The Lisbon Earthquake on the 1st November 1755 changed the world; fatally wounding the Portuguese empire and scarring Eurocentric modernity. There was a complacency embedded within the thinking of the time, a naive belief that human perfection had been realised and the world was working in ‘pre-established harmony’. For many, the event destroyed any belief in a transcendent deity. Voltaire’s Candide brutally critiqued the optimism of the times, mocking the idea that “we live in the best of all possible worlds” and the naive teleology that holds “everything happens for a reason”.
Others, less iconoclastic than Voltaire, believed that divine reason could account for the events of 1755. Seeking to uphold their conception of God, they argued that God attacked Lisbon for its “affluence”. Such rationalisations angered many as what set Portugal apart from France and Britain?
Will ye reply: “You do but illustrate
The iron laws that chain the will of God”?
Say ye, o’er that yet quivering mass of flesh:
“God is avenged: the wage of sin is death”?
What crime, what sin, had those young hearts conceived
That lie, bleeding and torn, on mother’s breast?
Did fallen Lisbon deeper drink of vice
Than London, Paris, or sunlit Madrid?
A search for reason in the midst of such a disaster was deeply problematic. To explain mass death and destruction through the will of God proved more damaging to the theistic beliefs than supportive.
For the majority of people and for Western thought, Lisbon brought about a realisation: people needed to act to change the world, as it had not been created perfect, if created at all. Any sense of pride in the status quo was misplaced. Mastering the world through science and expanding knowledge arguably became the primary goals of Enlightenment thought. The Earth had to be accounted for naturally and understood; else man would continue to live at the whim of natural forces. Lisbon therefore revealed complacency and propelled change.
The 12th January 2010 and its aftermath has revealed the inadequacies of such change, most notably, the perpetuity of radical inequalities, racism and exploitation. Arrogance in Western “progress” is categorically misplaced; hence, all self-congratulation must halt. The victory of a black US president, if it were to be anything beyond symbolic, would at the very least have to manifest itself with an end to a racist foreign policy and discourse. Haiti reveals that our hopes remain far from realised. A black man in white America is afflicted with the same ideology of his predecessors; apparently there is a barbaric “nature” to Haitian society that requires “us” to help. The developed world’s burden is not as far away from Kipling as many want it to be. “The end of history” has not been reached, and the discourse of “civilisation” is, to my mind, undeniably colonially imbued.
The comfort blanket is off and we have to confront the cold long night that stands before us. Preventable deaths are rampant in Haiti. Thousands of people with broken limbs still await basic treatment. Thousands have yet to get aid, and the smell of death still overwhelms Port-au-Prince, reminding the people of Haiti that 230,000 is still a conservative estimate. How many will be found under the rubble, we simply cannot know.
Western compassion cannot be faulted though, can it? After all, there is competition for fundraiser singles, telethons, celebrities chartering their private jets, thousands of NGOs, doctors and services all tripping over one another on the ground. The American state has committed enough troops to massacre the remaining population, pure unadulterated altruism! What heart Obama has! It is well known that America brutally wiped out any resistance movement during their previous occupation, killing 30,000 Haitians between 1915 and 1936. I wonder what America will do now. One can bet Obama will pull the untainted euphemism of “security” out of his pocket, which will deem that it is necessary to reinstate the Haitian army, a brutal internal force used to dam the flood (to borrow a phrase from Peter Hallward).
In the late eighties a collective will formed in Haiti under the leadership of Jean-Bertrand Aristide, culminating a landslide victory in free and fair elections. This has come to be known as Lavalas (the flood). Lavalas’s victory stood for an end to dictatorial rules, totalitarian death squads and undignified existence.These goals have been systematically stifled by Western interests. Even in such dire straits as an earthquake, the self-interest of the few still overides the needs of the poor.
Bill Clinton is quoted at Davos as saying that “the opportunity to help the people of Haiti” is not simply altruistic, it is also “hugely profitable”. Naomi Klien’s Shock Doctrine is confirmed more and more with every passing disaster. The official line is: Haiti will not be forgotten and only progress can come now, after such decimation. Yet, “progress” means one thing: “making people small and governable”. Making sure the poor stay poor and that Haiti remains an investors’ paradise for multinational corporations looking for cheap labour; the audacity of the “hope” plan! The “decentralisation” of Haiti, the movement of masses of people to rural areas, should be watched with a hawk’s eye, especially when development is controlled by Clinton. If the actions we are seeing are congruent with the past, movements of Haitians to rural areas will not be a move back to the agricultural economy, it will be a disbursement of sweatshops, separated in a bid to block mobilisation and unionisation; keeping wages low and keeping Lavalas at bay.
It is natural to feel unease at reading a polemical article which holds a mirror back at the Western world. The question that needs to be asked of this piece is: is this the type of mirror you find at a funfair which throws disproportionate images back to your retina, or, is that job taken by the mainstream? Think back to the chaos of a month ago, when there was the time to act and save the thousands of lives that have now expended. Where to help and who to help became salient questions. Evidence shows that lives were measured by the prestige of the person, the colour of their skin and the depth of their pockets.
Within 24 hours of the quake striking sniffer dogs and rescue teams were tripping over one another to save the UN. Now, a month later, it is important to call a spade a spade. The UN’s role in Haiti is and has been nothing but repressive. Shooting at crowds to break up popular protests, terrorising the population, wasting resources and depriving the poor from attaining dignity. Despite this the vast majority of reporters felt the need to cover the UN as if they were more important than the Haitian people. Why is this?
The central prison of Port-au-Prince was destroyed, with thousands of prisoners breaking free. How would this effect security? “Dangerous criminals roam the streets” we were told again and again. No one thought to mention that the prison stood for repression. 85-90% of prisoners had never faced trial, many were simply politically active in support of change. For years the prison was synonymous acts of torture and despotism, yet our reporters couldn’t even bring themselves to do basic investigation. Instead it was used to incite fear of bloodthirsty anarchy ripping Haiti to pieces.
Report after report sought to justify a military mode of aid. Matt Frei’s racism did more than anything to justify to the British population the neo-colonial foreign policy that stripped Haitian’s of their autonomy. Rare scenes of looting were taken to be the status quo. Fears became facts. Discriminatory dispositions could not but view black people in desperation as anything but chaotic. Thus, the vast majority of media explicitly endorsed and supported the idea of an army to distribute aid and the implementation of martial law: resulting in the shooting of anyone with their hands full and the tragic case of Fabienne Cherisma .
In the 21st Century being Haitian, black and poor still delimits freedom. By your nature you will be considered avaricious, primitive or both. You will be excluded from the discourse of reconstruction, prohibited from helping distribute aid and be forced to wait for ‘assistance’. Deprived of dignity and autonomy all you can expect is guns and armoured vehicles in abundance.
Tranquil spectators of your brothers’ wreck,
Unmoved by this repellent dance of death
Who calmly seek the reason of such storms,
Let them but lash your own security;
Religious zealots sought to justify Lisbon through the eyes of God. 21st Century Liberalism means there is now a plurality of accounts for why the disaster strikes. Some still evoke God, who was angry at the “Black Magic” of Haiti, or their “pact with the devil” in order to throw off the French. Obama talked of the “feeling” of being “forsaken”. Others found reason in the “opportunities” that present themselves.
“But let it lash our security”, we cannot rationalise what we have seen. We cannot sweep it under the carpet or subsume it into our current modes of thought. Foreign policy, debt structuring, aid, conceptions of democracy, notions of “free press”…all have to be readdressed after Haiti.
Haiti demands nothing less than a rupture with our self-congratulatory dispositions. A country burdened with debt, punished for its insistence on self-determination and egalitarianism has now been ravaged by a natural disaster. Families have been destroyed, hundreds of thousands are dead, 2 million are homeless, thousands are starving to death or dying from preventable diseases and to top it all off, hurricane season is around the corner. We cannot explain this away, we cannot rationalise it and we definitely cannot miss what it has revealed. Reason cannot be found, truths can. The truth that can be affirmed above all else is: we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. The battle for justice is far from over and we have got a lot of work to do to ensure that the Haitian people will no longer suffer the effects of a racism that is clearly still endemic and radical inequalities that have yet to be addressed.