At least reporters, while their views may be wrongheaded, are giving us new information from the ground. Far more insidious are the armchair commentators who know nothing about Haiti — many never having set toe there — but enjoy rebuking suffering Haitians from the comfort of their white bastions in the United States and Europe. I’ve never seen victims so roundly blamed for their fate. David Brooks’ recent column in the New York Times — one of the paper’s most e-mailed articles the week it was published — blamed Haiti’s culture for the quake’s violence.
“It is time,” Brooks writes sententiously, “to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty. 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.”
By all means, let’s turn to actual history, which Brooks has mangled. As has been mentioned repeatedly, the Haitian slaves rose up in 1791 and began what was to become the only successful slave revolution in modern history. That war ended, after much loss of life on both sides, with the establishment of the world’s first black republic, in 1804 — just twenty-eight years after the American Declaration of Independence. The Haitians’ models were the American and French revolutions, and they based their ideas on the Declaration of the Rights of Man. But their revolution seems to have been a little premature for the tastes of the world in which they had to operate. Haiti was almost immediately saddled with a gargantuan and punitive reparations payment to France in exchange for recognition and the ability to engage in unhampered international trade. The wealthy, slaveholding United States did not recognize Haiti until 1862, after the Southern states seceded. Haiti has been a pariah nation for its entire history.
Barbados, on the other hand: The Barbadians made their bold stand for independence from Britain in… 1966. The British had already given up slavery more than a century earlier. It was an unbloody, negotiated independence, and Barbados is still a part of the British Commonwealth. In fact, its membership began on the date of independence, as did Jamaica’s, in 1962, when it shrugged off the very loose shackles of the remnant of British colonialism. The British were less brutal masters than the French, and in the eighteenth century it was probably wiser to remain a colony under them than, as the Haitians did, gain your freedom at the expense of your economic welfare.
Brooks goes on to discuss the Haitian family, seemingly basing his argument on a book by Lawrence Harrison, a conservative cultural critic who also knows nothing about Haiti. “Child-rearing practices” in Haiti, Brooks writes, “often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.” I don’t know where this assertion comes from, but it reminds me of nothing so much as Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s controversial and misguided report on the black family in the 1960s. I’ve never seen either of these child-rearing practices in my two decades of living in and covering Haiti. In fact, I see more parents carrying small children around in Haiti’s markets than I do at the farmers’ markets in Los Angeles. You can’t write these kinds of things about people whose culture and nation you respect. Nor would an editor permit you to say such things blithely about people who are considered our equals or are able to respond in equally august publications. Right now, the Haitians cannot — they’re too busy getting water for their neglected children.
Let’s move briefly to Anne Applebaum’s similar column, which appeared in the Washington Post. Anne’s a little depressed. She opens her piece (as she so often does) by telling us about herself; her reactions are important to her: “For the past several days, I have found myself unable to look at the photographs from Haiti. I have also found that when I start an article datelined Port-au-Prince, I have to force myself to read to the end.” Although she doesn’t like to read about it, she knows what’s at the heart of her reluctance: “I have no illusions about anyone’s ability to help, for this…is a man-made disaster first and foremost, and so it will remain.” She goes on to fault the weakness of Haiti’s public institutions for the physical collapse of buildings, including the Presidential Palace (constructed by the Marines during the 1915-34 US occupation of Haiti) and many other public edifices built by perfectly well-educated architects using the best practices of their day. It’s a stunningly heartless argument.
Applebaum tells us that she was not this hopeless after the Indian Ocean tsunami or Hurricane Katrina, and that it was easy to coordinate basic assistance in those cases. Of course, this is patently not true, as anyone who has read about or experienced those situations knows. Applebaum goes on to say that there were no scenes in Aceh, Indonesia, of “what everyone always calls ‘biblical’ tragedy.” The reason some people call the Haitian quake biblical is that they believe, whether consciously or not, that it is a sort of divine retribution for the temerity of the Haitian Revolution, and for the idea that black people could take charge of their own lives. As Pat Robertson put it, the Haitians made a deal with the Devil to throw off French rule. That’s how he sees it, and by extension, though in much more genteel terms, that’s how many other commentators see it. One cannot help but wonder, then, what the Lord was avenging when he brought down an earthquake on San Francisco in 1989, or on Los Angeles in 1994. Gay rights? Bad movies?
But let’s look at things clearly, without prejudice. Haiti was in bad shape before the earthquake. Though outside forces like debt, economic sanctions, US interference and a big but diffuse and uncoordinated development community have grievously harmed the country, Haitians too are responsible for their problems. The government is weak and — although much improved in recent years — still corrupt here and there, and still plagued by internecine fighting over the tiny bits of funding that are available in a country with microscopic national coffers. Taxes are not properly collected, and well-connected families and officials fight to the death over things like where emergency response teams or bridges should be located (my province or yours?). Appropriations battles are even harder fought in the Haitian legislature than in the US Congress, and over much smaller streams of money. And powerful drug traffickers have taken refuge in this governmentally lax situation, as they have in Mexico and Colombia.
The country is also too centralized. Everything depends on the government in Port-au-Prince. All the money flows out of that great city to the provinces, when it flows at all. But with people fleeing the destroyed capital, now’s a good time to consider federalizing Haiti. The countryside needs funding sources other than the usually paralyzed national legislature. Strong and honest provincial councils that can levy taxes and craft local solutions to local problems would vastly improve the quality of life, and fewer Haitians would feel compelled to move to Port-au-Prince to seek their fortune — and build slums that pancake in earthquakes.
We need constructive answers to these big questions now. Good ideas are coming in from people like Paul Farmer, who’s run Haiti’s Partners in Health for years and who is now Bill Clinton’s deputy at the United Nations. They’re coming in from Haitian survivors in all rubble-strewn walks of life. New paradigms are also being offered by hardheaded analysts like Jocelyn McCalla, a Haitian who consults on government, immigration and business affairs, and from economists who have turned their view toward global poverty eradication. Not all their ideas are useful or plausible, and everything will be difficult to implement in the months immediately following such a catastrophe. But people like this are trying to find a way toward rebuilding Haiti, and building it better.
You have a choice in a situation like the one we’re confronting. You can sit back in your chair and fondle your nihilism, or you can try to be original and work toward something creative. People like Brooks, Applebaum and Robertson are tapping into something very dark and atavistic indeed. Those who read them or hear them are bound to ask themselves, “What is it about Haiti?” Some will shrug and, like Applebaum, turn away. In a moment of such death and destruction, that’s not the reaction one should hope to elicit.
Amy Wilentz is a contributing editor for The Nation magazine and the author of The Rainy Season: Haiti Since Duvalier(Simon & Schuster, 1989); a novel, Martyrs’ Crossing (Simon & Schuster, 2001) which won an American Academy of Arts and Letters Prize, and I Feel Earthquakes More Often Than They Happen: Coming to California in the Age of Schwarzenegger (Simon & Schuster, 2006). She teaches journalism at the University of California, Irvine.