TCS Daily


'Tsunami Miracles'

By James Pinkerton - January 17, 2005 12:00 AM

Two centuries ago, the poet Schiller lamented the "disenchantment of the world," as secularism and modernity were leaching away the Wonder of It All. But Schiller needn't have worried. The Great Tsunami of 2004, tragic as it was, is proving to be a vehicle for the re-enchantment of our planet. The combination of traumatic events and dramatic, even melodramatic, reporting will help create a new Age of Miracles and Wonder.

But don't take my word for it; do what I did -- Ask Google. On Thursday, I typed in "tsunami miracle" and got 352,000 hits. That's a lot of meme-production already, and it will accelerate further in the Cyberian Age, because the same communications tools that spread scientific truth can just as easily spread pseudo-science.

And so those who yearn for a more rigorous, data-driven, reality-based view of the world are likely to be disappointed by what comes next in this young century, as the hardnosed find themselves swimming against new tides of mis- and myth-information. Some might say that this re-enchantment, this upsurge in pure Belief, is glorious. Yet any time that empiricism gives way to romanticism, that's a parole for Faith's ugly escort, Junk Science.

Sources of Enchantment

So why is this re-enchantment happening? Two reasons: the first concerning the event itself, the second concerning the coverage.

First, the events of Dec. 26 were just so "heavy" that perceptions of reality have been bent by the psychic force of the storm. Who knew that Mother Nature could do that? The powerful images of waves, then of devastation will keep the events fresh in our minds, forever.

Etched in consciousness are story lines such as, The Vast Power of Nature and The Cruelty of Fate. And other sad tales, too: The Woman Who Had to Choose Which of Her Children to Save, and The Supermodel Who Lost Her Boyfriend.

But many of the legends of the tsunami are upbeat: The Woman Who Ran Toward The Wave to Save Her Children, The Man Who Lived Eight Days on the Raft, The Boy Who Lived 10 Days in a Tree. And some positive reports will appeal more to one group than another. Americans, for example, will thrive on television footage of GI's handing out food to Third World peoples, not fighting them.

But other reports will resonate with other peoples. Surely all attentive Muslims noticed the picture of the white mosque at Banda Aceh; surrounded by devastation, the mosque remained pristinely intact. Why was that building spared? Was it mere random accident, or the hand of Providence? The answers are the stuff of future legend, built up by first-person accounts--then maybe healing miracles, pilgrimages, and shrine-building. Kevin Sites of NBC News reported that a father, having lost most of his family, cooed his one remaining son to sleep by singing the Koran to him. How will al-Jazeera be able to resist a documentary on this inspiring Islamic story?

Meanwhile, a Christian missionary, Oliver Asher, it was reported in The Washington Post, said, "It's easy to be an atheist when you have no crisis in your life. But have a 50-foot tidal wave sweep your family and village away, it makes you ponder the big questions in life."

Tragedy and its aftermath have always been a font of religiosity, and this tsunami will prove to be no exception. The Philadelphia Inquirer quoted K.P. Yohannan, president of the Texas-based Gospel for Asia, as calling the disaster "one of the greatest opportunities God has given us to share his love with people." In Thailand, the report continued, a Southern Baptist church had already been "praying for a way to make inroads" with a particular clan; then came the tsunami, which rated, according to one of the Baptists, as a "phenomenal opportunity" for just such an inroad.

Indeed, in the environmental era, new forms of faith, beyond the familiar monotheisms, are likely to bubble up New Age-ly. One might even muse that in a Greened future, 2005 will be-reckoned as 35 PED-that is, 35 Post Earth Day. In such a world, it would be easy to conclude that an angry Gaia , goddess over us all, will be appeased if we pay more at the pump for gasoline.

Second, journalists have become agents in this re-enchanting of the world, by injecting floods of emotion and sentimentality into their accounts. Reporters write the first draft of history, it's often said, but as they scramble for audiences in this fragmented media age, they are pandering as well to a popular appetite for fads, fancies, and figments.

Style Over Substance

But it's not just the "substance" that reporting are feeding into the future myth machine, it's also the style in which they are providing it. One such stylist is Jon Klein, the new president of CNN. Speaking to The New York Observer, he said that his star man, Anderson Cooper, "owned" the tsunami story. Sounding like an idolatrous acolyte, Klein added:

        It's a story breaking on his watch that he grabbed hold of and has just 
        poured himself into as all the greats have ...[like] Dan Rather, starting 
        with the Kennedy assassination and taking it from there, and [like] 
        Jennings, who did a remarkable job on 9/11. I think you're seeing that with 
        Anderson and the tsunami ... It's palpable.

Similarly, Ben Sherwood, producer of "Good Morning America," was allowed to describe his star-on-her-way-to-becoming-a-goddess, Diane Sawyer: "This is a woman who does not sleep when she's in the field and on the hunt. Anyone who works with her will tell you she has superhuman stamina."

Yet what these media demigods and demigoddesses are also achieving is the conversion of these events into myth and magic. A headline in The Washington Post reads: "From a Distance, Hope Glimmers Like a Mirage Amid the Misery." In the words of reporter Philip Kennicott:

        No matter what may be happening on the other side of the globe, where 
        hundreds of thousands are dead and injured, millions homeless and whole 
        regions in shambles, the narrative arc of the stories Americans expect 
        requires hope. So even before the real actors in this faraway drama 
        have felt the full burden of despair, journalists have moved on to inspiring 
        tales of survival, affirmation that life is returning and that healing proceeds 
        apace.

In other words, the networks are emphasizing the feel-good stories-in Kennicott's phraseology, "stories that allow Americans to reassert faith in a benign God and order and meaningfulness in the world."

The Postie also quoted NBC News producer Steve Capus, who revealed that he arranged his program's coverage of the tsunami such that audiences didn't "close down," and thus click away to a different channel. "If we do story after story that is nothing more than misery," Capus continued, "there is a danger of viewers just shutting down because they can't comprehend the enormity of it all." So it is that reporters, especially on that most magical of media, television, turn disaster into uplift -- into a come-together moment. But that's contrivance and stagecraft, not fact-based reporting.

And what about the blogs? Don't they fight error and spin? While many bloggers are indeed truth-tellers -- as in the campaign against Dan Rather's mythic memos -- many others are spewtrons of pure misinformation, such that even Mary Mapes would be put to shame. A reporter for The New York Times -- OK, not always to be trusted - cruised around websites such as Democratic Underground and found enough blame-the-U.S. government conspiracy theories to shock even Oliver Stone.

If the first draft of history and memory is being printed, televised and blogged now, it's hard to see how future historians will find clarity and truth amidst all this journalist murk and mumbo-jumbo.

Meanwhile, in the Arab world, even crazier conspiracy theories are being heard. Various Arab media outfits have "reported" that Jews and Israelis were behind the tsunami. Indeed, in the annals of misinformation, anti-Semitic propaganda is perhaps the most enduring. So who is to say that what writer Reuven Korot has jokingly dubbed a "Jew-nami" won't enter the anti-Semitic canon along with, for example, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion?

Hope? For Whom?

So is there any hope? Are there any journalists who uphold traditional reporting rigor?

The answer, pleasantly enough, is "Yes." One such voice is Nicholas Kristof, who shocked New York Times readers by advocating the return of the pesticide DDT. As Kristof wrote, "If the U.S. wants to help people in tsunami-hit countries like Sri Lanka and Indonesia -- not to mention other poor countries in Africa -- there's one step that would cost us nothing and would save hundreds of thousands of lives. It would be to allow DDT in malaria-ravaged countries."

And Camilla Cavendish, writing in The Times of London, observed that structural reforms in the world economy would do more to provide relief to the needy than another planeload of bottled water:

        In all the shouting about saving the world in recent weeks, our politicians 
        have been remarkably silent about lowering the tariff barriers that they use 
        to protect their own farmers and industries. Oxfam has calculated that a 1 
        per cent increase in Africa's share of world exports would be worth five 
        times as much as its current aid and debt relief. Indonesia and Thailand 
        face average tariffs of 20 per cent on exports of textiles and shoes. The 
        single most useful contribution that our leaders could make would be to 
        address this issue. Otherwise, millions of well-meaning people will become 
        accomplices to the cruel charade that is the aid industry. And millions of 
        poor people will continue to suffer.

Yet on the other hand, romanticism and mysticism have returned as well-what will be remembered someday as the Great Re-Enchantment.

Indeed, it wasn't long before the most romantic of enviro-visions, Deep Ecology -- which looks forward to the fine day when there is no human footprint on the earth, because there are no humans -- reasserted itself. Here's how the Associated Press expressed this idea, datelined Patong Beach, Thailand: "Many believe the tsunami that devastated this tourist hotspot and killed thousands had one positive side: By washing away rampant development, it returned the beaches to nature." And the wire service approvingly quoted one visitor saying, "Everyone is talking about it. It looks much better now." And a local Thai added, "Honestly, I love this nature. Twenty years ago, it was like this, and full of trees. I haven't seen the beach this white in ages."

See? All that's needed is to be rid of these troublesome people, and Gaia is soon restored to her beauty. Let that thought knock and nacre around for awhile in people's heads, and soon many will wish for new "purifying" storms to wash away civilization in other built-up places, too.

Wondering About Wonders

We modern folk have often read about past legends, from Gilgamesh to King Arthur with a sense of wistfulness, thinking about marvelous epics that seem to have vanished from our own age -- except maybe in the movies. But now we see that New Wonders are upon us. Seas of faith, familiar and unfamiliar, are rushing back toward us, with the force of, well, a tsunami. And so, for better or worse, we enter into a new cycle, in which skepticism and rationalism yield to spiritualism--to visions of some divine plan, be it Christian, Muslim, Green, or any of a thousand other metaphysical manifestations. So it'll be a heady century, in a headswirling kind of way.

And of course, we'll hear more about global warming, too. So we could be facing a century of semi-truth, pseudo-science, and Ludd-agoguery-as events, such as The Great Tsunami of 2004 are drafted into the service of this paganish eco-frenzy. Indeed, the Cybercast New Service has been tracking all the groups that have linked the tsunami to global warming -- proof that for the True Green Believers, everything can be traced back to the Original Sin of industrial progress.

But it's hard to win a science-based, data-driven argument when you're arguing with a Crusader, a Wizard, or a True Believer. And that's the downside of re-enchantment: amidst all the wondrous magic, the junkiest of junk science is lolling around under every bridge, hiding next to the trolls, readying its next strike.

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