Monday, January 03, 2005

Cheap Talk

No sooner did I finish attacking David Brooks' grotesque metaphysical striptease, than I stumbled upon a whole series of similar articles pondering the implications of the tsunami for people of faith.

I find myself getting increasingly angry about this type of discourse, which views catastrophe in terms of its effect on people far removed from its epicenter...people who, in many cases, have suffered nothing more than philosophical unease. I have no sympathy for these people, or for their crises of faith, and I resent the fact that their metaphysical fantods are considered newsworthy.

If the pointless destruction of human life is going to shake anyone's faith, the unfathomable horrors of the twentieth century should've done the job long before now. Also, the all-too-common Christian belief that the "heathens" who were killed in this disaster are currently wailing in Hell is just about the only philosophical concept that could make a situation this bad seem even uglier and more pointless. Anyone who believes such a thing deserves to have his or her faith not merely shaken, but pulverized.

In any case, the "spiritual crisis" here is an entirely private one; its only possible importance to society lies in how it prompts a specific person to act. But since the immediate, practical course of action for atheists and the religious must be precisely the same - helping to save lives and rebuild homes - there's no reason to debate issues of faith. In fact, to agonize publicly over one's faith is to be a boor at the very least. No one would appreciate hearing such talk at a funeral, and I don't see why it should be any more welcome at a mass grave.

The only remotely positive thing about a disaster that wipes out infrastructure is the chance to make the new system better than the old one, but for some reason we tend not to take advantage of this opportunity. For instance, after the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, buildings were rebuilt quickly and shoddily, sowing the seeds of a future disaster. That didn't have to happen; sensible and humane people wouldn't have let it happen.

We face a similar choice today. Instead of rebuilding Southeast Asia's slums and resorts, we can help to build new communities that share in the benefits of technology and health care and education. In particular, I hope that everyone whose "faith" was shaken by this event will lay down their spiritual hand-mirrors for a time, and petition their governments to forgive the crippling debt burdens of Indonesia and Sri Lanka. Indonesia's debt, largely accrued under Suharto for the benefit of himself and his cronies, is equal to two-thirds of the country's GDP.

To any American whose faith is so brittle that it shatters in the face of injustice, our long support for Suharto's bloodthirsty regime - and our willingness to let him drain his country's coffers and put the literally impossible burden of repayment on its citizens - might well provide ample grounds for atheism. But not for apathy.


Anonymous said...

The metaphysical strip tease of Brooks which you note, was almost preferable to what I heard on talk radio in the car yesterday. It was on during a short errand and I never heard the identification of the host (some Rush clone) who was blathering on about the problem of "1/3" of our aid will be "stolen" "You got these children running around without parents, and the stuff's there, so yeah it's gonna happen." etc etc intertwined with notes of how everyone hates us Americans for our generosity, everything is just an excuse to criticize Bush (who is being generous cause he's giving them funds even though part will be stolen). No matter how much we give, they will hate us. Then he looked inward to his own generosity to friends and family, and he said it was the same thing, people ungrateful and taking advantage of him. No matter what you do people are not going to say thanks was his theme.

It's sheer ugly, these peoples' self absorption. Brooks' navel-gazing (it's all about me, isn't it God? isn't it?) is just another variation of "Those People are somehow scamming us with this tsunami!" Tsunami Queens!


Phila said...

Really? Christ, these people really are pathological, aren't they?

I guess I've heard stuff like that before, but normally they manage to keep things a bit more low-key during the really big disasters.

Maybe we shouldn't send them blood, either. It'll probably just get stolen...