Hour by hour, day by day, we've been watching the devastation that is Haiti. The plight of that sad, forgotten country is being forced on us in such a way that it is no longer possible to turn away from it, to ignore it, to stop thinking of it as somebody else's problem. Their most recent crisis was caused by a 7.0 magnitude earthquake, and the horror, almost beyond comprehension, is that tens of thousands of people have died because of it.
But we've known for decades that the Haitian people, even before this natural disaster, were living lives of pure misery. Remember the Haitian "Boat People"? They arrived on our shores by the thousands in the 1970s and 80s, before our government finally put a stop to it by sending them back to their homeland, where abject, implacable, unending destitution was what had driven them onto those skimpy boats in the first place. Many of them died along the way, but that kind of desperation--the kind that most of us could never possibly understand--throws caution to the winds. There were many of us--I hope there were millions of us--who wrote letters begging our government to at least turn a blind eye to those wretched wanderers staggering toward America. But bureaucracies prevailed, as they always do, and the struggles of the Boat People to find peace and a helping hand were for nought. We turned them away.
Now we're going to help. As a nation, we'll do everything we can to ease the suffering in Haiti. I know that for a fact, even though I haven't forgotten that as a nation we turned some of these very people away not so long ago. We're bombarded with the images of the earthquake aftermath and it's hard, seeing the poor suffering victims, not to make the comparisons with our own Hurricane Katrina. Our reporters, some of the same who covered Katrina, are exhausted and near tears as they describe the horrors they've seen. They are helpless to do much more than to explain, to make us see, to force us away from our daily routines and bring us along with them into hell.
We will not let uncaring bureaucracies get in the way this time. Moments after the reports of the earthquake, the White House went into action and within hours the trucks were beginning to be loaded, the airlifts were in place. As I write this, three days afterward, there is a traffic jam on the tarmac at the Port-au-Prince airport as planes filled with volunteers and relief supplies attempt to unload. The whole world, it seems, finally wants to come to the aid of the Haitians.
As a nation, we're feeling good. We're where we should be. We're cheering the aid workers on, we're sending money, we're mobilizing. For most of us, the fact that the Haitians we're caring about are poor and dark-skinned has no bearing on anything. And why would it? But for the past two days we've been sidetracked by the astonishingly pitiless comments of two powerful countrymen who draw enormous audiences and make untold millions from their daily utterances.
Pat Robertson, citing a legend about early Haitians making a pact with the devil to get out from under the French (calling it a "true story"), gave Satan the credit for all of the misery Haiti has had to endure. He ended by saying, "They need to have and we need to pray for them a great turning to God. . ."
This drew clearly undisguised anger from a Haitian embassador, who probably had better things to do than respond to a so-called cleric who calls a legend about a pact with the devil "a true story":
So then the 700 Club comes back and says it was all about the legend, and we care a lot about the Haitians, who are still--sorry to say--cursed by the devil because they asked for it:
Rush Limbaugh, that great humanitarian, first suggested that President Obama will make hay over this tragedy because. . .something about mutual dark skins. When that got the expected outrage he so craves, he came back and gloated about tweaking the media. Then, because his craving for attention hadn't been sated, he used his pulpit to warn people against using the White House website for earthquake relief donations, for fear their money would disappear into Obama's pockets or, worse, the Democrats would be able to get information from their applications.
So why does it matter what these two men say? It matters because in the Land of Milk and Honey they've amassed unbelievable wealth and power by appealing to the darkest sides of civilized Americanism.
They matter because they've each built entire lucrative industries by consistently proving to be less than we would expect of our fellow Americans.
They matter because, even though they work at eroding the underpinnings of our values while pretending to be at the forefront of everything good and ethical, they gather audiences that most rock stars could only dream about.
Americans by the millions follow their every word, defending them this side of death, spreading far and wide their messages of intolerance and hate. I wonder how many of their listeners are looking for ways to help the Haitians? I wonder how many of them see the paradox between what they're hearing and what their hearts are telling them to do? And if they do, I wonder why they go on doing it?
(Cross-posted at Talking Points Memo here)