God knows, there is more than enough horror in the world, should a person be looking for something to be horrified about, but what is going on in Ethiopia at this moment -- as we see on the nightly television news and read in our newspapers and magazines -- seems truly ghastly and truly mad.
At least 300,000 people have already died because they have nothing to eat, a million or more are likely to perish and another 6 or 7 million will go hungry before the famine ends, if it does end. That's just in Ethiopia; the famine is equally grave in Mozambique and Chad, and hunger threatens half the continent, now affected by two vast belts of drought. But attention at the moment is focused on Ethiopia, where, we learn from a headline in yesterday's newspaper, "Politicians, Actors Gather in Ethiopia: Drama of Famine Victims Draws Celebrities."
I suppose that on balance the descent of the celebrities on Addis Ababa -- where, Blaine Harden writes in the article beneath that piquant headline, "the pristine air (is) as cool and invigorating as a cloudless April morning in Washington" -- is a good thing, however bizarre and incongruous it seems on the surface: all these beautiful people swooping down on the Addis Ababa Hilton to attend a famine briefly.
Our own Mayor Barry will be there on Saturday; Senator Kennedy has scheduled a Christmas visit. The actors Charlton Heston and Cliff Robertson have come, made charity films and gone. The British feminist Germaine Greer and the Virginia congressman Frank Wolf are there now. "They are part of a parade to Addis Ababa," Blaine Harden writes, "of celebrities, U.S. lawmakers, United Nations officials, Western European ministers, private philanthropists and reporters," come to take part in what the Czech novelist Milan Kundera calls "the Grand March of History" and to behold this latest spectacle of human misery on a grand and grotesque scale.
Has everyone forgotten that 10 years ago there was a great drought in the Sahel, that area below the Sahara and above the forests of equatorial Africa that extends from Mauritania to the Sudan, and that the same powerful images of starving children with swollen bellies flashed across our television screens then too, and that congressmen and celebrities went over for a look, and that they came back full of plans and pity, and hearings were held and testimony was taken and money was given -- and whatever came of all that?
Famine was fashionable then, too, for those of us in the West looking for a cause to engage us. But it passed, as these things will, replaced by other worthy causes now blurred in the memory, though the devastation of that earlier drought -- about 300,000 Africans dead -- did not: it simply faded from our television screens.
It was television that brought the present disaster home to us in our living rooms, just last October when the British Broadcasting Corporation aired its first five-minute film clip of the starving (although the first warnings of the famine had come two years ago and it had been widely written about before the cameramen arrived).
The power of television is very great and the world was shaken by those haunting pictures. Money and food -- and celebrities on the Ethiopia tour -- began pouring in, often in quantities difficult to cope with. The situation is rife with irony; Evelyn Waugh would have loved it.
Nonetheless, it is a good thing that the famine in Ethiopia has engaged the attention of various celebrities, which in turn engages the attention of the rest of us. Because certain causes suddenly become chic does not mean that they become any less worthy, and famous people can care as much about human misery as anyone else. The critical issue, however, is not the attention now being paid to Ethiopia but how long that attention will last.