Haiti: The Spectacle

Thursday, January 21st, 2010

Haiti falls apart and America’s journalists are on the ground, bringing us the spectacle of devastation. We care, we donate, we shake our heads in horror at the human toll of poverty.

A bare foot sticks out of a pile of cinder blocks.

“They’ve been digging for five hours,” says Anderson Cooper. He sticks his mike in the rubble. Oh my God, she’s alive. We can hear her screaming! “They only have this one shovel.”

OK, freeze frame. Something is so wrong with this picture, this moment: to be watching — live! — in comfortable detachment as a group of men dig desperately, by hand and with that single shovel, to free a 15-year-old girl trapped in the wreckage of a building. Will they get her out in time? Suddenly it felt like a “Star Trek” episode: “We have many extra shovels aboard the mother ship, but it’s important that the Haitians free their survivors with their own tools. We’re obliged to observe the cultural non-interference policy, you see.”

Cathy Lynn Grossman, Faith and Reason columnist for USA Today, analyzed Cooper’s CNN report, a video clip lasting three minutes and 40 seconds, as an ethics issue. “How,” she wondered, “do journalists balance their job — bringing words and images of the suffering to those with resources to help — with the immediate demands of a disaster? If we journalists drop our pads, cameras, and microphones and dig one by one for survivors, who will bring the word back to those who could help hundreds of thousands?”

I see her point and all, and have no personal criticism of Cooper, who was indeed doing his job. And the girl, within the span of the video clip, was rescued, seemingly unhurt. My sense of the obscenity of this viewing moment — mike in the rubble, our live witness to the desperation of the rescue effort — has nothing to do with the ethics of the profession, or “ethics” at all. It’s infinitely bigger. It’s about the compromised morality Cooper and most of his colleagues serve: the morality of our relationship to poverty, and Haiti’s poverty specifically.

Come on, we know this, right? We don’t exist in pristine isolation from “the poorest nation in the Western hemisphere.” Haiti — its infrastructure on shocking display this past week, its belly torn open, bodies lined up on the sidewalk, survivors wailing in unimaginable grief — is a creation of the colonial West. More cruelly its creation than most other Third- or Fourth-World states.

Rather than portraying Haiti’s tragedy virtually free of context, as spectacle — here’s how the incomprehensibly poor are forced to suffer in this world (your donation will help) — responsible and useful journalism would convey the tragedy in the context of serious questions about the nature and causes of failed states.

I’m not saying this would be easy, or simple. We would still see the desperate survivors digging frantically in the rubble, or wandering the streets grief-stricken, looking for the corpses of their loved ones. But pity would turn to outrage if we began to see this tragedy in the context of centuries of ruthless geopolitics, which left Haiti as it was just before the earthquake hit: “a Fourth World failed state on a fault line,” as writer Ted Rall put it, without a government that could even implement and enforce a building code requiring the steel-reinforced construction that would have saved thousands of lives.

The West, particularly France and the United States, has undermined Haiti’s every attempt at self-government. In 1825, for instance, two decades after the first successful slave rebellion in world history ousted the French overlords from the island, France surrounded the country with gunboats and demanded “reparations” — 125 million gold francs — for their lost slave income. Haiti, under threat of annihilation, capitulated to the extortion and spent the next century hemorrhaging its own treasury to pay it off, putting itself in thrall to French and American bankers.

The United States, a slave-holding nation, refused to recognize free Haiti for 60 years. We invaded Haiti under President Wilson in 1915 and occupied the country until 1934, diverting, according to Rall, “40 percent of Haiti’s gross domestic product to U.S. bankers.”

From 1957 to 1986, the CIA-backed “anti-communist” Duvaliers — Papa Doc and Baby Doc — ruled Haiti with cruelty, stole millions, and ran up an enormous international debt that has kept the country further mired in impossible poverty. In 2004, we orchestrated the abduction of Haiti’s democratically elected and popular president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide. His ouster thwarted any historical accounting of France’s shakedown of Haiti in 1825, for which Aristide had presented France with a bill for $21.7 billion, including 179 years of compounding interest.

“They’ve been digging for five hours,” says Anderson Cooper. No, I’d say it’s been more like five centuries, ever since Columbus landed, thinking he’d made it to India.