Friday, January 21, 2005

Wednesday, January 19, 2005

143. Quality-of-life Index

This study first came to my attention through an article on the BBC website last November. I was mildly surprised but not particularly gobsmacked to find Ireland so high on the table. Yesterday I tracked down the original article in the Economist containing a rationale for the scoring system; some of the highlights are included in the summary below:

The Economist Intelligence Unit has developed a new
“quality of life” index based on a unique methodology
that links the results of subjective life-satisfaction
surveys to the objective determinants of quality of life
across countries. The index has been calculated for 111
countries for 2005.

Quality-of-life indices
It has long been accepted that material wellbeing, as
measured by gdp per person, cannot alone explain the
broader quality of life in a country。The values of the
life-satisfaction scores that are predicted by our nine
indicators represent a country’s quality-of-life index,
or the “corrected” life-satisfaction scores, based on
objective cross-country determinants.

Some countries are rich... Posted by Hello

Determinants of quality of life
The nine quality-of-life factors, and the indicators used
to represent these factors, are

1. Material wellbeing
gdp per person, at ppp - purchasing-power parity - in $.
Source: Economist Intelligence Unit
2. Health
Life expectancy at birth, years. Source: us Census Bureau
3. Political stability and security
Political stability and security ratings. Source: Economist
Intelligence Unit
4. Family life
Divorce rate (per 1,000 population), converted into index
of 1 (lowest divorce rates) to 5 (highest). Sources: un; Euromonitor
5. Community life
Dummy variable taking value 1 if country has either high
rate of church attendance or trade-union membership; zero
otherwise. Sources: ilo; World Values Survey
6. Climate and geography
Latitude, to distinguish between warmer and colder climes.
Source: cia World Factbook
7. Job security
Unemployment rate, %. Sources: Economist Intelligence
Unit; ilo.
8. Political freedom
Average of indices of political and civil liberties. Scale of 1
(completely free) to 7 (unfree). Source: Freedom House
9. Gender equality
Ratio of average male and female earnings, latest available
data. Source: undp Human Development Report

A number of other variables were also investigated but,
in line with findings in the literature, had no impact in
this multivariate framework. These were: education levels,
the rate of real gdp growth and income inequality
(Gini coefficient). Studies have often found at most a
small correlation between education and life satisfaction,
over and above any impact that education has on
incomes and health, and possibly other variables such
as the extent of political freedom. A recent report by the
ilo found that an indicator of schooling and training
was actually inversely related to wellbeing when jobs are
poorly attuned to people’s needs and aspirations.

...others are not… Posted by Hello

Regression statistics
Over several decades there has been only
a very modest upward trend in average life-satisfaction
scores in developed nations, whereas average income has
grown substantially.

The explanation is that there are factors associated
with modernisation that, in part, offset its positive impact.
A concomitant breakdown of traditional institutions
is manifested in the decline of religiosity and of
trade unions; a marked rise in various social pathologies
(crime, and drug and alcohol addiction); a decline in
political participation and of trust in public authority;
and the erosion of the institutions of family and marriage.
In personal terms, this has also been manifested
in increased general uncertainty and an obsession with
personal risk. These phenomena have accompanied
rising incomes and expanded individual choice (both
of which are highly valued). However, stable family life
and community are also highly valued and these have
undergone a severe erosion.

Accounting for difference
When one understands the interplay of modernity
and tradition in determining life satisfaction, it is then
easy to see why Ireland ranks a convincing first in the
international quality-of-life league table. It successfully
combines the most desirable elements of the new—material
wellbeing, low unemployment rates, political
liberties—with the preservation of certain life satisfaction-
enhancing, or modernity-cushioning, elements of
the old, such as stable family life and the avoidance of
the breakdown of community. Its score on all of these
factors are above the eu-15 average, (7.504), easily offsetting
its slightly lower scores on health, climate and gender

...and some have come a long way Posted by Hello

The United Kingdom, by contrast, ranks 29th in
the world—well below its rank on income per person
and bottom among the eu-15 countries (6.917). Social and
family breakdown is high, offsetting the impact of high
incomes and low unemployment. Its performance on
health, civil liberties, and political stability and security
is also below the eu-15 average. The United States (7.615) ranks
lower on quality of life than on income but it is above
the eu-15 average. Italy (7.810) performs well, but Germany (7.048)
and France (7.084) do not—belying the notion that the big eurozone
nations compensate for their productivity lag with
a better quality of life than in America.

Click here to read the full text of the article, plus the chart listing all 111 countries in the survey.

Sunday, January 16, 2005

142. Words

"The road was a ribbon of moonlight
across the purple moor " --
one of the cherished poems of childhood
(galloping hooves on a moonlit comparison)
brings language to the fore.

Even the harsh kraken clatter
of endless daily talk
finds grace in comparisons, analogies,
(the ancient roots of everyday speech):
we can run, yet cannot walk.

Transport systems of the mind
rely on habit, things gone before;
so in Athens the public transport
(which carries us from place to place)
is called the Metaphor.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

141. TSUNAMI: First-Hand Account

(This e-mail from an American diving instructor working in Thailand was posted on PEACE, EARTH and JUSTICE (PEJ) News. See foot of article for subscription link.)

Sitting around, day after Christmas, just staring at the TV, some movie we've seen before. Mid-morning, post-breakfast stupor controlling Karin and me. The power flickers and we moan. We'll have to get up and do something? Then we hear some yelling outside.

I look out the front door, still puffed up with pride about our new house, just 400 feet back from the beach. People are running up our street yelling. It looks like a fire at the large two story resort that effectively blocks our view of the beach. Smoke and dust coming up and all these people.

Then a small line of really brown water comes rolling towards us. That's weird. But I reckon it must be some strange full moon high tide. So we go upstairs so we don't get wet. I look out the window and try and take some pictures. There is a quiet rumble to it, like those white noise generators that are supposed to help you sleep. The water is getting higher and higher and then it destroys our friends cement bungalow! Then our front door caves in, and then water is coming up the stairs! HOLY SHIT. This was the last point my brain worked for a long time.

We try and throw a mattress out the window to float on, but the water is rising too fast, and out the window we climb. It's all going so fast. It's faster than conscious thought and by the time we are on our second story roof, the water is coming out the window. We jump.

Karin doesn't jump at the same time or did I jump too early? We're separated. I scream her name, but the crashing roiling water mutes me. I can't hear her. I scream and scream until I get hit by something and pulled under. I can't swim to the top, I pull myself through trash and wood to the surface and off I go.

Ahead are trees wrapped in flotsam and as I look a Thai guy is struggling to get free of it, as I pass by at 30 MPH I realize he is impaled on a piece of wood and can't even scream.

My brain shut down when Karin disappeared, and now all I can do is survive. Something triggers and I swim. I swim to avoid the trees which will trap me, possibly kill me. It seems that I am atop the crest of the tsunami, which is less like a wave than a flood.

From on high I can see the water hit buildings, then rise, then watch the buildings collapse into piles of concrete and rebar. I swim to avoid these. Left and right I paddle, looking ahead the whole time trying to figure the hazards. None of this is conscious, this isn't me thinking it out, it's some recessed part of the brain coming out and taking control.

I was busy seeing the weird things, like massive diesel trucks being rolled end over end. Or the car launched through the 2nd storey wall of a former luggage shop. Or the person high up in a standing tree in a lurid orange thong. Or the older foreigner that got stuck in the wood and steel wrapped around a tree, and then his body torn off while his head remained. I couldn't scream.

I was pulled under, my pants caught on something, I decided that this was neither the place nor time for me to die, and ripped my pants off. I surfaced into a hunk of wood which cut my forehead. A 5 gallon water bottle sped by, and I wrapped myself around it like a horny German Shepard on a Chihuahua. I was passing people with bleeding faces and caked in refuse. Some people reached out to me, and I back, but the water was too fast and erratic. Some people screamed for help and I told them to swim. Some people just stared with empty eyes, watching what happened, but seeing nothing. Some were just floating bodies.

At some point, I passed a guy, cut on his cheek, holding onto big piece of foam. We just made eye contact and shrugged apathetically at each other. Then I turned ahead to watch fate. When I looked back he was gone.

Trees were pulled down, and their flotsam added to the flow. I was hit by a refrigerator and pushed towards a building that was collapsing. I swam and swam and swam and swam and still was pushed right towards a huge clump of jagged sticks and metal. I was pulled under, kicked towards the mass, cut my feet and kicked again. I popped up on the other side, spun around and pulled under again.

Down there, I knew it was not the time, and I pulled my way up through the floating rubbish of my former town. I pulled and pulled and my lungs ached for air. I flashed on Star Wars, the trash compactor scene, and had some big grin in the back of head as I popped up. Sucking shitty water and air deep in my lungs.

This went on for seeming weeks. Time simply left the area alone. I grabbed the edge of a mattress and floated. Breathing, just breathing. Awareness brought back by the sound and look of a water fall. Trying to push up onto the mattress more and more, and it took my weight less and less. Tumbling over the edge, sucked under again, and out I shot, swirled into a coconut grove, where the water seemed to have stopped. There was even a dyke like wall around the grove.

The water spun and churned, but went no where, and got no higher. It wasn't swimming, or climbing, but something in between. I made my way to the land. Every step had to be careful with broken glass everywhere, and sheet metal poking out. It was a long slow struggle.

The low rumble had stopped, and now is the occasional creak of wood on wood and metal scraping. Moans came across the new brown lake. A small boy was in a tree crying, asking for his parents in Norwegian.

I climbed up onto the dyke and looked around. I screamed out for Karin, only getting responses in Thai. I stood there, panting, trying to find a thought, anything. As I came back to earth I needed to pee. The first thing I did after surviving the tsunami was piss! Along limps an older Thai guy, finds me, naked atop a dyke amid the destruction, covered in mud and filth, pissing. He didn't even smile, nor did I.

I spent the next minutes running from high point to high point screaming out for Karin. If I made it, she could too. There was no response from her. I found plenty of other people, and helped who I could, but always looking across this vast area of new lakes for her head.

Through the trees was a PT boat, a large steel police cruiser. The boat and I had been brought more than a kilometer (2/3 mile) inland.

I was standing near a tree, hoping for a clue, anything to say she was out there somewhere. A small boy in a tree whimpered, and I pulled him down. We went inland. There were houses, still standing, a whole neighborhood atop a rise that was untouched. Just feet away were cars wrapped around trees. I handed them the boy.

I had finished my medic training exactly one month before, so I went to work. Pulling people out of mud, from under houses. One car, upright against the trunk of a tree still had the driver. He was dead. It went on. Before this I had only seen a dead body once or twice. That was remedied very quickly. I pulled people out of the water, only to have them choke and die right there. I would take someone's pulse, scream for help, then find that they had died before we could do anything. It was beyond any nightmare or fear I have ever had.

An older Thai woman came up to me with a pair of shorts and averted eyes. She was ashamed that I was totally naked. I smirked and slipped them on. She smiled and scurried away. Was it the bright white ass or the fear shriveled ***** that had embarrassed her?

Roaming the former streets looking for foreigners to send to the higher ground, a place where we could all meet and tend to wounds. After an hour the Thais came screaming out of the mud saying there was another wave coming, and flying into the hills. We were left alone. Those that could walk did, the rest were carried. We made a new base, higher and safer. And the same thing happened again. And again.

Eventually we ended up in the jungle at a park, where there was water and high ground. It was messy. Eventually there were about 300 foreigners, about 120 of whom were injured pretty severely with broken limbs and ribs, near-drownings, everyone had gashes of some kind, severed fingers or toes and shock everywhere.

There was no medicine, no tools, no scissors, no bandages. Nothing but well water (of questionable cleanliness) and some sticks and clothes. I tried to find anyone medically trained. It was only the diving instructors who all had basic first aid. So we cleaned with the water, we broke sticks and set bones and talked people into a relatively calm place. If someone was severely cut, we used their own clothing to mend the wounds. It was a horror story. The floor was covered in blood, people were moaning, or vomiting or asking us to help them. And more arrived with every new wave of cars and trucks fleeing the "next wave".

After hours of this, we got news of helicopters evacuating the injured. So everyone rushed towards the trucks. I had to scream and push and pull people out of the way. The ones who needed the evac the most were the ones who couldn't get to the trucks. After twenty minutes of sorting through the priorities, and feeling like we had a handle on it, someone brought me to a girl who was bleeding severely out of her thigh and was in shock. No one had brought her to our little clinic area, they had left her in the back of the truck.

Finally, after a few helicopters had pulled out the worst, I headed back down. Through rubber tree plantations, and coconut groves we drove. It seemed quiet and relaxed. At the last corner it was devastation. The road was clear and dry up to a certain point and then it was a horizon of rubble. I shuddered.

Someone on a scooter came up and asked for a doctor. Everyone looked at me! I jumped on and they took me up roads I never knew existed, and over bridges that were barely standing until I was brought to five foreigners in the middle of nowhere. One of them was a good friend and diving instructor. It was the first person I had seen that I knew. It was a total joy. He was banged up pretty bad, but he got out and sent off to the hospital. Then the Thais came roaring up the hill, saying there was another wave. We had to carry four more people with broken bones (including a broken hip) up a hill. There was no wave. There never was.

I stumbled back down, wandering through the town looking for people to help. I found only bodies. I found one with a tattoo like Karin's on a scooter under some rubble. I pulled her out, and it was a Thai woman. Still griping her scooter, mouth agape.

Eventually I made my way back to the dive shop I worked at. We had always whinged about how it was too far off the main road, but it survived. It was a center for the survivors. I walked up to find friends alive and things clean and organized.

I had been able to keep on, doing what I could to help people, to close out my mind to what was around me and look only at what I was doing, to not see the dead people, to not worry about where Karin was. I had held together so well.

When I found out Karin was alive it all fell apart. I could smell the destruction, the horror I had just walked through, just lived through, that she had lived through. My body shouted out all the bruises and cuts I had ignored. It all struck me and threw me to the ground. It was too much. I could no longer accept this.

We hugged and ate and slept. My feet were cut up, I had small cuts all over my body, and a sinus infection from all the bad water. Karin had gotten hold of a coconut tree, wrapped herself around it and never let go. She had a few bruises and small cuts and a black eye. I was ecstatic to see her like that. First time I've been happy to see a woman with a black eye.

Most of the rest of our friends had come through. They had set up first aid stations and help stations, organized food and created a center for people to meet. The diving community came together and became our support, our medical care, our food - they did everything they could to help and then some.


The next day I went back to where my house had been and surveyed the damage. One bungalow nearby had been lifted up and dropped on top of another. The whole beach was visible, meaning all of the two or three story hotels that had lined it were gone. There was a jet ski just near our house. The bottom floor of our house was gone, the upper floor was missing a couple of walls. The only thing left, was a plastic Jesus doll I had bought as a joke. So I was left with nothing in the world except my own plastic Jesus.

The level of destruction is virtually impossible to describe. On our beach we had approx. 2500 hotel rooms. It looked to me, that maybe 50 could still be called hotel rooms. The week between Christmas and New Year's is the busiest of the week. Without warning, without an evacuation plan the survival rates were minimal. The wave at our house was about 7 meters high (20 feet) and in some places it was 10 meters (30 feet) high. It wiped out the third floor of most resorts. The number of dead is astronomical, several thousand on my beach alone. By the second day you could smell it, and in the short walk to my former house, we passed about 10 bodies just strewn about.

Our final glance of the town was a cattle truck stacked full of wrapped up corpses. We wanted to go home.

In Bangkok most people got help pretty quick. The Swedes, Germans and English had charted flights for their citizens to get home. The Thai government gave free hotel rooms to survivors and there were lists of places to get food.

EXCEPT the Americans. I went in to find out what help I could get - I was able to get a replacement passport, a toothbrush and a paperback book. They said it was not their policy to arrange flights home. I was cut up, still covered in a pretty good layer of mud, I had no home, no money, no clothing (except some borrowed off Keith) nothing at all, and they could do nothing to help.

They did offer to let me borrow money, but they would have to find three people in America who would vouch for me, and that process should take less than a week. In the mean time I was fucked. I was destitute and rejected by the embassy. Karin was with me (she's Swedish) and said that I could still try and emigrate to Sweden. I was VERY tempted.

In these last days, watching politicians go on about helping and giving aide, but they won't even take care of their own citizens? I am very, very angry. All the other nations of the world were taking care of their own citizens! Eventually I got a flight home with JAL (that would be JAPAN airlines) not even an American company, but a JAPANESE company helped me get home.

I am still listed as neither found nor alive. Before I left I had spoken to the embassy twice on the phone, giving my name so I would be listed as alive so my family would not worry. I went to the embassy twice, once to get a passport to replace the one lost in the tsunami, and they never listed me as alive or found. I flew out of the country using said passport and am still not found. I went to the hospital three times, and, as of yesterday I am now listed as injured (having been in the states three days already). My family is now waiting to see how long it will take before they are notified about my status. So am I.

It does raise a good question - if I am missing or dead, do I have to pay taxes?

While spiteful about the embassy, I am grateful to be alive, and that those I care about are still alive. I still look around and am in awe at what just happened. I really feel like someone has slipped me some roofies and I woke up in America.

This account was received by email. References that identify the writer were removed - Rick Barnes, contributing editor PEJ News

To subscribe to PEJ News service and receive specific news feeds click here

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

140. Hakone

Steam rising from the hot springs ... Posted by Hello

... comes from the volcano beneath. Posted by Hello

139. Ballyvaughan

On the road to the Burren, northwest Clare Posted by Hello

Sunday, January 09, 2005

138. Ballyalla

I can hardly imagine
that the tour groups will come through,
but if they do
these few things remember:

My grave is a flat little stone
under the shadow of my grandfather
who did nothing
in life, and in death was equally blameless.

The French female guides
wear sunglasses, even in our dim
threatening weather;
the Germans, very serious, carry books.

Adam was a man
and all men are mortal:
I too was a man
but the dope was cheap and the women
were easy: so much for logic.

Here I am dead,
been dead for the last six years
(get used to anything),
still missing the girls and the craic.

I wrote one super good song;
now all these strangers come like pilgrims
to gawp at the soil
five yards from where I'm planted.

(I have to go home to the wife, sir ...
-Ah, stick around, can't you, haven't I paid you well?)

Disappointment is general,
here's me with a teeny-weeny stone
stuck in the gravel,
below Gran'far with his concrete Angel.

"But HE'S not famous at all!"
say the elderly indignant Americans,
red-faced, irritated,
not having reckoned on the cattle stile.

(I'll be away home to my tea, so
- Ah, sure, what's your rush, boyo?)

Come here to me, says
Timmy O'Flynn, 'tis a question of blood,
(he's a local man with a criminal record)
and if you understand that,
(he stops, has a think) yerra Jayzus, man,
I never even knew the bastard.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

Tuesday, January 04, 2005

136. Rebecca Solnit (extracts)

Sontag and Tsunami
By Rebecca Solnit

The news of Susan Sontag's death arrived as a single sentence spoken in the opening moments of a radio news program Tuesday morning, and then the program returned to what had been the main story since the day after Christmas: the tsunami and the death toll, then in the tens of thousands, that would continue to rise. It was strange to weigh these two incidents of mortality against each other. Though for some people it would be considered insensitive or irreverent even to do so, one of the things to be appreciated about Sontag, I think, is that she considered everything a proper occasion for more thinking, more analyzing, more writing.

The BBC set up a tribute website immediately, and a man who had been prompted by On Photography to go back and finish college at age 48 wrote in, as did a man who had been inspired by her Sarajevo production of Waiting for Godot in the ruins of Sarajevo to direct Romeo and Juliet in Beirut; admirers from Vancouver to Gdansk to Taipei posted comments, as did a number of sneering detractors, some still bitter about her post-September 11 comments. Only God is right about everything, which is why we are fortunate that God speaks so seldom. It is not important whether or not Sontag was always right in her conclusions, only that she was right in raising the issues that she did; for the most useful position is the one that prompts people to test an idea and perhaps think for themselves by disagreeing. After all, on key subjects from communism to photography, she eventually disagreed with her earlier self. What she said when writing about the Jewish mystic Simone Weil can be said of her outspoken writing as well: "An idea which is a distortion may have a greater intellectual thrust than the truth; it may better serve the needs of the spirit…"

In the disaster around the Indian Ocean, you read of people searching among scores of bodies for the body of their child or spouse, you see photographs of the search. One photograph shows untidy rows of dead children who mostly look like they are sleeping, save for the randomness with which they are naked or clothed, and in a corner a woman in a brilliant blue sari, head thrown back, bangle-adorned brown arms clasped to her temples, is contorted with sorrow. People were searching for their own children, for their own dead, among the many dead, for the tragedy that was personal amid the enormity; and anyone who believed that poverty or high levels of infant mortality loosen the bonds of parent to child got over it reading these shattering stories of people who wished they had died with or instead of their children. Photographs are being taken, have been taken, of many of the dead, so that the families can identify them on bulletin boards and websites. Never has photography been more personal or more public. The photographs serve, as photography always does, to make us feel present, to make visible, imaginable what has happened. They serve empathy as much as understanding.

This thousand-times-larger Indonesian earthquake was not like a truce but like a war, and for a while the death count hovered near what the estimated Iraqi death count is in our current war, and then it rose higher. The tsunami has been treated as an occasion when we should know as much as possible, see as much as possible, feel as much as possible, give as much as possible. You can look at the superabundant photographs of those scenes of devastation, those bodies contorted with grief and loss, and extrapolate from them that the assault on Fallujah must have left orphans with the same blank, stunned looks on their faces, mothers without children contorted with the same unbearable grief, must have shattered homes, families, lives, hopes with the same kind of physical force. To realize this is to realize how much imagery -- or its lack -- shapes our response to both disasters. When our military has created the catastrophe, we are not allowed to see so much or encouraged to empathize or attempt to assuage it with charitable contributions --though those contributions are made anyway: the day the tsunami struck, the US peace group Code Pink sent a delegation to Iraq with $600,000 in donations for the people of Fallujah.

The Iraq War has been a strangely unseen war, or rather a war in which conventional and uncontroversial images are the standard fare -- lots of pictures of us, few of them, images of blown-up military vehicles and uninhabited Iraqi ruins, but not in this country the images of the injured and the dead civilians we have been producing in such prodigious numbers, nothing like the images of the tsunami. But it has also been a war of images. There was the staged toppling of the statue of Saddam Hussein as our invasion ended. There was the crisis opened up by leakage of photographs of Abu Ghraib torture (which Sontag wrote about in one of her last published pieces, "Regarding the Torture of Others") and more recently the American soldier shooting a wounded man in a mosque in Fallujah. And there are the videotapes of guerrillas beheading their captives in what seemed to be media stunts of a sort. We know that Al-Jazeera shows radically different images of this war and of the Israeli-Palestinian war, a difference both generated by and reinforcing the different views on those conflicts. Even Europeans see more graphic images of such civilian casualties.

You can remember the ways this war has been kept invisible, so out of range of our potential for empathy or outrage that even photographs of the returning coffins of American soldiers were banned -- and then obtained and distributed against the Pentagon's wishes. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a gallery of pictures of the all U.S. dead nine months ago when the casualty figure was 556 and maintains that gallery of what is now 1347 dead. The yearbook of images is a reminder of another gallery of images, the portraits with sentimental biographies the New York Times ran of the victims of September 11, and before that the forlorn flyers posted in Manhattan by family members looking for the missing who almost all turned out to be the dead. Now those kinds of missing-person flyers have been posted on walls in Thailand, but the photographs on the Thai website are of the dead mutilated by the force of the water.

You can say in some ways that what has happened in Iraq is a tsunami that swept ten thousand miles from the epicenter of an earthquake in Washington DC, an earthquake in policy and principle that has devastated countless lives and environments and cities far away -- and near at hand, where friends and families of dead soldiers also grieve, and tens of thousands of those kids sent abroad to carry out a venal foreign policy are maimed in body and spirit. You can add up the numbers we spent to achieve all this devastation like that of the tsunami, the more than $150 billion it cost us to make this suffering and devastation. You can compare that price to the tiny offering of money Bush made, when he was forced to interrupt his Texas vacation -- first $15 million, then $35 million (approximately the cost of his inauguration), and then, under shaming pressure, $350 million. You can understand the harnessing of the forces of nature -- aerodynamics, chemistry, atomic fission -- as means of making war more like natural disaster in its indifference, its scale, its ruination. But never natural.

One of the challenges of a natural disaster is that there is no one to blame, to allow us to make the shift from the difficulty of grief that is a kind of love to the ease of scorn or loathing that is a kind of hatred.

Sontag wrote beautifully about the images that we see, particularly those of suffering and of war. Now I wish she had said more about what we don't see, about how photographs must be weighed against the obliviousness they dispel as well as against the callousness they might generate, the exploitation they might cause, and the perils of interpretation. In her most recent book, Regarding the Pain of Others, Sontag writes, "Being a spectator of calamities taking place in another country is a quintessential modern experience, the cumulative offering by more than a century and a half's worth of those professional, specialized tourists known as journalists. Wars are now also living room sights and sounds." And then she took up her old argument, in On Photography, that there should be an "ecology of images" to keep "compassion, stretched to its limits" from "going numb." She argues with her former self, "There isn't going to be an ecology of images. No Committee of Guardians is going to ration horror, to keep fresh its ability to shock." But the images of Abu Ghraib were shocking anyway, and the images of the tsunami are harrowing.

What is now most striking now about Sontag's argument is that it is not so much about photography but about compassion, an emotion and an ethic that photographs can awaken or undermine. Elsewhere in Regarding the Pain of Others, she writes, "Compassion is an unstable emotion. It needs to be translated into action, or it withers. The question is what to do with the feelings that have been aroused, the knowledge that has been communicated. People don't become inured to what they are shown -- if that's the right way to describe what happens -- because of the quantity of images dumped on them. It is passivity that dulls feeling."

We can act to deal with the consequences of the earthquake and tsunami, but the disaster was only faintly political -- not only the poor died but thousands of Europeans and Americans. The relief will be very political, in who gives how much, and to whom it is given, but the event itself transcends politics, the realm of things we cause and can work to prevent. We cannot wish that human beings were not subject to the forces of nature, including the mortality that is so central a part of our own nature. We cannot wish that the seas dry up, that the waves grow still, that the tectonic plates cease to exist, that nature ceases to be beyond our abilities to predict and control. But the terms of that nature include such catastrophe and such suffering, which leaves us with sorrow as not a problem to be solved but a fact. And it leaves us with compassion as the work we will never finish.

For the full text of this article, click here.

Rebecca Solnit is a writer and activist based in San Francisco and a regular Tomdispatch contributor. Her most recent books are Hope in the Dark and River of Shadows.
Copyright C2004 Rebecca Solnit

Saturday, January 01, 2005

135. 2006 Here We Come

After a few seconds of serious deliberation, I have decided not to bother with 2005. I think I am more than ready to let this year go by.

Living here in Virtual 2006, I send a cheerful nod of the head and wave of the hand to friends, relations, acquaintances, and strangers who are still coming to grips with 2005. From time to to time, I'll drop a few hints to let you know what to expect in the future. For starters, a lot more of the same in Iraq ....