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Carlos Beltran v. the People of South Asia: Radio Reflections on American Compassion


I recently spent 5 evening hours on U.S. Interstate Highway 80, the semi-trailer-packed “main street of America.” Meanwhile, people in Indonesia, Thailand, India, and Sri Lanka were experiencing the worst natural human disaster to take place in a very long time.

I searched the radio for the latest news and information about the terrible events, including especially anything on where to send assistance when I got home.

Surely, I thought, such information would be widely available on the airwaves of the world’s most “compassionate” and enlightened nation in these times of mass human suffering.

Some of what I sought was available during the news hour on the one public radio station I could barely make out.

After that, however, the main thing besides music on the radio was sports talk. This was the content on 3 of the 4 AM stations I picked up between Iowa and Chicago. On these stations, as the historic tragedy’s official death toll was mounting, one could hear a passionate and often quite knowledgeable debate over the following critical issues:

• why the Chicago Cubs (baseball) flopped at the end of the 2004 baseball season
• why the Chicago Bears (football) had such a lousy season this year
• how Notre Dame made the wrong football coaching choice at the end of this last season
• why suspended Indiana Pacer (basketball) power forward Ron Artest deserves the scorn of humanity for his violent outburst in Detroit weeks ago
• why Cubs center-fielder Corey Patterson will never be a legitimate “five-tool” player
• how the Iowa Hawkeyes (college football) are preparing for a big victory in the Capital One Bowl, to be played on January 1st
• what the forthcoming Rose Bowl contest (college football) might say about the relative strengths of the two schools’ respective collegiate sports conferences

And so on…the usual and in-itself innocuous sporting drivel that rules the AM dial. What made this normal radio discussion stand out in such bold relief to me was of course the backdrop of the unfolding tsunami tragedy. Hearing all this trivial talk at this particular moment was vaguely reminiscent of the creepy sensation I got upon seeing my first television commercials after advertising was suspended for about week after 9/11/2001

My sports radio revulsion peaked during one particularly dramatic segment on WGN AM 710, a Chicago station. Three hours into my drive, I listened with amazement to the fervent, impassioned, and almost ranting discourse of a Houston Fox TV “Sports Director” on “a topic I have been living with night and day for the last 6 weeks.”

The question that has haunted this sports news coordinator for so long? Whether or not the Houston Astros (baseball) will be able to retain their bona-fide “five- tool” superstar Carlos Beltran at his “fair market rate” of $15 million a year for seven years. I said $15 million a year for seven years…for…playing baseball…(yes, the owners make more).

Does the figure $15 million sound familiar? That was George W. Bush’s initial offer to the tsunami victims, which later got shamed up to $35 million, where it still paled in comparison to the cost of the illegal and murderous occupation of Iraq – roughly $151 billion so far.

The WGN radio hosts and the numerous callers agreed that Beltran is “well worth” the $105 million ($15 million X 7) price tag and expressed their hope that the Chicago Tribune Corporation (owner of both WGN and the Cubs) would honor their “civic” and “moral” obligation “to the people of Chicago” by “stepping up to the plate” and making a serious bid for Beltran.

How far would $15 million (or for that matter $105 million) go in Sri Lanka, I wondered to myself. How far, I wondered, would it go in the ghettoes of Chicago’s west and south sides, where many of thousands of black children lived in what social researchers call “deep poverty,” at less than half of the nation’s notoriously low and inadequate poverty level?

Nothing on the sports stations, however, could prepare me for the depth and degree of the disgust I felt when I picked up and briefly monitored two political talk radio stations. The right-wing hosts on these frequencies had struck a rich vein in their quest to spark their callers’ white-hot anger. Caller after caller was phoning in to voice their outrage at a recent “Paris-based” (OECD) report showing that the United States devotes a relatively miniscule share of its vast national wealth to overseas humanitarian assistance. Also coming in for harsh rebuke were charges from within and beyond the hated United Nations to the effect that George W. Bush had been terribly delinquent and stingy in his response to the tsunami tragedy.

“Don’t these whiners know,” callers chimed in, to their hosts’ gleeful agreement, “that America is the single most compassionate and benevolent nation on earth.” “We give and we give and we give some more,” one caller claimed, “and we never ask or say anything about the politics or the nature of the people we are supporting with our welfare. We give out of the goodness of the heart. And all they do is complain that it’s not enough. Maybe we should just cut them all off and see what they say.” “If it wasn’t for all our incredible, selfless, Christian charity,” another angry called opined, “all these governments and humanitarian organizations the United Nations would collapse overnight. What more do they want from us?” One caller used recent events as an opportunity to call for the dismantlement of the United Nations. After the UN is “taken down,” this caller said, “all these complainers will be back on our door, looking for some more welfare from good old rich Uncle Sam. These people make me sick.”

Hosts and callers were particularly focused on the of-course damning “French” origins of the OECD report. They agreed that the relative share of a nation’s wealth that goes to humanitarian causes is irrelevant – the only thing that matters is the absolute amount and by that measure America rules!

I thought about calling in and trying to make some moderately sane points about:

• the vastly disparate share of global resources that the US populace devours
• the equally vast and disparate share of global waste and pollution the US populace generates
• the ancient religious concept of tithing, which is based precisely on share of total wealth and not simply absolute amount
• the role of US neo-liberal global economic policy in impoverishing nations and people across the globe, helping make them immeasurably more vulnerable than they ought to be to the ravages of natural calamities like hurricanes, earthquakes, floods, mudslides, and tsunamis
• the relatively paltry and yes stingy size of America’s absolute humanitarian contribution, seen quite dramatically when it is compared to the “world’s richest nation’s” “defense” (empire) budget, including just its bloody and illegal occupation of Iraq (which has also killed more than 100,000 non-Americans) and/or to the gigantic tax cuts that George W. Bush has granted to his super-opulent ruling-class comrades
• the routinely selective U.S. application and denial of US economic and humanitarian assistance in accordance with imperial US political objectives and related ideological biases

I didn’t make the call for two reasons. First, I don’t like talking on the phone while I’m driving, especially when surrounded by 18-wheelers. Second, I don’t think there’s any meaningful dialogue to be had with the mass of racist, hyper-nationalist, proto-fascist pseudo-patriots who frequent the nation’s rightist talk radio stations. These people are militantly hostile to any serious reflection that might cause them to question received authoritarian and imperial wisdom.

It’s better, I suppose, to get them focused back on things that mattter, like Carlos Beltran’s struggle to earn the tens of millions that he so richly deserves.

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