How Not To Respond to Haiti

Like most televison viewers, I have been frozen into a sort of moral torpor by the realization of the magnitude of the devastation in Haiti. While the death toll estimates from the original quake are staggering, it is scarcely thinkable what is happening now. Given the appalling lack of infrastructure—relief planes unable to land at the overloaded airport, roads impassable or non-existent—some fortunate to have survived the original collapse may now remain trapped and unreachable. What they and their families, in Haiti or in the extensive Haitian diaspora, are contending with now is very difficult to imagine.

It is so bad that it invites the moralizing of nature, compelling many to conclude that what has been visited on this island is evil, not simply bad. Susan Neiman tells a compelling story about how, arguably for the first time in the Modern period, western people began to see natural disasters in moral terms. The Lisbon earthquake of 1755 did more than level a city and kill countless thousands of its inhabitants; it also toppled the carefully constructed Early Modern edifice: a belief in the goodness and orderliness of the natural world. As Nieman puts it, the eighteenth century invoked the name of Lisbon in much the way twentieth century people would invoke Auschwitz.


The temptation to moralize disaster, once it achieves a certain level, is very powerful and runs very deep, though I trust it is clear that I do not intend this observation in quite the way that Pat Robertson did. Anthea Butler has helpfully unmasked the theological oddity of viewing this earthquake as divine punishment visited on an entire island for the alleged “deal with the devil” one man made over two hundred years ago.

The Reverend speaks of the devil, but what he really has in mind is a characteristic Afro-Caribbean form of quasi-Christian religious practice: Vodou, with its spirit possession, sacrifices, and all.

The old quip about Haiti—that the nation is “85% Catholic, 15% Protestant, and 100% Vodou”—has long legs and longer appeal. These percentages have been very helpfully emended in a companion piece on RD by Michelle Gonzalez Maldonado, who reminds us of the intense evangelical Protestant attention paid to Central America and the Caribbean in the past thirty years. Protestant conversion, especially to Pentecostal forms of the faith, is dramatically on the rise, making Robertson’s theological assessment of the situation on Haiti almost bizarre.

The scale of the destruction, the hopelessness of the situation, the staggering poverty, the confusing religious face of Haiti… all of these ideas continue to inform a great deal of idle speculation among those of us who have no earthly idea what to do or what to say in the face of the quake, its appalling magnitude, and its somewhat surreal cultural aftermath.

For there is a moralism of the left as well as of the right. That the country which emerged from the first successful slave rebellion in the New World continues to be the poorest nation in the entire western hemisphere lends itself to righteous finger-wagging, western incrimination, and more.

I am most struck by the modern-ness of these matters, as well as by Nietzsche’s patient cautioning about the potential abuse built in to the language of “good and evil.” The paradox, one well noted by Nietzsche, is that I, located confidently on the political left, become positively moralistic in my outrage at Pat Robertson’s moral analysis of the Haitian disaster.

None of this helps the Haitians, and Nietzsche believed that it does not do much for me either.

Haiti presents a problem that looms far larger than its current agony. Haiti offers a cautionary tale for the historian of the Early Modern world as well. Here, it would seem, are the historical highlights.

The 1500s were consumed by internecine religious conflict in Europe, a century of contestation between Reformation and Counter-Reformation that became intensely and horrifically violent in the 1600s, inspiring increasing numbers of European colonists to flee the Old World and to cross the Atlantic.

So bad had things become that the great “rights revolutions”—beginning with the so-called Glorious Revolution in England in 1688, and culminating in the French Revolution in 1789—allied themselves to various degrees with the cause of “secular politics.” If religious conflict was destined to be so violent and so intractable, then best to leave it out of a political process that had peace as its primary aspiration. The Lisbon earthquake violated that peace. As does Haiti today.

On the plus side of the ledger, the rights revolutions that contribute to making us Modern possessed enormous liberatory power: nation-states and enslaved peoples gained their independence in the 1800s; colonies became “post-colonial” and women got the vote in the 1900s.

But what of Haiti? The French Revolution’s founding charters, like the so-called Rights of Man, properly saw an indelible contradiction between these liberal Modern ideals and institutions of human enslavement. West Africans and indigenous peoples on the island of Hispaniola must be free. And so they were, for a moment. But as Revolution turned to Terror (tellingly enough, many Haitians were supremely shocked by the appearance of the first guillotine on their island, and stomped it to bits after seeing it used just once… so much for the notorious Haitian appetite for violence, every culture has the violence it embraces). Then Napoleon turned emperor, to make an anarchic revolution more orderly.

And profitable. Slavery was re-imposed on islands like Hispaniola and Martinique. Napoleon’s treachery in imprisoning Toussaint L’Overture (who had agreed to meet him under a flag of truce), was legendary, and intensified the West African’s commitment to violent rebellion. A large army (many of these soldiers were Poles, not French, and many stayed) was landed on the island, but illness decimated the troops and they finally surrendered on January 1, 1804. Since then, the small island nation’s fortunes have waxed and waned, often in tandem with American military occupation. In this, her story is like many others, deeply saddening, and offering a glimpse into the “dark side” of the European Renaissance (this is the marvelous title of Walter Mignolo’s important book on the ambivalence of European Modernity in the Americas.)

In short, Haiti seems to stand as a dramatic and desperate item on the negative side of the Modern ledger. If the revolutionary story of the Modern world is a story about individualism, about religion, about race and about rights, then it is hard to know how to tell those stories in Haiti.

What, then, can we do for Haiti? I can think of only one small, symbolic and unsatisfying thing. We can resist the temptation to moralize her tragedy, resist the temptation to turn Haiti into a morality play. It was Nietzsche who first warned us that such moralism is the real deal with the devil. And that in making it, we only succeed in punishing ourselves.

After that, we can identify the aid agency in which we are prepared to place our trust, to get money and supplies to the long-suffering victims of this earthquake, as soon as possible.