What to say about a disaster as horrific as the earthquake in Haiti? An earthquake that destroyed Lisbon in the 18th century led Voltaire to satirize Leibniz's claim that "this is the best of all possible worlds." Unexpected, agonizing death on a mass scale inevitably evokes questions as to the meaning of life, human beings' place in the cosmos, and even the power and justice of God.
Vast natural disasters also bring out the best and the worst of the mass media. The scale of disaster is conveyed with an immediacy that evokes immediate empathy for populations and cultures often treated as inferior.
The same media, however, both perhaps out of its own anxieties or commercial and governmental expectations, persistently convey the impression that "we are in charge here." Our values, practices and institutions will ease suffering and put the victims on the road to a new order. Thus alongside the footage of desperate suffering we see heroic images of massive aircraft carriers and Coast Guard ships steaming toward Haiti. Little mention attends the role that Cuba, Venezuela and even China played early on.
Though some early reports pictured Haitians digging others out of the rubble, there was no discussion of the positive role of broader Haitian culture. Mark Schuller, professor of African American Studies at York College, City University of New York points out "Haiti has a thriving tradition of youn-ede-lot (one helping the other) and konbit (collective work groups)."
U.S. media often seemed intent on ugly stereotypes of Haitians. On the Saturday after the quake, an NBC "Today" show anchor, absent any strong evidence, asked a World Vision spokesman if he was concerned about Haitians rioting if food was distributed before orderly distribution systems had been established by the military. He responded that in his experience that was not a concern. Yet as the World Vision spokesman responded, NBC flashed a few seconds of murky background footage of jostling in a relief line. No context or commentary was given. No one asked if withholding water and food out of distrust of Haitians might increase desperation and lead to the very behavior that was feared. Nor did anyone ask if Haitians had any reasons - historic or current - to distrust their rescuers.
During many natural disasters, media commentary seems designed as much to prepare us for the notion that absent a top down order provided by U.S. authorities there is no alternative but chaotic disorder. In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the media reported as facts crimes and violence in the Superdome. Most were later discredited. Newspaper photos captioned whites in search of food as "foraging," while similar pictures of African-Americans were captioned as "looting."
Haiti, we are told, is the poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere. This simple intransitive verb hides context, the history, of how Haiti has from its inception been imagined as dangerous and thus consigned to the very poverty for which it is criticized. Born of a successful slave revolt against both their masters and their colonial oppressor, the nation has long been reviled by much of the West.
Following the themes with which Christian slaveholders berated slaves, New York Times columnist David Brooks has provided a more polite version of Pat Robertson's crude effort to blame Haiti's plight on a pact with the devil. Haiti, says Brooks, "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."
Apart from whether Brooks understands indigenous faiths and whether a religion that acknowledges the capriciousness of life may have merit, Brooks omits a century of U.S. domination of Haiti. U.S.-backed dictators
stole vast sums. Haitians today labor for 28 cents an hour under U.S. trade policies and an undemocratic government imposed by the U.S. and the United Nations. Did this history slow its economic progress or foster distrust of authority?
Though some NGOs have exacerbated Haiti's problems, others offer positive assistance. Schuller highlights several, including Partners in Health co-founded by anthropologist Paul Farmer, to which my family has contributed. Their long-term effort involves training Haitian medical professionals and working with the community. Please consider donations to this or any of the comparable efforts Schuller documents here.