Haiti is our harbinger

The Thinker by Rodin

Perhaps it is just winter, always a dark time of year. Or perhaps I have spent too much time reading Joe Bageant who lives life without the rose colored glasses on so well he makes my head groan. Republicans winning a special election for Ted Kennedy’s seat didn’t help either. I am finding it hard to escape the feeling that our species is toast. We are rearranging the deck chairs on our Titanic. The ship is going down but conventional wisdom is it is good somehow. “You know, we are ten feet deeper in the water than we were an hour ago. But it’s good. It gives us more ballast. Gives the crew something to do pumping out all that bilge water. Another margarita anyone?”

Then terrible tragedies like the Haitian earthquake occur that reinforce that not only are bad things happening all around us but also that they are getting worse. The human toll from the earthquake is but a wild estimate at this point, but 200,000 deaths seem to be the current working number. For many Americans, or at least some Americans like that usual jackass Rush Limbaugh, it’s like who cares about the freakin’ Haitians? Oh, and by the way, Obama is using this for his political advantage. But what else would you expect from Rush? This same guy checked into a hospital in Hawaii recently complaining of chest pains. Of course, he used it as an opportunity to gush about how we have the most wonderful health care system in the world, at least for self insured multimillionaires. As for the rest of us, well since we are not multimillionaires I guess we don’t count. In Rush’s mind, we’re just Haitians. If a 7.0 magnitude earthquake struck downtown Washington D.C., Rush would doubtless be calling for us to do no more than bulldoze the whole city under. God bless his compassionate soul.

Our world is rapidly devolving into the dystopia Neal Stephenson chronicled back in 1992 in his prophetic novel Snow Crash. Unable to afford to live in our own homes, or even an apartment, how long will it be before we, like Hiro Protagonist, call a room in a U Store It home. In fact, newspapers periodically chronicle people in my area doing just that. Ask any homeless Haitian and they would be thrilled to call a room in a U Store It a home. At least it is clean and in many cases heated. Those Haitians who are still alive are fleeing the capital Port-au-Prince. Tent cities full of refugees are emerging, but international aid can address just a tiny portion of the overwhelming need. Those who survived for the most part cannot find clean water and food. If the earthquake didn’t kill them, perhaps the cholera and dysentery which will soon be rampant will do the trick. It sounds like it would make Rush Limbaugh happy.

Meanwhile, Pat Robertson believes Haitians made a pact with the devil. That’s why they died in such large numbers. Seriously. This is what religion can do otherwise sensible people. And this guy somehow runs his own university. I guess that long established fault line running though Haiti had nothing to do with the earthquake. Or God told all the sinners to build houses right above it. Any illiterate and starving Haitian has more sense than this Robertson fool, including those who believe in Voodoo.

The sad reality is that hardly anyone without relatives in Haiti gives a shit about Haiti. We do our best to keep Haitians out of the country so their impoverished relatives won’t join us in the states and lower our property values. To the extent that we have cared over the years, we have used Haiti as an experiment in our capitalist values. Organizations like the International Monetary Fund loaned money to Haiti then turned the screws, making repayment virtually impossible.

It’s not like in the best of times their lives were not already miserable. They have the lowest standard of living and life spans in the Americas. They also sit in the middle of hurricane alley. When hurricanes arrive, like earthquakes, they tend to collapse an already fragile infrastructure. Now this: half of the buildings in and around the capital are destroyed or unusable. Of course, they could be rebuilt to modern building codes. Think that is going to happen? In your dreams! Building codes take money you can’t afford living on a dollar a day or less, and Rush Limbaugh certainly doesn’t want to give the ingrates any more. As for Robertson, it would be the same as giving money to the devil. After a year or so, we will have largely forgotten all about their plight, but they will still be as miserable and hopeless as always. Incredibly, when there seems no possible way to make their lives any more miserable, a subsequent disaster proves us wrong.

No, we will soon go back to ignoring Haiti, as will most of the world, because we will need to become xenophobic. As the health care debate has demonstrated, in America we believe in every man for himself, come hell our high water. We are not far from a time when we will leave the uninsured bleeding to death outside our emergency rooms because we won’t want to shoulder even their emergency room costs. With our national wealth quickly moving overseas to countries like China, America continues to be one big fire sale. Soon we are going to emerge from our collective hangover to discover that we are no longer a first world power. This is what happens when you neglect your infrastructure and human capital costs long enough because you are intoxicated by ever lower taxes. The whole neighborhood just goes to hell. We will realize that we can no longer afford our military, our international commitments, or even Social Security and Medicare because our creditor China says we can’t. And that means when we have no more means to beg or borrow, we move toward second-class status, which is sort of like Mexico. America will become a harder, meaner, more intolerant, more polluted place that will border on anarchy. The gated communities will go up just like in Snow Crash, but this time there will be armed guards patrolling the fence and manning the gates.

What we can do, like almost every country in the world, is keep adding recklessly to our population, which today guarantees a lower standard of living. More natural wilderness is transformed into ugly sprawl. With more mouths to feed, we have more reasons to punt issues like global warming because trying to maintain our standard of living will always trump over serious action on the environment. We are already there. The social contract is fraying. Living on social security alone means you are living in wretched poverty. At best, so long as you do not get sick you can afford to inhabit that trailer somewhere. However, there won’t be enough left over to fix that hole in the rusted trailer roof, let alone buy your heart medicine.

I see it in my own in-laws. To the extent they have a middle class lifestyle, it is thanks to a reverse mortgage on their house in a burb outside of Phoenix. It was not worth that much to begin with and is worth even less now. Most likely their equity is gone. When their air conditioner broke down, they were looking under the sofa cushions for money to get it fixed. About the only thing they can count on is Medicare and getting that monthly social security check. They allow them to exist, but certainly not to live. It’s been more than a decade since they took a real vacation. Instead, you eat light and watch a lot of Fox News.

A chain always breaks at its weakest point. In the western hemisphere, that has traditionally been Haiti. The conditions that caused Haiti are leaching all over the hemisphere. This includes here in the good old United States of America. As is well documented, in the 2000s when we had the bliss of Republican rule, our wages stayed flat, our net worth declined, our stocks lost value and we added no more jobs to the economy. Naturally, upper class Republicans did well. Their plan worked great, for them, as it always does because they are experts at screwing those who make less than they do and getting applause for doing so. Those jobs that we did add were at Wal-mart instead of IBM. However, our waists expanded. Perhaps that’s progress. All that extra eating and lack of exercise though helped cause health costs to explode.

No wonder that these days we prefer to escape reality, if not in traditional vices like booze and drugs, then, like Hiro Protagonist, in our virtual worlds in cyberspace. There we make our own pretend reality. We kill demons online in multi-user role-playing games while our first world status crumbles around us. It’s true in the U.S.A. but is also worldwide: collectively we have exceeded our resources which means we are all driven to figure out how to get a bigger share of a smaller pie. We already sense the truth. There is no magic technological fix. Anyone whiz bang new technology invariably brings with it other hidden costs. Nuclear power begat vast quantities of nuclear waste and tragic nuclear accidents. More recently, our new compact fluorescent lights carry the burden of all their mercury vapors, most of which leaches back into our already toxic atmosphere.

We are doomed and we are in denial, but in Haiti, denial is not an option. Eventually we too will have to acknowledge the truth. If we ever reach that point, it’s unlikely that we will be able to summon the nerve to actually change our situation for the better. Instead, we’ll be eyeing our neighbor trying to figure out how to make his life more miserable so we can profit from his misery. This is the new American way: ask not what you can do for your country; ask how you can profit at your neighbor’s expense.

We should weep not just for the Haitians, but also for ourselves for Haiti is our destiny too. The more we deny our connection to Haiti, the worse it will be for us and the sooner we will share their misery. We have already laid out that path in front of us.
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