Voltaire's smile

Posted: Jan 05, 2005 12:00 AM

 "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.

 First, the White House, sounding like a reverse television salesman, said: "did we say $3 million, we meant $30 million ... did we say $30 million, we meant $350 million ? did we say $350 million, that's only a down payment. That's all that's in the appropriated disaster relief fund. Congress will give us more, much more.

 Then the president sent his brother, Governor Jeb Bush, and his secretary of state, Colin Powell, to pay their respects. Then he upped the ante and called on two former presidents, his father and Bill Clinton, to rally the country -- despite the fact that the country seemed to be rallying itself rather magnificently. Private American giving looks to surpass the collective offerings of the European Union and the Arab Gulf states.

 But still the international relief bureaucrats and the American media (and, I might add, the European and Middle East Internet) are abuzz with the sheer inadequacy and flat-footedness of President Bush. I assume it is only a matter of hours or days before Laura Bush will be sent to Asia to commiserate on behalf of a president and nation still grief-stricken over the charge of stinginess and indifference.

 Not far off, I assume, will be planeloads of Asia-bound compassionate U.S. senators and congressmen with their little corny speeches that the locals won't even bother to translate into the local language. But they will return with a videocassette suitable for playing domestically. And those trips, too, will be added into the humanitarian relief expenditures.

 The president should get off this deranged merry-go-round. Money will not buy him -- or us -- love. He and America should give according to the voice of our conscience -- not in order to try to win a compassion competition.

 It was inevitable that we would do all in our power to save lives, bring in emergency food, water, medicine and shelter. No other country is able to do it, and few other countries would be motivated to do so. But virtue is its own reward. Those around the world (and here at home) who hate, fear or envy the United States will never love us for our good deeds. So be it.

 But after we have taken care of the emergency (which we will do, pretty much singlehanded -- I don't think we are waiting for a French or German aircraft carrier full of helicopters and medicine), let us not get carried away with generosity for rebuilding lands that have been mismanaged since the beginning of time.

 If we are going to go further in debt to ease human pain and suffering, here are a few numbers to keep in mind. When one of our young military heroes dies in Iraq or other combat, his or her next of kin get only a $6,000 "death gratuity" (half of which is taxable), up to $1,750 for burial expenses, plus $833 a month for the surviving spouse until remarriage and $211 per month per child until he or she turns 18.

 If our soldiers, anticipating dying in the line of duty, want to provide more for their children, they have to pay for such insurance out of their meager wages. There are, apparently, some strict limits to our generosity.