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    Simon has a post on something I’d been wondering about myself: China. As in, what has it been doing while the great powers of the world are pouring money and personnel into helping its disaster-stricken neighbors to the south? He also gets at something important in a previous post, also on the tsunami and its aftermath:

    If warnings were given it is also difficult to see how effective they would have been. Certainly lives would have been saved. But in many areas communications are poor; there is no high land to evacuate to; and there are too many people and not enough roads and ways to transport them out.

    The news outlets are right to cover the possibility that a tsunami warning system could have saved lives and the urgency of getting aid disbursed to places that still lack it. But the problems that get repeated mention–lack of coordination on the part of on-the-ground aid providers, little precedent of catastrophic tsunamis in the Indian Ocean–are ultimately less important than the fact that a lot of people outside Westernized population centers are so isolated that it’s nearly impossible to get to them except by helicopter. And to do even that, you have to figure out where they are first and resign yourself to dropping things on them if you can’t land, which means they’ll get supplies but no medical care. The most sophisticated warning system in the world wouldn’t have prevented such people from being screwed, and the best teams of planners in the world are still going to have trouble getting food and potable water to them.

    That doesn’t mean we give up trying to help remote populations, or that we write them off and reserve our compassion for those we feel more similar to. It means that we don’t blame human beings for not being able to do the impossible. Furthermore–yes, I’m late to this party, but it’s a point that apparently needs to be made over and over–anyone who’s followed the real-time development of events right after an earthquake knows that the early reports are close to worthless. If a major facility (shopping center, elevated highway, train station) collapsed, you’ll know immediately that at least a certain number of people are dead or injured, but that’s about it. You will not know the extent of the destruction, and you’ll be getting conflicting and incomplete reports for a good while; thus keeping commitments of funding and labor on the “stingy” side for the time being is perfectly rational for a third party. Now that we’re aware of the scope of the damage in southern Asia, it’s cheering to see people giving unreservedly.

    7 Responses to “Expectations”

    1. John says:

      I think it was Simon who commented on the HK Chinese tribalism about 8 months back. He said something to the effect that the Chinese mindset was: “if you’re not in my clan or can’t do me a favor, screw you”. Not all Chinese are like that, but it is a strong trend in their culture, part of the tug and pull between the greater Han kingdom and the necessity of sheilding local interests from Beijing’s eyes that has been going on since at least the Han dynasty, and really got boosted when the Ming fell to the Qing and the Qing fell to the warlords.

    2. Sean Kinsell says:

      It’s interesting to think of Japan from that perspective. Japanese insularity is cultural as well as geographic–there’s a major strain of insider consciousness here. At the same time, there’s real shame involved in not showing a good face to outsiders, and post-War Japan has definitely patterned its great-power aspirations after the US/Western Europe model. Conspicuous largesse is part of that.
      I realize that paragraph sounds cynical, so I should say that I don’t think the Japanese are motivated only by image consciousness. It’s just that an assumption in Japanese culture is that everyone has an in-group to take care of him, so charity as we understand it is not really a tradition here. Japanese involvement in the alphabet soup of UN organizations and international aid in general seems mostly to spring from the idea that that’s what a super-rich country is supposed to do. (The WOT is different, BTW. I find Koizumi’s speeches about how we’re at war to defend our idea of civilization more convincingly rousing than Bush’s, personally. The man isn’t perfect, but he has conviction. The accusations that he’s just falling in line with a backer he can’t afford to displease strike me as hard to support.)

    3. Mentioning this sounds crass, but it is true none-the-less.
      What kind of warning system can you put in place where basic infrastructure is missing? Further, what kind of warning system would get someone’s attention besides the ocean tide going out 1000 feet further than it ever has before?
      This Monday morning quarterbacking is getting quite tedious.
      -This hasn’t happened for over 300 years.
      -A small group of “gypsies” who passed on an oral history to their group fled the area when the tides went out. THAT is a warning system.
      -It could happen again tomorrow and happen every week for 1000 years or it could not occur again for 10,000 years.
      -A warning system which would reach these populations would be cost prohibitive. They had warning systems that an earthquake occurred and Tsunamis were likely. They had no means to distribute that to people living in isolated areas. Are we going to give them cell phones?
      Finally, the whole discussion bothers me terribly. We cannot prevent rare natural disasters. People really have trouble with that. It has been quite a while since a disaster of Biblical proportions has occurred in the world and people have this idea that this is some new thing. It’s life. A million people died in Somalia and no one barked about “warning systems.” 1.5 to 2 million people die every year of malaria–no outcries for resuming DDT spraying.
      It’s gone beyond extending sympathy–it’s straying into farce and denial of the inevitability of death.

    4. Sean Kinsell says:

      Thanks for putting it a little more pointedly than I did. I originally had a sentence in there that said something along the lines of, “How would these warnings travel–smoke signals?” That seemed a bit much, since the problem doesn’t, as you say, lie with people who were simply living as their ancestors had for hundreds of years.
      And that’s why I don’t think you sound crass. There are diseases the West has known and studied since time immemorial that can’t always be cured, even in world-class hospitals with formidable hygienic and procedural standards. Given that, the idea that a failure to rescue millions of peasants from a fluke tidal wave must mean we’re not trying hard enough is nuts.
      It’s interesting that you mentioned DDT and malaria. Wasn’t Sri Lanka, coincidentally, one of the countries in which the incidence of malaria fell most dramatically thanks to DDT spraying in buildings?

    5. John says:

      “I realize that paragraph sounds cynical”
      No it doesn’t. In America before the Great Society set out to give to the poor and bureaucratic (more to the latter than the former) by stealing from you and me, we did pretty much the same thing – took care of our own first. Looking at Social Security, I’m going to have to do some of that for my own family (aunts and an uncle who never had kids), so I oppose any increase in SS benefits without means testing for the geezers who are retired now. Charity begins at home.
      There is something to be said for shame and the pull of culture to do the right thing; coercion isn’t always bad (ask any good parent). Shame or honor cultures can keep society on an even keel even when the people themselves are selfish.
      One of my favorite examples is the number of section 8s given in WWII. America had a lot more people asking, and a lot more denials, than the Red Army. There was a lot less shame attached to asking in the US Army. The Red Army’s response was to put you in a penal battalion that ran out far ahead of the main force to attract fire. Pretty polar extremes, but if you expect certain behavior out of people, they will tend to live up to it, whether they want to or not, and sometimes, whether it’s in their best interest or not.

    6. Sean Kinsell says:

      Well, if they’re also tsunami victims, it’s possible that the food and water rations are sufficient to keep them alive but not sufficient for them to be at normal physical-labor strength. I think you’re right overall, though. It’s not heartless to say that those who remain able-bodied should be champing at the bit for opportunities to help rebuild their own communities. It’s insulting to want people to stay downtrodden so you can continue to get the self-righteous thrill of feeling sorry for them.
      You also don’t have to believe the suffering caused by the tsunami was trivial to wonder why people who are making a show of their compassion don’t make more noise about the less sexy but more destructive killers of developing countries. It’s fine to regard the biggest earthquake in 50 years as an especially attention-worthy thing, and it’s true that the ravaging of infrastructure complicates things for a greater number of people than deaths from illnesses do. But health hazards are not exactly unknown in developing countries. I guess malaria is boring; everyone knows about it. And everyone also knows that DDT is EEEEEEVILLLL.
      And John, what I meant about that sentence was that, in isolation, it could seem to mean that Japanese people don’t care about others and would only perform acts of charity to make themselves look good. What I meant in fact was similar to what you said–that Japan’s entering into the game of can-you-top-this funding pledges and things did not represent its normal way of addressing the problems of the needy.

    7. Mrs. du Toit says:

      Yeah, Sri Lanka was one. The irony is that DDT spraying is now “safe.” When we first had the chemical to use, it was overused. They didn’t know that a little DDT went a long way, because it doesn’t go away–it’s the bug spray that keeps on giving. Now we know.
      That’s what gets me with all this outpouring of concern and consternation. You want to save a million people? OK, let’s start with nuking the warlords in Somalia. Step 2: Resume DDT spraying.
      That’s 3 million lives and a whole lot less expensive (and more feasible) than setting up a warning system in a place that has absolutely no infrastructure. And it’s a million lives A YEAR–something we know will repeat with malaria deaths.
      I just do not get why the Tsunami deaths are deemed MORE tragic than all the other deaths. Because there are pictures of bodies? Is that what it takes? Stacking bodies for the cameras?
      And I wonder why I view the matter through a veil of cynicism.
      Then there were the pictures of people living in (essentially) parks with tents–sitting on blankets in the tents–doing absolutely nothing except complain that no one had come to dig out the bodies. Uhh… HELLO??? Get off your ass and start digging.
      I’m not sure if there is a cultural reason for this–my sense is that it is a bastardization on a kind of caste system, whereby the average J’oh sits around and does nothing, waiting for “The government” to do everything–the government now being the replacement for untouchables.
      I think of 9/11 and people showing up, from all over the country wanting to help dig out the rubble. The professionals had to turn people away.
      Why aren’t these people digging?