Thursday, January 28, 2010

Undeserving of response

It would be a waste of time and energy to try to explain to someone so willfully stupid and profoundly heartless why his thoughts on Haiti are offensive. Better to let him keep hanging himself with his own rope, which he does in this piece at least four times.

If You Rebuild It, They Will Come by Paul Shirley.

True enough. But what about when people repeat their mistakes? And what about when they do things that obviously act against their own self-interests?

In the case of mistakes and warnings as applied to Haiti, I don’t mean to indict those who ignored actual warnings against earthquakes, of which there were many before the recent one. Although it would have been prudent to pay heed to those, I suppose.

Instead, I’m referring to the circumstances in which people lived. While the earthquake was, obviously, unavoidable, the way in which many of the people of Haiti lived was not. Regrettably, some Haitians would have died regardless of the conditions in that country. But the fact that so many people lived in such abject poverty exacerbated the extent of the crisis.

How could humans do this to themselves? And what’s being done to stop it from happening again?

After the tsunami of 2004, the citizens of the world wailed and donated and volunteered for cleanup, rarely asking the important – and, I think, obvious – question: What were all those people doing there in the first place? Just as important: If they move back to a place near the ocean that had just been destroyed by a giant wave, shouldn’t our instinct be to say, “Go ahead if you want, but you’re on your own now.”?

We did the same after Hurricane Katrina. We were quick to vilify humans who were too slow to respond to the needs of victims, forgetting that the victims had built and maintained a major city below sea level in a known target zone for hurricanes. Our response: Make the same mistake again. Rebuild a doomed city, putting aside logic as we did.

And now, faced with a similar situation, it seems likely that we will do the same.

Shouldn’t there be some discourse on how the millions of dollars that are being poured into Haiti will be spent? And at least a slight reprimand for the conditions prior to the earthquake? Some kind of inquisition? Something like this?:

Dear Haitians –

First of all, kudos on developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Your commitment to human rights, infrastructure, and birth control should be applauded.

As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it’s possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?

Sincerely,
The Rest Of The World

Seriously, this is such splutter bait. It tempts me so to just start ranting about structural economic inequity and reproduction rates across economic strata and on and on and on--but that a) will make no difference to anyone and b) is the only sane goal I can imagine Shirley had when writing this piece.

And yet, I can't stop. I need to quote at least one more time. It's sort of like watching a car wreck, or a scary alien from a sci-fi movie--you know what it is, you know it's awful, its every move is pretty predictable, and you can't stop looking at it.

And I’m not as na├»ve as I once was – I don’t think the people of Haiti have the option of moving. But I do think that our assistance should be restricted, like it should be in cases of starvation. It simply does not work to give, unconditionally. What might work is to teach. In the case of famine-stricken segments of Africa, teaching meant making people understand that a population of people needs a certain amount of food, and that the creation of that food has to be self-sustaining for the system to work. In the case of earthquake-stricken Haiti, teaching might mean limited help, but help that is accompanied by criticism of the circumstances that made that help necessary.

First of all, congratulations to Shirley for inventing sustainable development all on his own without any help from all those dumb bleeding hearts who have been working on it for decades. Secondly, I completely agree that when entire countries in Africa have their weekly community meetings they should be discussing whether there was a big enough crop this year to have any babies yet rather than, I don't know, sitting around playing drums? Oh, Paul Shirley. What a guy.

I'll just end with this:
A Haitian woman, days after the earthquake:

“We need so much. Food, clothes, we need everything. I don’t know whose responsibility it is, but they need to give us something soon,” said Sophia Eltime, a mother of two who has been living under a bed sheet with seven members of her extended family. (From an AP report.)

Obviously, a set of circumstances such as the one in which Ms. Eltime was living is a heart-wrenching one. And for that, anyone would be sympathetic. Until she says, “I don’t know whose responsibility it is.” I don’t know whose responsibility it is, either. What I do know is that it is not the responsibility of the outside world to provide help. It’s nice if we do, but it is not a requirement, especially when people choose to influence their own existences negatively, whether by having too many children when they can’t afford them or by failing to recognize that living in a concrete bunker might not be the best way to protect one’s family, whether an earthquake happens or not.

Of course, Sophia Eltime was living in a concrete bunker because it's just so industrial chic, and she's always been really into post-apocalyptic science fiction and this way she got to feel like she was a character in a Philip K. Dick story! And family planning was, of course, entirely under her control, what with her excellent sex education, easy access to contraceptives, and well-respected rights to control her body that have never been questioned by the social and familial context in which she lives. She just loves children, you know? They really brighten up the bunker.

Dammit, he got me in the end. At least I kept my sarcasm. I'm going to end this now before I get tempted to actually comment on his website.

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