Caribbean Project: Review: Haiti’s Bad Press

Robert Lawless, "Haiti's Bad Press"
Robert Lawless, "Haiti's Bad Press"
Robert Lawless, “Haiti’s Bad Press”


Haiti’s Bad Press: Origins, Development, and Consequences by the anthropologist Robert Lawless can be summed up as another one of the “rose-tinted accounts of the civilization and progress of Hayti” mentioned by Sir Spenser St. John.

In this case, Lawless is writing about Haiti from the blinkered perspective of the New School of Social Research, which is influenced by the infamous Frankfurt School. Thus, the whole book is consumed by the distinction that Lawless draws between “folk models” and “analytic models.”

A “folk model” is a model that limits our thinking and which “we use daily as guides to mundane concerns.” An “analytic model” is a model that is a “representation of reality developed by scholars” that is “inclusive, universal, logical, simple, flexible, and open.” We are told that anthropologists question and challenge the reigning “folk model.” These “folk models” are biased and have to be “unlearned.” Anthropologists are always busy fighting them.

The reigning “folk model” about Haiti in the United States, which the average person would describe as “common sense,” is that it is “the poorest country in the Western hemisphere,” an exotic place that Americans commonly associate with AIDS, voodoo, cannibalism, brutal dictators and helpless, starving black people who are sometimes intercepted by the Coast Guard while trying to reach South Florida. Some of the most educated Americans vaguely know that Haiti won its independence from France a long time ago after a successful slave revolution that wiped out its White population.

Lawless never gets around to defining the “analytic model” of Haitian development. In three chapters (“Current Biases,” “Origins of the Biases,” and “Development of the Biases,” his method is to move through the primary sources and dismiss them with terms like “racist,” “ethnocentric,” and “christocentric.” At various points, Lawless ridicules the idea that AIDS came to the United States from Haiti, celebrates the military genius of Jean-Jacques Dessalines, and even praises “Papa Doc” Duvalier. He thinks that voodoo is a wonderful religion and dislikes Catholicism and the French language.

There are several unpersuasive accusations in this book that the United States is “exploiting” Haiti – a country which accounted for 0.4 percent of US trade in 1890 and 0.5 percent of US investment in Latin America in 1930. Lawless argues that “the common American folk model of foreign aid” is that it actually helps to develop a foreign country whereas an “analytic model would more likely point out the consequence of most foreign aid is the exploitation of the Third World by the First World.” Haiti is being “exploited” by the G8, the World Bank, the Inter-American Development Bank, and the IMF which have all cancelled its national debt!

Fortunately, Haiti’s Bad Press isn’t completely useless. It contains a valuable bibliography and many excepts from older books which are intended to shock by demonstrating racist “stereotypes.” Lawless quotes Richard Loederer’s 1935 book Voodoo Fire in Haiti which is described as “the most offensive book” about “the black sexual animal” and “the innate sense of rhythm in blacks”:

“The remaining two passengers were pure-blooded negroes who with their ultra-European bearing and appearance were both incongruous and entertaining … Their western culture lay deeper than might at first sight have been expected and on only one occasion did the primitive African break through the shell of civilized convention. When someone put a record on the ship’s gramophone the studied calm of the two black stoics vanished. Consciousness of rhythm submerged the veneer of civilization. Indeed, so strong was the primitive urge, that a complete physical change transformed their bodies … The music seemed to surge, compelling responses in shoulders, hips and thighs – swaying, flexing, vibrating, in complete surrender to the throbbing rhythm. For the first time I realized what rhythm meant to the negro.” (Robert Lawless, Haiti’s Bad Press, p.67)

In 1801, the Jamaican planter Bryan Edwards published a book which contained the following prophecy about Haitians:

“What they are now (the Caribs), the freed negroes of San Domingo will hereafter be: savages in the midst of society – without peace, security, agriculture or property, ignorant of the duties of life and unacquainted with all the soft, endearing relations which render it desirable; averse to labour, though frequently perishing of want: suspicious of each other and towards the rest of mankind: revengeful and faithless: remorseless and bloody-minded: pretending to be free while groaning beneath the capricious despotism of their chiefs and feeling all the miseries of servitude without the benefit of subordination.”

In 1841, the French abolitionist Victor Schoelcher was scandalized by the blighted landscape of Port-au-Prince:

“Here is the capital. Foul public squares, ruined monuments, dwellings of plank and thatch, stove-in-quays, tottering wharves, no names on the streets, no numbers on the doorways, no street lights at night, no paving anywhere: the ground underfoot composed of dust and excrement on which walking is impossible after an hour’s rain. What disorder, what general ruin! …

The fields of Haiti are dead. Cactus covers with its spines the canefields deserted by the hand of man; it invades the towns, flourishing amid the ruins.”

Is it “racist” … or, does it have a ring of truth?

It’s true that Haiti has received a bad press. The press it is received is due to the objective prevailing conditions in Haiti after generations of freedom and equality. The reigning “folk model” in the United States is based on the American memory of the Duvaliers, the verified link between Haitians and AIDS, images on television of the crushing poverty and malnutriton which undeniably exists in Haiti as well as the boat people who are still to this day trying to make their way to Florida.

The bibliography, timeline, and excerpts are the only justification for reading this book. Otherwise, it is a waste of your time.

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  1. That photo of Lawless is the picture of preachy self-righteousness. I bet he lives only with other DWLs.

  2. I don’t know how many of your readers have much interest in Haiti, other than as confirmation of the idea that blacks can never succeed at self-government, etc. I know I never had any interest in it, and it would likely have been among the last countries on earth I would ever have wanted to visit. (It still is.)

    But thanks to your many commentaries over the past few months, and the books you’ve highlighted, my interest has been stimulated, and I’ve decided to read a couple of the books myself. In a way, I almost feel guilty for my interest, because the disastrous picture that emerges, and the seemingly endless suffering the country’s history represents, seems almost like a sort of disaster porn, exacerbated by the realization that, realistically, there seems to be no hope for the future of the country or its people.

    Your comments on the books you’ve highlighted, and your focus on rebutting some of the liberal, “blame it on the imperialists” explanations that “right-thinking” people are wont to toss out, have been very helpful in giving me a clearer picture of how bad the conditions there are, and why, and have stimulated me to learn more on my own. The place does seem to confirm the most negative stereotypes about blacks left to their own devices, and reading the sad story of the place can’t offer any real pleasure. But I think it’s good for us to confront such realities, and so I thank you for the work you’ve done to date both to spark my own interest and to provide useful background to others.

    I don’t know if you have any intention to do more with your studies than blog about them here, but it does seem that you’ve developed a great deal of knowledge on the place, as well as on other places in the Caribbean, and I’d encourage you to spread your knowledge around elsewhere to the extent you can. The response in this country following the latest Haitian earthquake showed how naive most people are about the place, and so people with knowledge such as you’ve developed can make a useful contribution to clearing the air. The “analytic model” cited above seems to have a strong hold at least in some of academia, but the history of Haiti seems to me like one place where the “analytic model” being propounded by Lawless and his ilk is just too far divorced from the evident reality of the country to prevail if the actual facts are simply presented, as you’ve done in this series of postings.

    At any rate, thanks much for your series of postings on the Caribbean; you’ll have at least one reader who follows them with great interest.

  3. How to make Spike Lee happy: send him on a one way trip to Haiti so he doesn’t have to bitch about the neighbor hood being gentrified! Bwahahaha!

  4. Lawless is one more example of liberal ideology at work. When confronted by the failure of liberalism to produce the desired results, he engages in an orgy of self-flagellation, blaming white people for black failure. But why would he assume that if it were not for “imperialism,” Haiti would be a “developed” country? There seems to be some faith that because white countries industrialized in the 19th century, and East Asians followed suit in the 20th, that this model works globally.

    But what reason is there to hold this assumption at all? It just may be that only a small sector of the world is going to become “modern” while the majority are going to continue in poverty, disease and squalor. When faced with an unpleasant reality, liberals invent the most bizarre fantasy worlds.

    Let’s assume Lawless is correct. It’s all the fault of “imperialism.” Does that means in some alternative universe in which there was no “imperialism” that Haiti would now be a second or first world country (instead of a failed state)? What evidence does he present that such a thing would happen? Where has such a thing happened with a black majority rule country in Africa? Or a black majority rule city in America? (And yes, there are some minor exceptions.)

    Of course, he has no evidence other than an irrational faith in liberalism.

    Interesting, is it not, how liberals can mock religious people for believing in spiritual matters, yet themselves exist in a delusional world.

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