Thursday, March 17, 2011

Ugliness and Devastation

Most days I think I'm mellowing with age, open to a variety of viewpoints, willing to listen, slow to anger. But today I feel driven to the brink by the outrageous compassion deficit among certain people in this country.

I've been upset, it's true, as I've watched banksters and hedge fund criminals rewarded with bailouts and hands-off justice while ordinary people suffer from long-term unemployment, lose their homes and any hope for the future.

I admit to some fleeting resentment when paying the taxes on my greatly diminished income while mega corporations who claim their profits were made in the Caymen Islands avoid paying any taxes at all.

I am appalled at Congressional proposals to cut the deficit by slashing social programs like Head Start, programs that aim to ease the suffering, the educational and healthcare inequality and, quite frankly, the hunger that is all too widespread across the U.S. today. It's so easy to demonize the poor and disenfranchised while the greedhogs of Wall Street get a free pass.

I am saddened by the decline of the middle class, the worsening lives of ordinary citizens, the vanishing jobs (to overseas locations) and the fact that successful programs like Social Security and Medicare that have allowed the aged to live out their days in dignity and some measure of comfort may be on the chopping block if Congressional honchos (with their Cadillac health insurance and fat pensions) have their way. All this while two illegal, pointless and costly wars have drained our coffers and bailouts have insured only that those who really caused the financial meltdown of 2008  have landed on their feet, continuing to collect their million dollar bonuses.

More than all of the above, however, I am aghast at the lack of compassion for the suffering of others -- from the poor to struggling middle class citizens -- from people whose affluence has shielded them from deprivation and misfortune and from people who should know better but who have drunk the corporate media infused Kool Aid and vote against their own best interests while condemning, not banksters and corporate criminals, but fellow citizens whom they feel may have fractionally more advantages than they do.

But all of this is not what is pushing me to the screaming point today.

It is what I'm hearing on the airways as the people of Japan struggle with an almost incomprehensible national tragedy, a catastrophic cascade of events in the past week: a 9.0 earthquake, a devastating tsunami that washed away whole towns, the threat of a nuclear meltdown. Thousands have died. Valiant workers are risking almost certain death to prevent a nuclear disaster.  And survivors struggle in makeshift rescue centers, dealing, additionally with winter cold and snow and food shortages, with remarkable courage and strength of spirit. And, in the midst of all this, the compassion-deprived among us are at it again.

Rush Limbaugh joked on the air about Japanese continuing their recycling habits at refugee centers -- and at newscaster Diane Sawyer's reaction to what she was seeing in the shattered cities and towns along Japan's Northern coast.  Did it ever occur to him that perhaps these familiar habits bring these traumatized people some comfort, some sense of normality in a country where life may never be quite normal again? Does it ever cross the mind of this crass, hypocritical gasbag that human suffering is never a joke?  Yes, as he noted, the Japanese took pains to prepare for a powerful earthquake and tsunami with strict building codes and regular drills. But sometimes the forces of nature overwhelm the strongest of human structures and thwart the most logical survival plans -- and when that happens, we reach out. We help. We offer support. We don't joke about how carefully they planned -- "and then got wiped out."

While Rush Limbaugh's comments were particularly horrific because of his vast audience and national influence, there has been other evidence of ugliness around.  There was the UCLA student who made a video mocking Asian students who were calling home to check on their families.  There were people who posted such ugly, racist comments after online news reports of the strength of the Japanese populace in the face of their national disaster that a Japanese-American friend of mine who lives in Hawaii wrote to me in distress and despair.

What have we become as a nation if some of us see unspeakable tragedy and make ugly racist remarks or jokes? How can some of us mock others who have lost their homes or families -- or who fear such losses? Hateful and racist comments are always repulsive, but to make them in the wake of disaster is incredibly revolting.

I'll never forget the raw agony of a woman who came to see me on an emergency basis at the psychiatric clinic where I was working some years back. This was in the early days of the war in Iraq. This woman, born in Iraq but a U.S. citizen, had lost her entire family of origin in one of the initial airstrikes.  What drove her to the clinic, however, was not just this devastating loss, but the callousness of too many of her co-workers, people she had considered her friends, who told her that the only good Iraqi was a dead Iraqi and who showed a complete lack of empathy for her terrible loss.

It is this insensitivity to the suffering of others -- whether here or abroad -- that makes me fear for our future as a nation and as human beings.  When did some of us learn to hate so much? To be so quick to blame the unfortunate for their plight? To be blind to -- or simply unconcerned by-- the anguish of others?

There are, of course, countless Americans as well as those around the world, who are rallying to help Japan -- with money, with medical and search teams, with prayers and messages of support.

For those who have little inclination to join these efforts to help the Japanese people, for those who find humor or righteous justice in their suffering, I have only one request: just shut up!


  1. This is a wonderful post -- I so agree with your sentiments.

  2. Thank you so much for writing this. The same kind of sick jokes are being bandied about the internet and Facebook and make me despair about some aspects of human nature.

  3. I second what Broad says. That kind of callousness and lack of empathy is almost beyond belief.

  4. Thank you for this post. The cruelty and insensitivity baffle me.