The Great Pakistan Deluge Never Happened
Why the Floods Weren't News
In the United States, the contrast with the wall-to-wall cable news coverage of the Haitian earthquake in January and the consequent outpouring of public donations was palpable. Not only has the United Nations' plea for $460 million in aid to cover the first three months of flood response still not been met, but in the past week donations seem to have dried up. The US government pledged $200 million (some diverted from an already planned aid program for Pakistan) and provided helicopter gunships to rescue cut-off refugees or ferry aid to them.
What of American civil society? No rock concerts were organized to help Pakistani children sleeping on highways or in open fields infested with vermin. No sports events offered receipts to aid victims at risk from cholera and other diseases. It was as if the great Pakistani deluge were happening in another dimension, beyond the ken of Americans.
A number of explanations have been offered for the lack of empathy, or even interest, not to speak of a visible American unwillingness to help millions of Pakistanis. As a start, there were perfectly reasonable fears, even among Pakistani-Americans, that such aid money might simply be pocketed by corrupt government officials. But was the Haitian government really so much more transparent and less corrupt than the Pakistani one?
It has also been suggested that Americans suffer from donor fatigue, given the string of world disasters in recent years and the bad domestic economy. On August 16, for instance, Glenn Beck fulminated: "We can't keep spending. We are broke! Game over.… no one is going to ride in to save you.… You see the scene in Pakistan? People were waiting in line for aids [sic] from floods. And they were complaining, how come the aid is not here? Look, when America is gone, who's going to save the people in Pakistan? See, we got to change this one, because we're the ones that always ride in to save people."
Still, the submerging of a fifth of a country the size of Pakistan is—or at least should be—a dramatic global event and even small sums, if aggregated, would matter. (A dollar and a half from each American would have met the UN appeal.) Some have suggested that the Islamophobia visible in the debate about the Park 51 Muslim-owned community center in lower Manhattan left Americans far less willing to donate to Muslim disaster victims.
And what of those national security arguments that nuclear-armed Pakistan is crucial not just to the American war in Afghanistan but to the American way of life? Ironically, the collapse of the neoconservative narrative about what it takes to make the planet's "sole superpower" secure appears to have fallen on President Obama's head. One of the few themes he adopted wholeheartedly from the Bush administration has been the idea that a poor Asian country of 170 million halfway around the world, facing a challenge from a few thousand rural fundamentalists, is the key to the security of the United States.
If the Pakistani floods reveal one thing, it's that Americans now look on such explanations through increasingly jaundiced eyes. At the moment, no matter whether it's the Afghan War or those millions of desperate peasants and city dwellers in Pakistan, the public has largely decided to ignore the AfPak theater of operations. It's not so surprising. Having seen the collapse of our financial system at the hands of corrupt financiers produce mass unemployment and mass mortgage foreclosures, they have evidently decided, as even Glenn Beck admits, it's "game over" for imperial adventures abroad.
Another explanation may also bear some weight here, though you won't normally hear much about it. Was the decision of the corporate media not to cover the Pakistan disaster intensively a major factor in the public apathy that followed, especially since so many Americans get their news from television?
The lack of coverage needs to be explained, since corporate media usually love apolitical, weather-induced disasters. But covering a flood in a distant Asian country is, for television, expensive and logistically challenging, which in these tough economic times may have influenced programming decisions. Obviously, there is as well a tendency in capitalist news to cover what will attract advertising dollars. Add to this the fact that, unlike the Iraq "withdrawal" story or the "mosque at Ground Zero" controversy, the disaster in Pakistan was not a political football between the GOP and the Democratic Party. What if, in fact, Americans missed this calamity mostly because a bad news story set in a little-known South Asian country filled with Muslim peasants is not exactly Desperate Housewives and couldn't hope to sell tampons, deodorant or Cialis, or because it did not play into domestic partisan politics?
The great Pakistani deluge did not exist, it seems, because it was not on television, would not have delivered audiences to products, and was not all about us. As we saw on September 11, 2001, and again in March 2003, however, the failure of our electronic media to inform the public about centrally important global developments is itself a security threat to the republic.