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Disaster responses redefine 'Third World'

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LähetäLähetetty: 16.9.2005 4:47    Viestin aihe: Disaster responses redefine 'Third World' Vastaa lainaamalla viestiä

Disaster responses redefine 'Third World'

Special to The Japan Times

BANGKOK -- "If America and Thailand were both hit by natural disaster, Thais would handle it better," a Thai lawyer once told me.
I conceded that the average Thai, being rural and village born, was indeed closer to nature and flexible by necessity and that would come in handy in a crisis, though rural life in itself offers scant protection from truly horrendous natural disasters such as plague, famine, earthquake or massive floods. I said with a tinge of pride, that my hometown of New York had taken terrorist attacks and power blackouts very much in stride, though any lasting power outage would be another matter.

I've had the opportunity to revisit that conversation with considerable humility in the past year, first when a powerful killed thousands in southern Thailand last December, and last month, when a hurricane swamped the American deep south, devastating New Orleans.

Much of what I've seen on the news in recent days suggests my friend was right, though probably for the wrong reasons. After the tsunami, I was deeply impressed by the way ordinary Thai people summoned the strength and resilience to face the abyss created by sudden social collapse as the powerful waves of the tsunami ripped to shreds posh resorts and poor fishing villages.

But what really impressed me about the aftermath of the disaster was the social cohesion and absence of racism, as penniless Thais provided food and comfort to stranded European and Japanese tourists, and as resident foreigners rushed to the scene of the disaster to help tsunami orphans and rebuild schools. The wrath of Neptune was met by many moving acts of courage, compassion and concern for one's fellow human being.

Similar stories of race-transcending unity in the face of crisis were reported from less harmonious regions of Asia, including Sumatra and Sri Lanka.

That was the "Third World" response to tragedy. So, how did America, the First World personified, handle a parallel inundation with potentially thousands dead and a million homeless?

"It's like the Third World out here . . . it looks like the Third World." Dozens of news reports used the same curious term repeatedly, implying that America wasn't quite itself anymore. Safe to say, American reporters weren't doling out a compliment when they described conditions as "Third World." Used and abused as it was in the aftermath of Katrina, Third World could be seen to mean black, poor, powerless and pathetic. It took on a life as a code word, shorthand for chaos, for garbage-strewn streets, for looting and rape. It hinted at a failure of the people themselves, evoking images of unwashed masses and irrational behavior.

But the criminal lawlessness of put-upon poor people was generally matched, if not systematically created, generated and exacerbated, by the criminal recklessness of irresponsible power-holders. If there is a hidden Third World element to New Orleans, it is not a case of skin color or even poverty, but one of government greed, neglect and ineptitude. It was the tanks, helicopters and machine gun-toting guards.

America, despite a growing rich-poor divide and a sad history of racial divisiveness, witnessed an extraordinary moment of national cohesion and solidarity in the immediate wake of the 9/11 tragedy, nowhere more so than in New York. Unfortunately, the bipartisan unity was quickly frittered away by a vengeful and compassionless president who hijacked the rare and blood-sanctified unity for narrow partisan gain, doling out rewards to the likes of Halliburton and Enron while relieving the tax burden of campaign contributors and a wealthy political base.

This is looting of the pinstripe variety, but what really broke America's pact with itself was the cooking up of a war in Iraq to be paid for, in blood and dollars, by political nobodies on the lower rungs of the social ladder.

Four years later, the transcendent unity long since evaporated, America finds itself as deeply divided as it was near the end of the Vietnam War. More troubling yet, the sluggish response and racial favoritism shown in the uneven evacuation and clumsy administering of aid to black-majority areas of the deep South reveals class antagonisms with racial overtones reminiscent of the Civil War.

The extreme wealth and aggressive security bubble with which the Bush administration wraps itself has put the First World president hopelessly out of touch with ordinary people.

As for my friend's pointed observations about Thailand and America, the real key to how a nation weathers a tragedy seems not so much to lie in technological differences as in the humor of the people and the strength of the social fabric. Despite some tattered edges and a worrisome unraveling of community harmony in the predominantly Muslim south, the social fabric and sense of common cause in Thailand was strong enough to absorb the strains and horror of the tsunami in top form. America in contrast, a nation torn asunder and embittered by the politics of a distant war, is currently in conflict with itself, making a dignified and heroic national response difficult, if not impossible.

Philip J. Cunningham is a Thailand-based writer.

The Japan Times: Sept. 15, 2005
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