by Dr. Rafael Medoff
Americans would care more about the genocide in Darfur if the victims were puppies, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed in a provocative May 10 op-ed.
Is he right?
“Time and again, we’ve seen that the human conscience isn’t pricked by mass suffering, while an individual child (or puppy) in distress causes our hearts to flutter,” Kristof wrote. He cited psychological studies which have found that people who are given a choice between helping one suffering person or helping a large number, will overwhelmingly choose to help just that one.
Thirty thousand children around the world die each day as a result of the consequences of poverty, but the American public hardly notices, according to Kristof. What really moves people is an ordeal like that of the toddler Jessica McClure, who fell into a Texas well in 1987, or Hok Get, a terrier stranded on a burned-out oil tanker in the Pacific in 2002. The public contributed some $45,000 to try to rescue the dog.
The eviction of a red-tailed hawk from its nest on a Manhattan apartment building sparked an international outcry, with actress Mary Tyler Moore and others rising up in passionate defense of the bird’s rights. Kristof’s comment: “A single homeless hawk aroused more indignation than two million homeless Sudanese.”
For the last several years, Kristof has done more than any other journalist to expose the Sudanese Arab militias’ massacres of blacks in Darfur. He has also been a courageous –and often lonely– voice against the failure of the United States and other governments to actively intervene against the killings.
Kristof knows that one way to change government policy is through an outraged public, but getting the American public to care about millions of nameless genocide victims in far-away Africa is no easy task. “What we need,” he proposes, “is more troubled consciences–pricked, perhaps, by a Darfur puppy with big eyes and floppy ears.”
Sadly, there is an historical precedent for Mr. Kristof’s disturbing scenario.
The Wagner-Rogers bill, which was introduced in Congress in early 1939, proposed to admit 20,000 refugee children from Nazi Germany. A number of prominent Americans, including former First Lady Grace Coolidge and New York City mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, backed the bill. But their support could not overcome the tide of public opinion, which was strongly against increasing immigration, despite the recent Kristallnacht pogrom. President Franklin Roosevelt refused to support the bill.
FDR’s cousin, Laura Delano Houghteling, who was the wife of the U.S. Commissioner of Immigration, articulated the sentiment of many opponents of Wagner-Rogers when she remarked at a dinner party that “twenty thousand charming children would all too soon grow up into twenty thousand ugly adults.” Such hateful attitudes were all too common in those days.
The following year, Pets Magazine published a sympathetic photo of a British puppy, accompanied by an appeal to rescue pure-breds who were endangered by the German bombing raids on England. This time, the American public’s response was swift and generous: several thousand readers offered to shelter the puppies.
Our generation looks back at the defeat of Wagner-Rogers, and the remark by Laura Houghteling, with shock and disapproval. We like to think that we have learned the lessons from that experience and would never again ignore mass murder. But how will future generations judge our response to Darfur?