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BC’s Tales of the Pacific | Tragedy and comedy in Australian wildfires

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THE wildfires that have raged in Australia for over two months have been an epic disaster for that country. Since Australia is a major neighbor out here in the Pacific, we all feel the impact of a catastrophe so close to home. Many of us have stayed on top of the story by following news broadcasts and contacting friends and family in that country.

Increasingly, as is often the case with such a monumental story, the tragedy takes on the look and feel of a comedy. Thanks to the 24-hour news cycle, journalists feel pressure to constantly say something new even when there really isn’t anything to report.

A famous example of journalistic nothingness came out of the Vietnam war. In 1968, at the height of the Tet Offensive, an anchorman asked a reporter who was live in Saigon how things were going. The reply was, “We don’t know but casualties are believed to be high.” What does that mean? He started by saying he didn’t know, so wouldn’t that make whatever came out of his mouth next meaningless? Or worse, made up? And casualties are believed to be high? Not high, but only believed to be high. Who believes they are high? Do others believe they are low? And whose casualties are we talking about anyway? If enemy casualties are high that is a good thing. If friendly casualties are high that is a bad thing. What is a viewer supposed to do with such journalistic trash as that?

Which brings us to the Australian wildfires. A quick scan of news outlets demonstrates that we have reached the “We don’t know but…” phase of things. I saw articles that debated whether global warming was the cause of the fires. Apparently, some people think there were no forest fires before global warming came around. The average temperature of the planet has risen by one degree in the last hundred years. So, one degree ago we were fine but now global warming is causing fires?

Scientists have announced that the smoke from the fires has made its way around the world and is starting to blow back into Australia. What does that mean? Can we expect residents of Sydney to cough twice as much, since they have the immediate smoke as well as the second-time-around wildfire smoke to contend with?

This next story really caught my eye. A group of retired tennis players are getting together to hold a tournament to raise money for wildfire victims. That is either the sweetest thing I’ve heard in a long time or the most pathetic. “Hey everyone, you may not remember me, but I can shove my way back into the headlines if I hold a fundraising publicity stunt.” This kind of piggy-backing off a tragedy to increase their own media presence is awkward and embarrassing.

Of course, nothing happens anymore without political implications. Apparently, many people believe that politicians really do run the world. I thought blaming Donald Trump for the Boeing 737 Max debacle was ludicrous. Now I see in the same media outlets that Trump is also to blame for the wildfires. My brain truly aches for what Teddy Roosevelt called the lunatic fringe.

Can Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison recover politically from the fires? Are the fires his fault? Is he not doing enough? What is enough? How do we gauge if a politician is doing enough for any cause? If the cause triumphs, does that mean the politician did it? If it fails, does that mean he didn’t do enough? What if he did everything he could, and it still wasn’t enough? I saw video clips of Morrison touring a burned-out area that used to be a town. The survivors yelled and cursed at him, calling him names and saying he would get no votes around there. Was it just the frustration of the moment or do they think he is to blame for their troubles? I would like to ask if they believe the fires would not have destroyed their homes if someone else had been prime minister.

Every social movement is trying to connect the fires to their cause. I’ve seen articles on how the fires impact gay and lesbian issues, vegans have spoken up, lobbyists from both sides of the gun control debate have been heard from, animal rights activists have turned the wildfires into a battle cry on behalf of nature. Even Aboriginal Australians have taken up the banner, declaring that the land needs to be burned off from time to time. The beat goes on.

Now with the volcanic eruption in the Philippines, the global news juggernaut can focus on a new crisis. Look out Luzon, they’re coming! Keep an eye open at your airports for journalists, politicians, vegans, and retired tennis players.

BC Cook, PhD lived on Saipan and has taught history for 20 years. He currently resides on the mainland U.S.

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