Let us descend into the blind world now

I’m not sure whether there’s anything coherent or decent to say about the wreckage in Port-au-Prince. I was in the waiting room of a doctor’s office today, translating a form for an injured patient when footage of the quake aired. I’d read a news headline—7.5, it said—and moved on to the finer points of the Leno-O’Brien catfight without giving the event a second thought. As a longtime resident of the Ring of Fire (on both hemispheres) one thing I’ve learned about earthquakes is that the Richter rating is the least sensational thing about them. If all you hear is a number, chances are a more terrible metric hasn’t yet emerged.

The Haiti footage came on HLN, that catastrophe of a channel that specializes in kidnapped children. This particular doctor’s office has HLN blaring all the time so that the lobby is ablaze with the outrage of Common Sense. It’s hard to blow your nose without feeling like you’ve taken a stand (this is how they talk) on sex offenders. I had Dante’s Inferno with me and struggled in vain to read this bit of Canto IV: “the heavy sleep within my head was smashed by an enormous thunderclap, so that I started up as one whom force awakens.”

The host was a tragic (smart) woman whose job it is to engagingly present people’s Facebook comments on legalizing medical marijuana and whether a mother should or should not have murdered her child. She asks people to please call her or contact her on Facebook to “get your voice heard.” But she is no actress. She is a journalist, despite her good looks and excellent makeup, and her eyes turned almost human when news turned to Haiti and she announced that “hundreds of thousands” were suspected dead.

I put “hundreds of thousands” in quotes because that’s how it appeared onscreen for the rest of the day. A different number was spoken and a new metric has emerged.

I’ve been reading Jincy Willett’s Winner of the National Book Award, which flirts with a tidal wave (a fictional temptation echoed in Margaret Atwood’s short story “Happy Endings” where the fictional author, getting more and more desperate to generate a worthwhile plot, defaults, in version D, to a tsunami). What’s important in Willett’s novel is that neither plotwise nor in fact does the much-feared natural disaster really come.

The next few lines of the Inferno talk about “the melancholy valley containing thundering, unending wailings” in which “though I gazed into its pit, I was unable to discern a thing.”  Being the kind of cold-hearted prig who talks about storytelling when real tragedy hits, I guess I was pleased to gaze into the pit as long as it remained undiscernable. Discernment is vitaminic and cauterizing. Before this 7.5 earthquake happened, I was curious about how this kind of story would be told.

But now?

The temptation, and it’s a real one, is simple and ostrich-like. The temptation is to let this particular set of awful stories go. Better just to help. Isn’t it enough to send money to Oxfam, to the American Red Cross, without having to know anything more? Can’t I be an HLN Facebook commenter? Of what use can it possibly be to find out more about this particular data set?

A tangent, because it’s hard to look some things in the face: fourteenth-century Florence enforced a humanist education as a means of preparing its citizens for what sounds, today, like a freakishly participative government. It was governed by a council of nine men, the signoria, the head of which served exactly two months in office before another one was elected.  (The thought of a presidential election every two months just made me pick at my bottom lip so much it bled.)

The “elections” were lotteries. Theoretically the name of every man over thirty who belonged to a Guild and was free of debt was included. (In practice it was an easy system to game, and the Medicis did, but the model still fascinates me. ) Therefore, it was urgent and important to have an educated public that could rise, if randomly selected, to the challenge of prospective government.

The case for an educated public seems weaker now. (I’m using “educated” broadly here; I’m talking as much about current events as I am about neo-Platonism or calculus.) I want to be convinced of its value.

It’s been suggested that Bush is Exhibit A in the People’s case against American stupidity. Maybe. It may be that an uneducated public elected an uneducated man. I’d suggest, though, that the real driving force behind it all was money, and money has a talent for continually defying our claims for what an education provides.

Because we’re stupid at economics. Economists are as good at money as meteorologists are at weather. Experienced stockbrokers can’t outperform chance.  Education has nothing to do with economics, and our educational system is fundamentally ill-equipped to prepare its citizens to deal with the willful  supranational monster money has become. There are no teachers.

That education has value is basically an article of faith. That’s a weak position for an education to be in, and—to take a premise of Hornby’s fantastic movie An Education seriously—it’s worth considering the merits of intellectual agnosticism.

The usual question—the one An Education asks—is what it means to be participate meaningfully in our own time. What I’d rather ask, in the face of natural disaster, is whether the “meaningful” aspect of our participation as outsiders matters.

My ostrich answer—in which we donate and minimize our exposure to distressing information—offers a great solution, the one I’ve already proposed: money.

The American Red Cross could sell the secular equivalent of papal indulgences.

Hear me out. Back in the day, saints, on their arrival in heaven, would donate whatever extra merit they didn’t need to the Catholic Church. It would be stored in the Great Treasure House of Merit, a nebulous bank of Christian virtue in which  the pope held the only checkbook and wrote people indulgences when they were short on merit of their own, or short on the time required to do penance. (Luther’s first salvo against the pope: that the donated Merit belonged to all Christianity and that the pope was effectively a squatter.)

We could all buy some Haitian relief and it would all have the real merit of real dollars going to real people. Whether we ourselves go through the spiritual steps that precede penance—whether we experience real contrition, or empathy, or anything—seems less than relevant.

Provided we donate, why find out more about Haiti than HLN provides?

I’m groping here*. I’m hoping for something besides the categorical imperative. Journalism depends on our need for news and relies on an ingrained integrity of soul and public-spiritedness that wants its news told accurately and well. Journalism is also (therefore?) dying.

(Another cause we should throw money at?)

A week ago I was interpreting for an injured worker who was undergoing a psychological evaluation. These appointments are the worst. They take forever, they’re grueling for the patient, and they leave my hand cramping from filling in bubbles on a questionnaire that asks you in nine different ways whether you think you have special powers or loved your dead father. Different doctors use different tests. This particular one was 400 questions long.

Before starting, a psychiatrist interviewed the patient, who was, by the way, a sullen, angry-looking man. When the doctor asked him a routine question (“what medicines are you taking?”), the patient burst into violent sobs. Face-time with the doctor was brief; he did what he could, then escorted us out into the waiting room, where another patient and his interpreter were occupying two of four available chairs.

“We don’t have a private room for you,” the psychiatrist said, “but you can do the questionnaire here.”

I stared at him. He was asking my patient to answer 400 questions about his innermost demons IN PUBLIC. With two strangers as inevitable witnesses. (There was no way they could not hear us, just like there was no way for me not to hear HLN over the Inferno.) I told him we needed a private room. He said he was very sorry, there was nothing to be done.

I did my best to construct a sound booth using the questionnaire and to make it seem like it wasn’t him, me, the other patient and the other interpreter. It’s just the two of us! I intimated, as if that were an improvement. I whispered the questions, trying to make it seem like I wasn’t whispering because for either of us to acknowledge that would mean recognizing our position: an outsider sitting next to a stranger whose life is in ruins, asking him over and over whether he still gets erections, whether he cries often, would he steal if no one was watching, does he want to die.

M

*And I’m less interested in HLN and its many flaws than I am in the whole problem—what, beside Arko Datta’s symbolic photo, we really need.

4 Responses to Let us descend into the blind world now

  1. Ms B U-S says:

    I am so pissed off that they are calling the scavengers “looters”. It’s the problem I guess when your aid comes in riot gear and with guns maybe? But perhaps my anger is just my version of being other to suffering. And about education… is it really not possible that education breeds more choices? Intellectual choices? Or at least, a certain level of understanding re the rhetorical tools whereby our decisions are made for us? I ask this knowing somehow that the answer is certainly no, but with hope nonetheless!

  2. Millicent says:

    Hey Ms B U-S,

    I know. That label is a judgment. It’s not just a dismissal, it’s an act of narrative abuse. No surprise there—look at Pat Robertson, here to remind us all not to strike deals with the devil to escape slavery under the French government. (We can strike deals with Hussein and bin Laden at our convenience, however!)

    Being other to suffering IS the problem. This kind of disaster strikes me dumb because to pretend to anything OTHER than otherness is an act of hubris. Still, the rhetorician in me forgets. My default hypothetical, when faced with the “looters” narrative, is to make a pathos appeal and exhort people to empathy. “Picture yourself in those circumstances,” I want to say. “Try to understand the context.” It’s a lame tactic really because it’s asking comfortable people to do the impossible: to imagine being uncomfortable. We suck at that.

    Besides, if the people screaming “looters” don’t understand the context, neither do I. Whatever tastes we’ve all had of real suffering teach us that grief and pain are nothing whatsoever like what we expected them to be.

    I do think that’s one of the things novels do and do well! It builds an unfamiliar context and lets you crawl inside it for the space of a few hours. It’s also why storytelling when this kind of thing happens seems urgent. I’m waiting, even now, for the story to change. The backlash is gathering and at any moment the tragedy will vanish in the undertow. Every time I see a headline it’s tiptoeing closer to charges of abuse. Soon we’ll see outraged ledes to the tune of “Billions of dollars in aid relief disappear!”

    Re: your sense of what an education does: yeah! and that’s what Jon Stewart does so beautifully. (And did, to Pat Robertson.) He exposes the skeleton of a bad argument and laughs it into dust. Maybe that’s what an education does too—endows us with that limited but occasionally devastating tool, a sense of humor? So that even, when we’re gaping at incomprehensible grief, we can take a moment to laugh at the evil among us and shame it? I ask this knowing somehow that the answer is certainly no, but with hope nonetheless!!!

  3. Pingback: Chile 8.8: Earthquakes and How We Tell Them « Millicent and Carla Fran

  4. Christopher says:

    Hi,
    Just a heads-up that Jincy Willett has just published an experimental, metafictional story at Metazen accompanied by an interview on the Metazen blog.

    All the best,
    Christopher
    http://www.metazen.ca

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