Thursday, January 21, 2010

Death in Haiti


         In Haiti, as I emphasize in Emancipation and Independence (preface and introduction, here and here) the greatest and only successful slave revolt in all of history occurred between 1791-1804.  A noble black leader, Toussaint L’Ouverture, a 50 year old slave with military talent, defeated European invaders, in particular Napoleon.  The most oppressed threw off their chains in the greatest social revolution of the 18th and 19th century, though interestingly, one not taught when I took a course on comparative revolutions with Barrington Moore (the basis of his Social Origins of Dictatorship and Democracy).  Only European revolutions were stressed there, the revolutions of black and brown people in this Hemisphere against bondage were dark stars in an otherwise bright intellectual firmament.  But the Haitians  were not, as the West Indian Marxist CLR James names them in his otherwise wonderful book, The Black Jacobins.  On the contrary, the best thing that the Jacobins (and the Girondins like Lafayette) did, was to listen to the three representatives from Saint Domingue who came to France in 1793 (the colony was named St. Domingue; slaves renamed Haiti from an Arawak word Ayiti); they abolished slavery throughout the French colonies in 1794.  Napoleon set out to restore bondage, but, fortunately, failed.   

       On Hispaniola, the Arawak who had welcomed Columbus had been extinguished by him by 1523.   They were replaced in the French (Saint Domingue) and Spanish (Dominican Republic) colonies by black slaves.  In the Haitian revolution, these slaves avenged their bondage and Columbus’s Catholic gold-hungry genocide.  Think of how high school students, particularly blacks, Latinos, native Americans, and poor whites, would react to learning the story this way – the truth – compared to the lies that are today often told of Columbus and Columbus Day.  No, I might say, the Haitians were not black Jacobins; the Jacobins and Babeuf were the white Toussaintians.

        “But all this,” some reader might tiredly state, “is past history.  So what if Columbia is named for Columbus, if the great Spanish holiday celebrates Columbus, if the US, despite protests, celebrates Columbus Day.  Yes, there has been genocide against indigenous peoples right here in the United States.  But today there is at least sometimes a footnote critical of these matters in American government and history college textbooks.  And that age is past.”   On the contrary, even with the vast outpouring of international compassion (which says something very good about human nature, in spite of all),* racism toward Haiti is alive today.

      On January 19, the New York Times ran a horrifying and fascinating story on the front page about the denial of burial rituals for the some 200,000 (and growing) dead.  But everything has collapsed in Haiti, except the spirit of the people.  Families without food (survivors) retreat to others in the countryside in the hope of getting some.  BBC interviews report that no one is eating (or there is sharing of food with the little available).  Medecins sans frontieres' (doctors without borders) facilities in Port-au-Prince are destroyed.   They have pallets in an open courtyard, a large garage cleared for operating.  The second earthquake, a 6.8 tremor yesterday made the survivors relive the horror.   Poor and not so poor are out in the streets.  Everyone fears to stay even in structures which are not collapsed.

     The Times’s story is, however, on burial rituals.  These are important everywhere, but particularly in Haiti where voudun traditions and Catholicism mix.  So a particular tragedy is that there are too many who have died to be honored individually, to be linked with their ancestory, to have a grave for each constructed for the journey of the dead.  Horror in the daylight world, Damien Cave reports, mixes with severance from the spirit world.

      In passing, Cave tells the reader after the continuation to p. A10 that before this crisis, the average Haitian lived to an age of 44.   In Europe, the age of death, say in France, is 78.  Think about those statistics.  If you want to understand international economic inequality, here is a startling measure.  Here is a number in terms of consequences for humans of what Giovanni Arrighi named Unequal Exchange.  This is the heritage of brutal colonialism and the continual overthrow of the Haitian republic and democracies from outside (mainly by the United States, secondarily France) – see here and here. But each European and American, as the reporter does not reflect, lives nearly two lives for every life lived in Haiti.

        In Political Violence, the British philosopher Ted Honderich speaks of structural violence.  It is this violence he says, that arises from the accident of birth, of being born in say South Africa, which gives the person half the life-expectancy – half the life – that is lived in Europe. For they are connected in a globalized system of inequality – that is what modern commerce is.  Honderich is not, in social theory, a Marxist and does not sketch in a Marxian picture.  But this aspect of Marxian or for that matter, Aristotelian theory – Aristotle called such a regime an oligarchy -  is perhaps obvious or ought to be, and more specific than what he offers.  If we think about why the Obama administration, led by a decent community organizer, pays a trillion dollars to AIG, Goldman Sachs et al, and does not help poor people whose homes are being foreclosed, the answer seems evident,  Banks have enormous influence in America down to Geithner and Summers, and as Dick Durbin said of the Senate earlier this year: “banks own this place.”  The design of the senate is a separate cause of difficulty for achieving democracy or a common good, but the influence of banks and big corporations is decisive.  Americans would like universal health care and suffer or die from denial of coverage for “preexisting conditions.”  Yet reactionary representatives of the “insurance” companies like Joe Lieberman (married to a lobbyist) purified the Senate bill of a “public option” even before the election in Massachusetts.  Would Obama himself have designed so weak a bill?  The influence of the rich on government explains a lot on what has become of the desperately needed health care reform (it included some intelligent cost cutting measures, something American industry needs urgently to revive, and even this may now fail). Or we can just examine American inequality statistics under Democrats and Republicans since 1980 (real wages have not increased; the top 1% have dwarfed any previous level of inequality even before Bush – see Kevin Phillips, Wealth and Democracy). And this all occurred before today the authoritarian dominated Supreme Court licensed unlimited “free speech” spending by those "persons," large corporations. One can study the influence of money, oligarchy and dishonor from the activities in the Reagan administration of John Roberts to his elevation by Bush.  Prevailing nonexplanations appear plausible to some only because fairly simple Marxian or Aristotelian ones are excluded from the field of explanatory possibility. 

        Turning to the issue of individuals in the less developed countries dying unnecessarily young (decent conditions and medical care would have enabled them to live much longer), during apartheid, 300 of the Fortune top 500 American multinationals had branches in South Africa.  They preyed off the suffering of black workers.  The structure of international capitalist domination was denser there, and in certain other countries, than elsewhere.   But American investment, military aid and direct intervention – the empire of 800 bases as Chalmers Johnson says in Sorrows of Empire, see here – are importantly responsible for lack of development (consider the CIA’s murder of Patrice Lumumba in the Congo in 1961 - aided by the Belgians -  or the overthrow of Salvador Allende in Chile in 1973).  One could even do a statistical table: what fraction of a full life on the planet do people get being born into the globalized capitalist system at one place or another. Surely, this is something that any decent political scientist, particularly one who styles herself empiricist, might want to undertake.  Yet one thumbs the quantitative articles in the American Political Science Review for topics of such significance in vein. 

         In Haiti, as I discuss here, American policies of encouraging corporate agriculture for export and dumping rice impoverished and  uprooted peasants in the countryside and drove them into overcrowded slums in Port-au-Prince.  They created conditions in which people no longer can produce their own food. They armed those who kept the poor down, overthrew those like the democratically elected liberation theologian Father Aristide who represented hope or restored him briefly (Clinton) at the expense of his social policies.  Aristide disbanded the army (he was accused of being “violent”) and had no protection when the US organized thugs to overthrow him again in 2004 (marines kidnapped Aristide and flew him to an unknown destination – the Central African Republic, a former French colony).**   If this aspect of Marxian theory makes sense compared to alternatives (a project which requires further argument), then what Honderich refers to as structural violence follows.

        But structural  violence is not the same as direct physical killing.  It is not even  the same as that of the medical “insurance” companies, which through delaying paid-for coverage, caused 44,000 people to die of easily treatable conditions, according to a recent Harvard study.  But it is a true name for the American empire of economic and political power which causes such early deaths.** 

          As Amartya Sen has noted in Development as Freedom, however, some less developed countries have remarkable support-led health systems and comparatively egalitarian social structures or at least ones in which the participation of women in the work force is greater.  For instance, Kerala, a state of 30 million in Southern India has a much longer life expectancy than in other Indian states, and a longer life expectancy than in the US, especially for African-Americans.  Similarly, Costa Rica.  There are exceptions, and general claims about a simple, unrelieved or inevitable pattern of structural violence go too far.  In addition, the disappearing country or village life in the less developed countries is often, by and large, attractive, connected and social compared to increasingly virtual, 24/7 American life.  A more complex tale is needed.   Still, the figure from Cave’s article 44 years life expectancy in Haiti before the earthquake, given the surrounding historical story, is telling.

       At the Copenhagen conference on climate change, many looked to America to take leadership.  They spoke of a deficit created by the rich countries using coal to develop and, without thought or insight, poisoning the environment.  They talked of the need for others to develop – to achieve green development - and for the rich countries to take the lead in cutting pollution and subsidizing, as a matter of redemptive justice, green development elsewhere.  Stories about how little pollution is produced in the poor countries underwrite this vision.  But if one wants to motivate such arguments, statistics on how much life is already cut short in many of the less developed countries, with the surrounding story of colonialism and recent American imperial interventions, would be helpful.

       In any case, Haitians are great heroes of democracy and decency.  That fact is suppressed in America.  Haitians are a spirited and brave people, who have overcome enormous odds (French slavery in St. Domingue, the jewel of the Empire, was perhaps the most brutal and profitable in the world). Yet Hollywood culture is silent about this fact. That culture of death punishes the people for democracy.  Ordinarily, Haiti appears in American film and story as the land of voodoo, the dangerous place, the place of zombies, something to be feared...And this from the culture that overthrows and buries the slave revolt, the republic and modern democracy there.  The racism, or projection of darkness (try Woodrow Wilson’s or the Bush-sponsored invaders for dangerous) is the truth in these fantasies.  America suppresses the actual story of democratic revolt and the spirit of the people.  Mitigated by citing the anthropologist Ira Lowenthal,  the New York Times front page story on burials still feeds the latter stereotype but more gently.  

         Serious anthropologists seek to understand Haitian culture as it is and to compare it, in a living way with other cultures.  Yet Cave speaks of what burial rituals mean in Haiti as if Americans (with our odd practices about dying – The American Way of Death as Jessica Mitford once named it) do not quite have a profound sense, in all of our different ways, of relatives, do not carry with us the memories or feelings or gestures of those who are gone.   Haitian practices are strange (to us).  Actually, we are new and strange anthropologically.   We are “a nation of immigrants” (except for the million indigenous people); we attempt to extinguish or sometimes have our past renamed (the immigration officials renamed Jews so Gelbbart became Gilbert or Gaylbord, Kantorowicz Kantor and the like). 

         Haitians may have been enslaved, but they respond to ancestors of a pre-slave past.  Long dead Africans in freedom speak to them.  This is a spiritual and also a resilient political connection, giving many dignity in  the worst kinds of adversity and inspiring them, over time, to oppose it or in this case, survive the most awful collapse.  Certainly there are horrors and looting in Haiti, but the courage of individuals (listen to Democracynow from this morning) and the desire to help is strong.

        As the historian Elizabeth Fick observed in her 1990 Making of a Nation, a connection with ancestors played a large role in the initial rebellion led by Boukman Douty which preceded or initiated the great slave uprising.  Listen to the anthropologist Ira Lowenthal, who has lived long in Haiti and whose words are the best feature of the front page article:

         “Convening with the dead is what allows Haitians to link themselves, directly by bloodline, to a pre-slave past,” said Ira Lowenthal, an anthropologist who has lived in Haiti for 38 years.  He added that with so many bodies denied rest in family burial plots, where many rituals take place, countless spiritual connections would be severed.”

    “It is a violation of everything these people hold dear,” Mr. Lowenthal said.  “on the other hand, people know they have no choice.”

    The situation is dire.  As BBC interviews yesterday indicate, most have no food, have difficulty finding food.  Some 2.5 million are “displaced.”  Cave, the reporter, could talk to few ordinary people (many are still trapped and dying).  Still, he got real pain from a coffin maker.   

       “’They bury you like a dog,’” said Pegles Fleurigine, 51, in an alleyway where he has built coffins for more than a decade.  ‘They don’t bury you in caskets.’”

      Yet Cave then embroiders a vaguely racist picture, Cadillacs suddenly leaping to his mind,  “Wood chips hung in his wide mustache.  Thin and tall, with a white mask on his forehead, he stood next to a white and blue coffin, lacquered like a souped-up Cadillac” (ah, the welfare “queens” Ronald Reagan spoke of, those Haitian dead, tooling their caskets into the other world…this reporter is not a racist fool and yet it would be hard to find a more striking example).

       “The people this belongs to, they are trying to get money so they can come and get it,’ he said.

         People have no food.  They are dying in the streets.  How can they be coming to bury the dead?  As Cave does not quite say, it is a way to honor and affirm a deep spiritual and public continuity.  It can not stave off the current horror, most must give up, but it is unsurprising that those who can, try.  Against all odds, they fight to preserve their way of life, their sources of spiritual resilience.

         Cave does report some other impressions.

         “An even starker contrast between death as it was and death post-earthquake could be seen through a fallen wall leading into the national cemetery a few blocks away.  Far into the distance, there were above-ground crypts, freshly painted powder blue, with elaborate crosses and poetic names like Famille Leonon Maxi.  Up close, there was a hole with the teeth marks of a backhoe and a half-dozen decaying bodies dumped and left.”

      An intelligent letter in yesterday’s Times (January 20 here) from Leslie Fleming, an anthropology instructor at Merritt College, criticizing David Brooks’ paternalist or racist column (January 19 here), says rightly

       “Students of Haiti deeply admire the industriousness, courage, generosity, intelligence, resilience and creativity that characterize Haiti’s poor majority and the vibrant culture maintained under the most difficult conditions.”  The honoring of the dead who were free, the dead who suffered, the dead who made great rebellions for democracy and might live again to inspire us, is perhaps linked to these characteristics.

       Anthropologists play a particular honorable role about Haiti, it seems.  But of course there is a widespread pattern today of observing the spiritual and nourishing virtues in other cultures.  Consider what Vandana Shiva writes about the women of India, who see themselves connected with nature in Stolen Harvest compared to the naked corporate efforts to destroy what ordinary Indians (and any one else might) value. Her discussion of the festival of deepavali, of mustard seed and mustard oil, and a corporate/Indian government plot to replace mustard oil with commercial soy is especially worth reading.  A great book has been written by Edward Thompson, Making of the English Working Class and there are many others about the particular ways of seeing life, the cultures which make it possible for people sometimes to stand up against the odds.  The foolish Marxian lingo of “false consciousness” – a really stupid idea which is not in Marx actually – prevents one from honoring and empathizing with people as they are.  That slaves drew strength from the free spirits of their ancestors, that their ancestors empowered them to stand up and break the chains (a beautiful statue once standing in Port-au-Prince), this is not unique or odd or specially Haitian or hard to grasp.  Even we Americans perhaps remember stories of Washington or Lincoln or John Brown or King or the “great generation” or those of our relatives who did good things.  Haitian standing with their ancestors is far easier to understand than the Obama administration which has sent aid to the airport but not further, or what the US military is doing there (pretending to be subordinate to the UN, but not getting food out), or the smooth statements of US officials, or the mind of Damien Cave. 

     Without comparison or inquiry, Cave drops the statistic 44 years of life for each Haitian (on average) and races on.  Guess they don’t live that long there, he may have thought. A flicker of consciousness, most people perhaps read over it.  But it is a question which as Rilke once said, should stop us.  It deserves to be taken in, lived with. 

*The crisis was even announced on the National Football League playoffs at half time and the Red Cross suddenly got $500,000 an hour for a few hours.  Today at the University of Denver and Metropolitan State College, tables were up, fundraisers advertised, people alert.

**The essays in Jaegwon Kim, ed., Dying for Growth, connecting international bank policies, inegalitarian economic growth, and death particularly from aids underline the force of a broadly Marxian explanation. 

***Consider the very good letter yesterday (January 20) from Leslie Fleming, an anthropology instructor at Merritt College criticizing the paternalism (Americans should do good, but less good, because Haitians are culturally incapable) of David Brooks, a breath of fresh air in the Times:

            “The primary responsibility for Haiti’s poverty lies not with its people, but with the actions of foreign powers.  A few examples: American support of Haiti’s dictators; America’s undermining of popular, democratically elected Haitian leaders [she means: funded and organized thugs in overthrowing them and murdering thousands, but that even this statement got into the Times is rare]; American blocking of international loans (2001-04) for education, clean water, health care and road improvements; American dumping of heavily subsidized rice on Haiti’s markets, driving small Haitian rice farmers out of business; and American insistence that most international loans go through private, nongovernmental organizations.”

        For the truly ignorant, imperial, neo-con racism of Brooks and his deathless enmity toward poor Haitians, perhaps the following may suffice:

         "As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book 'The Central Liberal Truth,' Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, 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."  

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


Post a Comment