Monday, January 03, 2005

THE POLITICS OF DISASTER. There was a rather remarkable column by Daniel Henninger in the Journal the other day. Its theme -- well, I'm not sure what its theme is. At first it seems like standard-issue conservative religious hooey attached, by reflex, to the recent disasters on the other side of the world. "Religious belief, for those whose belief includes an afterlife, is a kind of comfort that even unbelievers would be loath to deny the survivors of this tsunami," says Henninger. "Not long ago people would offer solace by saying of the dead that he or she 'is in a better place.' I haven't read or heard much religious sentiment expressed in public about what has happened to the peoples around the Indian Ocean or the Arabian Sea." But this idea is not followed upon, and so is probably just a spasm of the sort bred into such authors by prolonged obeisance to Republican Party talking points.

For a while the article looks to be about that old chestnut, information overload. "Two weeks ago, Scott Peterson; last week, the Mosul mess-hall bombing; this week, South Asia wiped out," writes Henninger. "Time was, we'd watch the scenes coming out of Asia 'in horror.' Now, I think, we mostly just watch." I am of the self-examining sort, and do not think I have conflated the Scott Peterson trial with the deaths of hundreds of thousands in an epic disaster; and, widening my purview perhaps unfairly, I can't imagine many others have done so, either.

But this is only a bridge. Eventually Henninger gets to brass tacks. The info overload is revealed to include (or be caused by -- again, the author is unclear) horrors in Iraq. "The world's leading expert on how emotional, data-passed news can obliterate important context is Abu Musab al-Zarqawi," says Henninger. "His homicidal bombings can't kill Iraq's 25 million people, but he knows that images and tales of sudden death will suppress calmer, constructive portrayals of Baghdad's five million people restoring their lives to normalcy."

So, if it means anything at all, Henninger's column is about the image war waged by our enemies -- those pictures of atrocities that we have been told again and again to factor out of our considerations of American policy. But what is the connection with the tsunami and its aftermath? Insofar as I understand him, Henninger wants us to spread democracy as a means toward reducing misery of all sorts in the world. ("Political work is the means the civilized world has for replacing men and ideas that are dumb or dangerous with something better.") A noble goal, say I, though we may differ as to means. But what has this to do with shifting tectonic plates, the resulting angry seas, and the lives thus obliterated? "In the aftermath of 2004's too-numerous unnatural deaths," concludes Henninger, "the only resolution possible is to re-enter the arena of politics and fight the good, slow fight. It's all we've got, and it is enough."

I keep reading that some parties are trying to politicize the disaster. Is this what they're talking about?

UPDATE. Related thoughts at Gadflyer.

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