Hey, can everybody take a minute to text more than $27 million in support of aid organizations working in Haiti?
The increasing ubiquity of mobile phones and online social networking translated into a full one-fifth of total donations to Haiti being pledged via text. By contrast, less than $500,000 was pledged via text following Hurricane Katrina.
But of course, we all know this already. The triumph of text donations has been trumpeted from the rooftops by the media. Our consumer spending habit has finally been proven useful for those less fortunate and vastly more impoverished than us.
So, can everybody take a minute to text another several million dollars to help the 470,000 displaced civilians in eastern Burma?
I didn’t think so.
How about to address genocide in northern Darfur, massacres in the Democratic Republic of Congo or the families of slain civilians in Afghanistan?
Texting silence, right?—not a thumb in motion.
Don’t get me wrong. The giving spirit and the economic power of US citizens is genuinely remarkable. The vast majority of us can give something in an emergency, if only a few dollars, and we should. That we are able to so rapidly deploy a commitment of wealth and resources is almost magical. But magical thinking is part of the problem.
By texting assistance, we know that we’ve done our bit. All we have to do is pay the phone bill when it arrives and we are a better person. We’ve been part of a massive movement and it feels good. It looks good. Our problem is that we’ve come to think of disasters as celebrities.
Disasters have identity—often even anthropomorphic names—and star power.
When the quake in Haiti hit, news traveled via text, Twitter and Facebook almost as fast as when Michael Jackson died.
Major news and entertainment hubs of digital media, like Huffington Post, dedicated days of top headline space to information and links on how to help in Haiti: what numbers to text, which organizations are helping, how to find them, etc.
Even Santa Fe got in on the action with its own local-celebrity benefit.
Social networking sites and instant messaging tools allowed status messages to become peer pressure pleas to join, to challenge, to raise money. It was awesome, pervasive and effective.
The disasters in which we put our social networks to actual work have now become iconic personalities in which we are invested. But when we measure the amount of pressing need in the world, only a few things merit our frantic attention, the leveraging of our social status and, by extension, our acknowledgment of their importance. Haiti is Brangelina. Burma isn’t even Eric Stoltz. We want to know what kind of relationship a disaster is having with Sean Penn, Sandra Bullock and Ashley Judd.
Our electronic heroism and catastrophe cultism hides the reality that a middleman, such as the Mobile Giving Foundation, is taking a cut (there are legitimate costs associated with making such donations happen smoothly), as well as under-reported infrastructure issues, such as most phone companies waiting for customers to pay their bills before forwarding pledged money (many mobile phone companies have now agreed to advance at least a portion of donations).
Our celebrity treatment of disasters, like our celebrity treatment of actors, musicians and certain Massachusetts Republicans, ensures that we will continue to breed more of them. The extent of damage in Haiti, as in New Orleans, was abetted by decades of ignoring existing problems and choosing to allow the use of tax dollars and resources to be dictated by special interests and political machination.
When SFR Editor Julia Goldberg interviewed Noam Chomsky, she asked him about the US government using aid for the celeb disaster of the moment, the tsunami, as a public relations tool. His answer:
“The PR aspect of it is overwhelming, which is disgraceful, and the actual amount given is far below what it should be, but in a way we’re kind of missing the point. The tsunami disaster was horrible, the latest figures are 150,000 killed…in eastern Congo that many people are killed every five months. Are we doing anything about that? There are about 1,000 people being killed a day there, or if you take a look at easily preventable deaths in southern Africa alone, just among children, the number dying from easily preventable deaths is probably on the order of 1,000 a day or something. It’s Rwanda-level killing every day, and that can be prevented by providing medicine or infrastructure.”
It’s easy to accept our government’s culpability in making a show of support during a disaster even while it skips out on doing the daily, hard work of improving lives and mitigating risk, but it’s much more difficult to accept our own.
Whenever headlines are grabbed by celebrity—whether human celebrity or act of God celebrity—we lose our collective ability to focus on issues like health care, like the US Supreme Court giving corporations unlimited financial influence over politicians and elections, like the sway of irresponsible and inhumane factory farms over federal regulators or existing utilities dictating the development of alternative energy.
Giving with the push of a button is amazing. But it doesn’t do much for paying attention.
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