Far away, in some independent (but undeveloped) country, an African gentleman and his wife are lying in their dilapidated apartment, slowly expiring for lack of food and water. Lo and behold, the electricity goes on. Water begins to flow through rusty plumbing. Down on the street a truck arrives to clear away mounds of garbage. Another vehicle is disgorging sacks of maize meal for distribution.
The man stirs on his death bed and shouts to his wife: “Quick, woman, bring me the machete! The white man is back.”
Everywhere in quake-stricken Haiti, the same generic, benevolent, much-maligned “white man” is doing the heavy lifting in the mostly thankless rescue, recovery, and rehabilitation efforts. At the same time, Fabian progressives stateside are fingering insufficient USAID generosity as the cause for the impotency of the Haitian state and its civil society.
Goodness is glorious, and the glory belonged ─ not all, but in the main ─ to Western charity. Wherever children were being pulled from the rubble, women delivered of babies, wounds dressed, broken limbs set; smashed ones amputated, victims fed and clothed en masse ─ American, Canadian, British, European, and yes, Israeli medicine men were on the scene, driven by their devotion to help the suffering humanity of Haiti.
Americans, in particular, are coordinating the mission of mercy to Haiti — from the geological surveyors, the geophysicists and the engineers, to the missionaries and their attendant missions (they keep warehouses in Haiti; have done so for decades), to the aid-delivering military (both the Marines and the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division), to the most munificent private charities (Billy Graham’s Rapid Response Team commandeered at least three chartered planes).
The Fraser Institute confirms that as a percentage of their aggregate income, Americans (the most religious of Western nation) give more to charity than citizens of any other country. (Conservatives more so than liberals.) As Bruce Bartlett of the National Center for Policy Analysis has pointed out, private foreign aid dwarfs U.S. government aid.
Americans give voluntarily, voluminously, and … anonymously.
Yes, the righteous give secretly. The pious give publicly. Accustomed to the hedonism of Hollywood and the exhibitionism of cable news anchors, it may surprise some to learn that the manner in which most Americans give satisfies the exacting standards of righteousness specified by Maimonides. The 12th century Jewish philosopher stipulated that the highest form of charity is practiced when “donor and recipient are unknown to each other.” This is self-explanatory.
Observe how in no time at all, Brangelina, Madonna, Clooney, Lady GaGa (whomever “she” may be), and Gisele Bundchen advertised the sums they gave. In the same un-virtuous vain, CNN’s posturing, preachy Anderson Cooper saw to it that he was filmed lugging around an injured Haitian boy. Dr. Sanjay Gupta, a Cooper colleague, flexed his surgical scalpel for the same lens. The good kind of good works should never aim at self-aggrandizement.
Still, in all its self-serving displays, humanitarianism is, overwhelmingly, a Western affair; a Judeo-Christian thing. It’s as simple as all that. Liberals like Angelina Jolie will trace Western generosity to the founding of the United Nations, to the League of Nations, or to some other supra-national structure.
I suspect that what is at play in Haiti, and in countless locales around the undeveloped world, began with the revolutionary, universal, elaborate moral and legal injunctions encoded first in Exodus, Deuteronomy, and Leviticus ─ and, thereafter, throughout the Hebrew Bible ─ to protect and do justice by the poor, the weak, the defenseless, the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. The people of Israel were enjoined to practice what Christians later perfected.
That stuff stuck.
A different set of beliefs animates Haitian society, and helps explain its helplessness and hopelessness. “Haiti is not a Catholic country, Haiti is a Voodoo country,” Erol Josue told National Public Radio. Josue is a Voodoo priest in a country whose former president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, officially recognized Voodoo as a state religion. NPR set out to illustrate how the worship of ancestral spirits and other hobgoblins has succored Haitians in their time of need.
Horrors! One benevolent, tremendously successful American televangelist disagrees. To general expressions of incredulity, Pat Robertson claimed after the quake that in embracing sorcery, Haitians had made a pact with the devil.
Who knows? Perhaps Robertson finds solace in the Pentateuch. The same revolutionary biblical text that first preached universalism and humanitarianism also said nay to necromancy: “Do not resort to ghosts and spirits, or make yourselves unclean by seeking them out.” (Leviticus, 19:31)
This much I do know: Haitians are in the habit of saddling angry ancestors in need of appeasement for everything from famine to inflation to rumbles deep down under. By extension, Haitian faith in divination and witchcraft implies that they do not believe control over uncertainty is achievable through planning for the future and mastering nature; through reason, the rule of law, or technology. Rather, being by and large fatalistic and superstitious, Haitians all too often resort to magical thinking to cope.
From the helping hand (that belongs to the anon, American humanitarian), to the exhibitionist (Anderson Cooper) to the helpless (Haitians), to the hate-filled ingrate (our machete-wielding generic gentleman) ─ we can all agree that human behavior is mediated by values.
©2010 By ILANA MERCER