We tell ourselves a lot of stories. There's nothing wrong with that; in fact we need them. But we should always be looking at what the story we're telling is, and what the underlying stories are.
Lately people here have been especially open to thoughts of mortality, as we contemplate the predicament of the Haitian people and try to help out. Even these generous urges can lead to conflict, though; as we come to grips with our preconceptions about people we know little about.
I got tangled up in fairleft2's essay on Haiti very early this morning, and left when I realized that I was getting too angry to comment effectively. I did not sleep for hours, in thinking about it.
What I wound up thinking about was the stories we tell ourselves, and how much we want to be part of a good story, a positive story - and, a romantic story.
I'm not knocking stories. We need stories. A story that we have become caught up in greatly here lately is "We Are Helping Haiti." This is a romantic story. It is also a real, good, solid story. A success story, and one to be proud of.
But it's not the only story. fairleft2 came in with some news that didn't have so much to do with this romantic story; news about Haitians continuing to suffer, two weeks after the earthquake, with aid shipments being turned away and backlogged for a week due to lack of access for planes and ships, and meanwhile military personnel from other countries being shipped in, along with supplies those personnel need.
I think that what happened then was an example of story dissonance, because "We're Helping Haiti" doesn't work very well with "But First We Must Bring In Troops To Protect Us While We Help."
What does it mean when you think you have to protect yourselves from the people you are trying to help?
Haiti is an island of about 10,700 square miles, with a population of nine million or so, who are about 95% dark-skinned people (not counting everyone who has died so far).
The arguments put forth in the comments to fairleft2's essay described a situation where aid could only arrive via plane (only one runway) and via one port.
There is another port, the one the cruise ships use. But using that port to bring in aid, I read, is unfeasible, because there is not direct road access to it. There is a footpath from the port for the cruise ship passengers, and it would be too much trouble to regrade it.
That was another thing I lay awake thinking about for hours. Newspaper headlines you'll never see; "Hundreds of Thousands of Americans Left To Die With Aid Close At Hand; Footpath Was Too Difficult An Obstacle."
I'm not writing this to trash anyone who commented on fairleft2's essay. I'm writing this to look at stories. The ones we don't want to think about. And a lot of what I thought about while lying awake early this morning, was that one of the stories we don't want to think about here, that is real though, is that Haitians are dangerous.
What kind of story might that be? Why might Haitians be dangerous?
The possibilities I came up were as follows:
- Haitians aren't really humans; they are dangerous animals.
- Haitians are people but too different from us and predatory.
- Haitians are people but they are very angry at us because we have wronged them, and thus we should be careful around them.
#1 is clearly a racist story, #2 is rather questionable as well, and #3 implies Haiti is never going to forgive us for our interventions in their attempts to run their own lives (our governments's efforts to sabotage Aristede being a salient example).
What I think fairleft2 was trying to do was propose another story; that Haitians are our equals and should be treated as such and worked with as such. That would mean that Haiti could suffer a terrible natural disaster and we would not feel the need to block up their airways with our military transport, because Haiti would already have their own political infrastructure in place to deal with such (not to mention rebar in the concrete buildings).
That story would also mean that the Haitians aren't really sitting around waiting to stick it to us for letting our government screw with them all these years. It would mean that they have some sense that they and we are all the same people.
That's a pretty scary story, if one is entrenched in the idea that Haiti comprises people who are dangerous in some general manner.
But what happens if you let go of that story? What happens if you buy into a new story?
What happens if the aid ships drop anchor offshore, when the weather is nice, and Haitians come out in boats to pick up supplies?
What happens if we, Americans, in our rich nation; start working up 365 days a year relief efforts for countries where people are messed up to the nines, and work on making those efforts as brilliantly conceived as ShelterBox?
What happens if other European countries get in on the act? (and I'm sure they already have).
What happens to the stories then?