Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Exporting American-Style "Law and Order" to Imploded Postcolonial Cities, Haiti and Beyond

In his request to Congress to authorize American entry into World War I, Woodrow Wilson cast the war as a crusade "to make the world safe for democracy." A century later, this sort of rationale is an old standby for Presidents seeking to justify muscular calls for "law and order" both abroad and at home (tellingly, Wilson also called D.W. Griffith's paeans to the Ku Klux Klan as champions of law and order "history writ with lightning"). Some might argue that we’ve come a long way since Nixon’s (or Reagan’s) Southern Strategy, though cloaked racial appeals live on in talk of "real Americans" and have played a role in popular perceptions of the ongoing catastrophe in Haiti.

Any time that the problems of urban marginality are publicly exhibited, calls for self-critique and aid are soon drowned out by a clamor for “law and order” and ruthless crackdowns on miscreants (typically portrayed as poor, hostile, and dark-skinned) perceived to threaten order. When massive earthquakes struck Haiti earlier this year, media portrayals of looting panic seemed to outpace actual looting. These fears likely did more to slow delivery of aid than prevent property crimes, which were likely largely of necessity. The New Orleans example is illustrative here. Analysts have largely ignored deeper structural reasons for the devastation caused by the earthquake – such as the destruction of the Haitian food economy, largely driven by the intrusion of huge, heavily subsidized American agricultural interests often cast as aid. Instead, they’ve preferred to incite looting panic and valorize the individual efforts of predominantly rich, white, foreign interveners, at least until they go terribly wrong.

What is the theoretical apex of such "humanitarian" discourses and efforts? Now, neoliberal paragons, appealing to trickle-down economics and gated community logic, have begun to call on the U.S. and its economic peers to create enclaves of wealth and privilege in Haiti, imploring the country to grant special rights to foreign investors akin to deals that drove "development" in Hong Kong and Guantanamo Bay. The connection between crime and neoliberal economic success (which, for all but a few, is no success at all) is explicit: "[Poor countries'] leaders cannot make credible commitments to would-be investors. Rich nations use well-functioning systems of courts, police and jails, developed over centuries, to solve such problems." This call jells troublingly well with critiques of efforts to make over cities as playgrounds for the rich, driven by an increasingly barricaded, crime-obsessed "middle class." Paper over poverty or drive it out of the city and into the prisons.

More persuasive than this hollow, Wilsonian call for advancing prosperity, given what’s happened in New Orleans and what some hope to happen in Haiti, is sociologist Thorsten Veblen’s skewering of Gilded Age economic principles (principles which have enjoyed a great resurgence in the supply-side systems built over the past three decades, and which loom large in debates over what to do about poverty and violence). Only a few years later, while a roaring America bathed in the afterglow of Wilson’s claimed euphoria for spreading democracy, Veblen saw a different goal: "This is also what is meant by democracy in American parlance… democracy is best to be worked out by making the world safe for Big Business."

1 comment:

Ben said...

“When massive earthquakes struck Haiti earlier this year, media portrayals of looting panic seemed to outpace actual looting.” -- You know this how? To make this statement, I assume that you were in Haiti after the earthquake and witnessed this gross misrepresentation by the media.


“Analysts have largely ignored deeper structural reasons for the devastation caused by the earthquake – such as the destruction of the Haitian food economy, largely driven by the intrusion of huge, heavily subsidized American agricultural interests often cast as aid. Instead, they’ve preferred to incite looting panic and valorize the individual efforts of predominantly rich, white, foreign interveners, at least until they go terribly wrong.” -- You say nothing about the possibility of a corrupt government in Haiti, exploiting their own people, but only blame the rich, white foreign interveners, who I assume you are referring to ones in America. Maybe these rich, white, foreign interveners should have totally ignored Haiti. Would that have been okay in your mind?


“Now, neoliberal paragons, appealing to trickle-down economics and gated community logic, have begun to call on the U.S. and its economic peers to create enclaves of wealth and privilege in Haiti, imploring the country to grant special rights to foreign investors akin to deals that drove "development" in Hong Kong and Guantanamo Bay.” -- What would be your solution? “Wealth re-distribution” based on some socialist theory? Maybe we should just tell anyone with money to ignore Haiti. What’s wrong with someone trying to help others maybe getting something in return? Might get more money that way I bet.