The Corner

Why Now?

This is from a longtime reader and e-friend who is black and often offers some constructive criticism on race-related stuff (and sci-fi). As usual, he asks some good questions:

One question and one comment. You wrote ” The sad truth about Haiti isn’t simply that it is poor, but that it has a poverty culture. Yes, it has had awful luck. Absolutely, it has been exploited, abused, and betrayed ever since its days as a slave colony. So, if it alleviates Western guilt to say that Haiti’s poverty stems entirely from a legacy of racism and colonialism, fine. But Haiti has been independent and the poorest country in the hemisphere for a long time.” 

You say the foregoing with the implied notion that you don’t believe it. If you don’t think that is the sole source, what do you think the source is — you don’t seem to answer that and rather dance around it. As for my comment, it’s not that I disagree with much of what you said or even believe that you wrote it with any animosity (I don’t), but why bring up the source of Haiti’s problem this week? You are not alone in having done this. It seems like this will be a topical subject for quite some time and to do so the week after the disaster while doctors are performing civil war era-supplied surgeries on victims and pulling the dead or survivors from the rubble — can only court controversy. Its like standing over a fat man having a heart attack lecturing him that he should have exercised and ate better while EMTs are still performing CPR and getting out the paddles. Of course its true and probably written with the best of intentions, but really now is not the best time.

Taking the first part first, I think that the legacy of racism and slavery stuff is a huge part of the story. It is a good explanation for many, even most, of Haiti’s problems. But explanations often become excuses and excuses grow into rationalizations. At some point I think the legacy-of-slavery argument becomes a distraction, which is why I was happy to concede it in order to move on.

If you say Haiti’s a basketcase someone will respond “but look at their legacy of slavery, etc., etc.” and at some point you have to say “so what?” — not to be callous or deny painful facts but to just get on with what needs to be done now. Arguing how you got lost is not always conducive to finding your way home.

Similarly, I think that the racism/slavery thing elicits a lot of condescension from Americans in general and white liberals in particular. “You don’t understand their history . . .” becomes code for “they’re entitled to be impoverished” and “don’t blame the victim” shutting down the relevant debates before they can even start.

That said, I don’t think the “legacy” issue explains everything. Culture’s change, evolve and so forth. To say the Haitians are locked into their plight because of things that happened 1–2 centuries ago is pretty reductionist and doesn’t allow for the possibility of improvement. Historically Hatians may have started out as slaves, but I don’t see why we should tolerate the idea that anyone is a slave to their history.

As for the question of Why now? I worried about that very point, which is why I was very explicit from the outset that we should do everything we can right now on the humanitarian front. But the simple fact is that now is when the policy argument is taking shape. For instance, Bill Clinton is all over the place talking about getting his pre-earthquake plan back on track. If, as I believe, my prescription is necesary and correct, it seems wrong to keep it to myself while others are going around offering their prescriptions.

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