What do we do in the aftermath of such a disaster, except to express profound sadness, shock, and sympathy, and to send donations to aid and relief organizations working in the affected areas? How do we even portray it in a way that respects the victims?
Citizen media, according to Media Nation blogger Dan Kennedy, have gotten ever better at providing a sense of the real-time reality unfolding on the ground in situations like this, but they still have limitations. The best of the established media seem to be rounding up bloggers and tweets and connecting the diaspora community with their loved ones, in their general effort to cover what is happening. As Global Voices’ excellent Haiti earthquake page shows, reports are being compiled in numerous places, such as here, and even Wikipedia is doing a reasonable job staying on top of it.
Academics who know the area are responding by spinning some context around it, to help the rest of us understand the history that has made Haiti the poorest country in the hemisphere, least able to withstand a shock like this. In his piece in yesterday’s Guardian, philosopher Peter Hallward blames a long history of US and colonial intervention, neoliberal economic policies, and the vacillations of the international community for the extent of the tragedy. Despite its being a couple of decades old, I know of no better account of that history than Eduardo Galeano’s Open Veins of Latin America and his later Memory of Fire trilogy.
But then there’s nature, in her guise as unpredictable Mother, angry Papa Legba, vengeful Jehovah. The most egregious of religious interpretations is evangelical pastor Pat Robertson’s despicable comment blaming Haitians for their own disaster, claiming they had made a “pact with the devil” in overthrowing the French and have since been reaping its fruits. Voilà: rising up against unjust rule is bad when non-Christians do it, but good when it’s Robertson’s own Americans in their revolution. But reacting to such ignorance is too easy and does little (immediately) for the victims of the tragedy.
And there’s nature in the dark purity of the (f)act itself: nature acts, for no “reason,” wiping tens or hundreds of thousands in the simple scratch of an itch. Nature is not just.
That said, nature is also never merely nature either. We are part of the nature that acts, part of the system of relations by which the earth twists and moans and writhes in its sleep. There’s little point in looking for a global warming “signature” here. Rather, it’s about vulnerability — and its just (or unjust) distribution among us. As the world globalizes, as we come to see and feel the pain on our screens, we come to build the body of humanity. But the building of it is highly, deeply, radically uneven. An anthropologist working in Haiti, whose e-mail was forwarded to me by a friend, laments the news coverage, “which depicts this as a natural catastrophe, when the real problem is substandard housing and lack of infrastructure.”
This imbrication of ecology, cultural difference, religion, and justice calls to mind some responses to that other hot topic in the popular blogosphere — bear with me for a moment here — James Cameron’s Avatar. This January 4 post by The Haitian Blogger on Eywa, the Na’vi sacred tree and its analogue in Haitian Vodun tradition, the Mapou tree, seems all the more poignant given what has happened in the last few days. While Cameron’s fictional humans are prepared to take out Eywa in their quest for minerals, as Haitian playwright and human rights attorney Ezili Danto wrote in a critique of the film written a week before the earthquake,
“A real life example of what happened to the fictional Na’vi people in the movie is happening to Haiti right now. The US military took down president Aristide, deported him to Central Africa, and took over Haiti with hired thugs and death squads, then used the UN and the NGO squads to deflect charges of terror, racism and imperialism. Meanwhile the UN is protecting not Haitian rights and sovereignty but the right of the NGOs, corporate greed, sweatshops, trans-national corporations’ right to privatization of Haiti’s assets – bling (gold, iridium, copper, oil, diamonds, marble) – and the mining and oil companies to do as they please in Haiti.”
Ironically, the Sigourney Weaver scientist character, in trying to defend the Na’vi, at one point says something like “This isn’t some pagan voodoo, this is their home and destruction of the Hometree will affect the biological connection to nature’s lifeforce of all Na’vi organisms.” (I’ve looked for the actual quote online and only found a series of variations on this.) Danto argues that
“This is the same anthropologist who, later on, in the movie would be rushed to the Tree of Souls and Mo’at, the Na’vi high priestess, for healing through the making of a sacred connection to nature’s lifeforce to save her. The whole chanting ritual and raising up of sacred energies pretty much looked like Vodun (in Haiti, Vodun means lifting up “sacred energies”).” [. . .]
“When the Omaticaya clan’s Tree of Voices and the Ancestors fell, that genocide resonated. It reminded me of how the Catholics in Haiti, destroyed the mapou trees in Haiti because in Haitian Vodun each village compound/Lakou, each family had a tree with the spirit and life of their ancestors. But in the 1940s rejete massacre in Haiti, the US sponsored the burning down of the most sacred of trees and the psychological devastation still hasn’t left the Haitian psyche to this day. So much so that trees became, for many, just wood for charcoal burning! I cringed when that Navi tree went down. The Will Heaven and Annalee Newitz reviews have it correct, this is no more than a white savior movie where the “assimilated white” becomes the messiah for the “savages.” ”
Despite these parallels, Danto critiques the film as a white fantasy — a debate that continues in various places.
But it’s the plight of Haitians that is urgent right now. The same anthropologist I cited earlier suggests donating to Fonkoze, a microfinance organization that works with women in the Port au Prince area. And there’s the Red Cross, UNICEF, Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti foundation, and others.
Worshipers perform a rite honoring the plant spirits during a Vodun ceremony in Souvenance village, Haiti, Monday, March 24, 2008. Hundreds of people come to this village over Easter weekend to participate in one of the holiest pilgrimages, showing their devotion to the spirits marked by drumming, chanting and sacrificial offerings. (Thanks to <a href="The Haitian Blogger)