Paul Shirley Doesn’t Like Haiti Relief

Our old friend and adversary Paul Shirley has gotten into some trouble recently, for saying something even more controversial than that he doesn’t like The Beatles:

I haven’t donated a cent to the Haitian relief effort. And I probably will not. I haven’t donated to the Haitian relief effort for the same reason that I don’t give money to homeless men on the street. Based on past experiences, I don’t think the guy with the sign that reads “Need You’re Help” is going to do anything constructive with the dollar I might give him. If I use history as my guide, I don’t think the people of Haiti will do much with my money either.

Not so surprisingly, this statement, which was part of a larger essay on the misguided nature of donations to Haiti, got Shirley into a lot of trouble. He was a trending topic on Twitter yesterday (a worse fate has befallen no man) and he lost his job at ESPN.

Part of me feels for Shirley. For one, I’ve always enjoyed his writing, and he was nice enough to respond to our blog review of him. I also like it when people take unpopular stances and generally hate when people get fired for them.

It’s also, as usual, frustrating to see Shirley’s arguments quoted out of context in many reports of the story. The line most often pulled from the piece has been “try using a condom once in a while,” which makes Shirley sound ignorant and potentially racist. But that line comes from a hypothetical—and clearly farcical—“letter to Haiti,” which constitutes a small part of his essay and doesn’t play a big role in his argument.

Of course, the worst kind of response—and the most popular one amongst the Twitterati, by my count—has been that Shirley is “heartless.” Doesn’t Shirley CARE about people? This kind of emotional appeal is useless. It’s the same kind of argument that says we should pass whatever health care bill is proposed because some people don’t have health insurance, and the same overemphasis on pathos that caused President Obama to mention three dozen small towns for no reason in last night’s speech. It has absolutely nothing to do with rational arguments.

With all of that said, though, there is some irony in Paul Shirley’s piece. After all, his central thesis is that the Haitians deserve some share of the blame because they took no steps to insure their safety from a potential earthquake despite knowing the potential risks. Well, I’m sure Shirley had to know the risks of writing such an inflammatory piece about Haiti, so I hope he took such precautions.

It’s also hard to feel totally sympathetic for Shirley because his argument is so deeply flawed. It’s not flawed because it lacks compassion or sympathy—it’s just flawed because it’s wrong. Do the Haitians deserve blame for not being prepared for the earthquake? Fuck no. But let’s go point by point:

Shirley starts his argument with a hypothetical:

Imagine that I’m a caveman. Imagine that I’ve chosen to build my house out of balsa wood, and that I’m building it next to a roaring river because I’ve decided it will make harvesting fish that much easier. Then, imagine that my hut is destroyed by a flood.

The implication of this is that he deserves it—well, not “deserves” so much as should have seen it coming. The flaw in this analogy, though, is that most Haitians did not “choose” to live in Haiti any more than I “chose” to live in America. I was born here; I have no reason to move; hence, I am still here. You might say that Haitians DO have a reason to move—namely that they live in fucking Haiti—but it’s not like uprooting yourself and moving to another country is so easy, particularly given the dire economic conditions of most Haitians.

Which brings us to the poverty of Haiti, which Shirley also comments on:

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?

Well, Paul, I don’t think they were poor on purpose. I know it’s a huge inconvenience for you that some people can’t afford homes with solid foundations, but it’s not like they can just build them out of thin air. They need money for this; hence, the donations.

Finally, Shirley talks about the senselessness of rebuilding a broken country:

We did the same after Hurricane Katrina. We were quick to vilify humans who were too slow to respond to the needs of victims, forgetting that the victims had built and maintained a major city below sea level in a known target zone for hurricanes. Our response: Make the same mistake again. Rebuild a doomed city, putting aside logic as we did.

There is a decent point here, but Shirley takes it too far. Is New Orleans really a “doomed city”? Isn’t it more a case of it simply needing better levees? A situation government failures exacerbated?

The worst part of Shirley’s argument is this theme that runs through each part of it, that Haiti is a doomed or worthless country. Shirley doesn’t come out and say this, but his implications (What were they doing there in the first place? What’s the point of rebuilding that mess?) say it for him. As a result, people have interpreted the essay as being something Pat Robertson might write.

Because the mere fact that Haiti lies on a fault line does not mean it’s unsuitable to live in. Pretty much every geographic location comes with threats and drawbacks. California has earthquakes and mudslides. Florida has hurricanes and old people. I live in New York. Does the fact that New York City is a prime terrorist target mean I should leave? Am I to blame if I die in a terrorist attack because I should have seen it coming?

The sense of “deserve” or “blame” that Shirley is talking about is a wholly unreasonable. At one point he says, “If it were apparent that Haiti would likely rebuild in an earthquake-resistant way…then maybe one could imagine putting a sustained effort into rebuilding the place.” It’s not clear to me that this is tongue-in-cheek, but I certainly hope it is, because if not—what the fuck? How do you build a country in an “earthquake-resistant way”? Earthquakes, hurricanes, and other natural disasters just happen—they can’t be “resisted.” They are more likely to happen in certain places, and there are ways of minimizing the damage done by them, but nothing can totally eradicate damage done by them.

Haiti could have certainly been better prepared for the earthquake—a la the major cities in California–, but such preparation is a complicated, expensive process, one that further aid ought to facilitate. But it’s unreasonable to expect Haiti, the poorest country in the Western hemisphere, to have taken the same precautions as some of the biggest cities in the richest country in the world.

What’s most frustrating about Shirley’s essay is that there is a good point buried beneath it. He gets caught up in the blame game and the language of “deserve,” (and deserve got nothing to do with it) and as a result feels too much like an invective admonishing the Haitians for being poor.

But the question of where the money is going and how it is being spent is a valid one. After all, if every American donates a $1 (which is a conservative estimate, since for every one million Paul Shirleys, there’s an Angelina Jolie donating $1 million) to “Haiti relief,” then we are talking about hundreds of millions of dollars from the U.S. alone. How is that money being spent, and at whose discretion? There are, of course, the many medical needs that face the Haitian people, and those should be the primary focus of the Red Cross, but what about the money meant for “rebuilding”? That money ought to be spent in precisely the areas that Shirley is discussing. Namely, the money should go to rebuilding Port-au-Prince in ways that will minimize the damage and casualties of future earthquakes.

The way to guarantee this is not to just keep donating, since, after a certain point, unspecified donations will encourage inefficiency and waste. The way to ensure that is oversight and transparency among the organizations aiding the relief effort. At this point, though, with the “emergency stage” of the rescue barely over, discussions of rebuilding may be premature. Massive attention now, followed by no oversight or follow-through in a few months, though, is an invitation for graft and waste. Shirley is right that giving blindly is not the proper response, but, then again, neither is not giving at all.

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