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Kevin Myers: Disasters -- where would showbiz be without them?

It's hard to know where to start when human catastrophe occurs, and the breast-beaters come out of the woodwork. I do not make light of such calamities: only the sick and the wicked do that.

But we are still entitled to feel slightly queasy when disasters are turned into yet another showbiz caring competition, and even the standards of basic journalism -- which are pretty negotiable at the best of times -- are suspended in an agreeable haze of emoting and hand-wringing.

Take yesterday's dispatch from Reuters, which quoted "Haitian authorities" as saying that the earthquake had killed "up to 200,000 people and left up to three million hurt or homeless". It added that "Haiti's government reported 609,000 persons without shelter in the wider Port-au- Prince area".

Hold on there. What do these terms "Haitian authorities" and "Haiti's government" mean when whatever little infrastructure existed in the state vanished in the earthquake? Every journalist there reports a complete absence of any arm of government. (The prime minister, sensible fellow, is in Montreal).

That being so, what validity do these figures actually have? How could so many have died in a society of breeze-block shanty towns? Who benefits if the death toll is inflated? Final question in this sequence: where does the '9' in the figure 609,000 come from in a state that has never, in its entire existence, been able to conduct a census of any kind?

The most unintentionally awe-inspiring testimony about life on the island came from a Stuart Coles of Plan International, an English charity based in Woking, Surrey. (I had no idea anything was based in Woking. But there you are). He told 'The Sunday Times' that Plan International had been operating in Haiti since 1973. But that's nearly 40 years. Vietnam has been destroyed, and then rebuilt, during that same time. At least, Plan International can well and truly say that Haiti isn't Woking.

Naturally, Hollywood has got into the act. A humble inquiry: whenever the stars are enlisted for the latest global charity gig -- if it's Tuesday, it must be Darfur, Thursday global warming, Friday the one-legged gorillas of the Amazonian rainforest -- do they ever feel remotely abashed at their public posturing? Could they even find any of these places on the globe? And how interested would they be in doing their very public corporal works of mercy if they were given an absolute guarantee beforehand that henceforth no one on earth would ever know of these "charitable" deeds?

One televised Hollywood stunt was for stars to take cash pledges from the public over banks of phones. One such celebrity was Russell Brand, whose telephone antics are quite distinctive. Remember, he phoned the actor Andrew Sachs and told him in detail how he'd had sex with his grand-daughter, and then broadcast a recording of the conversation. This was swiftly followed by A) his suspension by the BBC; and B) his promotion to A-list celebrity. Which merely confirms that in this demented and unprincipled culture of showbiz, fame is all.

One hopes he has cleaned up his telephone act for this charity gig: or maybe I'm being naive. For logic, truth, reason and decency are not factors in this world -- which no doubt enabled Beyonce to put these words into her fund-raising song: "Haiti, we can see your halo, you know you're my saving grace".

Haiti as a saving grace. Quite.

Politics is showbiz for the plain. And in this matter, it's a neck-and-neck fatuity competition between Billy Timmins of Fine Gael, and Michael D Higgins of Labour.

I leave you to decide.

The former said that since we have so many unoccupied houses, we should give them to the Haitian homeless. Actually, a good idea, since the numbers sort of match. We have over 300,000 empty houses, and according to one of those splendid government analysts in Port-au-Prince, the capital has 609,000 -- not 600,000, or 610,000, but 609,000 -- homeless people. We can clearly house the lot, two per house (nuclear families not being one of Haiti's strong points).

Moreover, our cultural diversity would be enormously enriched with the arrival of over half a million voodoo worshippers. So let's do it: and maybe Plan International can set up some sub-offices here for the next 40 years or so.

Michael D Higgins declared it was "crucial" that Ireland "take a lead in helping co-ordinate a response to the earthquake".

Dear me. "Crucial", eh, that we "take a lead"?

So what does he propose? That we send a couple of generals to tell the US army how to do things? The US contingent in Haiti exceeds our entire Defence Forces, which -- thanks to our much-vaunted neutrality, which MDH is so very proud of -- haven't got a single plane capable of reaching the island.

Yes, I can really see the Americans snapping to attention when our boys finally arrive there.

Of course, neither actually housing Haitians in Ireland, or controlling relief operations, was the actual intention of either politician. No: as with Hollywood, the really important thing is to get a good solid, meaningless piety out there in the public domain.

Disasters. Where would showbiz be without them?

kmyers@independent.ie

Irish Independent