Thursday, January 14, 2010

The toll in Haiti

The day started for me with a robust conversation over the role Americans play in the disaster unfolding in Haiti. Our primary concern in reporting the news, as it pertains to, or connects to readers in the communities we serve, was the jumping off point.

Going downhill quickly, the conversation devolved into a debate over the role Americans play, in a general sense, on the world scene in times of crisis. My opinion on it was terse and critical.

My point was we over inflate our self-worth and assume the rest of the planet enjoys the same world-view, wealth and educations we do -- as we gallantly charge off to save them.

I also suggested passionately that all good charity starts at home. Later in the day we listened to a scanner call saying our homeless shelters were full that day in L-A but nobody made mention of it.

Granted my comments, on the heels of the major loss of life in one of the world's most impoverished nations, were obviously ill-timed and poorly worded.

But my point remains Americans are quickly drawn to drama and we so badly want to be primary actors in all the big ones that we jump in feet first. It's not that it is the wrong thing to do always -- it's just our view of our own actions on the global stage is often myopic.

It's also not that we aren't well-heeled or well-intended -- it's just we don't usually pause long enough to understand or even contemplate our American effect on things.

When we do it is usually for self-aggrandizing purpose.

Yet still for fear of some label or stigma of being un-American we often silence self-critical comments of our government, our society or our culture.

Agreed, Americans are generally generous, we are largely kind-hearted and overwhelmingly well-meaning. We also have and continue to make blood sacrifices, securing freedoms for others.

But what we are not is savvy, genteel or even bi-lingual enough to appear other than as Lone Rangerish, arriving in our big twin-propped helicopters or cargo planes with helicopters inside them -- usually after disaster descends.

Even so, how could anyone possibly pan our rush to help poor Haiti at this time? Fair point but off the general topic of what we typical do and how it usually ends up.

I felt badly for criticizing my colleagues' abundance of education and good charity. But also feel our ignorance towards these things contributes to and bolsters America's overall bad image abroad.

My other point, is only that our charity at home was always lacking. Somehow our empathy and sympathy for those removed miles from us by sea or economics is always greater than for those in our own communities.

Our disdain for the less fortunate among us here at home is also apparent. As some reasoned Haiti deserved our love more because they had so much less to begin with.

It was reasoned that most impoverished Americans were far better off than impoverished Haitians and it was reasoned that many impoverished Americans selected that life for themselves. It was their choice, was the argument.

The suppositions floored me. My case was only that we often go well-intended but largely half-cocked and uninformed to global disasters. That seemed to be playing out again in Haiti, even our rush to cover it in some meaningful way seemed to be throwing resources at stories re-told.

As journalists and Americans we also tend to see the world in aftershock sound bites. We are there for a week and gone, next story, next drama -- we can finally get caught up with American Idol and other coveted diversions like Hollywood scandals and politics.

Often our rush is to help in dramatic and traumatic situations is strong but our staying power and our ability to prevent or limit human suffering in the first place is woefully inadequate.

Haiti is an unfortunate example of this.

The response by thousands of well-intended Americans to Haiti is heart-warming and good.
We cannot be critical of that and true enough thousands of Americans were devoted to Haiti, as local reporting has shown, prior to this recent disaster.

Still the realization and reassertion that's highlighted for me remains how long-lasting our overall neglect for Haiti has been while squandering great American resources, spirit and even blood on ill-thought debacles elsewhere.

My hope is this tragedy, compounding Haiti's woes, can also a be reminder and warning that America's great wealth, compassion and intent is often better applied before and not after the mayhem sets in.

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