Like most people, I’ve followed the aftermath of the Haitian quake with a kind of horror. But for me, the horror has been not at the quake itself and its terrible consequences for the benighted Haitians, but at the Canadian media response to it, and the consequent public response.
This admittedly odd reaction was conditioned by an encounter I had recently. During the Christmas holidays, at one of those excruciating afternoon parties where professional people renew their networks while the hosts gain a small measure of non-denominational industrial and social prestige by feeding their guests Christmas leftovers, I ran into a documentary film-maker who mentioned quite casually when someone within earshot asked her how she was doing that she’d been sitting on her hands for six months, more or less unable to take on serious work or further her career because she had a contract to do a documentary about the Canadian response to “a disaster” and thus had to be able to drop everything and go into action at a moment’s notice. I was so startled by what she’d contracted to do that I asked, unfiltered, how it felt to be sitting around hoping something horrible was going to happen to other people so she could advance her career. She gave me a “don’t you get it?” look, and moved off to talk to someone else without answering the question.
The moral vacuity of her contract bothered me a lot, and I kept coming back to it in the week or so before that contract was triggered by the earthquake in Haiti, which we’ve now recognized has resulted in upwards of 100,000 dead people and incalculable damage to the island’s infrastructure, physical and social. Even after two weeks of disaster pornography I still can’t think about Haiti without remembering that documentary film-maker, and without wondering how we could have built an apparatus into our culture that is parasitic to mass human misery. It has made me unpleasantly aware of the barely concealed glee with which the mass media is covering the event: smiling newsladies wearing too much makeup speculating from the comfort of a downtown Toronto television studio on whether there are 50,000 corpses under the rubble, or 200,000; endless clips of local Haitians being asked how they feel, and before they can answer, how they’re coping with their feelings of helplessness at not knowing the fate of their loved ones. Then there’s the predictable ramping up for donations by the NGOs already set up to live off the misery of Haiti and a hundred other countries across the planet in a more or less permanent state of crisis. And after that there the politicians, who we already know—or should—don’t give a crap about places like Haiti, trying to convince us that they’re personally bereaved as they announce aid packages and emergency relief programs or the deaths of their own nationals.
The extremity of the earthquake, a 7.0 Richter scale doozy centred more or less right under the country’s most densely populated area around Port-au-Prince, seems to have liberated virtually everyone from introspection, hindsight and context. The media riot going on at Haiti’s airports right now is likely as big a hindrance to the distribution of food and water as the post-quake logistics that inevitably pertain—News crews from Des Moines or North Hatley, Quebec stopping aid trucks to ask the drivers about their feelings, have they personally lost a relative, etc., then virtually cordoning off those who need the aid with the same moronic questions—all of which must be answered because they are, everyone understands, fund-raising questions, designed less to inform than to trigger sympathy and the unlimbering of Visa cards.
The Haitian police and military, meanwhile, try to maintain crowd control and arrest looters. They succeed at this best in the presence of camera crews because even the looters don’t want to make the place look bad, and the police even shoot a few of the bolder looters for the news gatherers, carefully not noticing that these news crews are also, in their way, looters.
Everyone appears to have forgotten that Haiti was an unsolvable morass before the quake, its political institutions termited hollow by corruption, its infrastructure already overburdened and rotted by overpopulation and profiteering, its cultural institutions a corrupted mess of voodoo, UN pieties, Bush economics and the refusal of the Catholic Church to vacate its 19th century values. They’ve forgotten because now Haiti is an unsolvable morass with fresh rubble and corpses, and that’s exciting. No one is asking why all those people were living in those ill-constructed shitholes surrounded by garbage they can’t get rid of and babies they can’t take care of. Everyone, from the Haitians to Stephen Harper has been freed, temporarily, from having to face such questions by the urgent demands of the moment. So we air-lift food and medical supplies, feel morally comfortable, and we film our documentaries about how well or badly we respond to the physical misery of others, and we let the Pope and his antediluvian exhortations to the faithful that it is somehow God’s will that they go on having children they can’t feed or care for go unremarked upon.
Haiti’s problem is that there are too many people on the island, and that they are reproducing at too great a speed to get out from under the chaos and poverty overpopulation creates. This has been obvious to everyone for at least 50 years, but we’ve kept on pumping the foreign aid and aid workers into the pit while the island’s population has doubled to nearly ten million. Lately, Canada has been sending in police trainers as if better policing is the solution to extreme crowding and poverty, and to the corruption and despair those things bring. It isn’t. Controlling the growth of the island’s population is. Better policing will mainly serve to make the tourists feel safer while they tan, and aid workers more secure while they apply band-aids to a country that has literally been ripping itself apart limb from limb for decades with its own suicidal value system.
Given our culture’s fixation on individual and reproductive rights, it is currently considered uncivilized—in normal circumstances—to suggest that a condition for giving foreign aid ought to be the existence in the receiving country of effective and aggressive birth control programs. To be talking about it while Haiti is still digging out the bodies of earthquake victims from the rubble, will seem downright heartless to those of us caught up in the ecstasy of this rescue. But such a condition it is the only thing that isn’t ultimately dithering with the deck chairs on the Titanic while the iceberg grinds away, deep inside the engine room.
1100 words January 29, 2010