Guest Post by Samuel Martínez
David Brooks’ New York Times op-ed, “The Underlying Tragedy,” debates a major truth: there is no such thing as a “natural disaster,” only natural adversities for which humans are better or worse prepared to cope. He spins so many mistruths from that insight, however, that the “tough love” approach that he seems to recommend for Haiti seems destined to produce a lot of toughness (and most of that verbal) with little “love.”
We’ve already seen it multiple times that hurricanes leave vastly disproportionate damage from one island in the Antilles to the next. And we’ve seen that poverty coefficient do its ghastly math specifically in Haiti as recently as 2008 when four hurricanes caused thousands of deaths there while taking a much lower toll in human life in neighboring Cuba, where severe storm damage also happened.
No doubt about it: people in countries where poverty reigns, communication infrastructure is deteriorating, and state institutions are weak are unjustly vulnerable to seeing their lives and families wrecked by natural disasters.
And the fact that we’ve seen such disparities be manifested many times before (albeit on a smaller scale of destruction than Tuesday’s quake) also raises questions about why Haiti was so badly prepared.
That said, it is an obscenity for Brooks to blame the magnitude of the disaster on Haitian culture at the very moment when these, ostensibly culturally-impaired people are literally throwing their shoulders to concrete in a last effort to save loved ones, neighbors and even strangers, for whom the rescuers care for no reason other than they all are human.
As a cultural anthropologist I could talk for hours about the Rove-esque dimensions of attacking Haiti precisely at its culture, the one area where it is generally understood to be “rich.”
But just what is the point of Brooks’ blanket denunciation of an entire people’s way of life?
Surely, in response to a disaster of this magnitude there must be blame enough to go around. How about apportioning some criticism also to the Western governments that have pledged billions in recent years to Haitian reconstruction while actually giving much less?
The answer (to Why blame the culture?) becomes more clear as Brooks goes on and likens what he styles as Haiti’s patho-cultural syndrome to Black inner-city teenagers suffering from diminished expectations and habits of blaming others for their own shortcomings. Nothing matches up in Brooks’ linkage of Harlem and Port-au-Prince — the comparison is a total clunker — nothing matches up, that is, other than a discourse of veiled white supremacy designed to blame Blacks for whatever ill God and man throws their way and to provide a white-dominated state with a standing excuse for doing too little, too late.
And now that we’re on the topic of disaster, avoidable human costs, and blame, does the name “Katrina” mean anything to Mr Brooks?
Is there no decency? Is there no sensitivity to race-baiting among the editorial staff of our nation’s leading news outlet? Of course there isn’t and never has been in relation to Haiti. I can’t even so help thinking that Brooks’ “The Underlying Tragedy” is one more sign of how coarse the political right’s discourse has gotten in just the last year. With all the racially-coded vitriol of the last months still in the air, should we be surprised that blame is the only thing right-wing commentators will say Haitians deserve in plenty?
Samuel Martínez is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Connecticut.
Image: “Haiti Earthquake” by Flickr user United Nations Development Programme, licensed by Creative Commons.