Thursday, June 26, 2014

Man-Made Disasters

For a whole week last November, everyone in the world was suddenly made aware of the place in the world where I live - the Eastern Visayas region of the Philippines, the location in which the most powerful tropical cyclone (typhoon) in recorded history made landfall. By the time all of the media attention turned away to other "newsworthy" matters, the city of Tacloban, near the beach where General MacArthur made his promised return in 1944, was facing a death toll of more than six thousand and the stench of unburied dead bodies hung in the air.

Having lived long enough in this calamity-ridden country, I am more than ever convinced that, in many ways, the impact of the super typhoon was a man-made disaster. Two years before the disaster in Tacloban, I published a piece I called "Calamity Prone," in which I examined the effects of a recent flood in Mindinao, a Philippine island in the south of the country. I pointed out something that is painfully obvious to the people of this country - that calamities of one kind or another (typhoons, earthquakes, landslides, floods, even volcanic eruptions) are practically endemic, and not always because of the geographic disadvantages of living here - of being stuck smack on the Pacific "Ring of Fire," where two tectonic plates collide, and in what is known as "typhoon alley," a zone through which tropical cyclones typically travel on their way to mainland Asia.

As I wrote in January 2012: 

". . . these disasters are practically self-inflicted, since infrastructure development in the poorer provinces of the Philippines is notoriously neglected. Where there is highway or bridge construction, corruption ensures that the money initially provided for the construction gets siphoned off: contractors pass the job on to sub-contractors, and the resulting roads and bridges are washed away every few years. Nothing gets fixed here until it breaks."

Once it became obvious that Typhoon Haiyan (known locally as Yolanda) was going to be a major storm and was going to strike the east coast of the Visayan region, the government should've taken steps to evacuate people, at least from low-lying areas near the shore. But there simply isn't a system like FEMA (Federal Emergency Management Agency) to which the Philippine government can resort in times of national emergency, since there is no money allocated for any such thing and no political will whatsoever to create one. 

Even if there had been a plan last November to evacuate thousands of people, expecting all of the agencies and personnel needed to carry it out to show up and perform their duties is sheer fantasy. When mobs descended on a shopping mall in Tacloban after the worst of the typhoon was past, the police who were stationed there to protect the property had already abandoned their posts and gone to help their own families. The mall was picked clean as a bone in a city where the haves and the have-nots exist side by side - but with a high wall between them.

One more reason why so many people died in Tacloban is because there is no building code in the Philippines. When one considers that 25% of the country's population is desperately poor, there simply can't be any such thing. All over the country, there are communities in which houses are constructed with whatever is at hand - bamboo, grass, and plywood are often used as building materials. You don't have to be familiar with the nursery rhyme of "The Three Little Pigs" to know how a house made of straw or sticks will fare when a typhoon huffs and puffs its way through these islands.

I often want to tell some of my American Libertarian friends that their utopian vision of a country devoid of government interference in people's lives has been realized in the Philippines. But some people who believe that such things as building codes infringe on their liberty don't seem to realize that, if such codes existed - and were enforced - in the Philippines, there would be far fewer deaths the next time it rains, or the wind blows, or the ground shakes. 

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Solstices Now and Then

What better time than at the Summer Solstice to be reminded of the last solstice, the darkest day of the year? Stuck on my provincial Philippine island last Christmas, in the wake of Super Typhoon Haiyan (known as Yolanda hereabouts), without power for six weeks, I had to charge the batteries for my cellphone and tablet with a neighbor's generator (for the slight fee of twenty pesos (45 cents). In the darkest dark I've ever known, I would listen, because Christmas was looming, to the beautiful carols of John Rutter. Because I never stopped writing throughout the ordeal, but never had a chance to publish the piece I called "Anatomy of a Christmas Carol," I publish it now, belatedly.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Glass Houses

Lately, every few months or so, a TV news- or sports-caster, radio talk show host, actor, or even a stand-up comic is caught on air or on tape in a racist rant. The incidents get broad coverage, the person who made the remarks is pilloried, sponsors withdraw, and they are relieved of their jobs. One of the first such incidents involved Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, Las Vegas bookmaker and expert commentator for CBS Sports. In 1988, in a restaurant in Washington, D.C., Snyder was filmed making comments about black American athletes:

"The black is a better athlete to begin with because he's been bred to be that way, because of his high thighs and big thighs that goes up into his back, and they can jump higher and run faster because of their bigger thighs and he's bred to be the better athlete because this goes back all the way to the Civil War when during the slave trade … the slave owner would breed his big black to his big woman so that he could have a big black kid . . ."

Incredibly, the first thing people say when caught in the act of a racist or sexist rant in their defense is "I am not a racist," or "I am not a homophobe," or "I am not an anti-Semite." When asked for a response to his racist remarks being aired, Snyder said, "What a silly thing to say." CBS Sports quickly fired him. 

There seems to me to be a powerful streak of hypocrisy in these purges. Anyone who is neither a saint nor a fool, and who is in touch with an inner life, harbors within him some prejudice or other toward the opposite sex, different races, religions or ideologies. In some people these hatreds lie just beneath the surface. In others they lie deeply buried. Most people have enough sense to suppress them. But, as in all cases of such psychic denial, suppressing prejudices can lead to neuroses that can make matters worse.

George Orwell, who died in 1950, was himself susceptible to homophobic and misogynistic views. In a reply to the questionnaire, "Authors Take Sides on the Spanish War" in 1937, Orwell's unpublished reply included the line, "I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden and Spender." And in an essay on George Gissing, Orwell wrote that "Doubtless Gissing is right in implying all through his books that intelligent women are very rare animals."

There are certainly plenty of people prepared to dismiss Orwell entirely because of some of his slips of the pen. But Orwell would've insisted that he wasn't at all immune from such thoughts. In fact, he knew he had them, and challenged other intellectuals of his age on the subject. In a review of Sartre's book Portrait of the Anti-Semite, Orwell wrote:

"Race-prejudice of any kind is a neurosis, and it is doubtful whether argument can neither increase or diminish it."

But Orwell doesn't stop there. In his 1945 essay, "Anti-Semitism in Britain," he wrote:

"What vitiates nearly all that is written about anti-Semitism is the assumption in the writer's mind that he himself is immune to it. . . . The trouble is that so long as anti-Semitism is regarded simply as a disgraceful aberration, almost a crime, anyone literate enough to have heard the word will naturally claim to be immune from it. . . . I defy any modern intellectual to look closely and honestly into his own mind without coming upon nationalistic loyalties and hatreds of one kind or another. It is the fact that he can feel the emotional tug of such things, and yet see them dispassionately for what they are, that gives him his status as an intellectual. [italics mine]

There are certainly plenty of people who are prepared to dismiss Orwell entirely because of his occasional slips of the pen. But there seem to be fewer and fewer people who are prepared to look into themselves the way Orwell advised them, and admit that they, too, are guilty of racist or sexist thoughts.

We are right to be outraged when ideas like those of Jimmy "The Greek" are exposed, but we are wrong to pretend that they are so uncommon. There have been countless occasions in my life when, alone with other white men, one or another of them will feel free to say something so scabrously racist or sexist that it is difficult not to laugh at its utter absurdity.

I once incurred the ire of an officer in the Navy when he told an "off-color" joke to a few of us (white) sailors. I asked my supervisor to please let the officer know that I didn't appreciate his joke. I only "outed" the officer because I thought he was an asshole and not because I thought he was racist. This same officer then made it his special project to make my remaining months in the Navy as difficult as possible. Witnessing an officer using his authority to enforce his personal prejudice - or simply the system that gives authority to such an asshole - was just one of reasons why I hated the military and couldn't wait to get out.

I hope it comes as no surprise to those who know me that I freely admit to occasionally having racist and sexist thoughts. But I also have sense enough to know that the prejudices I sometimes feel are irrational and unacceptable. I may not be able to make them go away, ever. But through constant vigilance and circumspection, I can silence them. However much we strive to be right, we are wrong to deny that we can sometimes be very unwise.

There seem to be more and more Pharisees who, on finding a woman in adultery ("in the very act," as John puts it) can think only of stoning her. When Jesus told them "He that is without sin among you, let him first cast a stone at her," they got up and left, "even unto the last," leaving Jesus alone with the woman. He asked her "Woman, where are those thine accusers? hath no man condemned thee?" "She said, No man, Lord. And Jesus said unto her, Neither do I condemn thee."

How should we behave, then, who live in glass houses?

Thursday, June 12, 2014

Provide, Provide

Some have relied on what they knew,
Others on being simply true.
What worked for them might work for you.

(Robert Frost, "Provide, Provide")

One of the earliest disappointments of my life was learning that I would never be as good a man as my father. I realized that, compared to him, I was more equivocating, more flexible, more subtle. These might sound like advantages in life. Life has taught me that they are not.

My father was as sound as a rock. He was predictable in the way that a child absolutely needs. He was straightforward and convincing. You believed what he told you, even if you knew he was wrong. He had failings, and a few imposing shortcomings. But because he didn't see all the gradations of gray in the world around him, he saw more clearly the differences between extremes. For example, one day he was waiting for my mother to finish shopping at a military commissary. One of my mother's latest strokes had left her weak on her right side, so she walked with a cane. Sitting at the front of the commissary next to another veteran, my father pointed my mother out to him and said, "that cripple woman over there is my wife." He was devoted body and soul to my mother. He couldn't see what we now see in the word "cripple." To him, it was an exact description of my mother's condition.

This lack of subtlety made him an invaluable resource for a child wanting to know how the world worked, and how to make his way through it. But I never saw him open a book and read from it. But he could remember, verbatim, some poems he had learned in grade school, like Longfellow's "The Village Blacksmith." One poem, "Somebody's Mother" by Mary Dow Brine, would always make his eyes grow misty and make his voice break when he recited it:

The woman was old and ragged and gray
And bent with the chill of the Winter's day.

The street was wet with a recent snow
And the woman's feet were aged and slow. . . .

His love for his mother, who died of cancer, was a powerful force in his life. It's what made him hate his father, who abused her. It's what made his buzzword, the one slur that made him punch someone in the face who called him it against him, was "son of a bitch" - because it was a slur not against him but against his mother.

On her deathbed, his mother made him promise to always look after my mother, which he did until his own death in 1988. As a father, he was primarily a provider, a bread winner, bringing home the bacon, which he did unfailingly. Though he was a career soldier at a time when soldiers' pay was dog shit, my siblings and I never wanted for anything. In fact, he made it possible for the youngest three of us to get a private school education.

Only once did he make me aware of hidden depths in him. Getting into the car one day, I asked him how he was feeling. "I feel lower than whale shit," he muttered morosely. I was astonished at his words because, never using language like that with me, I knew how very low he must actually have been feeling.

The proudest moment of my life was standing beside his Veteran's Hospital bed in my Navy uniform and seeing the pride in his eyes. He believed that I'd finally made it. Through all the tenuous accomplishments of my life, if someone had asked me, "do you wish he were here to see you on this day?" I'd have said, I wish he were here period, to see me win or lose. In a comment made to one of my older posts, some anonymous reader wrote, "I think your father would be ashamed of you." I replied, "Then bring him back, so he can be ashamed of me."

(1) The rest of the poem can be found here.