Monday, January 25, 2010
Hope For Haiti When?
So far, the count is $58 million. That's how much has been raised by this past Friday's "Hope For Haiti Now" telethon. The event was impossible to ignore. Every major television network broadcast it, and if you had even a basic cable package, then your options were somewhere around twenty channels.
To be sure, $58 million is an impressive amount. More than that, it's a record for any televised event of its kind, and it's also proof that ordinary people in this and other nations of the developed world don't have hearts made of stone. In the wake of the 7.0 earthquake that rocked the small nation earlier this month, this number flies in the face of the notion that ordinary people are fundamentally selfish in the face of an unimaginable disaster.
Having a bevy of celebrities and music stars on the telethon's side doesn't hurt either. George Clooney managed to assemble a list that was quite impressive: Justin Timberlake, Madonna, Bono and the Edge, Sheryl Crow, Jennifer Hudson, Bruce Springsteen, Mary J. Blige, Taylor Swift, Sting, Beyonce, Jay-Z, and the list goes on. Put that lineup on a flier, and you'll have enough notice to raise more than a few bucks.
But a question bears asking: how much of this large sum will be actually making it to the people of Haiti? As the death toll from the earthquake seems to climb ever higher, it's apparent that real aid is undeniably needed. News from the country itself, however, reveals that what has been coming its way looks more like a military occupation than anything resembling help.
The presence of the US' "stabilization force" has actually meant that barely a fraction of the aid headed to Haiti has actually gotten into people's hands. As American activist Ashley Smith wrote, "the US is using its position of power to impose its control over the country and impede relief efforts, turning away planes from Doctors Without Borders, the Mexican government and the Caribbean Community and Common Market."
Some, like "The Daily Show"'s John Stewart, might insist that "now's not the time" to bring up politics. But if not now, when? If politics aren't mentioned now, then who will in the end speak for the Haitian people who are asking the world for help and instead having guns shoved in their face?
The effectiveness of the funds raised by "Hope For Haiti Now" are probably best reflected in the foundations the show was designed to benefit. And truthfully, it's a mixed bag. The beneficiaries of the telethon were a mish-mash of genuine grassroots organizations and corporate-funded charities who have a history of bowing to the orders of the US military. Partners In Health, an organization that has worked on the ground in Haiti for twenty years, and puts an emphasis on coupling healthcare with economic justice, can certainly use the funds. The same could be said for Doctors Without Borders.
Other charities, however, raise a few eyebrows. For starters, there's the Clinton Bush Haiti Fund. Anyone who remembers Clinton's strongarming of the Haitian government during the '90s or the denial of Haitian refugees into the United States, not to mention Bush's own mishandling of Katrina, should definitely question whether these two former presidents have the nation's best interests at heart. In fact, given the current roadblocks that the US military has put on the flow of aid into the country, it's seriously worth wondering whether any of the funds collected by these two commanders in chief will reach the people of Haiti at all.
This kind of blatant contradiction was on display throughout the entire night's performances. Bruce Springsteen's version of "We Shall Overcome" was a moment that couldn't help but remind viewer of the magnetic power this song has carried for the oppressed struggling against all odds. On the opposite end of the Boss' humble simplicity stood the arrogant Kiplingisms of Bono and the Edge. And everywhere in between, I frequently found myself the same dumbfounded question, but with a different name inserted ("what the hell is Shakira doing there?" "what the hell is Coldplay doing there?" etc). All too often, one got the feeling that most performers were there to assuage some sense of Hollywood liberal guilt rather than draw attention to the Haitian people.
In fact, for a benefit meant to drum up sympathy for ordinary Haitians, there were perplexingly few Haitian musicians performing that night! The real tragedy of this is that Haiti is a nation with a rich and varied musical history, one of the places where European, African and Indigenous sounds first collided. What could have been an opportunity to reveal the unique intertwining of different cultures through history was squandered, and in the end only reinforced the notion that Haitians themselves were little more than set pieces for this telethon.
As Jesse Lemisch wrote on the website for New Politics:
"Clooney's telethon gave us Anderson Cooper patting on the heads of little black children who had been pulled from the rubble, expressing genuine affection for them but offering a classic tableau of white paternalism... But most notable was the relative absence of Haiti itself from the music and sets (missing the color and wonder of Haitian art), conveying the accurate impression that this was something done for rather than by Haitians."
And then, there was Wyclef Jean. Aside from Jean and Emeline Michel's brilliant version of Jimmy Cliff's "Many Rivers to Cross," Wyclef was pretty much the only Haitian presence onstage in a lineup of well over twenty acts. Indeed, he was one of the night's emcees. This in and of itself speaks volumes about the telethon's contradictions. By mixing Afro-Caribbean rhythms with hip-hop and R&B, Wyclef has probably done more than any other musician to expose the world to Haitian music. This does not, however, mean that he stands in the interests of the slum-dwellers and toilers in Port-au-Prince.
Far from it. Wyclef Jean comes from one of the most affluent and well-connected families in Haiti. His uncle, Raymond Joseph, is currently Haiti's ambassador to the United States, and is working hand in glove with the Obama administration to ensure that as few refugees get into the US as possible. In the days directly following the quake, Wyclef released a public statement demanding that the American military invade his country.
But then, this isn't the first time that the musician has sucked up to US interests. Back in 2004, in the weeks leading up to the undemocratic ouster of President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, Wyclef used his musical bully pulpit to demand the president step down despite Aristide's persistent public support among ordinary Haitians (which was pretty much the line of the Bush administration). His uncle Raymond, prior to becoming ambassador, had also operated Haiti Observateur, a right-wing newspaper that had beaten the drums against Aristide since the early '90s and publicly supported the death squads murdering supporters of the president.
All of this might lend some credence to the allegations of misused funds leveled last week against Wyclef's Yele Haiti Foundation (another beneficiary of the telethon). But of course, none of this was mentioned last Friday. Politics of any kind were conspicuously absent. No questions about how the $58 million will be spent. No talk of how the illegitimate and ineffective Haitian government is a product of US intervention. And nobody dared speak up to say that if we really want to help the people of Haiti, then we should demand the IMF forgive the country's debt and pay reparations.
In essence, "Hope For Haiti Now" displayed the stark difference between charity and solidarity, between throwing a beggar a few coins and standing with him shoulder to shoulder. The world's attention is pulled toward Haiti right now, and any artist or activist who cares enough to speak the truth will have a wide audience. But Clooney and company couldn't put any of them onstage. Doing so might reveal that the boots currently on the backs of the Haitians are keeping all of us down too.
This article first appeared at the Society of Cinema and Arts website.