Wednesday, January 27, 2010

I Award You No Points

Dear people whom used to occasionally read the middling nonfiction of Paul Shirley and, like me, tend to enjoy unsentimental contrarian points of view:

Like many of you, I spend a lot of time perusing the Internets. Last night was no different. Well, except that I kept my pants on the whole time. Shortly before 8 p.m., I slouched on the couch. My netbook sat open on the living room table and the Knicks game played on the television. As the Knicks did their very best to make up for being thoroughly debacled by Dirk Nowiztki and the Dallas Mavericks on Sunday afternoon (and with a 25-point first quarter lead over Minnesota they were already doing a fine job), I stopped by Deadspin. The first thing I noticed was the picture of US soccer player Charlie Davies lounging and beaming at some casino. Davies’ speedy recovery from a car accident that left him physically shattered (broken bones in legs, arm and face) and another passenger dead is flat-out amazing. But, I digress. I’m not writing you to discuss such a positive and uplifting story. I’m writing you, dear friends, to talk about the NBA washout and sometimes ESPN columnist who thinks that Roberto Clemente was a chump. I’m writing you about Paul Shirley’s screed against Haiti and those who feel compelled to send aid in the aftermath of the devastating earthquake that struck just outside the island nation’s capital earlier this month.

Barry Petchesky’s post on Deadspin directed me to Shirley’s original editorial at FlipCollective as well as to Shirley’s Twitter page, where he had responded to a few followers who had left less than complimentary reviews his story. In one response, Shirley called out an early critic for not carefully crafting a 2,000-word response. Well, Mr. Shirley’s intellectually vapid, factually misleading and emotionally bullying words were stuck in my head. As was his Twittered request. And, I ended up at my desk late into the night typing away just the sort of reasoned rebuttal that Shirley claimed to be looking for. But rather than send it to him. I want to share it with all of you. Especially with those you who have enjoyed his work and be inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt or trust his assertions.

Shirley opens up his essay, entitled If You Rebuild It, They Will Come, with, what he announces to be, a provocative statement. He informs his readers that he is not planning on donating any money or time to the crisis in Haiti. He then equates donating money to aid in the immediate saving of lives in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake that struck mere miles from Haiti's most densely-populated urban center to giving spare change to a homeless man on the street. Shirley’s comparison presumably implies that all the homeless are created equal and that all are to blame for their condition. Which is why it would be foolish to give them any money. I think. This sort of generalization and willful ignorance of the role that circumstance plays in our lives characterizes much of writing that follows. Bearing this in mind, the piece de resistance of Shirley’s editorial is his personal letter addressed “Dear Haitians.”
First of all, kudos on developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Your commitment to human rights, infrastructure, and birth control should be applauded. As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it’s possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?
The Rest of the World

In his message to the people of Haiti, Shirley explicitly blames them for actively “developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere.” It would seem that he believes the minor and major players in Haitian history plotted an exact course from the Eighth Day of Genesis right through midday January 12, 2010, at which point their entire poorly-planned scheme backfired thanks to an earthquake in Port-Au-Prince that they should have seen coming when their ancestors were forcefully relocated their centuries ago. Again, Shirley exhibits a steadfast belief that we all control our environments and our destiny to a degree that makes us largely blame for what happens to us. Even natural disasters. In other words, did you see what she was wearing? She was totally asking for it.

Early on, Shirley makes it clear to his readers that he is far too clever for sympathy and empathy. He will not be duped out of $10 via text message by such Hallmark-peddled emotions. Fair enough. Perhaps the psychological concept of Just-World Phenomenon is highbrow enough for him to fall prey to, though. Just-World Phenomenon is the fallacy held by some who make value judgments based on the false assumption that everyone gets what they deserve, that the individual largely determines his or her own circumstances and fate. Essentially, this is the worldview of a naïve person who thinks the world is a fair place for everyone. This is a way of viewing the world that allows you to blame ALL poor people for their plight. This is the sort of mindset that causes one to assume that all homeless people are as morally bankrupt as they are fiscally bankrupt.

Perhaps Mr. Shirley’s preposterous—and I don’t mean that as an insult because I'm rather impressed—propensity to fail upward has led him to believe that each of us live lives whose possibilities and limits are defined by our actions alone. That Fate is a benevolent force rewarding the just and punishing the wicked. Where birthplace, economic strata and local custom play no role in defining our options. If there was ever a place on this earth to disprove those who believe in the Just-World Phenomenon then that place is Haiti.

For the sake of Mr. Shirley, let’s trace a brief history of Haiti. The nation of Haiti is one half of the island of Hispaniola, which was discovered by Christopher Columbus when he was poking around over here in the late fifteenth century. He claimed the land for Spain. A bit down the road, as the geopolitical fortunes of Spain suffered, the island became a French colony. And it was booming, producing tons of revenue and a top travel destination for slaves being imported from Africa. There was rampant deforestation on the small island as room was cleared for cash crops like sugar and coffee and housing for the enormous slave population. The ecosystem was not a concern to the small ruling class who presided over the commerce and the ever-growing slave population. Just a short boat trip to the north sat twelve British colonies. The citizens of these colonies were free white men (and those guys owned slaves of their own). Led by George Washington and Thomas Jefferson, among others, these colonists declared independence from their British overlords and waged a war to secure their freedom. They won. But they kept their slaves. Obvi. A few years after the Americans won their independence,there was a bloody decade-long revolution in France. The common people rose up against the Ancien Regime. Revolution was most certainly in the air as the eighteenth century came to a close. And the trade winds brought the fresh air of freedom to Haiti. The island was overwhelmingly populated by slaves. And they yearned for freedom. Led by peasants-turned-generals and fueled by the same ideals that had been lionized in the newly formed United States of America and the recently enlightened France, the Haitians won their freedom in 1804. Yeah, they beat Napoleon. On their own. Because the US declined requests for aid. After all, nobody in US wanted slaves in the southern states to get any ideas.

The Haitians hard-fought victory, won after years of bloody conflict, is the only successful slave revolt in the modern world. The triumph created the first free black republic. In the aftermath of the war, France, reeling from the loss of its cash-cow colony, sent the Haitians a bill and demanded payment. The bill was for themselves. And the US was all like, “yeah, you’re going to have to pay that if you ever want your sovereignty acknowledged” The Haitian people were then forced to reparations for themselves! Because, you see, the French budget was all mussed up without the free work being provided by their Haitian slaves. Somebody must pay! Just think about that. Keep thinking. And, I haven’t even mentioned that the fledgling Haitian government was forced to take on loans at unsympathetic interest rates just to pay their “debt” to France. 80% of the national budget in Haiti was still allocated to making these payments in 1900. They didn’t finish paying off the debt until 1947. By then the economy was ruined, the politics were corrupt and many of the problems that Shirley blames today's Haitian people for were already rampant. The second half of the 20th century included various dictators and coups and near-constant meddling from the US Government who promoted our own economic and military interests at the expense of the development and independence of the local people. There is a long list of native trouble makers who took advantage of the situation as well as a long list of idealists who tried to make the country a better place. But long story short, Haiti is about as fucked a place as you’ll find. Ever. Anywhere. From George Washington and Napoleon to Papa Doc, there have been a lot of cooks in the kitchen as this particularly noxious stew was cooked up. Yet, Shirley blames the Haitians alive right now (or dead only recently) for the circumstances in the country. Yeah. Ok. So, I guess it’s Brook Lopez’s fault that the IZOD Center sucks?

Having established his reasons for not feeling sympathy about the people of Haiti—because this is all their fault—Shirley then moves on to his next misguided point. He rails against aiding the people suffering in Port-au-Prince by contributing money right now because their hometown was built on a fault line and such a location is not suitable for habitation, especially by so many people. When embarking on this misadventure, Shirley makes no distinction between immediate life-saving disaster relief being conducted by non-partisan groups like the Red Cross and a blank check being handed to a government bureaucrat behind closed doors. He envisions his donation being used to for business as usual in Haiti. Perhaps he doesn't grasp the magnitude of the devastation because he's altogether discounting the earthquake when talking about sending cash to this island. Parts of this rant may as well have been written last month. Actually, had they been written in December 2009 then some of this would make a lot more sense. But right now, today, people are dying and starving and in need of medical care.

And as far as his assertion that Port-au-Prince should not be rebuilt, maybe Shirley should take off his “logic-colored glasses” and realize that there is no reset button for history or geography. No one would have logically set up a lot of things exactly the way that they currently are. My girlfriend wouldn't be about to move to New Jersey if that wasn't where her boyfriend lived. And I surely wouldn’t allow a guy who uses the phrase “logic-colored glasses” to write professionally. I also wouldn’t have set up Haiti the way that it is currently composed. But that decision is not ours to make. And, it’s not for Haitians to make either. They were born there. I was born in New Jersey. Like everyone else on the earth, they were born into a civilization with established population centers. One such location, Port-au-Prince, happened to be on a fault line. But so are lots of other major urban centers. Lisbon was rocked in 1755 by an earthquake and then consumed by a tsunami and fires. Bucharest was leveled after a 5-minute quake in 1977. Mexico City was all messed up in 1985. Yet these places still exist. And, I don’t think that Shirley disapproves of their existence. Although I bet he's got a few choice things to say about Mexicans. Someone reading his article does get the impression that Shirley’s only problem with FEMA in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was that their feet dragging wasn’t done on purpose.

Ironically, Shirley was born in Redwood City, California (although he was raised in Kansas). This small city is located on the San Francisco Peninsula and is part of the Bay Area. A professor at UC Berkley first identified the San Andreas Fault line in 1895. It’s named after a small lake just south of San Francisco. You know what also lies south of San Francisco? You guessed it. Redwood City. Should Shirley’s birthplace be allowed to exist by his logic? Should San Francisco? After all, that city was famously leveled during an earthquake in 1906? And we all remember watching live footage of that quake that struck during the 1989 World Series being contested between Oakland and San Francisco. Who let those heathens rebuild? As Americans have rebuilt New Orleans in the years after Hurricane Katrina there has been an increased awareness of building stress-resistant structures and planning with deference for the wrath of Mother Nature. If Shirley actually put in the effort then he could have made an intellectually defensible point that was still shocking enough to draw some press. He might have tried something along the lines of the “Well, this earthquake and tragic loss of life is the best thing that ever happened to Haiti because now they’ll be forced to start from scratch.” But he doesn’t seem to conceive of Haitians rebuilding or improving their circumstances because he seems to deny them the capacity for this. Because they are, in his eyes, like the homeless: Completely responsible for their lot in life.

Aside irrationally blaming Haitians for being trapped under fallen buildings and lobbying for area of Port-au-Prince to be abandoned, the most maddening aspect of Shirley’s post is his conflation of my personal donation to Red Cross and a government-to-government aid transfusion were funds are allocated as Haitian officials see fit. He comprehends no distinction between humanitarian disaster relief and long term governmental aid programs. These things are very different. The Red Cross will keep someone alive tomorrow with money that I gave today. That is vital and noble. Any monies that the Haitian government gets from the US or the World Bank ten years from now or ten years ago could very well line the pockets of politicians. International aid is a tricky thing and corruption is rampant. But this is not a reason to avoid helping earthquake victims!

If Shirley took the time to make a distinction between avenues of aid then he could be writing about the flawed methodologies of international organizations and his contrarian desire to withhold the sort of aid least likely to work—as opposed withholding the aid that is saving lives right now—until outdated ideas are discarded. But he doesn’t really want anyone to give anything to anyone in need. Ever. Because it's likely the victim's fault. Because they’re poor. And they're stupid jerks. Stupid jerks who don’t use condoms. The “condom” remark toward the end of Shirley’s “Letter to the Haitians” provides perhaps the most telling moment of the entire article. Because it represents another chance to make a valid point about the politicization of foreign aid in Third World countries. But, Shirley either doesn’t know the history or doesn’t see the connection. Instead, he makes a joke. Man, those black people sure have a lot of babies! Oh! And a lot of AIDS! Snap! And, I know that we all love a good AIDS joke around the Internets but the problem here is the seething blame that he places on these people. Not once in this whole story does he ask “Why?” or “How?”

If he did, he might know that one reason (among many) that condom use is so low in countries receiving US aid is that for decades a certain block of our politicians have tried to curtail birth control use domestically and abroad. Since at least 1973, the US Government has refused to allow any foreign aid to be spent directly on abortions in any country and in 1984, Reagan instituted what is known as “the global gag rule, ”which forbids US aid to go to any hospital, clinic or organization that performs or even provides education about contraception. If a clinic wanted US help then they couldn't even TALK about condoms. During his presidency, Clinton lifted this rule [insert horny Clinton joke here] but Bush II propped it right back up again as he championed abstinence-only education at home and overseas. Sadly, one reason why so many people in underdeveloped countries like Haiti don’t use condoms is that our country has been limiting access to them. Add this to the fact that much international aid in places like Haiti comes directly from Christian charities who are ideologically opposed to contraception and suddenly it becomes somewhat more clear why there’s not a four-door sedan in every driveway and a condom on every dick.

If Shirley had done the slightest homework on the way in which ideology influences aid then he could have made yet another insightful and still contrarian argument for withholding aid in certain instances (or at least from giving via certain avenues), but he didn’t do that. He blamed the people who are standing in line for the water and bandages. There is undoubtedly a huge global struggle to figure out the best way to distribute aid to undeveloped countries. The clash between the immediate relief of giving a man a fish and the long-term relief of teaching a man to fish has yet to be reconciled. This is a huge problem. And, one that will hopefully be addressed as the international community switches gears from disaster relief to reconstruction in Haiti. The shallowness of his consideration is mind bottling. I'm not trying to champion the Haitian people are defend the pre-earthquake state of that country. Because that place was messed up. But it was messed up for a lot of reasons. What I am trying to do is say that Shirley did an absolutely terrible job with this wannabe-Hitchens screed because he didn't think any of his points through. He did a disservice to any reader who had come to trust him during his writing career. And, that's why we should not read another word this guy ever writes.

Well, because of all that stuff and because Shirley likely thinks Roberto Clemente was a chump. After all, the Hall of Fame outfielder died in a plane crash while delivering much-needed supplies to earthquake-ravaged Managua on Dec. 31 1973. And, why was Clemente on a plane on New Year’s Eve? Because Nicaragua was a mess at the time and there was much fear in the US that the aid was not reaching those who needed it most. So, what did Clemente, who was from Puerto Rico, do in the face of such circumstances? Did he see the existing corruption as a reason keep his offering from the collection plate? Nope. Did he see the good fortune in his own life as proof that we all get what we deserve? Nope. He saw the already fucked up circumstances and felt that they demanded even greater action. In memory of Clemente, please stop reading this guy.


The Rest of the World

PS: And, yes. I do know that I’m the fool for letting Shirley’s spotlight-grabbing contrarian ploy bother me. Who knows if he actually believes any of what he wrote. It’s entirely possible this is another savvy media play by a marginally-talented athlete with a modicum of writing skill who has managed to consistently fail upward. Still, I’ve thought twice and thrice and [insert word for seventeen times] about his post and I just can’t stand by when a writer with Shirley’s platform (he has published a book and writes wrote for ESPN)spreads gross misinformation to readers who may be inclined to assume his opinion is researched in the slightest. So, if he really wanted a 2,000-word rebuttal then I guess I was the guy for the job.


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