Saturday, January 16, 2010

the racialization and political economy of suffering

Below, I am posting an edited version of my recent writings to my students in my class on globalization.

Suddenly, our television screens are once again full of crisis. We have all been witness to the terrible earthquake that has caused untold death, injury, destruction and trauma to Haiti and its peoples, and we grieve with the people of Haiti, our fellow Haitian Canadians, and all of their/our loved ones.

But it is also important to keep the complex history of Haiti in mind in understanding why there has been such a massive level of destruction and huge numbers of deaths and injuries–and a slow international response to that.

One question to think about is: why are so many Canadians (and other North Americans and Europeans) content to live in a world that only lifts its head at times of crisis? Reacting only at times of crisis is considered dysfunctional in relationships and families, so why do we continue to do that? Fail to address the root causes? Fail to look at how our behaviour is part of making the crisis–and it needs to change. Why haven’t we learned to change how we deal with each other.

In these troubling times when the media culture moves from one crisis to another, dropping them for the next one (the lasting social and physical effects of the Tsunami and Katrina, the Gaza mass killings of early 2009, and the 2006 destruction of Lebanon by Israel—all with lots of maiming and destruction paid dearly by lower class people primarily—are no longer newsworthy, and they have been dropped from view as if they have somehow been resolved), rarely reporting on or discussing any comprehensive analyses in their corporate or mainstream media shows or online sites (and rarely bringing in critical thinkers as guests), and creating reductionist “poor them”/ “we are blessed” dichotomies that feed the inequalities… well, we need to think about the neoliberal policies and racialization that have helped in an overdetermining way to create these unnecessary death traps.

I came across two good articles, Our Role in Haiti's Plight by Peter Hallward, and The Incapacitation of Haiti by Ashley Smith (and there are other good critical essays out there, too) that provide some context to the scale of destruction and how that has happened. The authors, in various ways, think through how neoliberalism, globalization, power relations, historical legacies, and continuing but shifting race and class intersections of inequalities are part of today's terrible suffering of Haiti.
There are a lot of critical questions that emerge from this latest and horrific tragedy that has devastated Haiti. While keeping in mind the absolute necessity of delivering immediate help and support to Haiti, its peoples, and Canadians and other nationals who work and live there, and keeping the people above all discourse, at the same time, it is crucial to ask ourselves hard questions. Questions that reveal that such a level of destruction and death is not simply a natural disaster, and from that perspective, could have been avoided or alleviated.

Yes, there was a cataclysmic earth quake; that is undeniable. But the sheer mind-numbing level of death, suffering, and destruction did not have to be part of the ‘natural’ disaster.

This morning I watched the CBC news about the destruction. They mentioned that Haiti had been a colony of France and its peoples enslaved, and then there was a slave revolt, with Haiti becoming the first free black nation. Then the report jumped to stats on the number of people who live in poverty. That Haiti is the poorest country in the western hemisphere.

But there was no contextualizing of where that poverty emerges from– no explanation of the complex intersections and legacies of French colonialism/imperialism and contemporary neoliberalism–which includes Canadian government complicity in the overthrow of the democratically elected Aristide government of Haiti and the implementation of neoliberal “reforms” that have devastated the Haitian people. No comment on the racialization discourses and the economic policies that create that ongoing abject poverty and our neglect of doing anything about it–indeed, our support of its continuance.

No. In fact, our PM came on tv this afternoon to address the suffering of Haiti and measures to help Haitians in Canada and who had applied to come (and this is a good thing), but he commented, too, on the beneficial role Canada has been playing in Haiti since the 1990s.

Well, a neo-liberal's beneficent help is someone else's continuing neo-colonial dispossession.

As commenter, Chanda, to blogger A Canadian Lefty in Occupied Land explains (thanks to Shana to send me this link), to gain their emancipation, after the slave revolt, the Haitian people were subjected to a cruel 20 year embargo. Then in 1825, the French government ordered the Haitian people to pay reparations to them for their freedom, 150 m francs or the equivalent of 21 billion dollars in today’s money. That debt was not repaid until 1947. Further, there was an American invasion in 1915. This devastated the aspirations of Haitian peoples to progress, to use that two-faced discourse of modernity.

Knowing the history of Haiti (mine is but an extremely crunched version, very truncated) reminds us that to understand how contemporary policies and social, cultural, political, and economic relations work, it is crucial to look at how history and legacies of power relations, unequal hierarchies of privilege and disadvantage, especially colonialism and imperialism, are part of making sense of what is before us. Neo-colonialism and neo-imperialism signal that we have not moved past racialized and classed global power relations.

Indeed, we have entrenched them, hidden them in the language of democracy and aid.

It is also crucial to look at the inequalities that are in our own neighbourhoods, towns, regions, and nation. Canada and Canadians in general have a continuing–and increasing–problem of ignoring the gross inequalities in some of our Indigenous communities, that are a legacy of colonialism–and denial of a history of injustice–and continuing neo-colonialism strengthened by neoliberalism.

They too only make our media when there is a crisis--even then, often times not, or not in ways that allow the key role that Canadian history, institutions, and everyday racism play in abetting them. We have an ongoing terrible tragedy of youth suicide in Indigenous communities, but many Canadians are not aware of that, or if so, they do not care enough to do anything about it. We are kept ignorant and/or have absorbed the stereotypes that blame the victims for structural problems that cause personal and family hell.

For many, it is less troubling to give “aid” to Africa and send money “over there” (this is an argument I have with Evangelical Christian groups like my mother's who are always sending care packages to Africa but have no connection with nor do work with local or regional Anishnawbe peoples who are in dire straits) rather than open up the can of worms that is Canadian history and contemporary injustices that favor particular groups of people at the expense of the continuing dispossession of others, especially Canada’s First Nations peoples, Inuit, and Metis.

This is not to suggest that we should not send money to Haiti; I believe those with some means have a moral obligation to do their share; what I am arguing is that we live crisis to crisis, ignoring the larger problems that create inevitable tragedies due to our ignoring gross inequalities, and that our responses are racialized and classed and exist within neocolonial ideologies, and that throwing money while ignoring structural change reproduces “our” power/”their” dispossession

We should be doing both/and. We should give money and do activist work and pressure our governments—maybe become the government, run for government. We should not pit the local against the global. It is not a choice of either / or. We should not reinforce binaries that are unhelpful to deconstructing complex intersections of transnational relations.

For example, ‘the global’ may be some Canadians ‘local’, too. Canadians are multiple; we are not only Anglo-, Irish-, Scottish, or French Canadians. Canadians are Haitians, too. Being Canadian means being Haitian, too. One example, there are 100,000 Canadians of Haitian descent living in Montreal. People carry their homes, their multiple belongings, with them in their imaginations. Place is material but place is also an imaginary construct with which we join an imagined community-or communities. We do not belong to one place or one community; our identities are multiple, our neighbourhoods are multiple, our cultures are relational, our lives are intersecting.

The question to ask is: what/who do we mean when we say Canadian? What do we mean when we say local? How are racialization discourses implicated in our understandings of Canadian? of help? of who we help? of how we continue not to investigate political and economic factors?

Canadian policies have shaped the tragedy of the gross inequalities of Haiti, so we are complicit in Haiti. Our privileges as Canadians are dependent on their continuing disadvantages. There is no disentangling of “us” from “them.”

Some of the questions to ask as we do our small share to immediately help the people of Haiti in their time of crisis, is, what are the politics of aid? is the current way that the international community steps in actually productive in the long run? does the "beneficent" international community create real, meaningful structural change that will help eliminate these ongoing tragedies and crises? That will lessen and reduce the scale of destruction, death, and injury due to natural crises like earthquakes? That addresses long term meaningful change—directed by the needs and plans of those affected—rather than short term aid that we direct and the benefits power cabals be they governments, corporations, NGOs or lobby groups?

If we actually addressed gross world inequalities would the images of suffering flooding our tv screens lessen? change? Does showing suffering people's severe trauma and personal deep pain on our over-sized tv screens in our cosy living rooms without contextualizing where that comes from produce meaningful change? Are we bearing witness to their suffering in a way that will make us rise to action? or do we reassure ourselves by seeing ourselves as blessed and change the channel, rather than ourselves?


20th Century Woman said...

Wow! that is a lot to think about. But the question is, how do we -- that is the US, Canada, the developed world -- go about promoting real meaningful structural change? So far, there has been no concerted approach that has worked. There are said to be 10,000 NGOs in Haiti, more than anywhere else in the world. And they have failed to achieve much. Do you think the Clinton Foundation and Bill Clinton can do better?

northshorewoman said...

good morning 20 C Woman.

It is true; we have a lot of thinking and work to do. It is true that no concerted approach has yet worked. Many NGOs today are an institution--part of the problem (not all; some are doing good work). But some NGOs are nothing more than kind faces of corporate and neocolonial hegemony. I am very careful of which groups I send my money to. Very careful.

Will Clinton and the Foundation help? Perhaps there will be some individual people or particular groups of people who get some immediate help.

But in the long run? No.

Crisis and destruction are times when, although emotionally and physically devastating and difficult, are also times when the window to real change is open.

Of course, we saw what Obaman did when the financial crisis crashed down on Americans heads, bodies and in their homes and jobs. He had the opportunity to make some meaningful change -- what his campaign rhetoric promised.

But he did not. He opted not for change but for continuance of the corrupt system that caused the trauma created by the unbridled greed of corporate capitalism, especially supporting the ruling banking criminals. The criminals were rewarded and their obscene bonuses continue. Only a small public outcry from a few. No massive protests in the US. No rise up to demand change. Barely even a critique of The (new) Man.

Can we achieve change in Haiti and "help" them so that the people are not mired in poverty? The discourse of 'help', like the rhetoric of 'change', floods our corporate media, but without addressing the underlying politico-economic structures that prop up the power hierachy of US and Canada being the ones who do the helping, and places like Haiti and other "underdeveloped" or "developing" countries well, being underdeveloped because we are so called developed, nothing will change.

In fact, I would argue it will get worse. What better than a disaster for neoliberal capital and neocolonial institutions to move in with a vengeance and take over, especially anything remaining that was still under national ownership or control? Or pressure or try to break down the people's resistance with promise of help and jobs and the biggie: progress?

We have the example of Iraq. All the former nationalized resources, companies, services, etc are now either owned and run by American or multinational corporations--and forces--or have puppet/obedient people put in charge of their control. These people do the work of American, Canadian and other Western interests. And the neoliberal racist wheel hits the jackpot once again.

Naomi Klein has written a great book called Disaster Capitalism. This is her thesis.

tasteofbeirut said...

10000 NGO's in Haiti? What a joke!
I agree with you 100%; governments never address the problems as they surface, only when they are unavoidable!

Tasnim said...

Thanks for posting this. As you say, no attention is paid to the politics of aid, to whys and hows, as though it was as simple as throwing money and pledges to help at disaster zones and "poor places like Africa."