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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
HUMAN RIGHTS - The U.S. Human Rights Network will celebrate its 10th anniversary with the Advancing Human Rights 2013 Conference, December 6-8, in Atlanta, GA.
Contact: 250 Georgia Avenue SE, Suite 330, Atlanta, GA 30312; firstname.lastname@example.org; http:// www.ushrnetwork.org/.
AFRICAN/SOCIALIST - The Sixth Congress of the African People’s Socialist Party USA will be held December 7-11, in St. Petersburg, FL.
Contact: 1245 18th Avenue South, St. Petersburg, FL 33705; 727- 821-6620; info@aps puhuru.org; http://asiuhuru.org/.
SCHOOLS - The Dignity in Schools Campaign (DSC) will host a workshop on the DSC “Model Code on Education and Dignity: Presenting A Human Rights Framework for Schools” at the Mid-Hudson Region NY State Leadership Summit on School Justice Partnerships, December 11 in White Plains, NY.
Contact: http://www.dignityin schools.org/.
ANARCHIST/BOOKFAIR - The Humboldt Anarchist Book Fair will be held December 14, in Eureka, CA.
Contact: humboldtgrassroots @riseup.net; http://humbold tanarchist bookfair.wordpress. com/.
CLIMATE - The World Symposium on Sustainable Development at Universities is hosting a follow-up event to the 2012 Rio de Janeiro symposium. The gathering will be held in Qatar on January 28-30, 2014.
Contact: http://environment.tufts. edu/.
LABOR - The United Association for Labor Education (UALE) will host Organizing for Power: A New Labor Movement for the New Working Class in Los Angeles, March 26-29. Proposals are due December 15.
Contact: LAWCHA, 226 Carr Building (East Campus), Box 90719, Duke University, Durham, NC 27708-0719;lawcha @duke. edu; http://lawcha.org/.
MEDIA FELLOWSHIP - The Media Mobilizing Project is seeking applicants for the first annual Movement Media Fellowship Program. The Fellow will work with MMP to produce the spring season of Media Mobilizing Project TV. MMPTV is a news and talk show that tells the stories of local communities organizing to win human rights and build a movement to end poverty.
Contact: 4233 Chestnut St., Philadelphia, PA 19104; 215-821- 9632; milena@media mobilizing.org; http://www.media mobilizing.org/.
RACE - The 7th Facing Race: A National Conference will be held in Dallas, TX November 13-15, 2014. Organizers, educators, artists, funders and everyone interested in racial equity is invited to exchange best practices and learn about innovative models and successful organizing initiatives. Proposals must be submitted by January 24, 2014.
Contact: Race Forward, 32 Broadway, Suite 1801, New York, NY 10004; 212-513-7925; media @raceforward.org; http://race forward.org/.
VETERANS - They Were Soldiers: How the Wounded Return from America’s Wars - The Untold Story, by Ann Jones, is about the journey of veterans from the moment of being wounded in rural Afghanistan to their return home.
Contact: Haymarket Books, PO Box 180165, Chicago, IL 60618; 773-583-7884; http://www.haymarketbooks.org/.
LIBYA - Destroying Libya and World Order: The Three-Decade U.S. Campaign to Terminate the Qaddafi Revolution, by Francis A. Boyle, is a history and critique of American foreign policy from Reagan to Obama.
Contact: Clarity Press, Inc., Ste. 469, 3277 Roswell Rd. NE, Atlanta, GE 30305; 404-647-6501; email@example.com; http://www. claritypress.com/.
CHILDREN - Fannie and Freddie by Becky Z. Dernbach is about two bumbling villains who gamble away the savings of the people of Homeville.
Contact: fannieandfreddiebook @gmail.com; http://fannieand freddie.org/.
PROTEST/COMIC - Fight the Power!: A Visual History of Protest Among English Speaking Peoples, by Sean Michael Wilson and Benjamin Dickson is a graphic narrative that explains how people have fought against oppression.
Contact: Seven Stories Press, 140 Watts Street, New York, NY 10013; 212-226-8760; info@ sevenstories.com; http://www. sevenstories.com.
CHILDREN - Brave Girl by Michelle Markel and illustrated by Melissa Sweet is the true story of Clara Lemlich, a young Ukrainian immigrant who led the largest strike of women workers in U.S. history.
Contact: http://www.harpercollins childrens.com/Kids/.
FESTIVAL - The 2014 Queer Women of Color Film Festival will be held June 13-15 in San Francisco. The festival is currently accepting submissions until December 31.
Contact: QWOCMAP, 59 Cook Street, San Francisco, CA 94118-3310; 415-752-0868; firstname.lastname@example.org; http://www.qwocmap.org/.
IRAQ/REFUGEES - Ten years after the U.S.-led war in Iraq, thousands of displaced Iraqi refugees are still facing a crisis in the United States. The Lost Dream follows Nazar and Salam who had to flee Iraq in order to avoid threats by Al- Qaeda-affiliated groups and Iraqi insurgents that consider them “traitors” for supporting U.S. forces in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Contact: Typecast Films, 888- 591-3456; info@type castfilms. com; http://type castfilms.com/.
HUMAN RIGHTS - Lyrical Revolt! III will be held December 4 in Syracuse, NY. The event will feature hip-hop musician Anhel whose album Young, Gifted, and Brown was just released. The event is sponsored by ANSWER Syracuse, Liberation News, and SyracuseHip Hop.com. Performers and artists are encouraged to send submissions.
Contact: email@example.com; http://www.answercoalition.org/syracuse/.
FOLK - Musician Painless Parker has released his album Music for miscreants, malcontents and misanthropes featuring “Fuck Yeah, the Working Class.”
Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org; http://painlessparkermusic.com/.
COMEDY - Political comedian Lee Camp’s new album Pepper Spray the Tears Away has been released.