In the June 6, 2013 issue of The New York Review of Books, there is a review of two of my books, The Rainy Season, and Farewell, Fred Voodoo, as well as of Haiti: The Aftershocks of History, by Laurent Dubois, the great chronicler of Haiti’s tragic and grandiose history.
The review was written by Mischa Berlinski, the award-winning novelist who has written almost all of the post- earthquake pieces on Haiti for NYRB. Berlinski lived in Haiti from 2007 through 2011 as the husband of an official of the UN Mission for the Stabilization of Haiti (MINUSTAH), a 10,000-strong multinational peacekeeping force that arrived in the country in the wake of a coup against elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide, and that has been the sole serious force of order there since.
I read the review with the usual stoicism necessary for getting through criticisms of one’s work. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I thought. What’s he talking about, I also thought. It’s a respectful review, and I’d be reasonably happy with it if it weren’t for the obvious political bias of the criticisms Berlinski offers. The review is more irritating for its ignorance and political prejudices about Haiti than it is for its purposefully wrong-headed interpretation of the three books under consideration.
For Berlinski is, in effect, a camp follower of MINUSTAH, which is the latest in the endless parade of foreign interventions in Haiti. Yet the essence of Berlinski’s critique of Farewell Fred Voodoo and Dubois’ history is that Dubois and I characterize the effect of such interventions as malign, in the final analysis. Like many U.S. foreign policy types and many conservative commentators, Berlinski thinks such interventions are good, and that, basically, these (outsider-controlled) interventions are the only thing saving Haiti from outright barbarism, in the form of its own sovereign governance. That’s the whole basis of Berlinski’s critique.
Let’s start with this: In Farewell, Fred Voodoo, I discuss in detail the unfortunate consequences of outsiders who regard Haiti and Haitians with “condescension and pity.”
Berlinski responds: “May I be blunt? I don’t think that ‘condescension’ and ‘pity’ are wholly inappropriate reactions to a place like Haiti.” He goes on, apparently proud to spout the obvious, “there is some profound dysfunction in Haitian society: some nations work poorly, and this is one of them.” He then quotes Dr. Johnson on the poverty of London in Johnson’s day: “Where a great proportion of the people are suffered to languish in helpless misery, that country must be ill-policed, and wretchedly governed: a decent provision for the poor is the true test of civilization.”
In case you didn’t understand Johnson, Berlinski adds: Johnson’s is “a correct moral judgment. Such a judgment should never be ignored.” Of course Berlinski is ignoring the incontrovertible fact that the police of Haiti during Berlinski’s time there (and to this day) were Berlinski’s wife’s employers. It is MINUSTAH, not the Haitian government, that has been policing Haiti for nine years, at a huge cost to the UN, with no visible change in the Haitians’ “helpless misery,” indeed, without even an acknowledgment that the amelioration of conditions in the country might be a part of a mission to stabilize it. Even as a classic occupation force, MINUSTAH has been a failure.
Berlinski also claims that Dubois and I simplify the causes of Haitian dysfunction, and that we blame all the country’s woes on the United States. This is just untrue. Farewell, Fred Voodoo is about the complicated and destructive dance between Haitian politics and outside influence, about the fact (often ignored by people with Berlinski’s biases) that it takes two to make corruption: the corrupter and the corruptee.
Berlinski uses fancy NYRB lingo to cover up the simplistic and retrograde attitudes he promotes in the piece. He quotes Dubois arguing that Haiti’s present poverty and instability are “the product of its history,” and not of any “inherent shortcoming.”
Now, no one would assert that, say, Italy’s current problems are not “the product of its history.” But after quoting Dubois, Berlinski goes on: “This is a remarkable claim, attempting to explain in a single epistemological gesture phenomena as disparate as chronic childhood malnutrition, widespread illiteracy, endemic judicial corruption,” etc., etc.
Thus, with a “single epistemological gesture,” Berlinski sweeps away “history” as a possible cause for these things, and sweeps away the outsider’s role in Haiti’s history and contemporary woes. Instead, he sees Haiti’s problems as a result of something he calls “the Haitian character,” which he says has made “an indelible impression” on him, although — who can say why? — he neglects to elaborate on that character. What is the Haitian character, Mischa?
Presumably channeling me and Dubois, Berlinski writes “Haiti’s failures have nothing to do with any ‘inherent shortcomings’ on the part of Haitians themselves? Really? … Is there no link at all between culture, religion, governance, national temperament, and economics?”
But Haiti has never existed in a racial, cultural, religious, governmental or economic vacuum and, no matter Berlinski’s ignorance, every aspect of Haiti’s national being has been affected by the relationship between a weak nation and much stronger outside influences and incursions.
1. Culture: what exactly is Haitian culture? It is a syncretic affair built out of old African traditional beliefs, Christian suppression of those beliefs, Christian evangelization, French and American political and economic domination, and, of course, the word Berlinski avoids like the devil, slavery – a century of it. So there’s nothing about Haitian culture that’s untouched by outsider influence.
2. Religion: see above. Vodou among Haitians was suppressed first by the French and then by the Americans for more than a century after Haiti’s Africans were brought to the island. Was this good? Was this bad? Certainly the repression was, literally, influential, and changed the way Vodou was practiced and what its outcomes were.
3. Governance: Please. When has there been a moment in Haiti, since the two years after the success of the Haitian revolution in 1804 (and not even then, really) when outsiders were not inmixed in Haitian politics, attempting to corrupt and to control? The clearest post-slavery version of this was the 19-year U.S. Marine occupation of Haiti (1915 -1934), which built roads and public buildings (more than one can say for MINUSTAH), and created a new but neither stable nor democratic political culture in Haiti.
4. National temperament. Don’t know what this is, probably has to do with the “indelible impression” made on Berlinski by “the Haitian character.”
5. Economics: again, Haitian economics, in a vacuum, doesn’t exist. Haiti has been fully globalized since slavery days. Sugar was a global product, refined and exported by outsiders, bringing profits to outsiders, but cut by Haitian field workers – and this for many a long decade after the end of slavery. Haiti’s economy was a global sweatshop economy as early as the 1960s, under François Duvalier. Only for a few years before Duvalier’s election in 1957 did Haiti experience a moment of distance from global penetration and exploitation (and this, only in the countryside). In the 1990s, the US began dumping cheap subsidized US rice into the Haitian market with the disastrous consequence of destroying local production and causing further starvation and migration to fragile urban areas.
When I talk about my new book, I often mention the guileless observer of Haiti who invariably poses the question: “Why is Haiti like that?” Often, I have found, this observer is seeking a response that points not to history but rather to race and continental origin as the root cause of Haiti’s problems. Berlinski’s piece provides exactly that uncomplicated but popular response. It’s an old explanation for Haiti’s woes, dating back to the successful Haitian slave revolution, when all outsiders feared the violence of that uprising. We should give thanks that now, among most Haiti scholars including Dubois, this analysis, which explains almost nothing, is outmoded.
Thank you for this, Amy.
Berlinski is another example of outsiders living the high life off Haiti’s troubles, thinking they know everything about Haiti; and yet, when they venture to write anything, we come face to face with their absolute ignorance of Haiti’s complicated history and subtle prejudices disguised as critical analysis.
Thank you Amy for calling out Berlinski. I really hope we’ll get to hear back on the meaning of the “Haitian character” which could be a really fascinating discussion.
Although I agree that Berlinski’s review was biased and retrograde, I also fault “Fred Voodoo” for ignoring the many positive Haitian initiatives, some in collaboration with foreign organizations, some entirely Haitian. Those I am aware of include Fonkoze, The Lambi Fund, the NEGES Foundation, CODEHA, L’Alternatif, and Le Foyer des Filles de Dieu. Despite these lapses, I found Fred Voodoo a solid, painful exploration and very much worth reading.