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.”