Jesse Lemisch: George Clooney's Haiti -- and Beyond





[Jesse Lemisch is Professor Emeritus of History at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice of the City University of New York.] George Clooney (currently in "Up in the Air") organized on short notice a technically and musically fine two hour fund-raising telethon, "Hope for Haiti," which was broadcast on January 22 on most networks, many cable channels, on the Web, and both in and beyond the US....

This was a worthy and well-intentioned endeavor, and we ought to be grateful to Clooney and the performers....

But, in most of the show, politics were verboten, as was anything about the history of the place. This left the audience to think that a terrible natural disaster had befallen Haiti, but ignorant of: the country's origins in a successful slave rebellion (with US support for French efforts to crush it); more than a century of French draining the economy for the money value of the slaves they had lost; nineteen years of occupation by the US Marines; US complicity with the Duvaliers; after earlier support, exiling of Jean-Bertrand Aristide on a US plane; the banning of the left party, Lavalas; the crimes committed against the Haitian economy by neoliberal economics via such institutions as the IMF (which, amidst the earthquake announced a wage freeze for public employees in Haiti.). This all added up to an unnatural disaster: enormous poverty, flight from the countryside to the city as the result of the destruction of Haitian agriculture by US dumping (rice) and the promise of low-wage manufacturing jobs (which didn't materialize); once crowded in the city, they put anything over their heads that they could, and of course these poor structures easily collapsed. Cutting down trees to make charcoal was one of the few ways of getting money, and that produced deforestation which produced floods. It denies history to see the US as free of responsibility for these things.

Historians are coming to realize that very few things are simply "natural disasters." Famines, for instance, can be made or exacerbated by governments. (Consider the English role in the 19th century Irish famine.) The earthquake would have been terrible anyplace, but because of Haiti's impoverishment by the West, its impact on life went far beyond 7.0 on the Richter Scale. The horrors visited upon Haiti are no more an "act of god" than were the horrors of Katrina....

The US continues to view Haiti through a racist lens. This was shockingly clear in David Brooks's January 14 New York Times column, "The Underlying Tragedy." "It is time," Brooks writes, "to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty." What follows is pure culture-of-poverty blame-the-victim stuff, reminiscent of, among others, Moynihan on the "pathology" of the Black Family: "Haiti ... suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences," including Voodoo and "high levels of social mistrust." "Responsibility," he froths,"is often not internalized." Brooks has all but told us that they are a nation of welfare queens.

A different manifestation of this kind of thing appears in the portrayal of Haitians as constituting an unruly mob amidst "anarchy" and "chaos." This has been reflected in a shameful US policy of giving preference to the military over relief (food and medicine) on the assumption that the military is needed to keep order. The US simply occupied the Port –au-Prince airport, set up their own air traffic control to replace the damaged original and proceeded to one of the great atrocities of this period: with priority given to US military flights, they turned away eight planes with field hospitals etc. provided by Medecins sans Frontieres....

This takes us a long way beyond George Clooney. But both in popular culture and in foreign policy this country desperately needs to re-examine the lenses through which it views the non-white world.



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