Saturday, January 23, 2010

Haiti and the Difference Between Looting and Finding

The difference between "looting" and "finding"

These are, as they say, interesting times. Haiti remains an open wound and I am attentive to the ways that the story is framed in the mainstream media and on (in? around? among?) the blogosphere. Partly out of solidarity with Haitians, whose situation is tragic and partly because it is a text book case of the ways Western/ European nations deal with the "postcolonial" Global South, in which pity for human suffering is so often rendered grotesque by revulsion and judgment. I had a run-in online recently that crystallized this formula for me.

As an experiment I joined Open Salon and set up a Vs. the Pomegranate outpost there in an attempt to broaden my readership. I'll be honest with you, it isn't going great. The interface there is wonky so it took me forever to set up but once I got going I decided to have a look around. Back in the day I used to read Salon-proper and I still like columnist Glenn Greenwald a lot so how bad could it be?


The casual racism there is jaw-dropping. (I'm not even gonna get into Orientalism and Islamophobia in this post, but they are also well-represented thereabouts). It's an overwhelmingly white space, but lefty-leaning. There are some conservative cranks there, just like everywhere, but the overall tone of the community is kind of "Middle Class White Liberal": Home turf of the PUMAs but you know, lotta Obama '08 bumper stickers too... So, even though I probably shouldn't have been I was thrown by some of the stuff I read about Haiti.

As I was poking around I came across a post by Open Salon Blogger Heather Michon called "The Language of Looting" which she'd written, taken down and reposted in the space of a few hours. Apparently incensed by criticisms of coverage that focuses on looting in Haiti, Michon writes,

"Most of the blogo-punditry has deemed any coverage or mention of looting or lawlessness as 'racist,' hearkening back to shoddy, race-tinged reporting in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Theoretically, these critics would prefer the media make no mention of post-disaster violence, and focus exclusively on the stories of people coming together in the face of catastrophe. Moreover, they'd prefer a narrative of lawlessness as a socially-acceptable response to a desperate situation."

Um, what?

Michon continues,

"This is the language we have to work with: to loot means to plunder, and to plunder means to seize wrongfully or by force. The Germans call it 'pluendern.' The French say 'pillage.' Spaniards call it 'saquero.' In every language, the word 'looting' carries within it the terrible breakdown of civic order. And this is exactly why the media needs to keep covering it. Because lawlesslness is indicative of a much larger, more critical issue than racism."

I... what?

Michon concludes,

"While individual groups are doing extraordinary work, their efforts are diluted by the inability of the Haitian government, the United Nations, and the United States to come together and get a command-and-control system in place that gives the people of Haiti the security, the food, the water and the medical care they need to get through this disaster. Yes, the situation is complicated and yes, the challenges are huge. But a week, and people are still hungry, still thirsty, still walking around piles of unburied bodies and nursing unattended wounds? Huge piles of food are still sitting at the airport? Roads still obstructed? No centralized clinics and feeding stations set up throughout the city? So I say to the people of Haiti: Loot and lynch away. Wave those machetes. Set stuff on fire. Walk up to Anderson Cooper and pop him in the chops. (Trust me, CNN will replay it ten times an hour.) Do whatever you have to do to scare those in charge into helping you."

So... if you mention race at all you are doing "shoddy reporting" (you know, like after Katrina), looting is a breakdown of the social order, which is more important than racism (and not at all related to it), but Haitians, who have been failed by their own government should do it to force them into helping?

That is crazy. Seriously, tiny wooden Austrians should emerge from that argument every hour on the hour and bow to one another. Nevertheless, it was an Open Salon Editor's Pick. What. The. Fuck.

When questioned about her points (in the mildest way) by some of the commenters Michon reacted defensively, writing,

"See, this is why I deleted this goddamn thing in the first place, and why I'm tempted to pull it down again -- because I knew a fair number of people were going to misinterpret.

1) "Looting" is race neutral.

2) Looting is not morally neutral. It's morally UNDERSTANDABLE, and as I said, I would likely do it myself in similar circumstances, but it DOES have an impact on those who are the victims of looted, and that's not something we should trivialize as "well, they're just trying to survive." It's not a victimless act. That's why looters quite often end up shot, stabbed, hung or beaten to death.

3) Etymologically, looting indicates a response to a breakdown in civil, civic and legal order. That's the only thing that's really important in Haiti right now: looting as a leading indicator of the current state of affairs in this devastated country. And if showing looting on international television gets puts wheels in motion, that's all that matters right now."

In response a commenter named sagemerlin wrote, "You're making an important point. First, we complain when the media doesn't do its job and fails to report the dark side of the story. Then we complain when the media does it's job and shows us exactly what's going on on the grounds that it is prejudicial to people of color. Get over it. The news is the news and when it is playing out right in front of you, unedited and not commented upon, you're getting the raw truth. If you can't handle it, dig a hole in the ground and stick your head in it."

Hazel Singer added, "I believe that the words 'looting' and 'plunder' were used to describe the behaviour of the Wall Street gang. These words have also described the behaviour of Mugabe and others. Bad behaviour is not bound by skin colour or class."

sickofstupid argued, "I am so sick of people seeing "racist" terminology everywhere they look, for many reasons, particularly because these same people who see racism everywhere don't seem to know the correct definition or usage of the word. Also, because "poor" isn't a race. Those who make claims of "racism" tend to completely ignore the plight of those who are poor but have skin of lighter shades; it seems to me that these days, to be poor and white means that you currently are among those who are most disenfranchised."

And Gordon Osmond expounded, "It's too bad that some rabid partisans use this human tragedy as an excuse to take a punch at O'Reilly and FOX News. Actually, O'Reilly would probably do a better job than most in making sure that aid resources are honestly distributed without diversion to corrupt politicians."

... That earned some boos from the other regulars, but while Osmond was overtly conservative in his criticism of Haiti and Haitians the "liberals" weren't doing much better.

New Buddha Fun wrote, "My position attacks those who do the looting and pillaging because I find it reprehensible and insulting that poor people have to revert to savage and brutal behavior when natural calamities occur...rather than pulling together and helping one another. Ultimately this type of selfish behavior is indicative of WHY THEY ARE POOR in the first place. If they learned how to pull together in times of calm and peace...they would have their situation improved. It is very revealing insight into the world's poor when something like this happens."


In case you weren't keeping track, the "bad guys" identified by Michon and her readers are: The Haitian government, Haitian gangs, PC-loving partisans, and those selfish Haitian poor... And this is from (mostly) liberals.

So I wrote,

"Here is the difference Heather: if there were a comparable natural disaster on the Upper West Side people would be doing exactly the same thing but the press would be calling it "The Triumph Of The American Will to Survive." The reporting on Haiti that focuses on the looting does so to make a point about the character of the Haitian people, not the desperation of their circumstances. And essays like yours try to have it both ways, display pity for the Haitian people, which proves you are a *good* person, while maintaining a tastefully curled lip at their behavior. It reads to me like you are struggling between pity and disgust so you are trying to use one feeling to justify the other. I think perhaps you know this, which is why you deleted it in the first place.

Do I think the looting in Haiti should be reported on? Of course, it is part of this tragedy. But when (not if, When) emphasis on the (Ha!) "dark side of the story" (thanks for the unintentionally revealing phrase sagemerlin) is employed--as it was in Katrina--to dehumanize the victims of this disaster I am going to say so. The demand to control the narrative of other people is the very definition of white/western privilege.

If your point is that looting = a breakdown in civil order well then, duh. There was a massive old-testament earthquake Heather. There are no hospitals left standing. People are dying in the streets. What exactly do you expect? Forgive me, but it begins to seem suspicious that you would make such a point about "civil order" at this particular moment. The fact that you understand so little the tragic colonial history of Haiti that you would blame the Haitians themselves for their lack of infrastructure tells me all I need to know about where you are coming from here."

As I've written here and here there has been precious little discussion of American and European culpability for Haiti's lack of infrastructure and that absence creates a model of suffering that is self-sustaining:

Haiti is a mess because Haiti is mess.

Haiti is lawless because Haitians are lawless.

Haiti cannot be saved because Haitians cannot be trusted to run their own country.

... And already the familiar refrain against Haitian immigration to Europe and the United States is beginning again.

If white liberals can't see that making a moral judgment about the "bad behavior" of looting after an MGM Technicolor epic natural disaster in a majority Black country that has been crippled by colonialism and its aftermath is not "race-neutral", then I don't even know what to say next. This is the same logic that repeatedly calls for the Palestinians to "get their act together" in order for the peace process to move forward. It is racism disguised as rationality.

If this is any indication of the level of discourse it is going to be a fun (meaning not fun) couple of years.


  1. I'm gonna quote you quoting somebody else somewhere else.

    "[Sadiya Hartman] writes, '(I want to) to call attention to the ease with which such scenes are usually reiterated, the casualness with which they are circulated, and the consequences of this routine display of the slave’s ravaged body. Rather than inciting indignation, too often they immure us to pain by virtue of their familiarity… because they reinforce the spectacular character of black suffering.' (Hartman, 3)"

    I know this was an entirely different context, but it really underscores your point about the appalling "liberal" reaction to the situation in Haiti. It says something terrible, I think, when we are so collectively anasthetized by subconscious racism to the image of Black misery that some of us can't even muster up plain old, judgment-free compassion for people who have done NO WRONG. Because that's what I'mg etting.On some level, the author of that Salon piece and some of the commenters think that Haiti (for daring to defy White rule) and Haitians (for having the audacity to be born into Black bodies) are getting exactly what they deserve. Nice, right? SIGH.

  2. Yes, I think you are exactly right.

    NICE call with that Hartman quote. That is from the introduction to her book "Scenes of Subjection" (which is excellent) but I hadn't put together her argument about showing tortured Black bodies under and post-slavery with the photojournalism of the earthquake in Haiti. I have a complicated reaction to the idea of NOT representing something because I am an artist. (For e.g. I don't think we have seen nearly enough of the Abu Ghraib photos) But Hartman's larger point is about images of Black suffering as a kind of pornography that allows sympathetic whites to experience the sensual thrill of black subjugation--essentially having it both ways. That is an excellent description of Michon's essay... especially at the end where, after demonizing looting, she encourages Haitians to do it... So bizarre.