“The psychology of all the aid that’s pouring in to Haiti is very interesting,” my wife remarked this morning in the kitchen as she was getting the boys’ breakfast. She is Rwandan and knows about horror and is getting a masters in clinical social work at McGill, so she is interested in the psychological aspects of human behavior. Yes, it sure is, I said, thinking about it for the first time. All these celebs and megabucksters rallying to the cause, it’s commendable that people with visibility and followings and money to burn are using their profiles and money to help the Haitians who are left, and undoubtedly many of them are genuinely horrified and their hearts are going out to the victims of this catclysmic act of nature, but to what extent are they assuaging the guilt and emptiness of their lives ? The emptiness of the modern culture that America created, with the best of intentions corrupted by the profit motive. Make life as easy as possible, measure success only in commercial terms, happiness in material terms. The guilt of complaining about one’s problems, financial, marital, professional, stressful and painful as they are, when here are these people who had nothing even before this happened but a history of oppression, deprivation, and natural disasters, one after the other, who have now been slammed by one of inconceivable destructiveness. How can we fortunate ones in the rich, stable countries who take clean water, three meals a day, and security for granted, not respond, and the response is like a collective yearning to do something meaningful and help people other than ourselves and our own. It reminds me of the euphoria and hope, our better angels getting their fifteen minutes, that Obama’s ascension to the presidency induced. Since then America has reverted to type. Change is too hard, too much sacrifice, too many vested interests in the status quo, hope has given way to trashing the man who brought it. The entrenched racism of our society has resurfaced, and Obama, it looks like, the most capable president since FDR,will go the way of Jimmy Carter
Earlier in the decade I sat in a friend’s new sauna in the Adirondacks. He had sold his company in Rhode Island for a couple of mill and was still its c.e.o., pulling in a couple of hundred thou a year, so he was set for life at the age of 50. Suddenly, maybe it was the alcohol he had been drinking, he became nasty and started railing about affirmative action. “I don’t see why my hard-earned dollars have to finance lazy blacks in the ghetto so they can sit around and do nothing,” he remarked. You won’t believe the things the summer people come out with in their camps. You should hear what they say about the Jews. That was the end of our friendship, and this is the attitude that has resurfaced. Guys in big pickups with gunracks and Obama stickers with a target in the O. Tiger Woods confirming all the stereotypes about oversexed predatory black men, betraying our worship of his desire to win, was mannah from heaven, more fuel for the backlash.
We know deep down inside that this ignorant kneejerk bigotry is wrong, we would really like to get over it, yet this hasn’t stopped us from reverting to type like relapsing alcoholics who managed to stay off the bottle for a couple of months. And then, as if to rub our shabbiness and scurviness into our faces, this horror, tens of thousands of innocent people who have known nothing but misery being annihilated in a few minutes, and they are blacks. Who we brought from Africa centuries ago and enslaved so we could have sugar for our tea, who have been exploited and brutalized ever since, more recently by their own shamelessly corrupt leaders and thugs. Who are for the most part, like most Africans, lovely people, people of indomitable good cheer. How can someone living on a less than a dollar a day be so much more happy and relaxed than the people who have millions and want for nothing ? I have always been struck by this. What does this tell you about Western materialism ? We don’t need money, a young waitress in Prague told me when I apologized for not have enough money to give her a tip. The Haitian people are very strong and creative and have great character. They will recover from this. They know how to live on nothing. We all may soon have to take a page from their book.
Yesterday I told a Haitian friend who has family somewhere in the rubble how sorry I was, and he smiled nervously, almost embarrassedly. Such niceness, such willingness to live in conditions we couldn’t stand for half an hour, such serene acceptance, their plight now is a deep stab of the guilt knife. So we are opening up our pocket books even in this recession time when money is tight. But not everybody is doing it to feel good about themselves. There are the people who really care, let us not forget them, the good-hearted ones among us who don’t put themselves first. More of them than one might imagine. They are rising to the occasion. After the l994 Rwandan genocide we had a fundraiser in Lake Placid (we were living at that point in the Adirondacks) to get plane fare for three teenagers who needed to get out of their beautiful, bodystrewn land if they were ever going to have the chance to have a decent life. I posted a flyer in our convenience store, and some guy from Albany, I imagine him reading it and he sitting at the table eating a sub, was so moved he sent a check for a thousand bucks, and he didn’t want any recognition, he asked to remain anonymous. Those people exist, people who are willing to put their own lives at risk to save others, too, they are fewer, but they too exist. Canada being a more altruistic society, has more of them. We’re more here for each other in my adopted land. [continued in Part 2 below]