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Tsunami: A Discourse On Compassion
T he exceptional intensity of the emotions—disbelief, compassion, and global concern—displayed at the recent Asian tsunami disaster is a prime example of the discourse of compassion and humanitarianism created and fostered by the political climate and media. Compared with the absence of this type of global concern for the humanitarian crisis in Darfur, Iraq, Rwanda, and Palestine, the compassion for more instantaneous “natural” disasters (a misnomer since the impact of such disasters is inextricably linked to the inequalities of empire) as opposed to the more readily preventative devastation of war, militarization, and genocide brings to light the degree of indecency and schizophrenia of the colonial consciousness.
Gilbert Achcar has also commented on this depressing contrast in the context of the September 11 attacks when the white world was “thrown into convulsions of distress over the ‘6,000’ victims in the United States, while it can hardly give a thought to Black Africa in its horrible agony.” Achcar describes this phenomenon as a form of what he calls “narcissistic compassion” evoked by disasters striking “people like us.”
Certainly the tsunami disaster has not struck people “like us” in white America or Europe, but even then, the condescension is apparent. The white world sets the tone of this humanitarian capacity through its domination of corporate media. The media with its images of distant human suffering and distant victims plays the role of giving publicity and inciting compassion and commitment channeled through appropriately selected international humanitarian organizations.
Political global compassion is often an ideology of political and social control couched in euphemisms and contradictions of humanitarian intervention. Humanitarian intervention is considered appropriate in the attempts to broaden the reach of so-called democracy. Since the end of the Cold War, interventionist tactics are now couched in the rhetoric of democracy and human rights, instead of the threat of communism and more overt political ideologies—from Kosovo to Afghanistan to Iraq. When the U.S. and UK bombed Afghanistan, in order to be perceived as good Samaritans, they simultaneously drop- ped over 35,000 food packages in the country. Meanwhile, images of the casualties and humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan and now Iraq (along with Iraq’s history of devastation due to U.S. sanctions) have been absent from the public eye.
But what of humanitarian interventions for natural disasters that appear completely unselfish? One major trend is the marketing of global compassion and the sponsorship of humanitarian efforts. In 2001, Colin Powell announced the creation of the Global Developmental Alliance, which now consists of 200 alliances between AID (Agen- cy for International Development), foundations in the U.S., and corporate donors. According to CNN, Amazon.com, the Bill Gates Foundation, General Electric, Time Warner, Pfizer, Coca-Cola, Star- bucks, and Exxon have all dipped into their coffers to support the tsunami relief effort.
biggest irony of all, is that Starbucks is donating money raised
from coffee grown in Indonesia’s plantations and Coca-Cola
is sending bottled water to South Asia. Coffee is the world’s
second most global commodity—produced in 70 countries. Starbucks,
in particular, has grown at an astounding average rate of 28 percent
in the past 5 years, with its market value reaching almost $15 billion
in 2004. Meanwhile, an estimated 25 million coffee farmers exist
at the bottom of the poverty scale. With increasing anti-corporate
protests in the 1990s, Starbucks jumped on the corporate responsibility
bandwagon with support for fair-trade coffee and organic farming.
This still amounted to just four to five cents per cup at most for
the farmers, compared with a beverage that sells for two to five
dollars. The amount of “fair-trade certified” coffee that
Starbucks purchased in 2003 amounted to less than 1 percent of its
Like other cash crops, the pattern and organization of labor can be traced to colonial relations—for example, the Dutch smuggling of Arabica coffee out of Yemen to their colony in Java, the foundation for Indonesia’s current coffee industry; the role of French, British, Portuguese, and Japanese trading companies in Africa, Jamaica, Guyana, Brazil, and Asia, and the role of U.S. companies in Colombia, Central America, and Southeast Asia. In the present context, the colonial relationship established by World Bank structural adjustment programs in an attempt to globalize the coffee market has had a devastating impact on coffee growers, such as in Nicaragua. The privatization of coffee farms and the emphasis on cash crops for an export-driven economy led to bitter competition between Third World countries and the eventual collapse of the Association of Coffee Producing Countries, while consumption, processing, and marketing remained in the First World.
These free market strategies, according to the World Bank’s own estimates, caused the loss of at least 600,000 jobs in Central America and left more than 700,000 people in the region near starvation; meanwhile foreign debt and loans increased.
Coca-Cola has been at the forefront of controversies. The United Steelworkers of America, on behalf of Sinaltrainal, have filed a lawsuit in the U.S. charging Coca-Cola with complicity in the murder, torture, and intimidation of trade union organizers at Coca-Cola bottling facilities in Colombia. In India, communities around Coca- Cola’s bottling plants are experiencing severe water shortages. The groundwater and soil around its bottling plants have been polluted and Coca-Cola products in the Indian market contain extremely high levels of pesticides, including DDT, sometimes higher than 30 times those allowed by U.S. or EU standards. Tests conducted by the BBC found cadmium and lead in the waste, effectively making it toxic. Coca-Cola stopped the practice of distributing its toxic waste only when ordered to do so by the state government.
Millions of dollars of marketing cannot outweigh the increasing public resistance to the company’s practices and the unprecedented victories that have been won. Earlier this year, the Kerala High Court prevented the Coca-Cola plant in Plachimada, India from drawing underground water. This order was issued because the company used so much water that the area within a radius of three kilometers has been under severe drought. The pollutants the company used caused such an unbearable stink that the water was not usable for cooking or bathing. Now, Plachimada, the largest Coca-Cola bottling plant in India, has been shut down since March 2004.
In the state of Rajasthan, already drought-ridden, over 50 villages are experiencing water shortages as a result of Coca-Cola’s indiscriminate mining of water. “Struggle Committees” have been formed in at least 32 villages to confront Coca-Cola’s abuses. The Central Ground Water Board, a government agency, confirmed the declining water table as a result of Coca-Cola’s indiscriminate mining and also faulted Coca-Cola for creating “ecological imbalances.”
Most recently, on November 25, 2004 in Varanasi, over 1,000 farmers and community members marched to the factory, demanding that it be shut down. (The Varanasi Coca-Cola plant draws more than 250,000 liters of underground water per day. As a result, the water level has receded from 25 to 40 feet under the ground and pollutants have rendered many acres of agricultural fields infertile.) The protest was the end of a 10-day, 250 kilometer march from Ballia, the site of another Coca-Cola bottling facility. “Drinking Coke is like drinking farmer’s blood in India,” said Nandlal Master of Lok Samiti and the National Alliance of People’s Movements, a key organizer of the march and rally. Armed police met marchers at the bottling facility and over 350 were arrested.
It is a bitter irony that, as the media reports the danger of outbreaks of cholera and other diseases due to unsafe drinking water, one of the biggest offenders is donating bottled water to the very people who fought tooth and nail to bring this culprit to justice and who have maintained their dignity and honor in previously rejecting the company’s charitable donations of blankets, utensils, medicine, and cash.
Meanwhile, international humanitarian and charitable organizations that have actively hindererd grassroots development and autonomy are suddenly propelled to the forefront as saviors of the Third World.
Let us be clear, there is no doubt that humanitarian work in order to save lives and provide adequate access to food and shelter is absolutely necessary. But the larger context must never be lost. International aid and NGO work will largely defuse the anger of those affected by the tsunami—anger that again the people of the Third World are not important enough to matter; that preventative measures (such as early detection) could have been taken. The power and anger of the people has again been channeled into victimization.
Compassion has become morally and politically appropriate, as it should be. What is inexcusable is when those images of suffering are a direct consequence of policies waged by our governments and corporations for which we are culpable, we seem to exhibit compassion-deficient syndrome. A global compassion not only for human life, but for human dignity can never be attained when brown bodies swelter and slave in plantations, trying to live on two dollars a day, as thousands of farmers continue to commit suicide as their livelihoods are stolen, and women and children walk across the parched earth to confront batons and armed police guarding the gates of free market heaven.
Harsha Walia is a writer and organizer with the No One is Illegal Campaign and the South Asian Network for Secularism and Democracy. Her writing has appeared in several mainstream and progressive publications.
Z Magazine Archive
AnnouncementsLABOR - May 1 is May Day. Workers of the world will celebrate the 124th anniversary of International Worker’s Day. Born out of a call for an 8-hour workday in the United States, this day is an opportunity for all workers to show their solidarity with one another, as well as to renew the call for labor rights.
FARM CONFERENCE - The Farm Conference on Community and Sustainability will be held May 24-26 in Summertown, TN, in partnership with the Fellowship of Intentional Communities. Tour green homes, see sustainable food production, learn about solar installations, alternative education, midwifery, and more.
Contact: Douglas@thefarmcommunity.com; http://www.thefarmcommunity.com/.
PALESTINE - The Conference of the Palestinian Shatat in North American will be held June 3-5 in Vancouver. The conference will examine the future of the Palestinian liberation movement.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.palestinianconference.org/.
LABOR - The Pacific Northwest Labor History Association’s 45th annual conference will be held May 3-5, in Portland, OR. This year’s theme is Labor Under Attack: Learning from the Past and Preparing for the Future. A call for presentations, workshops and papers is currently underway.
Contact: PNLHA, 27920 68th Ave. East, Graham, WA 98338; 206-406-2604; PNLHA1@aol.com; http://www3.telus.net.
MARIJUANA - On the first Saturday of May marijuana legalization activists will hold informational and educational events, rallies and marches in over 300 cities around the world.
ECONOMICS - The Union For Radical Political Economics will hold its 39th annual conference May 9-11 in New York City.
RECLAIM THE DREAM - The 2013 Poor People’s Campaign & March from Baltimore to Washington D.C. will be May 11. Communities, schools and unions interested in participating are encouraged to contact the Baltimore People’s Assembly.
Contact: 410-500-2168; 410-218-4835; BaltimorePeoplesAssembly@gmail.com; Southern Christian Leadership Conference of Baltimore and the Baltimore Peoples Power Assembly, 2011 N. Charles St., Baltimore, MD 21218.
MOTHER’S DAY - The 17th Annual Mother’s Day Walk For Peace will be May 12th, in Dorchester, MA. The walk began in 1996 for families who had lost children to violence. The day has become a way for thousands of people to financially support the work of the Louis Brown Peace Institute.
Contact: http://www.ldbpeaceinstitute.org/; http://mothersdaywalk4peace.org/.
NATO 5 - An International Week of Solidarity with the NATO 5 has been called for May 16-21. Supports call on supporters to raise awareness of the NATO 5 and support funds for the defendants on the one-year anniversary of their preemptive arrests.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; https://nato5support.wordpress.com.
MOUNTAINTOP - The 2013 Mountain Justice Summer Activist Training Camp will be held May 19-27 in Damascus, VA. It will be a week of workshops, field trips to view Mountain Top Removal coal mines, direct actions, and service project.
FEMINIST SCI-FI - The feminist science fiction convention WisCon 37 is scheduled for May 24-27 in Madison, WI.
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ANARCHY FEST - A month-long Festival of Anarchy is scheduled for May in Montreal. The festival includes The Montreal Anarchist Bookfair (May 19-20).
Contact: http://www.anarchistbookfair.ca/; http://www.radicalmontreal.com/.
LABOR - The International Labor Rights Forum will present: Down the Supply Chain, Driving Corporate Accountability, on May 22 in Washington, DC. The Labor Rights Awards Ceremony and Reception will honor pioneers in supply chain worker organizing, working solidarity and international labor rights policy.
MULTICULTURE - The 26th annual National Conference on Race & Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE) will take place May 28-June 1, in New Orleans.
Contact: SWCHRS, 3200 Marshall Avenue, Suite 290, Norman, OK 73072; 405-325-3694; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.ncore.ou.edu.
MEDIA - The 2013 Alliance for Community Media Annual Conference will be held May 29-31, in San Francisco, CA. Participants will include educators, community leaders, media professionals, journalists, nonprofit leaders, policymakers and students.
RADIO - The 38th Annual Community Radio Conference is schedule for May 29-June 1, in San Francisco, CA, with discussions and workshops.
Contact: 1101 Pennsylvania Ave. NW, Suite 600, Washington, DC 20004; 202-756-2268; email@example.com; http://www.nfcb.org/.
BRADLEY MANNING - On June 1, a rally will be held at Fort Meade in support of Bradley Manning.
BIKES - Bikes Not Bombs is holding its 24th annual Bike-A-Thon and Green Roots Festival in Boston, MA on June 3, with several bike rides scheduled, music, exhibitors and more.
Contact: Bikes Not Bombs, 284 Amory St., Jamaica Plain, MA 02130; 617-522-0222; firstname.lastname@example.org; www.bikesnotbombs.org.
LEFT FORUM - The 2013 Left Forum will be held June 7-9, at Pace University in New York City.
Contact: 365 Fifth Avenue, CUNY Graduated Center, ? Sociology Dept., New York, NY 10016; http://www.leftforum.org/.
VEGAN FEST - Mad City Vegan Fest will be held in Madison, WI, June 8. The annual event features food, speakers, and exhibitors.
Contact: 122 State Street, Suite 405 B, Madison, WI 53701; email@example.com; http://veganfest.org/.
ADC CONFERENCE - The American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee (ADC) holds its annual conference June 13-16, in Washington, DC, with panel discussions and workshops on civil rights, media and other topics.
Contact: 1990 M Street, Suite 610, Washington, DC, 20036; 202-244-2990; firstname.lastname@example.org http://convention.adc.org/.
CUBA/SOCIALISM - A Cuban-North American Dialog on Socialist Renewal and Global Capitalist Crisis will be held in Havana, Cuba, June 16-30. There will be a 5 day Seminar at University of Havana, plus visits to a cooperative, urban garden, community development project, social research centers, and educational & medical institutions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.globaljusticecenter.org/.
NETROOTS - The 8th Annual Netroots Nation conference will take place June 20-23 in San Jose, CA. The event features panels, trainings, networking, screenings, and keynotes.
Contact: 164 Robles Way, #276, Vallejo, CA 94591; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.netrootsnation.org/.
MEDIA - The 15th annual Allied Media Conference will be held June 20-23, in Detroit.
Contact: 4126 Third Street, Detroit, MI 48201; http://alliedmedia.org/.
GRASSROOTS - The United We Stand Festival will be hosted by Free & Equal, June 22 in Little Rock, Arkansas. The festival aims to reform the electoral process throughout the U.S.
SOCIALISM - The Socialism 2013 Conference is scheduled for June 27-30 in Chicago, featuring talks and panel discussions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.socialismconference.org.
LITERACY - The National Association for Media Literacy Education (NAMLE) will hold its conference July 12-13 in Los Angeles under the heading, Intersections: Teaching and Learning Across Media.
Contact: 10 Laurel Hill Drive, Cherry Hill, NJ 08003; http://namle.net/conference/.
IWW - The North American Work People’s College will take place July 12-16 at Mesaba Co-op Park in northern Minnesota. The event will bring together Wobblies from branches across the continent to learn new skills and build One Big Union.
PEACESTOCK - On July 13th, the 11th Annual Peacestock: A Gathering for Peace, will take place at Windbeam Farm in Hager City, WI. The event is a mixture of music, speakers and community for peace. Sponsored by Veterans for Peace.
Contact: Bill Habedank, 1913 Grandview Ave., Red Wing, MN 55066; 651-388-7733; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.peacestockvfp.org.
CHILDREN’S DEFENSE - July 15-19, join clergy, seminarians, Christian educators, young adult leaders and other faith-based advocates for children at CDF Haley Farm in Clinton, Tennessee, for five days of spiritual renewal, networking, movement building workshops, and continuing education about the urgent needs of children at the 19th annual Proctor Institute for Child Advocacy Ministry.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.childrensdefense.org.
ACTIVIST CAMP - Youth Empowered Action (YEA) Camp will have sessions in July and August in Ben Lomond, CA; Portland, OR; Charlton, MA. YEA Camp is designed for activists 12-17 years old who want to make a difference in the world.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://yeacamp.org/.
LA RAZA - The annual National Council of La Raza (NCLR) Conference is scheduled for July 18-19 in New Orleans, with workshops, presentations and panel discussions.
Contact: NCLR Headquarters Office, Raul Yzaguirre Building, 1126 16th Street, NW, Washington, DC 20036; 202-785-1670; www.nclr.org.
LABOR - The Eastern Conference For Workplace Democracy: Growing Our Cooperatives, Growing Our Communities, will be held at Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, July 26-28.
Contact: email@example.com; http://east.usworker.coop/.
WOMEN/LYNNE STEWART- Radical Women is asking for support letters and cards to be sent to Lynne Stewart. Stewart is a civil rights attorney and political prisoner who is currently in jail. She has breast cancer and authorities have denied her request for transfer from her Texas prison to the New York City hospital where she received medical attention during a prior bout of breast cancer. Send messages and cards to: Lynne Stewart 53504-054, Federal Medical Center Carswell, P.O. Box 27137, Fort Worth, TX 76127.
Contact: 747 Polk Street, San Francisco, CA 94109; 415-864-1278; RadicalWomenUS@gmail.com; http://lynnestewart.org/; http://www.radicalwomen.org/.
HAITI/WOMEN - Haiti’s government is considering a legal reform measure that would prohibit and punish all sexual assault, including marital rape. MADRE and the International Campaign to Stop Rape & Gender Violence in Conflict are launching a petition to raise international support for this push to address violence against women in Haiti.
Contact: 121 West 27th Street, #301, New York, NY 10001; 212-627-0444; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.madre.org.
SYRIA/MIDDLE EAST - The Middle East Children’s Alliance (MECA) is currently seeking funds to assist more than 200,000 refugees fleeing violence in Syria.
FOLK FESTIVAL - The Falcon Ridge Folk Festival will be held August 2-4, in the Berkshires, NY.
Contact: http://www.falconridgefolk.com/; email@example.com.
WAR RESISTERS - The War Resisters League will hold its 90th anniversary conference, Revolutionary Nonviolence: Building Bridges Across Generations and Communities, August 1-4, at Georgetown University. The event will focus on the U.S.’ long history of antimilitarism.
Contact: 339 Lafayette Street, New York, NY 10012; 212-228-0450; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.warresisters.org.
POPULAR ECONOMICS - The Center for Popular Economics is holding its 2013 Summer Institute August 4-9 at Hampshire College in Amherst, MA. No background in economics is needed for this intensive training. This year’s theme is, The Care Economy: Building a Just Economy with a Heart.
Contact: Center for Popular Economics, PO Box 785 Amherst, MA 01004; 413-545-0743; email@example.com; www.populareconomics.org.
VETERANS - Veterans for Peace is holding the 28th annual convention August 6-11 in Madison, WI. This year’s theme is, Power To The Peaceful.
DEMOCRACY - The Democracy Convention will take place August 7-11 in Madison, WI. The convention brings together nine conferences including topics such as media, education, defense, race, environment and others.
MEN - The 38th National Conference on Men & Masculinity: Forging Justice: Creating Safe, Equal and Accountable Communities, presented in partnership with HAVEN, will be held in Detroit, MI, August 8-10.
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.nomas.org/.
OCCUPY - An Occupy National Gathering will be held in Kalamazoo, MI, August 21-25.
Contact: email@example.com; http://occupynationalgathering.net/.
COMMUNITIES - The Communities Conference is a networking and learning opportunity for co-operative or communal lifestyles, with workshops, events and entertainment; scheduled for August 30-September 2 at the Twin Oaks Community in Louisa, Virginia.
LABOR DAY - The 29th annual Bread and Roses Festival, a celebration of the ethnic diversity and labor history of Lawrence, MA, will be held September 2, in honor of the 1912 Bread and Roses Strike. There will be music, dance, poetry, drama, ethnic food, historical demonstrations, walking & trolley tours.
Contact: PO Box 1137, Lawrence, MA 01842; 978-794-1655; http://www.breadandrosesheritage.org/.
OCCUPY WALL STREET - September 17 is the two-year anniversary of the Occupy Wall Street movement. Events are planned in New York City and worldwide.
TEACHERS - The 13th Annual Conference, “Teaching for Social Justice: The Politics of Pedagogy,” will be held October 12 in San Francisco, CA. The free event features workshops, resources, and free childcare.
Contact: 415-676-7844; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.t4sj.org/.
HAITI - International Action, which brings clean water and chlorinators to Haiti, seeks office space capable of housing up to six people and their office equipment.
Contact: Zach Bremer, Zbrehmer@haitiwater.org; 202-488-0735; http://www.haitiwater.org/.
MEDIA - The Union for Democratic Communications and Project Censored are sponsoring a joint conference on media democracy, media activism and social justice to be held November 1-3 at the University of San Francisco. Proposals for presentations, workshops and panels from activists and critical scholars are invited.