Saturday, January 01, 2005

"Altruism is never so straightforward as it seems..."

"If what follows from me seems a little cynical, it is not intended to be." Rod Liddle, of the Sunday Times, has thoughts about what has galvanized British citizens to give unprecedented amounts of aid to southeast Asia:
...Some of the points are, I think, blindingly obvious. Others are more complex and perhaps contentious. Altruism is never so straightforward as it seems; we are motivated.

* The disaster was massive and truly calamitous in its impact, and seems to have victimised the weak and the helpless; children, women, the poor, the elderly and the infirm.

* It occurred through an act of God, rather than as the result of wicked, incompetent or corrupt foreign governments, or through the offices of evil terrorist organisations.

* It was a politically neutral disaster that at least temporarily united communities that in drier moments cordially loathe each other.

One Indonesian chief of police announced that his men would be helping the separatist rebels in Aceh, rather than killing them, torturing them or merely arresting them. “They’re searching for their families, just as our men are searching for ours,” he said, rather movingly. Who knows, he may even have been telling the truth.

Natural disasters have a tendency to put human, political squabbles into perspective. We are tempted to hope, vainly I fear, that this sense of perspective will remain after the waters have receded.

* The disaster occurred at a time of year when we are most likely to be reminded of our Christian duty of charity. That sermon from midnight mass has not yet left our minds, has it?

* The disaster occurred at a time of year when we have just wallowed in a shameful orgy of over-indulgence and conspicuous consumption. We have spent ludicrous sums of money feeding our fat faces and buying pointless and expensive gifts for people who, in some cases, we don’t even like very much.

Or at all.

I wonder how many people rang the credit card hotline and, deliberating how much to give, suddenly recalled that they’d recently spent £29 in Debenhams on a presentation box of lavender soaps for their ghastly mother-in-law? Shame was already poking its nose over the parapet, even before the tsunami struck. It was the time of year when the British people were at their most morally vulnerable.

* The disaster occurred in a part of the world that is familiar to many of us and for which we feel affection and even affinity...

* We were not harangued or bullied into giving money by mouthy, overpaid, has-been pop stars or self-righteous and unfunny comedians wearing red plastic noses.

There was almost no haranguing of any kind. Just a regular reminder of where you could give money, if you wanted to. The public was left to its own devices and to make its own judgment. If we felt guilty about our own wellbeing or affluence, it was a natural and genuine response to tragedy, rather than something we were told to feel.

* We may have a collective gut instinct that on this occasion the money will go directly towards immediate disaster relief rather than into the pockets of useless and corrupt governments or the ever-expanding London offices of our huge charities with their political lobbyists, campaign co-ordinators and publicists. I assume that this gut instinct is correct...

* The credit card hotlines were well organised; clear and simple to use and, crucially, it was easy to get through...

* A comparatively high number of British citizens have relatives in many of the countries affected, particularly Sri Lanka and India... .

* It could have been us. No matter how many times the experts remind us that the Indian Ocean is prone to the occasional seismological disruption, the suddenness and the seemingly arbitrary nature of the disaster let us know that we are surely not immune.

In the face of such irresistible destruction, we all feel weak and helpless. No matter what the experts say: it could have been us.

Whatever our motivations may be, I direct everyone's attention to my sidebar, where it is incredibly easy to donate and make a difference.
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