Blogger Asks “How could humans do this to themselves?” in Haiti

“Imagine that I’m a caveman,” writer and former basketball player Paul Shirley urges his readers in a recent post on the devastation in Haiti over at FlipCollective. As you continue reading, he makes it very easy:

While the earthquake was, obviously, unavoidable, the way in which many of the people of Haiti lived was not. Regrettably, some Haitians would have died regardless of the conditions in that country. But the fact that so many people lived in such abject poverty exacerbated the extent of the crisis. How could humans do this to themselves?

Only someone with a total lack of education about global economics, colonial history, and public health could possibly ask such an inane question, leading me to believe that, indeed, Paul Shirley somehow was transported from the beginning of time, with a primordial brain and an underdeveloped heart.
Read more at your own risk, but suffice it to say that this is one of the most offensive pieces of writing I’ve come across in a very long time. Is it important to search for Haitian-created solutions for future natural disasters? Yes. Is it critical that the money being donated be accounted for and used efficiently and equitably? Yes. But translating those legitimate concerns into a demonization of the Haitian people, completely ignoring the legacy of racism and exploitation that has contributed to so much of the poverty there, is unconscionable.
Feel free to send Paul an email regarding your reactions to his piece:
Check out community post Dear Paul Shirley.
Thanks to Megan Osberger for the heads up.

Join the Conversation

  • cattrack2

    I wouldn’t go so far to call his questions inane, even if disappointment perhaps has resulted in his certain callousness. I served in the Peace Corps and anyone who’s worked or studied international development would reasonably ask the same question. Anyone who’s Haitian, or Haitian American would ask the same question. Wyclef Jean said that this was the Haitian gov’t’s time to finally step up. Pras said the current gov’t was as disappointing as the previous one. There are many reports that Haitians themselves are conflicted about aid, on one hand they want & need it as fast as possible, on the other hand they think their gov’t is too corrupt to be trusted with it.
    Liberals reflexively blame the 3rd world’s problems on colonialism, but for a country that’s been independent for over 200 years its a gross generalization of their actual history. Haitians have been ill served by their leaders, but you can’t put that on colonial powers.

  • LalaReina

    He’s a moron and sucks in whatever his endeavors.

  • crosbymo

    This is ridiculous. I went to his original post, but I couldn’t even read the whole thing. What a privileged, unintelligent asshole.

  • paperispatient

    My jaw just dropped when I read that quote from him. I don’t even know what to say.

  • daveNYC

    “How could humans do this to themselves?”
    Well technically the Haitians did elect François Duvalier. Though I’m pretty sure that the Haitian’s didn’t really choose to have to pay France millions in gold as reparations for the slave revolt (chutzpa, I haz it), or to have the US marines invade in 1915.
    There really should be a special award for writing something so stupid that 15 minutes of drunk wikipedia use can answer or rebut it.

  • jacqueline.allain

    Clearly, Haiti’s problems aren’t entirely due to colonialism; its government is largely to blame for the poverty and problems that exist there, and I don’t think anyone’s disputing that.
    HOWEVER– and this is a huge however– that does not give priveleged, spoiled people who live comfortable lives the right to say “c’est la vie, not my problem” and refuse to do anything to fight injustice, inequality and poverty, which is what Paul Shirely (whoever the fuck he is) is doing here.
    The most sickening part of his article is when he says soemthing like “I don’t know whose responsibility it is, but it’s not the outside world’s.” Actually, Mr. Shirley, it is our responsibility. If you are educated, if you have money, if you were lucky enough to be born into financial stability, if you’re getting by well enough, then it IS your responsibility. It’s your responsibility to do what you can to make the world a better place, not just throw up your hands and say “it’s their fault for being poor, that’s just the way it is.” No, you self-indulgent, entitled brat, that’s NOT “just the way it is.” There are reasons for everything. It’s our moral responsibility (and again, by “our” I’m talking about priveleged, middle class Americans, not everybody) to look for these reasons, to help develop solutions to the problems they cause, and to *gasp!* CHANGE OUR BEHAVIOR so as to stop contributing to global inequality.

  • misscaptain

    I haven’t read the rest of the article, so it very well may be a completely unconscionable article, but the quote you linked could well include the exploitation and racism that you talked about. He said “humans” not “Haitians” and the exploitation and racism was certainly committed by other humans. It leaves a lot of room there, it’s pretty vague.
    I mean based on the inarticulate way he said it, I’m guessing he meant it offensively. But when I first read it I just heard “how could we do this to ourselves,” in a more global way.

  • aleks

    “Independent” in name but to a very limited degree. France and the US have dominated and sabotaged Haiti since the revolution.
    Much of Haiti’s endless cycle of violence, corruption and poverty is the result of outside interference. Much of it is also home brewed. None of it is really relevant in the wake of such a catastrophe.

  • daveNYC

    1) It’s not that vague.
    2) The rest of the article makes it even less vague.

  • Sex Toy James

    Haiti may not have been a viable country without the earthquake. It was tremendously overpopulated and resource poor. So if rebuilding it is the equivalent to reroofing a sinking ship perhaps it’s valid to question the point in spending a lot of aid money.
    A corrupt ineffective government can cripple a country and make tons of aid ineffective and a future non-existent. I am not full of hope that Haiti is going to emerge from this crisis a nation with a future no matter how much aid money is sent. However to blame people for their government is crazy. We tend to be tremendously frustrated with our government in the US and it’s one of the better governments. I could no more reasonably hold the editors of this blog directly responsible for the policies of George W. Bush than I could individually blame the people of Haiti for their poor government and leadership.
    It’s only natural for people to not want to take responsibility for hopeless situations and Haiti tends to look like that.

  • Nicole

    That’s what I thought at first too – but nope, he’s definitely talking about what the Haitian people did to themselves. Here’s a longer excerpt:
    “Dear Haitians –
    “First of all, kudos on developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Your commitment to human rights, infrastructure, and birth control should be applauded.
    “As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it’s possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?
    “The Rest of the World”
    Yeah. The whole piece just reeks of privilege, entitlement, ignorance, and overall stinginess.
    I’d like to publicly declare that I am not included in his “rest of the world,” thank you very much.

  • Jrant

    The article is nauseating. I was tempted to write him an email or post a comment, but that would only help him professionally. For dicks like Shirley, being offensive and shocking is a career move; hopefully they will do something offensive enough, a show or newspaper will do a story on “this crazy, controversial essay/author that’s causing a stir on the web.” I don’t want to reward him with any kind of response, even if he deserves one. I WAS reassured to see so many of the comments to his essay (at least on the first page) were calling him out for his lack of reason and basic human decency.

  • Jrant

    I think you raise some legitimate points, and Haiti’s problems won’t be fixed with a big aid check. Perhaps it would be better to separate the “emergency” aid from the “rebuilding” aid. Shirley implies we shouldn’t send trauma surgeons or search teams because we’d merely be propping up a corrupt government, and THAT opinion is just nauseating.

  • dhistory

    I don’t know anything about Haiti really, but why is a country like Barbados so much better off? Any ideas?

  • dhistory

    Isn’t Japan overpopulated and resource poor?

  • Auriane

    Fox News, here he comes! How much time do you think will pass before they reach out to hire this dweeb?

  • Risa

    Haiti has had a pretty unique history. Their beginnings as the only country ever born of a slave revolt, and their continuing interactions with France, and later the US, have played a big part in where they are today.
    If you are interested in learning more, I would strongly suggest reading anything by Paul Farmer. He’s a very well respected anthropologist, and he has done a lot of work in Haiti. Here’s a piece by Farmer about “what happened in Haiti”:

  • cattrack2

    C’mon even most Haitians don’t blame colonial powers for their present day circumstances, they blame present day & recent leaders. The influence you cite happened 80 or more years ago, and Haiti has been faaar more independent than any other country in the Caribbean or S. America. For all this Haiti’s development lags behind all of its peers. This gap is the fault of Haiti’s leaders not some French gov’t which demanded tribute 150 years ago, and certainly not the US which developed Haiti’s infrastructure before it left 80 years ago.
    Giving the leaders of 3rd world countries a blank check because we feel guilty about colonialism does nothing to help the people of those countries (as they will tell you). In fact it only ensures conditions remain squalid. I mean Obama had to pressure their President to publicly address his people after the earthquake. And it took days for him to do so!

  • aleks

    Japan overpopulated? Not as far as I know. Resource poor, yes, if you mean things like oil and mineable minerals. Japan basically has rivers, intact forests (Haiti is almost entirely deforested) and highly developed (educated and employed) human capital.

  • aleks

    While most of latin America seized independence on their own terms from the withering Spanish Empire, Haiti had to take the terms France would give her, and that meant a crushing debt. Also, most of the hemisphere’s revolutionaries (Washington, Bolivar, etc.) were educated elites, whereas the Haitian revolutionaries were slaves without a lot of management training. Finally, because Haiti was a nation founded by blacks who’d killed their white enslavers, the white elites in many countries and especially the U.S. regarded their revolution with horror and did everything possible to sabotage them.

  • aleks

    “Much of Haiti’s endless cycle of violence, corruption and poverty is the result of outside interference. Much of it is also home brewed. None of it is really relevant in the wake of such a catastrophe.”

  • aleks

    What Risa said about US and French interference, plus almost total deforestation.

  • misscaptain

    oh good lord! I just read the article. Seriously, what the hell? There goes my little optimistic interpretation.

  • misscaptain

    Just read it, and um YEAH. I think he’s basically biggest idiot ever to have seriously written that. It’s nauseating. too bad.

  • Broggly

    “What is alarming, I think, is the sometimes illogical frenzy toward casting those affected by the earthquake as helpless, innocent souls who were placed on the island of Hispaniola by an invisible force.”
    Yeah, just what were all those Africans thinking, moving to such a geologically unstable location?
    “One could argue that in totalitarian regimes, they do not have much control, but in the end, it is their government. And therefore, their responsibility. If the government is not doing enough for the people, it is the people’s responsibility to change the government. Not the other way around.”
    Those damn lazy Haitians, not bothering to get rid of the Duvaliers for 29 years.

  • Toongrrl

    In 5…4…3…2…1…Blast Off!!!!!!
    They already hired Sarah Palin, anything is
    possible for idiots.


    Before you go accuse Haitians of being 100% responsible for the present awful conditions prevailing in their country know this.
    The current government in Haiti was installed by the United Nations, in the wake of a US sponsored coup d’etat in 2004 against President Jean Bertrand Aristide, the last legitimate elected president of Haiti.
    Haiti has been administered by a UN administration, backed up by foreign troops and police, for the past 6 years.
    So, in short, non Haitians were in large part responsible for the present failure to provide adequate public services in Haiti.
    And I should add that, in the wake of the earthquake, the US Marines invaded Haiti, so, at the moment, it is the US military running the country – all post earthquake public administration failures can be laid on the doorstep of the Pentagon.
    This isn’t the first time that foreign meddling caused problems in Haiti – far from it.
    The present US invasion of Haiti is the 3 in less than 20 years – in 1994, the US invaded Haiti and ousted President Aristide – basically because his populist administration displeased US corporate interests – and installed a military dictatorship and in 2000 the US invaded Haiti, ousted the dictator they’d installed in 1994 and put Aristide back in power (once it was clear that he would do the bidding of US multinational corporations).
    Nor were those the first instances of America meddling in Haitian internal affairs – way back in 1914, the US Marines invaded Haiti (basically because Haiti owed money to the First National City Bank of New York – the predecessor corporation to today’s Citigroup – the Marines were in effect acting as collection agents for First National City).
    The Marines overthrew the government, forced the Haitian congress to pass a US-written constitution pretty much at gunpoint, and handed the Haitian customs service over to First National City so they could legally steal all of the customs duties collected by Haitian Customs.
    When a Haitian Army colonel rose up in revolt against the US occupation, the Marines carried out a war of extermination against any Haitians who supported him – whole villages were destroyed by Marine infantry or blown up by Marine Corps aircraft and thousands were killed.
    When the Marines caught that colonel, they lynched him and literally crucified him – as in they actually nailed his dead body to a wooden pallet the way Jesus was nailed to the cross – and they took his dead body on a tour of Haitian villages, to show people what would happen to them if they resisted the US occupation.
    The Marines didn’t withdraw from Haiti til 1934.
    There’s more, but I think you get the idea.
    So don’t be so quick to blame Haitians for what’s been inflicted on them from outside.

  • s mandisa

    its very clear that from responses like yours, you would agree with the basketball player, Shirley.
    perhaps you should have saved some time and just wrote “I agree”, instead you use history written by the victors and time spent in the Peace Corps (which to be clear is another vestige of US imperialism and the “white man’s burden” mentality) to show that Haitians did in fact bring poverty among themselves. the fact that you have no hesitation in critiquing a group of people who have spent centuries of the US and Europe never letting them live down the fact that they whipped the butts of arguably the most powerful army in the world (Napoleon’s) and that they still are paying for that shows how uninformed you actually are. Lemme guess: you also blame us in the Gulf Coast for the human-induced disaster that IS Katrina, as well as marginalized peoples globally for the social problems that they didn’t cause, but must live with. our privelege and entitlement shows like a pink bra under a black shirt when we feel comfortable in critiquing and analyzing poverty and BLAMING those most affected by global neo-liberalism for the exact social problems caused by these policies. damn!