Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Haiti, Backlash, and the Call to Inaction

With a backlash, we’re responding to that which rides a surge of undeserved popularity. An obscenely lauded sports team we’re certain got lucky at the eleventh hour. An actor collecting one too many awards, his shoulders practiced in a false shrug of humility. The resulting backlash is our collective smackdown, a way of putting the successful entity on watch. We see the world rewarding you unjustly, and we’re going to do our best to turn the tide of your success. We’re going to spread the word that you’re overhyped and overpaid, a phony garbed in an emperor’s new clothes, until the private ill will in our hearts and minds becomes a self-generating force all its own, offering some kind of just equilibrium.

Perhaps our tendency to create a backlash is a good thing under certain circumstances. It’s a turning away from the siren’s call of popularity, a return to the safe harbor of reason, pragmatism. A no bullshit zone.

Yet whatever the merits of a backlash, however one stretches the word to accommodate their personal loyalties, it is utterly unthinkable in conjunction with the human disaster in Haiti.

What, then, explains this Facebook status update?

Shame on you America: the only country where we have homeless without shelter, children going to bed without eating, elderly going without needed meds, and mentally ill without treatment - yet we have a benefit for the people of Haiti on 12 TV stations. 99% of people won't have the guts to copy and repost this. I did.

I admit I was stunned. Of course, it wasn’t the first ignorant, erroneous, inflammatory posting I’d seen. If you’re on Facebook and you have “friends” positioned at various points along the political spectrum, you’re definitely familiar with this kind of posturing. Some people do it because the pre-packaged words of zealots strike a chord in their small, atrophied hearts. Others are pot stirrers, people who enjoy tossing in bitter remarks and watching political factions go at each other in the scalding stew.

I didn’t want anything to do with it. I knew the drill. Ignore it unless it’s on your page, and when it gets to be too much, make the friend invisible in your news feed. Worst case scenario – something I have never done – de-friend the person. But wasn’t that a sign that one lacked (dare I say?) the “guts” for debate, for dissenting opinions? If there’s no honest exchange of thoughts, however diametrically opposed, isn’t there a problem?

But I went back to the posting. It didn’t represent honest thought; instead, it displayed, for all the Facebook world to re-post, a dishonest assertion. Or, generously, an error. (Did I really need to point out that America is far from the only country to neglect its homeless, elderly, and mentally ill?) And in advocating that we ignore Haiti, isn’t that also advocating apathy?

So I took the bait. I “commented,” quoting from the U.N.’s 2009 report measuring quality of life in 182 countries. Norway scored the highest. The U.S. ranked 13th out of 182 in an index of life expectancy, literacy, shelter, hunger, and school enrollment, among other criteria. Truthfully, 13th was kind of shocking, though it was far from the lowest ranking countries. Sierra Leone, Afghanistan, and Niger took those honors.

So, no. America isn’t the only country with shameful problems. And no, as one of the richest nations - our dubious honor - we don’t have the right to ignore the ongoing catastrophic conditions in Haiti. After I posted, I was relieved to notice that someone else had voiced objections to the FB status as well.

The next morning, however, a smear of comments had accumulated. First there were strident calls for inaction, the “government corruption” bogeyman. The Haitian government is corrupt, no one is getting the aid. Why donate millions when they’re not going to get it? Somewhere on the road to apathy, everyone took a mean turn into partisan politics land.

“People don’t stand a chance unless they have a strong faith in God and that’s what will get them thru...”

“It is hard to feel compassion for people who in Pat Robertson’s words ‘made a pact with the devil.’ They chose their voodoo over God and they are paying a price for it now. Notice their Christian neighbors didn’t suffer any damage..”

“Didn’t anyone notice that during Catrina [sic] the only help we received was from our own?”

*Author’s note: According to an April 2007 report in the Washington Post, $854 million in aid was offered by foreign countries in the wake of hurricane Katrina. Those countries included Iraq, Afghanistan, Cuba, and China, among myriad others.

After this, the debate devolved into a series of ad hominem attacks, punctuated with the stale standby, “Maybe you should read your Bible.”

I thought about jumping back in, fighting, at the very least, against inertia. Yes, there’s always government corruption and yes, inefficiency often plagues aid operations. But did they know that according to the Red Cross website, “More than 430 Red Cross and Red Crescent workers from at least 30 countries are in the country supporting thousands of local volunteers... More than 100 represent the American Red Cross, including a group of Creole interpreters on board the USNS Comfort. The relief operation in Haiti is already the largest single-country personnel deployment in global Red Cross history”? Did they care?

Perhaps they were simply disillusioned by reports of thwarted aid attempts, or of the“Haiti” text scams, or that Facebook would contribute to relief efforts in exchange for specific postings. Maybe they felt hopeless. Frustration was understandable, but still.

What about UNICEF, with this January 16th report on their website: “Another plane loaded with UNICEF emergency relief supplies arrived in Port-au-Prince this morning, carrying urgently needed water and sanitation supplies. This is the second load of water and sanitation materials to arrive in Haiti in the past 24 hours. The shipment contained additional oral rehydration salts, water purification tablets and jerry cans. Two experts in water and sanitation were also on the flight. Providing access to clean water and sanitation is essential in the immediate aftermath of disasters, to avoid a second wave of deaths…Two more UNICEF planeloads, loaded with some 70 metric tons of tents, tarpaulin, and medicines, are currently awaiting clearance to fly to Santo Domingo, Dominican Republic.”

Do facts matter? Can solid evidence of aid workers on the ground combat this apathy? Or is that not the problem at all? Has Haiti, God forbid, become a partisan issue?

Maybe that’s an extreme leap to take from a Facebook status update. After all, the original poster finally fired back, making it clear this wasn’t really about Haiti, poverty, or politics at all. It was about her. “People should be used to the fact that I voice my own opinion. Right or wrong.” She went on to apologize somewhat facetiously for “offending people.” As if she had merely suggested someone’s football team sucked.

Maybe I’m just letting myself get distracted here. People around the world are helping in Haiti. Miracles – not the kind generated by a vengeful God but rather those created by doctors, aid workers, and volunteers – are happening every day, and Haitians will endure.

But it still bothers me. Somewhere in a dark corner of the Facebook world, someone is writing hateful, fallacious postings. Some people will copy and re-post them. 99%, that seemingly constant number, won’t, will you? Many will believe it, and of those, many will spread it. Who are these people? And how does it benefit them to equate hate with having guts?

When the noise dies down, Haitians will still be trapped under the rubble, they will still have nothing, but we’ll have our posturing. We will argue about Facebook postings and politics. We’ll find a place in ourselves where we can sweep away the facts and the suffering, and proudly take ownership, once and for all, of our own self-righteous right to be wrong.

That scares me. And yes, it offends me too.

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