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Saturday, February 27, 2010

Anticipating Disaster: Our Obsession With Impending Doom

What draws us to the doom yet to arrive? CNN, pre-tsunami (in Hawaii), donates its screen time not to the already devastated areas of Chile (and elsewhere), but to the image of Hawaii's beaches, from a distance, untouched, near-pristine. That's the image that stays on the screen, the reporters anticipating--and building anticipation for us--the disaster waiting to happen. There's a reason they show us this; if there wasn't, they'd move on to something else, like Chile, where the proverbial shit has already hit the fan, or even New Zealand, where tsunami conditions have already arrived (and gone by the time this post hits the Inter-waves--pun intended).

I suspect that our obsession with impending doom in the news is intricately linked with our love of dystopia in film and literature. The connection, I think, lies in our unwillingness to deal with reality--not in an absolute sense, but in a more immediate sense. Dystopias offer a way for us to see doom without facing it here on Earth, and without dealing with the immediacy of the doom that has already arrived. It is, perhaps, "safer" for our identities as human beings to imagine the end than to witness it firsthand. That's not to say that we aren't interested in the end, per se; we are, and, in fact, I imagine right now CNN is flooded with images of what may very well be the disaster of the week. But, our interest in disaster is not in the disaster itself, but in the leading up to it. The aftermath is an afterthought.

There's a hole in the argument, though. After all, we did focus so much attention on Haiti, where disaster had already struck before any focus was paid upon it. But this doesn't apply for two reasons:
1. The disaster had already struck; there was no possibility for anticipation.
2. The disaster has slowly become less about the disaster itself and more about how the disaster can/could be turned into salvation. The controversial statement made by the unrepentant racist Pat Robertson (that this is a blessing in disguise) is, perhaps, not terribly far from the truth. Prior to the disaster, the international community had, largely speaking, paid little attention to Haiti, at least not in the capacity that it deserved. Yes, Haiti's poverty was never a secret. Yes, there were organizations who put money and labor into helping Haiti prior to the disaster. But only after the disaster has Haiti received any considerable amount of attention and finances (and the promise thereof) to be used towards rebuilding the country. Yes, that very thought is a sick and disturbing one: that only after disaster do we provide legitimacy to the impoverished conditions of a nation that has been suffering the aftershocks of colonialism for centuries.

The obsession continues, though. Whether or not Hawaii will (has) witnessed disaster, we are (were) fixated on our screens, witnessing the anticipatory moment, and in our free time, when we are/were not fixated, we pour(ed) our souls into the dystopic (not necessarily science fiction, but certainly dystopia in its non-speculative forms--what we might call "depressing" fiction).

No wonder our ability to address the human issue at hand is deficient.

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