David Rieff: Forgetting Haiti. It's Bound to Happen. Then What?

David Rieff | Posted on 03/09/10

"If you had every calamity of the past thirty years in your head, you would either go mad or else have to change your life beyond all recognition....You would look away, or you would have to make for yourself a very different sort of life, becoming in effect a professional 'carer.'"

 "Every newspaper," Baudelaire wrote, "from the first line to the last, is nothing but a tissue of horrors - wars, crimes, rapes, shamelessness, tortures, crimes of the great, crimes of nations, crimes of individuals, a drunken chronicle of universal atrocity."

And yet the poet died long before the advent of television, let alone of our own wired time when one can find feeds of beheadings and torture transmitted over the web in  real time. The newspaper of his day, which Baudelaire said should make any man of honor shudder to hold it in his hands, left most of that to the reader's imagination. In our own time, imagination is unnecessary and if one does not want to bathe in images of these atrocities one has to make a huge effort to insulate oneself, not to mention one's children, from being exposed to them. If we want to, we can see anything, today, anything and everything. That Baudelaire was right - that this is a curse - should be obvious. If there is a question worth pondering, it is whether there is any sense in which such knowledge can still be thought of as a blessing as well - the received wisdom of Baudelaire's time, against whose sturdy door the poet was banging his head.

I have been thinking of all this as I have tried to get my mind around the recent earthquake in Haiti - a country I know a bit, but to which I have not been in over a year. Port au Prince, in all its misery, was still standing then. And almost a quarter of a million Haitians whose lives were extinguished in a matter of hours, if not minutes, when the great temblor struck were still alive. Thanks to YouTube and the fact that even many very cheap cell phones have cameras nowadays, we who live in the rich world could observe this havoc all but instantaneously. But what purpose did this witnessing (most emphatically not "Witness") serve for us or for the Haitian people? As Baudelaire in The Flowers of Evil addressed his "Hypocrite reader - my fellow - my brother," should we think of ourselves as "hypocrite viewers" when it comes to our reactions to catastrophes like the one that has befallen Haiti, and disdain our own reactions because of it, even if, as Baudelaire clearly did, we believe such reactions inescapable?

Hypocrisy is probably the least of it. Repression and denial may have been the infuriating default position of the bourgeoisie of Baudelaire's time, but in this hyper-exhibitionist time, our failings are far more likely to be the product of shamelessness. There are fashions in hypocrisy, as in everything else, and we should not delude ourselves that our solidarity is more heartfelt or effective. Yes, we sympathized and mourned when Haiti was struck. And that sympathy was accompanied by an enormous outpouring of giving - money, first and foremost, but also popular support for the efforts (and expenditures) of the U.S. government, the European Union, the UN, and the non-governmental organizations, both secular and faith-based, which threw themselves into the rescue and reconstruction mission. But just as experienced disaster relief specialists, veteran journalists, and, indeed, the many missionaries and church aid officials with long experience of Haiti warned in the immediate aftermath of the earthquake, this sympathy was fleeting.

That the solidarity  the general public in the richworld feels with the desperate of the poor world is ephemeral is at once terrible and predictable. Whether the Asian tsunami of late December 2004 or the Haitian earthquake a few months ago, the trajectory is almost always the same. First the images pour in. Soon the grief of immigrants from the affected countries also becomes a feature of the coverage. There is a mobilization - the army, the churches, the NGOs. For weeks, a strip on the bottom of the TV screen tells viewers how to donate to various groups. Politicians take to the airwaves declaring their determination to set things right, and the airports are soon full of cargo planes and specialist firefighters, search-and-rescue teams, and emergency water and shelter experts. And for a while the work is covered in detail, often, at least in the first week after the disaster, with some preempting of scheduled programming.

It is not that the coverage is bad. It can be, of course, but more often than not it is quite good. But then, like clockwork, interest becomes less intense, then still less so, until after a certain period - it can be as short as a week or as long as a couple of months - the story, and with it the public concern it both reflects and engenders, no longer leads the news, then is no longer featured on television, then rarely even appears on the back pages of the few quality newspapers that remain in business.

The media have moved on, the audience has moved on. Of course, nothing has changed for the Haitian people. But those outsiders who remain concerned are precisely those who were always focused on places like Haiti to begin with: aid and development workers, UN officials, missionaries, representatives of powerful countries such as, in the Haitian case, Canada, France, and above all the United States, with a history of involvement, political interests, and immigrant populations.

And sooner or later, some new natural disaster (or war or refugee emergency) occurs, so that even the memory of what took place begins to dissolve in the public mind. We think of Haiti rather than the Asian tsunami today. But if the news from Chile turns out to be bad enough (though for now at least, awful as it is, it does not appear to be a tragedy of such world historic magnitude), the memory of the Haitian earthquake will become inscribed somewhere on the long continuum of calamity stretching back through time. But if it is not Chile, it will be another disaster - the reality of plate tectonics will see to that. To be sure, there are disasters that have a profound effect on people's beliefs. It is said, for example, that the Lisbon earthquake of 1755 moved Voltaire from Deism to (at most) an agnostic view. But such intellectual earthquakes rarely accompany the seismic ones. So theodicy or its absence: which is worse?

This is what I take Baudelaire to have been saying when he called the news a thing of horror and spoke in effect of the moral problem with being a spectator to other people's tragedies - tragedies about which we can do very little, and with which we can sympathize only up to a point and even then only with any real urgency for a limited period of time. If you had every calamity of the past thirty years in your head, from Tangshan, China, in 1976, where as many died as in Haiti, to today, you would either go mad or else have to change your life beyond all recognition. In other words, sooner or later you would look away, or, if you would not or could not, then you would have to make for yourself a very different sort of life, becoming in effect a professional "carer."

Aid workers and missionaries, to name only the two most obvious groups, do precisely this. Some groups are more effective than others, just as some individuals are more able or more committed, and the work is frequently in the service of agendas that are controversial. But these questions of controversies and commitments need to be posed, and answered, separately. What is clear is that the radical act of leaving the life and the world into which you were born, not, like the immigrant, in search of opportunity (although that has its own heroism - a fact too often forgotten in the rich world these days, and, no, that's not political correctness talking) - but in the name of service is a choice only a few of us are ever going to be willing or able to make on a permanent basis. The world could not go on if we did, for the radical altruism of the caregiver rarely is a good fit with family or community life, much as many caregivers wish it were otherwise (and often pay a high price when it is not).

There are no heroes or villains in this, obviously. But when we are confronted with a calamity such as the one that occurred in Haiti, we would do well to ask ourselves what the moral cost really is of finding oneself an onlooker to other people's tragedies. My suspicion is that Baudelaire was right, that the cost is far higher than we think. That does not mean we shouldn't sympathize, or give money to Catholic Relief Services, or support forgiving Haiti's international debt. To the contrary, this and much more need to be done if Haiti is to have any chance at all at recovery, let alone a better future. But it does mean that the cost of that sympathy - its moral, practical, and psychological limits - is higher than we think, and that the deployment of those whose profession it is to care, our designated consciences, does not put an end to the dilemma to which our ever-easier access to the map of the world's miseries poses for us, more and more starkly every day.

David Rieff has written extensively on war, humanitarianism, human rights, and immigration. He is the author of eight books and is a contributing writer to the New York Times Magazine.  



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