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The New Orleans bubble

Great disasters, no matter how remote they may be, usually succeed in coaxing out at least a little sympathy from almost every person with a connection to the outside world. And that these connections are growing wider and more numerous is a fact that only holds truer with time; as our media has progressed from infrequent written accounts to coarse black-and-white photos, on up to today’s possibilities of glimpsing vivid events in color and motion as they occur, remaining oblivious or “hiding” from any awareness of the world's hot spots of misery has become almost impossible.

Or, I should say, at least for the students here in the year 2005, there’s no conceivable excuse for not knowing what’s going on south of the Arctic and north of Antarctica. At Duke, information abounds. The value placed on informing is easy enough to unpack: The more we know about an issue, the more we’ll understand how serious it is in relation to (most of) our own concerns; eventually, we’ll reorganize our time in favor of the new problem. Fair enough.

But there has to be a growing sense, felt in places where people have no immediate connections to the event, that as we’ve watched New Orleans fall apart through the lens of 24-hour on-the-scene news and the Internet, we’re more collected and untroubled than the information placed in front of us should allow for.

Not to say there hasn’t been tremendous interest and deep humanitarian action taken by many. Rather, there’s something about the anarchic breakdown and widespread suffering of last week combined with the astounding closeness to events modern media offers us that has illuminated the nature of our own sympathies like few other moments.

A commonplace thought on human nature, less troubling in the abstract than in action, is that we tend to have greater ability to feel grief (keep in mind, the keywords here are “feel grief”—a visceral mental state which differs substantially from even deep concern) for those misfortunes which more directly affect us than those in which we’re bystanders. If a newspaper machine fails to dispense a paper for the proper amount of change, we’re far more likely to be distressed about that fact than anything in the paper itself.

Even Adam Smith, oftentimes too easily dismissed as little more than a sneering apologist for self-interest, discussed at great length the unsettling implications this problem had for ordinary men. A sample: “If he was to lose his little finger to-morrow, he would not sleep to-night; but, provided he never saw them, he will snore with the most profound security over the ruin of a hundred millions of his brethren, and the destruction of that immense multitude seems plainly an object less interesting to him, than this paltry misfortune of his own” (Theory of Moral Sentiments, Part III, Ch. 1).

But as hyperbolic as Smith may come across in this passage, at least in one part, his imagination falls badly short: “[P]rovided he never saw them...” As he wrote in 1759, the news of terror still moved slowly enough toward the unaffected and, in sufficiently sanitized terms, to reassure him that man’s indifference could be a matter of mere sight. And even today, many of us advocating for a cause believe that if an indifferent public could really see what’s going on, if they could only get close enough to tragedy to finally understand that it’s happening, they would rise up from their apathetic slumber.

Yet in the span of the last two weeks, media in its many forms has hardly ever shown us—actually shown us—more crying pleas, draped-over bodies, flattened homes, submerged houses and displaced people of every sort. But still there’s a gap, a gap between the commiseration I know I should have and what I actually do, between what comes naturally and what reason—“what are you doing or thinking now instead...”—shames me into feeling. Never before have we been this close to the most miserable places on earth, but their effect on me has still been equal parts heartbreak for the victims and horror at my composure. If we’re eventually going to reach that point where catastrophes become too close to separate the “me” from the “them,” it ought to be somewhere around here. But humans are wonderfully adaptive creatures. Life these days is looking increasingly like proof that I’m capable of absorbing and basically carrying on with anything. It can’t get much more real without being there—Adam Smith would be appalled.

Philip Sugg is a Trinity junior. His column runs every other Friday.

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