The nation of Haiti—battered, bleeding Haiti—is on the minds and in the hearts of most of the world this week. Mark the moment well. It is fleeting. We are like the well-intentioned neighbors who crowd the home of the bereaved and the church on the day of the funeral but, except for a few loyal souls, leave the widow ever after lonely and alone in her house for long months on end ever after. Generous and sincere in the immediate aftermath, our attention span on great tragedies grows ever shorter.
We have been down this road before.
In the winter of 1989–90, I called an old South Carolina friend whose community had been battered late that September by Hurricane Hugo. She told me—only half-humorously—that she was ticked off with the people of the Bay Area. She explained that until that October, national attention was focused on Hugo, its effects, and the efforts to clean up the damage afterwards, and money and help came into their region. Then the Loma Prieta Earthquake hit, and the nation seemed to forget all about Hugo in the tumult over the new national disaster.
And this was in the days when 24-hour cable news channels were still in their early stages, and the Internet information age had not yet begun. Since then, the tendency to pivot with dizzying speed from one dominating national or international story to another has increased a thousandfold.
We saw that phenomenon in all its maturity in the 2005 Hurricane Katrina. No one can doubt the sincerity of the national and international sympathy that went out for the victims of the hurricane and the breaking levees and subsequent massive flooding as we watched their plight unfold on round-the-clock news channels. We opened up our hearts as financial and volunteer assistance poured into the Mississippi and Louisiana Gulf Coast communities devastated by the hurricane and the flood.
But that was then. What has happened in the four years since?
A year ago, the New York Times reported that “After more than three years of nomadic uncertainty, many of the children of Hurricane Katrina are behind in school, acting out and suffering from extraordinarily high rates of illness and mental health problems” (Dec. 4, 2008).
Suicides in the city tripled between 2006 and 2008, and a recent Christian Science Monitor article reported that “more than 45,000 children here are struggling with mental-health issues related to Katrina, according to a December 2007 study by Mental Health Weekly” (Christian Science Monitor, May 13, 2009).
Many former New Orleans residents—evacuated during the flood—remain scattered in communities across the United States, unable to make their way back home. New Orleans is still 25 percent below its pre-Katrina population, with many of the residents coming in since 2005 not returnees, but newcomers.
Of the city’s predominantly African-American Lower Ninth Ward, one of the communities hardest hit when the dikes broke, one online commentator wrote in February of this year: “When you go to the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans your brain can’t comprehend the situation there. You react like you do when you visit Roman or Aztec ruins—yeah, you hear that a large number of people once lived there, and you take that number in, but you just can’t sense it, you just can’t process the changes. All you see are stone blocks strewn around grassy fields, and sadly you can’t picture the homes and community of the 6,000 families who used to live in this poor neighborhood … Records have shown that three years after Hurricane Katrina only 11 percent of families had resettled (by August of 2008)” (Piers Fawkes, “The Lower Ninth Ward Almost Four Years Later”).
For all the general public pays attention, Katrina may as well have happened as long ago as General Sherman’s slash-and-burn march across Georgia to the sea. While the Gulf Coast still struggles to recover from the aftermath of Katrina, except for the occasional retrospective in the news, it is largely out of the view of the national or international public. Out of sight. Out of mind.
And what has happened to all that concern for the dead of Darfur?
Is this meant to cast aspersion on the sincerity of support for the Haitian relief efforts currently underway, or a suggestion that such efforts should stop? Absolutely not. There are several Haitian relief events going on in the Bay Area over the next couple of weeks, and it is my sincere hope that people do more than just commiserate and sympathize in front of the television, and either join these efforts, go out to one of these events—or more—or find some secure charitable organization to which they can donate small or large sums of money. Put deeds where your feelings lie.
But the battering of Haiti will continue to have its effects far down the road, and while we cannot sustain the feelings of grief and empathy we held in the hours and days just after the earthquake struck and while images of the tragedies continued to roll across the television screens, we should remember that the people of Haiti will continue to need our helping hands in the months—and years, and decades—to come.
Already, a campaign is growing to dampen that sympathy and direct the post-earthquake Haitian agenda for the United States. Even in the midst of death and destruction, political struggle.
It should be of no surprise that some of our good friends in the conservative—and conservative Christian—camps have wasted no time in blaming the immensity of the Haitian tragedy on the Haitians themselves.
Rev. Pat Robertson, for example, says that Haiti’s problems stem from the fact that he believes they are cursed by God.
“Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it,” he said last week on a 700 Club broadcast. “They were under the heel of the French. You know, Napoleon III, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, ‘we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French.’ True story. And so, the devil said, OK, it’s a deal … Ever since, they have been cursed by one thing after the other” (Huffington Post, Jan. 13).
The assertion, if one is unfamiliar with Haitian history, comes from the fact that beginning in the 17th century, the French brought enslaved Africans to Haiti, working them on the islands plantations until 1791, when the enslaved Africans revolted, defeated armies sent by the Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte, freed themselves, and established the independent nation of Haiti. While many Haitians are Catholic, many practice that belief in conjunction with their blended derivative of native elder African religions which the Haitians call vodoún, which some Christians historically and continually castigate as “devil worship” in sermons and in popular cultural outlets.
One can only say in response to Mr. Robertson that if he truly believes that Haitians had to “make a pact with the devil” in order to free themselves from the slavery of the good Christian nation of France, what does that say about the God Mr. Robertson worships and serves?
Others of our conservative friends have invoked the same spirit of Haitian culpability in their own tragedy without the extrahuman invocations.
In a Jan. 14 New York Times op-ed piece, columnist David Brooks compares the 63 people dead in the 7.0 Loma Prieta with the 45,000 to 50,000 dead in Haiti’s 7.0 quake (estimates of the dead in Haiti have gone as high as 200,000). “This is not a natural disaster story,” Mr. Brooks writes. “This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services” (Jan. 14).
Asking rhetorically why Haiti is poor, Mr. Brooks concedes the nation’s slavery and colonial history, but puts the blame on Haitian culture.
“As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book The Central Liberal Truth, he writes, Haiti … 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.”
“The poor will always be with us,” Jesus of Nazareth is quoted as saying in Matthew 12:11, to which Mr. Brooks would presumably add “and it’s their own damn fault.”
Is the extent of the tragedy in Haiti the fault of the Haitians? And what would be the implications for U.S. Haitian policy from this point forward if a majority of this nation were to hold that position, either explicitly or unconsciously? Discussion of that question will have to wait until a further column.