Last month, a Norwegian television station broadcast a 12-hour show on firewood. The first four hours were on what I can only describe as firewood philosophy, and the last eight hours of the show were televised wood burning. They literally just broadcast a fireplace as it burned wood for eight hours. This aired during prime time, and 20% of Norway’s entire population tuned in to watch it. Seriously.
I won’t steal this article’s thunder by giving you all the details, and really, there aren’t many. It’s a TV show about fire, and 2/3 of it consisted of filming wood burning. How many details could there possibly be? Instead, permit me to whet your appetite for more with this gripping quote, emblematic of this groundbreaking night of Norwegian telly, as an interview subject described his fascination:
‘When will they add new logs? Just before I managed to tear myself away, they must have opened the flue a little, because just then the flames shot a little higher.’
If you read the article, you’ll note that the man quoted asserts that he’s not being ironic.
I want to understand this, but I’m not sure I do. Sometimes I relax by watching something thoroughly forgettable on TV, preferably something set in an exotic locale at which I can marvel. Netflix streaming Magnum P.I. for example. This escapism is also, I suppose, the bedrock of all successful science fiction; watching futuristic dramas set in a world distinct from our own allows us to unwind and be inspired simultaneously. Magnum isn’t quite that grand, but there are worse ways to spend an hour.
I’m not sure that’s relevant here. This was wood enflamed. I’m pretty sure it was escapism, mind you, but it seems a step beyond it too. I imagine hundreds of thousands of tall blonde people – wearing sweaters, because Norway is COLD this time of year – giving their televisions the same thousand-yard stare as the Vietnam vets on Magnum always seem to have. What I don’t understand, however is why. I can’t really imagine a lesser use of 12 hours, so I have to ask: are we sure everything’s OK in Norway? Would anybody object to asking the UN to send a few thousand therapists to check on them? We can throw in a mountain of antidepressants, too – I know I’ll donate some cash.
Escapist television isn’t the only way to experience worlds distinct from our own. Another way to do that is to watch the news, particularly the international news, although there are some parts of the area in which I live (Chicagoland) that might as well be a separate planet. At any rate, as regular readers of my blog know, I spend a significant amount of my time indulging in international news. It’s not always escapism, but it is often another world.
I remind you of this because I realized last week that I had missed what should be – but I think has not been – a major international story: the United Nations introduced cholera to a country in which it had never previously existed, and thousands of people died. So we’re clear, the cholera entered the country’s water supply when the UN pulled troops out of Nepal, brought them to this country, and didn’t dispose of their troops’ bodily waste in a responsible way. Basically, the UN took a diseased dump in this country’s water, and thousands died. Worse, the strain of cholera that the UN tracked around the world now appears to be endemic in this unfortunate country, so people continue to die from it, but the UN refuses to acknowledge responsibility, and has not yet committed to producing the billions of dollars that might (no guarantees) eradicate it. Of course, the UN isn’t really accountable to anyone – least of all failing states – so that’s where the story seems likely to end.
What country? Haiti, naturally. What other country has such awful luck?
I used to read about Haiti. In 1993, when it looked like we might invade Haiti, I was as informed about the poorer half of Hispaniola as anyone. But at some point, amidst stories of crushing poverty, dysfunctional and corrupt “government,” rampant violence, and rape gangs, I gave up. The world had been trying – with varying amounts of effort – in Haiti for generations, and it resulted in Afghanistan without tribal loyalties or the organizing influence of extremist Islam. Read that again. Haiti is worse than Afghanistan.
When I sit down to watch some escapist television, it allows me to forget about not only my problems, but all problems. And in that moment, I feel free. Reading about Haiti is exactly the opposite. It doesn’t help me forget about my problems; it makes me realize how awful the world can be. It makes all problems – both mine and those that are definitely not mine – seem more daunting. And in that moment, I feel trapped. I missed this story because I don’t like the way hearing news reports about Haiti makes me feel. I missed this story because I was actively trying to miss it.
It’s not as if anything would be different if I hadn’t missed the story about the UN, um, unloading on Haiti. 8,000 people would still be dead. The UN would still be accountable to nobody. The problem would still be likely to repeat itself someday.
And this isn’t one of those posts where the author argues that it wouldn’t have happened if it wasn’t for our apathy. Not only would things be exactly the same if more of us were paying attention, they might even be worse. Besides, since this is a blog about Christianity and culture, I should also highlight that most of what I do hear/read about Haiti these days is from missionaries; it’s not as though Christians are the ones who’ve abandoned Haiti or ignored it. We’re actually the ones still trying, no matter how ridiculous things become.
As long as we’re absolving people of guilt, let me also clarify that I didn’t mention the Norwegians earlier to blame them. Scandinavian countries are actually very generous when it comes to foreign aid; what’s more, Norway has only half as many people as the Chicago area, and hardly has the resources to end evil and misfortune the world over.
All I want to point out is that when I think about the UN killing people with cholera in Haiti and then refusing to acknowledge or rectify their malfeasance, the escapist power of Magnum and his mustache diminish. Not even the sight of those bushy eyebrows peering above a Ferrari driving around Hawaii can make me forget and escape Haiti’s misfortunes. At this point, the idea of staring at fire for a while begins to sound not so bad, even if it is televised, and maybe that’s the secret behind Norway’s otherwise inscrutable television preferences. Maybe they’ve been reading too much about Haiti, and wondering what can be done when the UN creates problems rather than solving them, and maybe that has soured them on actual entertainment, and so they watch fire. It’s a plausible hypothesis, right?
So Haiti helps me understand Norwegian television preferences, even if it makes me wonder what else the Norwegians know that I don’t.
Anybody know if the UN made it to Norway with the antidepressants yet?