Guest post by Mike Goldstein
Alex asked me to write a blog post about what to do in Haiti and that’s turned out to be a really fucking complicated task. Haiti is such a persistent source of frustration, anxiety and astonishment to the world that Haiti is not just Haiti the place. We can’t look at it that way anymore because it’s clearly something more profound to us. It matters to us, it has its hooks in us. So I’m trying to go about exploring what Haiti is by starting with what it represents psychologically. That is, assuming we manifest this, what personal characteristic is dark enough to be Haiti, and what kind of person are we humans?
Well, I think it’s this: I think we’re an addict with a profound sense of guilt and also a profound morality. I think we’re afraid of dealing with what’s real, so we cope through addiction, which hurts us and others. Guilt is the pain that demands we reconcile our actions with our morality. And that’s Haiti.
How does this translate. We are addicted to buying things for our comfort and security. But in our system, things need to be affordable. Though slavery was outlawed in the US, the exploitation didn’t disappear – it had to go somewhere, so it went offshore to Haiti and other spots in the developing world. But it’s the same concept: workers make less money than they’re owed so that our products are affordable. Their muscles pay the difference, and we also draw against the land. It’s the suffering of which we spare ourselves the sight. I’ve never paid the full price for a cup of coffee.
But we have a sense of this pain and we want to stop it because we’re moral – though with one hand we buy the thing that requires their underpaid labor, with the other we try to help.
The best minds have attempted to cure this, but despite the world’s well-wishes, prayers, money and work, Haiti is still slow to heal. It hints at a disconnect – if we keep doing what we’re doing we will never reconcile our comfort with our morality. The story we normally tell ourselves about ourselves is incomplete because it doesn’t include the damage that eventually comes of our addiction.
After traveling the world I’ve come to some conclusions, one of which is the following: It’s a myth that the US has done something right and that Haiti has done something wrong. The comfort we experience is not the result of a superior system. In fact, our system is not our system, it’s THE system, it’s the global system. We sit at the top of a wheel and siphon wealth from the unlucky places at the bottom.
When I was younger it was easy to proclaim that we needed to crash the system because I knew that it would never happen so I could never be proven wrong. Pretty safe position to take. Now, though, I guess it feels a little closer at hand, intentional or not. So while I don’t think the following can be prescribed, I present it as my vision of a healthy society and, therefore, the tack I’ve started taking with my own life (where applicable). My feeling is that we might as well adopt it sooner rather than later because it’ll probably happen at some point anyway.
So, I imagine the alternative to material accumulation is a kind of mutualism, in which our actions, relationships and exchanges are mutually beneficial. Here’s what a mutualist paradigm might suggest for Haiti and for the US:
1) An emphasis on wisdom in the education system, from the in-body perspective. For some weird reason we’re building schools in Haiti and encouraging them to follow our lead. Our education system doesn’t even work that great here. It trains people for uninspired careers in a global economy that’s teetering.
– Both places should emphasize physical, emotional and spiritual health based on our relationship with the natural world. There should be a focus on nature and natural phenomena (how to slaughter a chicken, how to save seeds, how to hunt, how to make medicine, etc.) and it should be more guided than taught – let kids follow their interest. “In-body” means subjective experience. That is to say, we should give the in-body experience precedence over external authority. For example, science might tell Haitians that Voodoo doesn’t exist. Fuck that.
– The value of the internet to the planet’s shared wisdom can’t be overstated. In Haiti, getting everyone access to the internet should be one of the top priorities. I feel the best thing we can do for Haiti is give them access to the accumulated global knowledge.
– Another idea would be to foster mentorship within a community (which is to say, education does not need to be confined to schools).
2) An emphasis on localizing economies, governments, families and food systems. This reflects a focus on the real (food, touch, etc) instead of the abstract (money, nationalism, etc). This is a matter of being sensitive within ourselves, our relationships and the place we live. With each layer of abstraction we remove, we remove a depth of exploitation. As our current political climate reveals, anybody can say anything. Words are a technology that can be used for good or bad, so any systemic narratives that don’t place a person at the center of his or her world should be dissolved. In practice this means starting (and patronizing) small businesses, giving preference to community problem-solving, and transitioning to local food production.
3) An emphasis on earth systems, which means food forests (permaculture), stream reclamation, etc. It’s urgent that Haiti build up its topsoil. This can be done by re-introducing native plants and trees that had lived in equilibrium (permaculture) for the millennia before the French started exploiting the land. Haiti needs trees before the oil runs out. If they can’t establish a way to feed themselves by the time transport stops, they’re going to be seriously fucked (as will many of us). Though this might seem unnecessarily apocalypse-minded, answer me these questions: how long does it take for a forest to grow back from nothing? How many more years can we count on cheap oil to transport food around the world? I don’t know the answers, but at least I’m being alarmist. What this emphasis on earth systems means for the US is ripping up our shaved-vagina front lawns and putting in food plants, for gods’ sake.
3a) Remove extraneous luxuries. Our western culture needs to engage with the life-death cycle (death being the reality we avoid through addiction). (I don’t know about the Haitian relationship with death.) We’ve been convinced that death is a bad thing, and as long as that’s the case we can be controlled by the threat of death. I think even those of us who think we are ok with death would discover the opposite if we inspected our actions (just as every single one of us agrees that money doesn’t buy happiness, yet many of us continue to labor as if it does). As essential as it is that Haiti resoil its land, it’s just as essential that we lower our expectations for comfort. There’s not enough material on this earth for every person to live like a middle-class westerner. I just made that fact up, but I’ll bet it’s true. In practice this means seeing how it feels to remove extraneous luxuries. How low can you go?
4) Parent no more than one child! This one is mind-bogglingly simple to me, but there’s such ego around it that it’s taboo. How long would it take for us to halve the population? Fifty years? The strain on our planet is more a matter of quantity than quality. I see this issue as a relative of 3a – as afraid as we are of death, we are equally stubborn about our right to procreate prolifically. I’ll bet this is always a linear relationship. In developing countries this probably means continuing to provide access to birth control and sex education, but shit, you know, how’s that going? Again, this large-scale stuff can’t be prescribed, so we just have to practice it ourselves and talk openly about it. For the US this means getting used to a lot more oral and anal sex.
5) Justice. I have no idea how to accomplish this one, but I think the biggest problem in Haiti is actually the lack of justice that puts people at the mercy of gangs and criminals. There’s a combination of fear and loyalty that seems to stall the system. Loyalty is the opposite of justice – remember that, kids. I have no idea what the real-life prescription would be for Haiti, probably a focus on anti-corruption. In our justice system I’d start with reassessing the correlation between drugs and damage.
I know this has been a long-winded answer, but you gotta write something, right? So, in a nutshell, I don’t think the Haitians will have a chance at large-scale, sustainable health until their strength comes from the inside and the world stops messing with it. There are dozens of NGOs doing good things on a small scale in Haiti. Unfortunately there are thousands of NGOs there right now. Maybe we should all take a break. Give Haiti two years without any internal NGOs (except maybe some internet installation and medical groups), then let them invite us back one-by-one according to what they determine their need to be. There would be chaos, but shit has to hit the fan sometime. I don’t know if it’s helping to give them just enough support to keep them alive.
(I feel like I should leave you with a light-hearted message.)
Ultimately, though, the work we’re doing there is an ineffective bandage as long as we continue paying people to cut them.
(yikes, that didn’t work.)
Some links you might enjoy!
Kurt Vonnegut on addiction and the system
A guide to safe anal sex
A huge thanks to Mike for being the first guest blogger on the Discussion on Development section of this blog!
I love that Mike wrote about this, because I really hadn’t thought about my impact when I buy stuff, and that’s a damn shame. Shortly after Mike emailed me his first draft, I went to Target and bought a great little sweater, for $6.00. I was stoked on the price, obviously. But then I thought about what Mike wrote, and I thought to myself, “huh, how much did the person who made this actually get paid?” I mean, you’ve got over head costs you have to figure in to this six dollars: lease, electricity, shipping, customs, not to mention you’re paying the people at Target who stock and run the cash register (to name but a few of the expenses). Now, I know these sweaters are a dime a dozen, so the cost spread out across thousands of sweaters is probably relatively low. But that means someone is probably working under intense pressure to make as many sweaters as they can to meet a quota or to earn enough money off of each sweater they make, so they can put food on the table. Food for thought.
A couple more links I find appropriate: