Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Way We Argue Now

Peter Hallward's piece on Haiti last week filled in most of the gaps that I'd noticed in mainstream / corporate news coverage. This one, for example:
Aristide's own government (elected by some 75% of the electorate) was the latest victim of such interference, when it was overthrown by an internationally sponsored coup in 2004 that killed several thousand people and left much of the population smouldering in resentment. The UN has subsequently maintained a large and enormously expensive stabilisation and pacification force in the country.

Haiti is now a country where, according to the best available study, around 75% of the population "lives on less than $2 per day, and 56% – four and a half million people – live on less than $1 per day". Decades of neoliberal "adjustment" and neo-imperial intervention have robbed its government of any significant capacity to invest in its people or to regulate its economy. Punitive international trade and financial arrangements ensure that such destitution and impotence will remain a structural fact of Haitian life for the foreseeable future.

...The same countries scrambling to send emergency help to Haiti now, however, have during the last five years consistently voted against any extension of the UN mission's mandate beyond its immediate military purpose. Proposals to divert some of this "investment" towards poverty reduction or agrarian development have been blocked, in keeping with the long-term patterns that continue to shape the ­distribution of international "aid".

The same storms that killed so many in 2008 hit Cuba just as hard but killed only four people. Cuba has escaped the worst effects of neoliberal "reform", and its government retains a capacity to defend its people from disaster. If we are serious about helping Haiti through this latest crisis then we should take this comparative point on board. Along with sending emergency relief, we should ask what we can do to facilitate the self-empowerment of Haiti's people and public institutions. If we are serious about helping we need to stop ­trying to control Haiti's government, to pacify its citizens, and to exploit its economy. And then we need to start paying for at least some of the damage we've already done.

I thought that was fairly clear and entirely reasonable. But it wasn't, apparently, to some of the Guardian's commenters, who seemed bent on giving Youtube commenters a run for their money as the world's stupidest. Here, for example, is the very first one in its entirety: "I think we should stop oppressing Africa with aid as well." As you can see from what I quoted, Hallward urges us to send emergency relief. What he does consider oppressive is the regime imposed by US and other foreign interference, which twice overturned Haiti's elected government by violence. Another commenter hastened to show the same careful misunderstanding: "I was going to send some American dollars to help, but now I understand that would be classified as 'neoliberal 'adjustment' and neo-imperial intervention'." And so on, and on, and on.

Others fell back on the Let's-Not-Bother-With-the-Past-Let's-Do-What-We-Can-Now line: "You can't bring history into this." Or: "[Haiti's] problems are not our fault." Or, even more beautifully, "Are you absolutely sure that this is a good time to be scoring poltical [sic] points?" (Here and here as well.) Of course there's no reason why we can't do both, and again, Hallward was explicit about the importance of sending emergency relief now while allowing Haitians to run their own country in the future.

Another fastened onto Hallward's crimethink about Cuba: "Personally I think not having the freedom to express dissent against your goverment to be a disaster. The rest of the article is not even worth commenting upon". Later, "What the Cuban government is concerned with protecting is its own position of power. Why else would so many people want to leave the 'socialist paradise'?"

The trouble here is that Haitians didn't have the freedom to express dissent against their government for most of the twentieth century, and when they succeeded in electing a government they wanted, against terrible repression, it was overturned with US and other foreign support. The US didn't object to Castro because he's a dictator; if he were our kind of dictator -- a Duvalier, an Emmanuel Constant, a Somoza, a Marcos -- he'd have received lots of US money and training for his secret police torturers. (We insist on the secret police torturers.) The US had no objection to dictatorship in Haiti; it was democracy that it feared. And Haitians by the tens of thousands want to leave the capitalist paradise that the international community has imposed on them. The US, mindful that Haiti is a free country (unlike Cuba), regularly sends them right back so they can work in free-trade sweatshops for 38 cents an hour. It's to Obama's limited credit that, because of the earthquake emergency, he has granted a stay of deportation for Haitian refugees currently in the US. But when things return to normal -- Haitian normal -- it's a safe bet that he'll revert to continuing Bush's policy and send them back.

As Lady Augusta Bracknell sagely remarked a century ago, "Fortunately in England, at any rate, education produces no effect whatsoever." That certainly seems to be the case with the commenters on Hallward's article. Their responses cast light on the way that people think, or don't think, about difficult matters.