It figures that it takes a trip to Italy to inform me about what's going on in America (at least according to the televised media). I don't subscribe to cable, so I don't have the "benefit" of knowing how news is spun on our 24-hour cable networks. Last night, during the inevitable insomnia that occurs at about 3 a.m. due to jet lag, I turned on the television and was forced - forced, I tell ya! - to watch CNN for a few hours because, alas, I can't understand the Italian on the cheesy Italian networks (how I wish that they didn't dub the cheesy American and German shows that seem to be ubiquitous - at least I could understand those...).
Among the CNN programs I suffered through was Larry King Live. According to this program, the fires of California provide yet another in an endless line of "human interest" stories. Bathetic portrayals of families who have lost their homes are punctuated by uplifting expressions of their faith in the future, the gung ho American spirit that we can rebuild. Nary a word is mentioned about the larger set of circumstances that went into the formation of this "disaster." Indeed, it's exactly the same news sequence that took place after Katrina: horrible disaster; government ineptitude; human spirit will prevail. A morality story between commercial breaks.
Well, for anyone who is interested, here's some background. In the case of both New Orleans and California, it may be news that people are living in places where disasters are waiting to happen. If you've never been to New Orleans, you won't have had the unique opportunity of looking up to see a river. Yes, New Orleans is not only below sea level, it's below river level. And it sinks a few inches more every year. CNN might actually report something worthwhile by inviting John McPhee on Larry King Live!, since McPhee discusses the ways in which government policy and our belief in the unlimited human ability to control nature have combined to create a city that was bound to be submerged by a hurricane at some point. But, in case - like me - you don't have cable, you could consider picking up McPhee's book The Control of Nature, which might even be more edifying than listening to Larry praise the positive spirit of the victims of nature's wrath.
The case of California is far worse: in their desire for a McMansions of their own, approximately 55,000 people knowingly have moved into fire prone areas in the past several years. No one thought to raise the "inconvenient truth" that buying a wood-and-plaster home in a desert environment, one prone to regular and periodic wildfires, was a recipe for disaster that we would all end up paying for (your tax dollars at work, to the tune of an additional 2 billion in increased fire-fighting costs). As a culture we've become accustomed to ignoring any feature of nature that might be seen either as a benefit or a detriment to where we erect these flimsy structures: neither readily available sources of water, temperate climes, or the availability of local building materials, on the one hand, nor hostile environments like the deserts of California, on the other, encourage or dissuade us from building the same pre-fab houses everywhere they can possibly be slapped together and sold for ridiculously inflated prices.
The "news" focuses on the human interest story, and I am truly sorry that these many people lost their houses and possessions. But there is a bigger morale of this particular story, which is that perhaps people shouldn't be living in disaster areas waiting to happen, or if they do, that they shouldn't be surprised when disaster happens. Among the people who lost their houses are undoubtedly some people who on a day to day basis curse the interference of government in their freedoms (of which there is probably too little actual interference, given that there are no laws against building in these areas), and then who curse the government for not doing more to prevent the disaster when it happens. It's a bit like watching NBC news from time to time: one regular segment is entitled "The Fleecing of America," invariably followed by a consumer news story which concludes with the broadcaster moralistically opining that government should be doing more...
And now, CNN tells me (yes, on in the background, just to get the juices flowing), the hunt for the arsonists is on. When we catch the bad guy we can rest content that justice has been done. This part of the morality tale - "the laying of the blame" on an evildoer - reminds me of the James Cameron movie "Titanic," in which we find out that the sinking of the unsinkable ship is due to penny-pinching of the engineer Ismay and the vainglory of the ship's captain, and not to the fact that humans were steering a big metal ship through a part of the ocean known to contain many icebergs.