Outside responses to the Haiti earthquake have come with smug side helpings of superiority and self-congratulation. The New York Times‘s David Brooks described Haitian culture as “progress-resistant” and prescribed “intrusive paternalism,” as if Haiti hasn’t had 200 years of that. The Toronto Star’s Jim Travers called it a failed state. A Globe and Mail editorial upped that to “perennial failed state”; another one said our people there “should be heralded, as exporters of Canadian values.”
This is the perennial underside of charity and generosity: a chance to feel simultaneously kind and morally superior while reinforcing the relations between those who have power and those who don’t. Plus a component of taking vicarious pleasure, in a quasi porn-like way, in the misery of others. I’m thinking here of the insatiable news programming and the repeated requests by interviewers to “Tell us how you feel.”
In fact, Haiti holds, or ought to, a pre-eminent place, historically and culturally, in its part of the world, much the way Newfoundland should, compared to the rest of Canada. Haiti’s victorious slave revolt, from 1791 to 1803, was one of three revolutions that ushered in the modern era. The others were in France and the United States. But both France and the U.S., ironically, made Haiti pay a heavy price in reparations that burdened it for a century. The U.S. occupied the country from 1915 to 1934. From 1957 to 1986, it propped up the brutal Duvalier regime.
I suppose some would say this amounts to blaming your problems on ancient history. But they often don’t mind doing that with individual history (I was abused/deprived as a child etc.) and, in “real” history, a century or two isn’t so ancient. The U.S. is still struggling with the problems of its own slave past and the venomous race relations that lingered long after the Civil War.
The legacies persist. After Haitians made Jean-Bertrand Aristide their first elected president in 1991, a U.S.-backed coup overthrew him. When the Americans brought him back in 1994, they demanded suffocating economic policies. Then, in 2004, they basically abducted him from his country and his post.
Besides, there’s a good reason not to be patronizing toward “failed states.” The dirty secret is that all states are failed in some respects; there are, at most, differences in degree. Take even the U.S., as Noam Chomsky has. It didn’t just fail the test of Hurricane Katrina. It alone among developed nations still can’t work out a basic health-care system for its people. We have our own failed relations with native peoples. Lucien Bouchard gave up on being premier of Quebec because he found it an ungovernable society.
The notion that human societies are governable is an amiable delusion; success is always relative, and Haiti hardly comes out worst, if you factor in the obstacles it’s faced, such as natural catastrophes and foreign interference. You can even ask how Haitians manage so well, given the terrible odds. But human nature tends to get resourceful when survival is menaced, simply due to the alternatives.
And not just human nature. Look at the trees clinging to the rocks in the Canadian Shield. You don’t have to either deride Haitians or romanticize them; you can simply acknowledge and identify with the challenges they’ve faced and their efforts to handle adversity.
Hit Toronto with an earthquake on that scale and see what happens. There would be scenes of chaos and fear of violence, along with cases of looting, for profit and nobler reasons, all well-covered, I imagine, in the Caribbean media. Also tales of heroism, humanity and ingenuity.
I don’t see why people can’t feel empathy and observe others’ trials without slathering on the judgment and condescension. I guess that, too, is human nature.