The Mandate of a Mad Heaven, or the Whim of a Malign Thug

My friends find me almost mute about the earthquake in China, odd considering my interest in Chinese history, and my need to alert the world to the fall of the smallest sparrow. The best coverage has been that of Melissa Block on NPR, a story I'm sure she would rather have lived without seeing. This was a sad case of being the right person in the wrong place at the right time: Block and Robert Siegel were in China for the Olympics, and Block herself was interviewing a Chinese Christian about his flock in the west of China when the towers began to shake. The next day she had to watch mothers and fathers identify the bodies of their dead children, and on into the night with rain falling and candles flickering around small bodies as families burnt offerings for the dead, paper money and incense and firecrackers, and paper toys if they had them, in the old tradition. This was not ambulance chasing; just being there and bearing witness. Siegel himself was covering a makeshift emergency rom where the doctors had gone days without sleep, mentioned his own daughters safe at home, and learned that the doctor he was interviewing, up to his elbows in another patient, had lost his twenty-six-year-old daughter in the quake. Who must do the difficult things? goes the proverb, He who can.

The Lisbon earthquake and tsunami back in 1755 was one of the events that fed the Enlightenment and led people like Voltaire to question the blinkered praise of a merciful God:
Unhappy mortals! Dark and mourning earth!
Affrighted gathering of human kind!
Eternal lingering of useless pain!

"If God's up there," Dr. Lecter tells Clarice Starling about church collapses, in his role as the demon who always puts a little bit of truth in the lies he tells, "He just... loves... it." And Voltaire's Candide watched the tsunami murder the innocent while the wicked bobbed like corks, and forever after considered themselves as blessed by God. If ever you wonder how the Bush administration sleeps at night, there's your answer: their friends and children didn't die, and yours did.

One of the early commentators on the Chengdu tragedy mentioned the "Mandate of Heaven", an ancient homily that says every dynasty in China survives only so long as it has the clear approval of the Powers that Be-- that is, so long as a dynasty keeps winning, then God must approve. The fellow who mentioned the Mandate caught some flack later on, usually along the line that China is a modern country now and doesn't believe in such superstition any more, but I think they missed the point he was making. The influence of natural disaster on the Mandate of Heaven has always been a practical one: regimes that do a good job of coping with natural disasters do well, and those who fail to take care of the people in a crisis soon find the ship of state beset on all sides by a sea of angry humanity. Apparently, the Chinese regime is doing the best anyone could ask for, for its own people at least (although one wishes the political wing would use its influence in Burma to kick the Myanamar generals' ass up around their ears). In Chengdu, the complaints and anger have been directed at lax building codes and local corruption that led to collapses, while the government in Beijing is still very much in charge.

Beijing says it wants to rebuild in two years, and probably means it, which would be rather ironic, considering the clusterfuck that the ideology of laissez-faire capitalism visited on Louisiana and the Gulf Coast after a couple of hurricanes. Here's a prayer for Sichaun Province, and keep a prayerful eye on friends near San Francisco and Saint Louis on the San Andreas and New Madrid fault lines. There's enough old Baptist left in me to wonder if some worse thing, some greater sorrow, was avoided, but Portugal's prime minister probably said it best in 1755, and quieted the philosophers and the preachers: "We will bury the dead and take care of the living."

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