Does nothing rise above politics?

Haiti Earthquake

Image by United Nations Development Programme via Flickr

A former student, one of the brightest I’ve taught, put a six-word post on Facebook the other day.  It read: (His name) “is tired of Haiti.”

Now this young man is no Rush Limbaugh fan. When I suggested that a week seemed awfully fast to “tire” of a story involving the death of 2 percent of a country’s population – the equivalent of 6 million people in the United States – he elaborated.

“My antipathy is not towards the Haitian people, for what they’ve suffered is certainly unimaginable,” he wrote. “What exhausts me is the world of celebrity that’s created around a cause like this, the whirlwind spring to action by those looking to be absolved for some other sin, by donating money, attending telethons. I don’t like the industry that springs up around cataclysms, and I see and hear more of that than I do actual news about Haiti.”

Yes, but ….

I’d rather be besieged by telethons than watch people shrug and mutter, “Whatever.” Because when it comes to news of any kind – even a catastrophe of such unfathomable scope as Haiti’s — Americans seem to have the attention span of a kid in a penny candy store. They’d rather move on to another bin.  Too often, they’d also rather score personal political points than try to address the central issue, whether that’s Haiti, health care or the halting economy.

In a county in which the Supreme Court just legalized bribery by lifting limits on corporate contributions to campaigns, both tendencies worry me.  In a country whose public considers Fox News the most “trustworthy” network, they’re an even bigger concern.

No question. We live in a complex world.  But the complexities are made insurmountable in part by the steady flow of political and media spin passed off as something else.  If Americans are to have any hope of sorting through the myriad challenges on the country’s plate, we need to develop attention spans that last longer than that of — say —  goldfish.  It’s the best way of guarding against the frenzied, near fanaticism that money + propaganda + ignorance breed.

But instead of being engaged as a nation, the only thing we seem to be any good at these days is being pissed off.

In an article in today’s Washington Post, Joel Achenbach notes that the American people, according to a Washington Post-ABC News poll, have little confidence that the president is capable of making “the right decisions” and even less confidence that either political party does.  After a year of health care debate, those polled said they’d like to see the bill scrapped and want Congress to begin all over again. Though the stimulus package contained hundreds of billions of dollars in broad-based tax breaks, they don’t like that either. Some 56 percent oppose it.

Achenbach ends his piece by writing about the American “Againstness Epidemic.”  He notes:

“It has been years in the making. Individual strains of opposition have been cultivated in the petri dishes of special interest groups, religious fundamentalists, blogs, cable TV shows, talk radio, fringe subcultures (birthers, truthers, tea partiers). They feed into, and are fed by, entrenched industries of disagreeableness (fossil fuel companies, labor unions, the Chamber of Commerce, Rush Limbaugh). We live in a country in which being contrarian now means advocating a mainstream initiative.”

To put it more simply, we have so many fractures and fissures, so much suspicion, so much venom, that as a political entity, the United States is just plain broken.  So broken, it seems, that instead of focusing on responding to one of the most horrific natural disasters of a lifetime just miles from America’s shores, we have to mock and chew up efforts, however flawed, to provide help.

Is there nothing we can agree on? I’m curious. If a plane had flown into the World Trade Centers in 2010 instead of 2001, would we have spent the days  that immediately followed arguing about which political party bore responsibility instead of treating the injured, caring for the displaced, digging through the rubble for possible survivors?

There is a picture on the front page of today’s New York Times that shows a crush of Haitian people seeking food. An older, gray-haired woman in the middle has her eyes closed, an elbow in her jaw and a mass of human pressure around her. The caption reads, “thousands of Haitians mass for food distributed on Tuesday at a police office. Some left empty-handed.”

I wonder if she was one. I wonder if she survived just this minor ordeal. The accompanying story talks of the plight of Haiti’s children, and leads off with the story of a 14-year-old who found the body of her mother.  She is now orphaned.

Tired of Haiti?  Then get out of the way. If we are to retain our humanity, sometimes the political animal in us needs to slink into a cage, to stop barking. Maybe engaging as a nation in a single common humanitarian concern can carry over into a broader sense of common good?

Maybe.  I’m not optimistic.


About jerrylanson

I teach, write, coach and sing, though you're not required to listen to the latter. I'm a journalism professor at Emerson College in Boston. My third book, "Writing for Others, Writing for Ourselves," was published in November by Rowman & Littlefield Publishing. You can read a sample chapter at My passions are politics (generally liberal in outlook), music, mountains, golden retrievers and my grandchildren, though not in that order. Please stop by and mix it up with me. I always answer those who post.
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6 Responses to Does nothing rise above politics?

  1. Caitlin Kelly says:

    I think you are conflating several issues here, from compassion fatigue to disgust with the economy and Obama’s failed (WTF?!!) health care plan.

    The U.S.’s television fundraiser pulled in multiple millions for Haiti. Two telethons in Canada added another $20 million or so. What more do you need? Seriously. And, really, do you truly and sincerely believe that all those piles of dollars will, suddenly, be wisely spent and free of corruption and graft? That Haiti will suddenly not be the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere thanks to this big wad of cash?

    Maybe by this point, it’s not a question of people’s lack of attention or caring. Millions of Americans right now are bankrupt, terrified, can’t find work — the same NYT reported today that Ford is about to re-hire workers at HALF their old wages. Anyone paying attention to the U.S. economy right now is FED UP.

    I get your student’s reaction.

  2. Jerry Lanson says:

    Thanks, as always, for checking in. Couple of things. I get that people are fed up. So am I. And I’m not suggesting we all sell heirlooms to give the proceeds to Haiti. What I’m trying to express here (and perhaps I miss the mark) is that people are so pissed off these days, it’s almost all they focus on. The economy sucks and we want to blame someone, anyone, everyone. Haiti gets swallowed by an earthquake, and we get mad at people reminding us of it. Or we see it as an intrusion, a diversion, from our own sense of misery. But bad things don’t get better because people ignore them by changing channels or because people condemn everything. When and how can we get back to solving problems in this country? Perhaps it might start by caring about, or at least not dismissing, the misery of people who have it far worse than we can even imagine.

  3. Apparently not everyone is fed up or pissed off if you believe the story AP ( and ABC News ( are reporting about 7-year-old Charlie Simpson who raised 100,000 pounds ($160,000) by asking for folks to sponsor him as he rode his bicycle five miles around a local park. His goal was to raise 500 pounds.

    I just checked Charlie Simpson’s fund-raising page for UNICEF at and his efforts are up to 171,462.97 pounds, or more than $277,000.

  4. ricgomes says:

    Your article ties in nicely to the studies done by Hofstede (1980) and Triandis (1987) which show a direct link between a countries GDP and the level of individualism of that society. They show that the richer the country is, the more individualistic it’s citizens are. While in poor countries, it’s citizens tend to live in a more collective environment also showing a higher level of care for the members of the collective. The author also shows that, as a country increases it’s GDP, the level of individualism also increases.
    The author also notes that there is no direct correlation between an increase in individualism and economic growth.
    Interesting don’t you think?

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