The Haitian tragedy has opened up a whole new industry for what I call the genteel racist point of view. A week into the crisis I heard an otherwise intelligent report on NPR in which the correspondent opened her piece from Port-au-Prince by declaring that it “is not falling into a…pit of violence,” thereby giving us an idea of what she had been anticipating, almost breathlessly. We heard this kind of thing frequently in the days after the earthquake, with scores of fresh reporters receiving their Haitian baptism amid the rubble. There are many problems in Haiti, but most of the negative pronouncements that have been circulating do not touch on them. The commentary has been psychopolitical rather than analytical.
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’s 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.