehow it's wrong to turn this event into a good-news story so we can all feel warm this holiday season. It's wrong to turn it into a story about us, who gave, rather than about them, whose lives were ruined. It's certainly wrong to turn this into yet another petty political spat, as many tried, disgustingly, to do.

This is a moment to feel deeply bad, for the dead and for those of us who have no explanation.

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