Friday, January 15, 2010

Haiti: Give Sphere a Troutman, It'll Generate Spin for the Rest of the News Cycle

The earthquake in Haiti is horrifying, and I'm glad that so many people care, and that so much is being done to try to help.

Some predictable media-whoring is going on, of course. Tiger Woods, we're told, is keeping a low profile since his scandal broke, but Russell Simmons told the New York Daily News that Woods is "considering" a $3 million dollar donation to help Haiti. Well, he can certainly afford it, and if he comes through, his motives don't matter. (Update.) Rush Limbaugh argued that Haiti shouldn't receive aid. Pat Robertson said that the earthquake was God's punishment (and having read the Bible, I wouldn't put it past him) for Haitians' allegedly having cut a deal with Satan; I'm not sure whether Robertson was referring to Voudoun or to the slave uprising that won their independence in the first place, but I'm betting on the latter. Slave revolts are only the first step down the slippery slope that leads to gay marriage. President Obama has agreed to write a cover story about Haiti for Newsweek, which is sure to exhibit the same historical accuracy and depth of analysis as all of his public statements. But this sort of thing is, as I said, predictable, and not worth worrying much about.

What bothers me a little more is the absence of historical context in much of the mainstream news coverage. Again, in the short run it's not important as long as the media are drumming up concern and help, but in the long run it does matter since the earthquake is really just a cap to centuries of misery imposed on Haiti from without. Democracy Now!, whose reports I linked to at the beginning of this post, is an exception, but then they're not mainstream. Probably only DN! would feature a guest who was even aware of the irony of Obama's appointing George W. Bush and Bill Clinton to coordinate the US aid program:
RANDALL ROBINSON: Well, Amy, I’m, of course, troubled by that. I don’t think this is the time—neither the time nor the place to discuss those things that have troubled me for a long time in the history of American policy towards Haiti. Now the focus must be upon the rescue efforts that are underway to save lives.

But I hope that this experience, this disaster, causes American media to take a keener look at Haiti, at the Haitian people, at their wonderful creativity, at their art, at their culture, and what they’ve had to bear. It has been described to the American people as a problem of their own making. Well, that’s simply not the case. Haiti has been, of course, put upon by outside powers for its whole post-slavery history, from 1804 up until the present.

Of course, President Bush was responsible for destroying Haitian democracy in 2004, when he and American forces abducted President Aristide and his wife, taking them off to Africa, and they are now in South Africa. President Clinton has largely sponsored a program of economic development that supports the idea of sweatshops. Haitians in Haiti today make 38 cents an hour. They don’t make a high enough wage to pay for their lunch and transportation to and from work. But this is the kind of economic program that President Clinton has supported. I think that is sad, that these two should be joined in this kind of effort. It sends, I think, the wrong kind of signal. But that is not what we should focus on now. We should focus on saving lives.

But in the last analysis, I hope that American media will not just continue to—the refrain of Haiti being the poorest country in the western hemisphere, but will come to ask the question, why?
Most of what I'm seeing doesn't bother to ask that question, and it is not because the writers want to focus firmly on what must be done now, without fussing over the past. This writer, for example, who modestly confesses that she "traveled with an honorary title, U.N. Citizen Ambassador", laments that
Haiti was so destitute, so broken. ... The hurricanes that devastated Haiti, particularly the town of Gonaives, in 2004 and 2008 made planning a priority. The priority. But for most of its existence, Haiti has had a highly centralized government, with local authorities either invisible or impotent ... It's a problem that all the humanitarians in the country felt they contributed to: a culture of dependence. The phrase I heard most in Haiti, from everyone at every level of society was, "Give a man a fish, he eats for a day ..."

But the needs remained. Haiti's problems were complicated, old and typical. Haiti was ruled by autocrats for so many years that it seemed no one shared any sense of national identity. If the country doesn't serve you, why should you serve it?
Well, you know how it is. Haiti's problems are old. Things are bad, that's all. It's nobody's fault. The actual history that produced these problems seems to be entirely unknown to Emily Troutman (and the article as a whole is even more offensive than this excerpt suggests), especially the grass-roots political movement that showed that Haitians do indeed have "a sense of national identity" and political dedication that puts most Americans to shame. That's why they had to be stopped, and stopped, and stopped again.

I was in a chat room where Haiti was being mentioned from time to time, and one participant declared that Haiti could be "a paradise 10 years from now." I asked him who it would be a paradise for (the Haitians? tourists? multinational corporations who are in heaven when they pay workers 38 cents and hour?) but couldn't get him to elaborate. Naomi Klein did elaborate, however. The vultures are hovering, and this disaster is just the opportunity they're waiting for.

On Facebook, my old friend the minister is saying nice things, and of course urging people to help. He's properly embarrassed by Robertson's rant, of course, but why? I mean, yes, it's bad PR, but it also goes back to a question I addressed some time ago. Most people would agree that we should judge religions by their best adherents, not by their worst (though most people judge competing sects by their worst adherents). But how do you decide who are the best and who are the worst? Robertson's position is biblical enough. King David took a census, and Yahweh punished him by sending a plague that killed 70,000 people. According to 2 Samuel 24, Yahweh incited David to take the census; the Chronicler (1 Chronicles 21) solved the problem by claiming that Satan incited David to take the census, which only implies that Yahweh is Satan. If you want to argue that this doesn't count because the Old Testament God is a God of Wrath, Jesus is reported to have said that Jerusalem would be destroyed because Israel had failed to recognize him as Messiah. This doesn't make any more sense, really, because if Israel had recognized Jesus as the Messiah, he would not have been crucified and mankind could not have been saved by Jesus' saving sacrificial blood.

Beyond this, natural disasters are conventionally known as acts of God. Most modern Christians, even very conservative ones, are uncomfortable about this, but it's traditional Christian doctrine that Yahweh is not just the creator of the world but its sustainer. Everything that happens is his doing. Not even a sparrow falls without his knowledge, according to Jesus, and as an omniscient and omnipotent being Yahweh is therefore responsible for that sparrow in a way that no mere human being could ever be. It's also traditional Christian doctrine that Yahweh is a god who acts in history. The Deist philosophy -- that God created the universe but has followed a hands-off policy ever since -- is not reconcilable with Christianity, which holds that Yahweh intervened at least in Jesus' career. So in Christian terms, it doesn't really matter if the Haitian earthquake was a punishment or had some other motivation: it was still an act of the Christian God. Whether Christians should help the Haitians (who are themselves Christians, remember), or whether aid constitutes an act of rebellion against their god's will, is a question that, as an atheist, I happily don't have to answer.

P.S. It turns out that the Haitian revolution was exactly what Pat Robertson had in mind. It also turns out that Robertson didn't make the story up himself; it's been circulating for several years now. This historian provides some background (via) while still largely ignoring the direct US support for those plundering Haitian plutocrats.

Jon Stewart gets a wee bit self-righteous in this clip, pointing out all the pretty parts in the Good Book and asking why after such a disaster Robertson didn't quote any of them: passages where Yahweh reassures his Chosen (after he's hit them with yet another plague, earthquake, invasion, or deportation) that his love for them is steadfast and they can lean on him all the way. Except that it was always Yahweh who sent the plague, earthquake, invading army of deportation in the first place, which makes him like the classical abusive husband/lover: first he beats you black and blue, then he swears that he only did it because he loves you, and if you'd only stop making those deals with Satan he wouldn't have to chastise you. The prophets of Israel, including Jesus if you want to include him, were all about Tough Love, and repellent as Robertson certainly is, he stands squarely in that demented tradition.

Stewart also is displeased by a Rachel Maddow item in which she points out the USAID / US military connection. It's a good thing he didn't see Naomi Klein's warning, quoted above! Granted that the first priority right now is getting help to Haiti as soon as possible, there's no reason not to be wary of US / corporate intentions at the same time. Unless Stewart is packing his bags to go minister personally to the suffering Haitians, he can't really fault Maddow for doing her job, just as he continues to do his. (Satire? While people are dying? Jon, how could you?) Then he engages in an embarrassing interview with Tom Brokaw, which tiptoes around the history of Haiti with vague references to "corruption and oppression."

(both photos)