Danner’s Choice

A long standing staple of Fox News discourse claims that liberalism in the media holds sway as a kind of semi-official ideology. This view is largely correct, though it should be kept in mind that it is the liberalism targeted in recent denunciations by Adolph Reed and Chris Hedges, not the “radical leftism” playing a leading role in the fantasies of the tea partyers and other reactionaries.

A more or less paradigmatic example of the former can be found in Mark Danner’s recent NY Times Op-Ed “To Heal Haiti, Look to History,” which was quickly picked up at commondreams.org, Democracy Now! and grit.tv among other sites.

That the piece would be promoted by web organs of the authentic — as opposed to liberal — left was at least superficially reasonable in that Danner’s (or for that matter anyone’s) minimally accurate thumbnail sketch of Haitian history could not fail to deliver a stridently anti-imperialist message. Haiti has functioned as “a state built for predation and plunder”, starting with the complete eradication of its Indigenous population, to its establishment as the most brutal of slave states, to its functioning in the 20th century as a paradigmatic kleptocracy presided over by a string of vicious dictators serving themselves and the interests of foreign capital.

Danner’s bill of particulars, many of these laid on our doorstep, is of course regrettable, disturbing, and even damning and as such provides an opportunity for the displays of teeth gnashing and garment rending which liberals can be relied on to engage in. This requires, however, that one condition is met: that these instances are all safely in the past.

Thus, what is predictably missing in Danner’s discussion is anything other than the vaguest allusion to the recent history of Haiti. And it is this history which is largely responsible for the almost inconceivable scale of the devastation caused by what would otherwise be a major, but by no means unprecedented disaster.

The relevant cause, as is described in the works of Robert Fatton, is demographic: for the past three decades the city of Port au Prince has grown from approximately 300,000 to over 2.5 million inhabitants. Lacking the infrastructure required to support this population and the financial wherewithal to develop it, most residents of the capital lived in slums lacking the most basic sanitation facilities, with only sporadic access to safe drinking water and frequently subjected to protracted encounters with what NGO’s somewhat euphemistically refer to as “food insecurity”. Moreover, it hardly needs to be mentioned, building codes were non existent.

It was eminently predictable from these initial conditions that a 7.0 Richter Scale seismic event would materialize as it did with countless thousands buried under rubble, those able to extract themselves doing so in a weakened condition sometimes literally dying of thirst or through opportunistic infections.

If we want to understand, as opposed to merely wring our hands, about this epic tragedy, we need to inquire into why these conditions existed. What accounted for the massive influx into Port au Prince from the rural agricultural areas? Danner indirectly alludes to the crucial in his proposal to “America (to) throw open its markets to Haitian agricultural produce and manufactured goods, broadening and making permanent the provisions of a promising trade bill negotiated in 2008.”

Danner has this exactly backward. As Fatton and others have noted, it is not the failure of the U.S. to open its markets, but rather the converse which is directly implicated in the catastrophe — which is to say two decades of extortionate neo-liberal trade pacts which required Haiti to open its markets to U.S. goods. Chief among these are heavily subsidized U.S. agricultural products, most notably rice. These were dumped on Haiti with similar results to that in much of the third world. Farmers unable to compete with cheap imports were driven off their land, selling out to multinational agribusiness and developers, initiating an exodus to the cities offering the prospect of employment in manufacturing sector albeit at near starvation wages.

This is now an old story applying to much of the third world and told in numerous places, most comprehensively in Mike Davis’s Planet of Slums. So it is reasonable to ask why does Danner fail to mention it?

The answer is necessarily a matter of speculation though it is probably not too cynical to assume that Danner is well aware that his reputation as a “serious” thinker on these and related matters in establishment circles requires that these obvious truths be passed over unacknowledged.

A parade examples of a fall from grace occasioned by failing to respect the boundaries of acceptable discourse is provided by former Times Middle East bureau chief Hedges whose rigorous, informed and brilliant recent works, or “rants” — as they are described when insiders even bother to recognize them, are now relegated to wilds of the internet.

Danner’s perches at the Council on Foreign Relation, the Century Foundation and the Pacific Council for World Affairs and his access to mainstream “print” media (not to mention his substantial fees) will remain secure so long as he respects the limits which Hedges transgressed — as will his ultimate legacy as one more apologist for imperial plunder, albeit of the kinder and gentler neo-liberal variety.

If it is to be otherwise, he will need to join Hedges on “the dark side” as it were, by developing the capacity to name those individuals as well as the system (namely capitalism) which is responsible for the conditions which made widespread death and destruction, in Haiti and much of the rest of the third world, inevitable.

John Halle is a Professor at the Bard College Conservatory of Music and former Green Party Alderman from New Haven's Ninth Ward. Read other articles by John, or visit John's website.