"Jesus wept; Voltaire smiled. From that divine tear and from that human smile is derived the grace of present civilization."
So observed Victor Hugo on the world's reaction to the Lisbon Earthquake of 1755, which extinguished up to 60,000 souls. Of course, the tears of Jesus need no explanation. But Voltaire's smile was a more complex thing.
On hearing of the Lisbon disaster, Voltaire wrote to a friend:
One would have great difficulty in divining how the laws of movement operate such frightful disasters in the best of all possible worlds ... what will the preachers say, especially if the palace of the Inquisition has been left standing? I flatter myself that the reverend father inquisitors will have been crushed like the others. That should teach men not to persecute men.
So, I suppose must it always be when natural disaster strikes. Some people turn to the sacred for solace, while others profane the deaths with their earthly politics and calculations.
In the aftermath of the current tidal wave disaster, the world is choking on political calculations and miscalculations. The political consequences are almost as ugly as the physical consequences of the great tide.
As is by now well known, the Norwegian U.N. bureaucrat in charge of disaster relief, Jan Egeland, opened the political bidding with the inflammatory charge of American stinginess. For most countries, such a charge would induce no more reaction than the odd "mais certainement."
But, for some reason, the charge of stinginess brings us Americans to our knees, blubbering inconsolably at the cruel unfairness of the charge. This is odd. Usually people get all defensive about things of which they are in fact guilty. But Americans are famously, almost ludicrously, unstingy. We not only empty our cupboards to help out other people, we go into debt to be helpful. It was a dead bang certainty that we would be unstingy this time also.
But the charge of stinginess (compounded by a Washington Post story that President Bush had been negligent in not rushing to a television camera to emote for the world on the loss) drove the president and his staff to acts of extreme contrition not seen since Henry II of England submitted himself barefoot and shirtless to the lashes of the monks of Canterbury Cathedral for ordering the murder of Thomas a Becket.
Blankley, who had been suffering from stomach cancer, died Saturday night at Sibley Memorial Hospital in Washington, his wife, Lynda Davis, said Sunday.
In his long career as a political operative and pundit, his most visible role was as a spokesman for and adviser to Gingrich from 1990 to 1997. Gingrich became House Speaker when Republicans took control of the U.S. House of Representatives following the 1994 midterm elections.