What people believe: How three books shaped my view of 'truth'

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A couple of years ago I read a fabulous book by James Scott called Seeing like a State. Rather than portraying an in-depth look at the unique complexities of one failed (or floundering) state, he took a refreshingly more contextualized approach.

By widening his gaze and looking at the commonalities across the globe and over time, Scott makes some similarities among them embarrassingly apparent. In doing so, he suggests that the failures which have been historically noted as disastrous examples of poor decision making are anything but exceptional.

The take-home message from the book (if I understood it correctly) was that by looking broadly and deeply in order to note these similarities, we can finally see where we keep going wrong, and how problematic ideology informs policies and actions. Many of the failures Scott notes in his book involve growth-oriented notions of progress: monoculture crops, mass production, urbanization. He makes a compelling argument that even good intentions go wrong when such considerations are not accounted for.

And then last year I read another noteworthy book, this one a little better known to rabble readers. In Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein takes a similar approach to Scott in terms of methodology: she casts her gaze across a vast expanse of time and space in order to recognize global economic (and other) patterns that could be easily overlooked when focusing on the intricate details of the here and now.

Klein's premise, however, differs greatly from Scott's. She does not convey the common circumstances that have left populations devastated in every corner of the world as failures or mistakes. On the contrary, she presents a convincing argument that for those at the helm, things have unfolded exactly as they should have. Although a heart-wrenching idea to entertain, this book raises the possibility that part of the genius of the neo-liberal model's success is our widespread willingness to interpret ongoing social injustices as mistakes made.

At the end of last month, the media left many of us shaking our heads in dismay and confusion, as last year's destructive earthquake in Haiti was respectfully acknowledged. Discussions about the failure of the concerted effort to support Haitian people in the aftermath of the quake have ensued. But, as I reflect on the two perspectives above, I fear contemporary discussions are missing an important element of the situation.

This has been driven home to me loud and clear as I contrast the current discourse of "good intentions gone wrong" with yet another incredible book I am now in the midst of. Pathologies of Power was written by Paul Farmer, an American-born physician and anthropologist who has been living in Haiti for decades. He wrote this book in 1996; the book was published in 2003, the copy I have is an updated version published in 2005. (Please take a moment to digest these dates, in relation to current discussions about the plight of Haiti after the 2010 earthquake).

Farmer's book is incredibly well-researched and reasoned. While he also shares Scott's and Klein's contextualized approach to global affairs, he dives deeply into the particulars of Haiti's situation, as it is the part of the world he knows best. He goes into great detail about the relationship between America and Haiti in recent history, including American involvement in the overthrow of the country's first democratically elected president, and the detainment of Haitian refugees in Guantanamo, Cuba. Below, is an excerpt which focuses on what happened in the period between those two events:

For 10 years, including the last four of the Duvalier dictatorship and six years of military juntas, the United States, in defiance of international law, forcibly returned Haitian refugees to their country. This was the result of an arrangement, brokered in 1981, by which the government of Jean-Claude Duvalier permitted U.S. authorities to board Haitian vessels and to return to Haiti any passengers determined to have violated the laws of Haiti. The United States granted asylum to exactly eight of 24,559 Haitian refugees applying for political asylum during that period.

In the two weeks after the coup of 1991, with the attention of the world press fixed on Haiti, the United States suspended the practice of seizing and repatriating Haitians... a quarter of a million Haitians were displaced in the first three months after the coup, by conservative estimates.

On November 18, 1991, with an estimated 1,500 Haitians already dead and military repression churning full throttle, the administration of U.S. President George Bush announced that it was resuming forced repatriation; those intercepted would be returned to Haiti without being interviewed by the INS ... (p. 55).

Farmer continues to describe how this was in direct violation of both American and international law. But what is most significant about Farmer's book is his emphasis on injustices that somehow manage to seep into the spaces around and between laws, a process which he (among others) terms "structural violence" (p. 82). And on this topic, in the case of Haiti, Farmer doesn't mince words. He identifies how a number of institutions are systemically "punishing Haiti" (p. 86) -- the news media and the types of narratives it readily takes up being but one of them.

His analysis is particularly relevant now, a year after the earthquake in Haiti, as concerned citizens around the world are dumbfounded as to what went wrong.

I find myself wondering, however, whether our confusion is a result of asking the wrong questions: seeking solutions to the wrong problems. What if we asked more questions about the systems at play that have been influencing Haitian reality since long before Jan. 2010? What might we learn if we take power dynamics seriously, as Farmer urges (and Klein, too, for that matter), and allow ourselves to consider some of the difficult possibilities that follow?

Coming from such a perspective, the events of the last 12 months might be less surprising, and we might be less inclined to interpret them as mistakes or failures. Indeed, a mere three weeks after the earthquake, it was observed by writer and photographer Graham Lavery that turning thirsty people away from a portable military filtration system in Port-au-Prince because it didn't meet Canadian potable water standards (and providing bottled water instead) was a recipe for disaster. "The soldiers turn away people arriving with buckets; they take their water instead from the streams that are polluted in the extreme, creating yet more health issues in an already devastated city." If a casual observer could predict the cholera outbreak that indeed occurred a mere 10 months later, then surely those in decision-making positions did too.

What's complicated for me in all of this is how to understand these power dynamics. It would be very easy to identify a villain, claim that power is being wielded unjustly, and take it back. However, I am certain that James Scott's version of events is also at play here: amidst the systemic violence identified by Farmer, there are also good intentions at play. There are a great number of dedicated individuals and institutions with the wellbeing of children, families, and communities at the heart of what they do. I think we need to be careful, when critiquing one single story of events, not to simply adopt another one. Power dynamics are just that: dynamic. And in the Foucauldian sense of power, there is no stepping outside of power or possessing it. There are only the ongoing processes of finding different (and hopefully more just) ways of engaging with it.

So if that is the goal -- to find more just and effective ways of engaging in global events -- then I think we have to be realistic about some of the power dynamics that are at play, and not preclude them from consideration simply because they are undesirable, too complex, or highlight our own culpability.

This is particularly tough for me, since it sometimes makes hope hard to hang onto. But hope in falsehoods is not the kind of hope I'm looking for.

In all of this, what I think is perhaps our biggest challenge is finding a way to move forward amidst multiple versions of truth. I'm not so sure "seeing is believing," as the old saying goes... it seems more often to be the other way around. In other words, my preconceived notions of what is true, possible, or believable will inform what I see and how I interpret any event with which I am confronted. And I will find a way to make sense of that event (be it an earthquake in Haiti, a war in Afghanistan, or an encounter with a sales clerk at home) by drawing on my pre-existing worldview. In fact, I will probably be more likely to use my interpretation of this event to strengthen my worldview; but I will be very unlikely to shift my preconceived notions based on the exposure to new events.

If this is the case, how can very real crises be responded to when our only certainty is that there is no consensus as to what people believe is really going on?

A version of this article is also available at whydev.org

Janet Newbury is currently a PhD candidate, instructor, and researcher at the University of Victoria. She is also involved in a number of social justice-related initiatives in her hometown of Powell River, British Columbia.

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