Info Gluttony

And Let’s Bring it Back to Haiti

Posted in Disaster Capitalism, media, politics by echan on January 28, 2010

Big announcements today, I know, I know, but let me re-wind the media clock back 15 seconds to Haiti.

First, let me point out Rebecca Solnit’s scathing critique on the media’s use of the term “looting” in natural disasters.  I think J-schools and newspapers need to bring Solnit in to train their staff on covering disasters, and I second her call, “We need to banish the word ‘looting’ from the English language. It incites madness and obscures realities.”  Her core argument is that the word “looting” itself is deadly, since it privileges the value of property above human life and dulls our natural sense of compassion:

And in disaster after disaster, at least since the San Francisco earthquake of 1906, those in power, those with guns and the force of law behind them, are too often more concerned for property than human life. In an emergency, people can, and do, die from those priorities. Or they get gunned down for minor thefts or imagined thefts. The media not only endorses such outcomes, but regularly, repeatedly, helps prepare the way for, and then eggs on, such a reaction.

The second bit on Haiti comes from Skip Gates, who traces the poverty there to a series of American (and European) foreign policy decisions made a couple of centuries ago (hat tip to TNC’s post).  The American policies that strangled Haiti’s development started with Thomas Jefferson, and appropriately began to change with Abe Lincoln:

By 1804, Jefferson told John Quincy Adams that he was determined to end trade with Haiti. Having helped the Haitians gain their freedom, he then sought to strangle the new-born nation. He sought to quarantine the island and opposed official trade because that would mean recognizing its independence. And that could inspire slave insurrections throughout the American South. The embargo on Haiti remained in force until the spring of 1810; trade fell from $6.7 million in 1806 to $1.5 million in 1808. Non-recognition of the republic remained official American policy until 1862.

Abraham Lincoln signed the bill to recognize Haiti, at long last (and Liberia, too, by the way) in June 1862. The bill passed both houses of Congress only after long and heated debate. James Redpath, the head of the Haitian emigration bureau and an abolitionist, had pressed Massachusetts statesman Charles Sumner to introduce this legislation, for one reason: to encourage the emigration of freed slaves and free blacks to both countries, which remained a dream of Lincoln’s even a month before he signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

While I learned of Haiti’s early independence and poverty in elementary school, my textbooks left out the bit about Jeffersonian foreign policy.

And now, you can forward your attention span to the next big news story, Obama’s State of the Union (which I am willing to bet will have less than 10 sentences addressing U.S. foreign policy.)


Addendum: Ha, had that last parenthetical said “less than 10 minutes” rather than “less than 10 sentences,” I would have been right:

Mr. Obama spent only nine minutes in an address that lasted more than an hour on foreign policy.


3 Responses

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  1. ToastyKen said, on January 28, 2010 at 1:03 am

    Re: valuing property over life: This reminds me when I went to the SFFD Museum and saw that, a century ago, the fire department had special tools to disassemble and “rescue” expensive bed frames!

  2. greg said, on January 31, 2010 at 6:15 pm

    two interesting reads (well, one i have read and one a friend i trust on these matters tells me is interesting)

    via Digby I did read this excerpt of Chomsky’s Year 501 which deals with the history of Haiti..

    It does have some over-the-top Chomsky verbiage, but it’s fascinating nonetheless.

    re: disasters in general and what happens on the ground after, a friend tells me that A Paradise built in Hell: The Extraordinary Communities that Arise in Disaster is a great read, specially useful in debunking the looting myth.

    Once I’m done with two very long books on selective college admissions and inequality I might get around to this one.

  3. eflan said, on February 1, 2010 at 7:53 pm

    Ugh, I hate how it’s “rescuing orphans,” not kidnap or trafficking, if the kids are poor:

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