the politics of misery

The American evangelist Pat Robertson’s claim that the Haitian earthquake resulted from a pact with the Devil have been widely reported. Interestingly, the ‘Satanic Haitians theory seems to be historical survival of the hysteria that the great Haitian slave rebellions instilled in white racists. Scott Mclemee explains (quoting CLR James’ mighty book The Black Jacobins) the role that religion played in that revolt:

Carrying torches to light their way, the leaders of the revolt met in an open space in the thick forests of the Morne Rouge, a mountainside overlooking Le Cap. There Boukman gave the last instructions and, after Voodoo incantations and the sucking of the blood of a stuck pig, he stimulated his followers by a prayer spoken in creole which, like so much spoken on such occasions, has remained. “The god who created the sun which gives us light, who rouses the waves and rules the storm, though hidden in the clouds, he watches us. He sees all that the white man does. The god of the white man inspires him with crime, but our god calls upon us to do good works. Our god who is good to us orders us to revenge our wrongs. He will direct our arms and aid us. Throw away the symbol of the god of the whites who has so often caused us to weep, and listen to the voice of liberty, which speaks in the hearts of us all.” The symbol of the god of the whites was the cross which, as good Catholics, they wore around their necks.

But, while one should never be too complacent about the Pat Robertsons of this world (the guy does front a media empire with millions of supporters), he is, politically, a marginal figure. What’s more significant is how reputable conservatives are developing very similar theories to explain Haiti’s poverty and to shape the response to the crisis. For example, here’s David Brooks in the New York Times:

Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.

As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

No mention of the Devil but the gist is pretty similar.

Of course, there’s nothing there about the US’s role in propping up two generations of the murderous Duvalier kleptocracy. Papa Doc and Baby Doc might have systematically destroyed civil society in Haiti but they provided a solid buttress against Cuba and hence received material and military aid even as they bathed their country in blood. What’s more, under US pressure, Baby Doc dutifully opened his economy to the free market, with predictably disastrous results for the Haitian poor.

Then, after Baby Doc’s fall, the US initially backed the coup to remove the left-leaning populist Jean-Bertrand Aristide, before restoring him to power — but only on the basis that he abandoned his reform plans and adhered to the standard neo-liberal template. Stan Goff’s book Hideous Dream provides a very good account of the cynicism of the Aristide restoration, an early incarnation of the now commonplace ‘humanitarian intervention’.

Since then, it’s been business as usual, with a weak Haitian government doing what its powerful neighbour tells it to do. That’s why, as many people have said, there’s nothing ‘natural’ about this natural disaster. Yes, earthquakes happen but the mass deaths result from years of shoddy construction, a non-existent health or emergency system and so on and so forth.

In these politically grim times, the heartfelt response of so many ordinary people to the misery in Haiti is salutary. We should, however, be conscious that there will be those who exploit this disaster for their own ends. I don’t mean the email scammers masquerading as charities: I mean the process that Naomi Klein documented in her book The Shock Doctrine, in which a catastrophe that stuns the populace provides an opportunity for the kinds of economic ‘reforms’ that would never be accepted in normal times. Thus, in New Orleans, the hurricane and its devastation became a pretext for the privatisation of the school system. As Milton Friedman, the Godfather of neo-liberalism, explained: ‘Most New Orleans school are in ruins as are the homes of the children who have attended them. This is a tragedy. It is also an opportunity to racially reform the educational system.’

Thus, in the wake of the hurricane, the 123 public schools run by the school board were reduced to 4, while the number of publicly funded but privately-run schools increased from 7 to 31. Teacher unionists were sacked in droves; staff wages slashed. And all this happened while most normal people were too busy coping with the death and devastation around them to pay attention to education.

With that in mind, here  is the Heritage Foundation, one of America’s leading conservative thinktanks, on Haiti:

Amidst the Suffering, Crisis in Haiti Offers Opportunities to the U.S.

In addition to providing immediate humanitarian assistance, the U.S. response to the tragic earthquake in Haiti earthquake offers opportunities to re-shape Haiti’s long-dysfunctional government and economy as well as to improve the public image of the United States in the region…

While on the ground in Haiti, the U.S. military can also interrupt the nightly flights of cocaine to Haiti and the Dominican Republic from the Venezuelan coast and counter the ongoing efforts of Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez to destabilize the island of Hispaniola. This U.S. military presence, which should also include a large contingent of U.S. Coast Guard assets, can also prevent any large-scale movement by Haitians to take to the sea in rickety watercraft to try to enter the U.S. illegally.

Meanwhile, the U.S. must be prepared to insist that the Haiti government work closely with the U.S. to insure that corruption does not infect the humanitarian assistance flowing to Haiti. Long-term reforms for Haitian democracy and its economy are also badly overdue.

You can see how the process works. In the midst of so much death, who would say no to aid funding? Who would have the stomach to argue about any conditions to which it might be attached? With the system clearly unable to cope, how could you carp about ‘long-term reforms for Haitian democracy and its economy’ — even though, of course, Aristide could tell you something about what that really means.

In his New York Times piece, David Brooks, once he stops fulminating about voodoo, goes on to make pretty much the same ‘Shock Doctrine’ argument.

Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.

It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

The late political scientist Samuel P. Huntington used to acknowledge that cultural change is hard, but cultures do change after major traumas.

Nothing like a major trauma to change the culture!

If Brooks’ advocacy about ‘intrusive paternalism’ seems familiar, it’s because we’ve seen something very much like the Shock Doctrine at work in Aboriginal Australia.  After all, if the Howard government had simply declared that it planned to cut welfare in the Northern Territory, to overturn the Land Rights Act and the system of permits required to enter Aboriginal land, to replace elected councillors with unelected business managers, to abolish the Community Development Employment Program scheme and throw Aborigines onto ‘work-for-the-dole’ and all the rest of it, there would have been, quite rightly, mass opposition. But the genuine misery documented in the ‘Little Children are Sacred Report’ both disarmed critics and legitimised action — any action.

Catastrophe as opportunity: it’s a hideous equation. But you can already see it taking shape in Haiti.

Jeff Sparrow

Jeff Sparrow is a Walkley Award-winning writer, broadcaster and former editor of Overland.

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  1. It never ceases to amaze me, the depths that people / groups will sink to to advance their own agenda. If the devil had a part in this terrible disaster it was Tom Waits’ definition “don’t you know there ain’t no devil, it’s just god when he’s drunk.” Neo-liberalism is the devil on earth, drunk on power and looking for any angle to ‘impose their democracy’, Go Team America!

  2. This is a very interesting piece. And I say ‘hear hear’ to the concerns you raise.

    I want to say one extra thing that might be taken as support for ‘catastrophe as opportunity’, which I don’t mean it to be. I think we do need to be cautious about viewing other cultures as something inviolate, that we have no business to question in any way. We should always be prepared to question cultural practices, and likewise to defend our own (if we think they deserve to be). Otherwise, how can we ever hope to change things like honour killings, ritual circumcision, and the multitude of class, gender and race discriminations that exist worldwide? (Our own culture included). ‘It’s cultural’ shouldn’t be an excuse.

  3. I agree that a catastrophe such as this shouldn’t be treated opportunistically. The question that I myself struggle with is how much we (as western powers) are entitled to contort, question and fiddle the culture of others. Undoubtedly Haiti’s political and economic suffering is in no small part the result of American interference and a Colonial past, the very least that can be done is sending the aid required now but that aid’s delivery shouldn’t be expedient and instead serve, for once, to benefit the people of Haiti. I would like to see Haiti stand again on its own two feet and for it to do so without handholding and surreptitious direction from the United States. Haitians haven’t proved themselves capable of stability in the past but how much of that was due to adverse circumstance created outside of their control? It is impossible to reverse centuries of exploitation but perhaps that is the opportunity that presents itself here, to begin to atone for mistakes of the past.

  4. a href=””>The United Nations says Haiti is worst disaster it has ever confronted” Link goes to The ABC.

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