The death toll in India looks like it will top 20,000. Which, of course, has me thinking about Sam Kinison.
Sam Kinison, the (deceased) screaming comic of the 1980s, had a famous routine where he would apoplectically ask why starving Ethiopians lived where there was no food. He ranted something like, “Why can’t these people move!?” “Hey moron! You live in the DESERT! Nothing grows here! This is sand [miming holding sand in his hand]!” Then he would scream some more. After that, he’d say America should ship them a bunch of U-Hauls and Ryder trucks and move ‘em to where there’s some food.
Like pretty much everything Kinison did, the routine occupied the borderlands between juvenile tastelessness, middlebrow commentary, and damn funny.
Nonetheless, he was onto a question that’s occurred to most of us at one point or another, “How come it seems like God keeps whipping the tar out of poor people?” It seems that whenever there’s a natural disaster in some country lacking indoor plumbing, tens of thousands of people die. Whenever there’s a hurricane or earthquake in a country that has flush-toilets, a couple dozen people die, if any.
Does God want people to stop doing their business in Turkish toilets or the bushes (by my rough calculation the two leading competitors to our Western growl shacks)? Well, probably. If you take the correlation of advanced plumbing systems and wrath-of-God disasters seriously, He certainly does appear to be a lot more upset by the lack of lavatories than he is about, say, buggery or graven-image making.
It gives a whole new meaning to Rev. Jesse Jackson’s poverty-pimp proselytizing “Stay Out the Bushes!” He wasn’t talking about George W., he was talking about where poor folks pee.
For example, on December 7, 1988, there was an earthquake in Armenia (Turkish toilets) that killed 28,854 people. It recorded 6.9 on the Richter scale. Less than a year later there was an earthquake in San Francisco and Oakland (flush toilets). It was a 7.1 on the Richter scale, but it claimed 63 casualties. About seven months later there was a quake near Rasht, Iran, (Turkish toilets, and soup served to Jews) scoring six tenths of a point higher, at 7.7. But that earthquake killed 50,000 people.
In 1993, a 6.4 quake killed 30,000 people in Bombay, India. Three months later Northridge, California, was hit by a slightly larger quake, 6.8, that killed 61 people.
Now, one can make a lot of mistakes about correlation and causation — one need only look at my grades in college statistics to know that. For example, Richard Nixon once said that it’s obvious the world is overpopulated because everywhere he went he saw huge crowds. It seemed to elude him that presidents of the United States might draw huge crowds even if the world were underpopulated.
But, the truth is there is a correlation in the debris, though it’s not between toilets and Lordly Smiting.
You can do the same thing for almost any disaster — hurricanes, cyclones, etc. — the same trend will hold up. Natural disasters hurt poor people because poor people live in terrible conditions (I’m willing to concede it is not perfectly cut-and-dry. Some poor countries may be poor because they are constantly whacked like a tardy Japanese housewife. For example, Bangladesh, a country that’s lucky to go a year without one Biblical plague or another walloping it). Moreover, after the hurricane or tornado hits, the poor country usually gets a second wave of disease and hunger that is unheard of in the West.
Why is this relevant?
Well, getting back to earthquakes (with sense-a-round!), wouldn’t intuition suggest that as the population surges and we live in more and more crowded cities that earthquakes would be more deadly in more urban areas? Well it’s not the case. Far less people die in earthquakes today than they did in the past, even though billions more people live in cities made of concrete and steel and other things that hurt a lot more than grass and straw when they fall on your head. In 1556, 830,000 people died in the Shanxi, China quake. As bad as this week’s Indian disaster was, it can’t compare to the subcontinental quakes of earlier this century or, say, the 300,000 dead in the Calcutta quake of 1737. The famous San Francisco earthquake of 1906 killed 667 people, ten times more than the quake of 1989 even though it had half the people. I would bet that if the earthquake that hit India this week, had hit Los Angeles, the deaths would be in the double digits, not over 20,000. Modern buildings have a tendency to fall down less than squalid tenements or shantytowns. Especially when you’re rich enough to make them quake proof.
So again you ask, why is this relevant?
Well, if you listen to what the anti-globalization protesters are saying at the World Forum in Davos, Switzerland, or at my local coffeehouse, you’d get the impression that they have the best interests of poor people at heart. Of course, it turns out they don’ t.
Globalization is generally something rich people are against and poor people are for, which is funny since rich people are supposed to be greedy and poor people are supposed to be content. This is true about both certain conservatives and liberals but for different reasons. Conservative anti-globalists and trade unionists fear what globalization will do to people inside our borders. That creates problems to be sure, but it’s not nearly so evil as a certain breed of liberal nostalgia which wants to make the world safe for righteous tours of impoverished lands where noble savages still live in huts and starve with surprising regularity.
Okay so maybe most of them don’t live in huts, but they do live in a crushing poverty that so many liberals think is preferable to being forced to eat at McDonalds or drink Starbucks coffee.
Last summer — I am not making this up — nearly a hundred people died in the Philippines because they were caught not in a rockslide, but in a garbage slide. “About 100 shanties were buried when rain-loosened garbage and mud collapsed on Monday at the Payatas dumpsite in the Manila suburban city of Quezon, the largest garbage-disposal site in the metropolis. The avalanche also triggered a fire,” reads one wire-service report about the disaster. Thank goodness English majors at Brown and Yale helped to keep these people from making Nike sneakers.
Former Mexican president Ernest Zedillo had it right in 1999 when he said: “Forces from the extreme Left, the extreme Right, environmentalist groups, trade unions of developed countries, and some self-appointed representatives of civil society are gathering around a common endeavor: to save the people of developing countries from development.”
Before I rant for another thousands words on the twentysomethings with color-coordinated scarves who don’t want starving children to eat biotech rice because it seems so scary, I’d better stop here. But let’s wrap things up where we started. Sam Kinison (his finest role, of course, being Back to School) was onto something, but he had the policy exactly wrong. The people in Ethiopia didn’t starve to death because nothing would grow in the sand. The people of Ethiopia starved because a Marxist dictatorship preferred to let food rot on the docks than let the starving people eat it. They had in mind loftier political ambitions. The deprivation of millions was at best an unfortunate means to a deserving end. Today, we have a lot of well-intentioned people here who think much the same way, though they are much less honest about what they’re willing to pay for the reassurance that the world will still be a romantic place with backward cultures “out there.” Hell, they can even buy authentic scarves from them.