On January 12, 2010 an earthquake leveled much of the Republic of Haiti (Haiti Earthquake of 2010, The New York Times).
People died. People are still dying. Soon after the quake, a well-known televangelist (while asking for aid for the victims) attributed the country’s poverty, oppression, and frequent earthly disasters to a pact made with the devil. Supposedly, at some point during the Haitian Revolution and the slave rebellions that preceded it, someone made a deal with the devil to win independence from French colonial rule. (The whole thing smacks of Robert Johnson standing with his guitar at the crossroads, but the phrase is much, much older. Faust, yes … but even the temptations of Christ were “deals”, though not “made”.) The verity of a specific deal made or not made in Haiti’s history does not interest me, nor do I want to join in the chorus of outrage. (Curiously, the words of this “evangelist” are considered worthy of outrage. The man has become some kind of cultural sounding board; when he talks people don’t really listen, but they do define themselves and their friends according to the strength of their emotive responses. I hope that my bit soap-boxing does not add the cultural co-dependency, but it probably will.) I am interested, however, in the exchange, in the fact that it exists. Why are so many people so united in opposition to a silly comment?
I suspect, the televangelist and his outraged detractors share some common impulses. When shit happens, we want to know why. We’re wired that way. If you’re walking down the street and suddenly stumble and fall, you will take a quick inventory: Did I do this to myself? Did someone else do this to me? Let me find someone, anyone, to hold responsible for my pain and shame! It’s all a part of making sure it doesn’t happen next time. The more fortunate folks who witnessed your fall are probably asking themselves similar questions, but they’re more likely to blame you for your misery … even if they saw someone trip you. People “blame the victim” because they are afraid of becoming the victim. If you can identify a weakness or short-coming in the victim that you (presumably) do not possess, you can assuage your fears a bit. Even saying that someone “was in the wrong place at the wrong time”, blames that someone who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Most of us do this quietly; some of us, like the televangelist, are vocal about it.
So, when something terrible happens and there are, apparently, no humans to blame for the event, what do we do with our anger and fear? Some blame devils and gods directly; others wait for a vocal nit-wit to say something stupid, and then we unload. It seems to be a popular and cathartic option.
The act of condemning the televangelist, however, is more than merely cathartic. It also gets us off the hook. It proves to ourselves and to others that we are not the kind of person who blames the very people for whom we feel so sorry. But, as I already have implied, we are (to some degree or another) exactly that kind of person.
And the “devil”? Well, yes, an efficacious devil is out of fashion, but I’d bet that you have a one somewhere in your “details”. One doesn’t need to attend to too much of the chatter about Haiti before hearing that the country has suffered from many years of political corruption–corruption leading to poverty, poorly constructed buildings, failing civil infrastructure … all magnifying Haiti’s losses. Political corruption works for some people; the corrupt leaders and regimes did have supporters. Some of these supporters were Haitian citizens, others were wealthier governments and their citizens in other countries. At any rate the supporters saw something to gain and some may have seen a price to pay … you might as well call it “a deal with the devil”. If it makes you feel any better, call it a deal with slavery or colonialism or “homeland security”. Any time that you (or the government leaders that you support with your vote and tax dollars) do something that benefits your well-being at the unjust expense of others, one might call it a “deal” made with the “devil”.
In the end, it is not a question of which one of us made the deal, or even a question of the what the deal might have been, but rather: who is going to pay for it?