18 January 2010

Haiti

Like many Americans, I have seen pictures of an impoverished nation, with its twisted bodies piled under rubble, whole neighbourhoods destroyed, countless lives destroyed and even lost. I have also observed countless treatises on how the Haitian came to be in this scenario, without trustworthy institutions stronger than the brick and mortar that houses them, without sturdy and reliable means of providing aid and comfort to her own people and no means of rebuilding and maintaining a prosperous future to aid in the recovery of nature shattering dreams and families.

It strikes me that what is more tragic than that loss of perhaps as many two hundred thousand lives in a matter of days is the nature of a country, a few miles from our shores to advance to a state where its peoples live not under the wise governance of some collective self-interest and instead must be ordered according to their fears, which serves only to separate society into the fearful and the powerful at all times and to impoverish the weak and suffering at a time of great need. Haiti may be a smaller land, without the wealth and abundance of natural resources that Americans have had recourse to build with and upon. But like any nation, it has a tremendous resource that can be called upon and mobilized, if only it can gather the institutional strength to manage it, that is: human capital. The ability of a people to learn rather than to be kept in a state of ignorance, to explore their deeper interests and dreams rather than to live in trepidation of the large uncertainty that these things provide, to seek understanding with one another as a basis of order rather than through dominance, these are resources that many prosperous peoples have learned. To be sure they are difficult to master, it would be easily said that no nation has fruitfully provided such capacities to all its peoples with the ability to master themselves and govern their wills against more vile or corrupt intentions. But the fruits of such a system whereby men are governed not by each other, but by themselves, through their own self-interested desires checked not by a fear of being caught and destroyed, but by a fear of destroying that which they desire itself (that is the business, if not the love and affection, of others, for man is ever a social creature), should be self-evident after centuries of such institutions supporting and extolling their virtues.

And yet we live with a tiny nation full of people who are left destitute of this, without institutions built upon it to nurture and provide such liberties. The collapse of buildings is in many ways a signal that the institutions that constructed them had long ago ceased to function. Some of these institutions, owing to our long history of interventionism in Haiti (and elsewhere in Latin America) are our own, and therefore much of the failure is our own. We have many in this country who complain openly that a portion of our taxes are spent to help others abroad. It may be fair to characterize some, perhaps even much of that aid as inappropriate. But this is largely not because such aid is morally flawed in and of itself, but rather simply that it has been difficult, if not impossible to know on what things and institutions monies and resources can be distributed in a developing land in order to help it to prosper. More to the point however, the portion that many Americans complain about is openly oversold, with many believing that hundreds of billions of dollars flow from our pocketbooks to enrich dictators around the globe. The portion of our federal outlays on foreign aid is a tiny percentage, less than 1% of the budget and at best a sum around 10 billion is spent on actual foreign and development aid (excluding a more expansive expenditure on foreign military aid). Meanwhile, many hundreds of billions of dollars flow privately to totalitarian states, some of which we are allied with, for the purpose of purchasing oil or other strategic natural resources and goods. Whose choices are in the wrong here? (note I have no practical or philosophical objection to trading with such states, but it should be obvious that trade is far more enriching to such dictators and oligarchs than federal foreign aid ever will be). We are then told that Americans are a charitable people, and that our aid is given through private institutions. To the extent that there are many worthy humanitarian institutions founded and funded by Americans (and other wealthy nations and peoples around the globe), this is a laudable development. But humanitarianism is not usually a means to develop and to expand a nation, merely a method to keep it from collapsing, its people from starving or falling prey to disease. Keeping people alive without giving them hope.

I cannot be sure of a plan or device that will extend to Haiti or elsewhere the institutional supports and means to raise a country into a respectable habit of having trustworthy and useful devices to govern itself and foster future growth, because it seems pretty clear that nobody else has such a plan. For the immediate future however, it seems reasonable to ask that if a people cannot find their self-interests satisfied where they live, why should they not seek to fulfill their basic desires elsewhere? Why else would many thousands of people risk wind and wave to come to our shores, only to be turned away? Why else would those who make it and stay send back what meager fortunes they can attain (as unskilled and often uneducated workers) to sustain the people they had to abandon to come here? Of what cause do we have to be offended at this action, with their monies spent to feed and clothe their families? Because their families are of a different skin colour? A different religion? A different language? Is America, as an ideal, so fragile that it cannot sustain the whims of differences in our origin? Are our social institutions, including the government, so weak and pitiful that they cannot and would not outlast a wave of people seeking little more than hope and prosperity for themselves?

Because of all the proposals that seemed to offer the most dignity and lasting attempts to relieve the suffering of the Haitian people at this time of great need, the best of them rely not on America rebuilding the crumbled buildings, but of Americans accepting Haitian immigrants as brothers as we have so often done historically of other peoples fleeing a state of destitution and seeking opportunities for themselves. To be sure Americans have often held immigration as a hostile act, especially from Haiti, but these fears have been refuted time and again by the actions of impoverished immigrants throughout our history as they took to the "American way" in with their own unique tools and cultural heritage. We may complain, with a very hollow and cynical voice, that they come here to only to take jobs, when what is it that we do with our daily lives but to work and provide for our families? Are we so self-important that we cannot seek to improve ourselves and compete for those jobs (or for better work and personal advancement?). What is so different that we are rendered fearful by the specter of some hundreds of millions of people seeking, not with envious feeling but with respect for our institutions and ability to prosper, what it is we have achieved? What have we to fear? We have laws which most of us respect and for which, if broken, we have institutions designed to find and punish those who are accused of violating them and courts to seek redress of our grievances against one another in an impartial way (or as best we can politely and reasonably do so as human beings). We have methods and means that make it easier to succeed in our world, for example a roughly common language which restricts the ability of many to compete for the best social positions among us (a paradox in my view given that our "best" social positions at our founding were occupied not by men who observed that English should be an official language as we presently maintain but by men who were so learned as to know several languages with great literacy and fluency), or an educational system which tends to advance people of learning to higher positions in jobs or status. These advantages are not things which will suddenly disappear should a mass of black immigrants speaking a mixture of French or Creole appear at our borders seeking to send remittances back to their homelands for their families, either so they may come as well or so they may live in relative stability and prosperity at home. Haiti is hardly unique in Latin America for this desire by its people to escape a corrupt or dysfunctional nation-state. This is in some measure our fault for often fostering such corrupt agencies to serve our own interests as a people and nation-state.

I say it is high time that we atone for that error by accepting the people who wish to flee from the chaos that was wrought and allowing them to help in whatever ways they can to alleviate the poverty and suffering they escaped from.
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