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#1379: The Phrase "Haiti is the poorest country....'' Colon shares Dreyfuss comments

From: Yves Colon <ycolon@mindspring.com>

Joel Dreyfuss last month wrote this wonderful column on The Phrase for the
Haitian Times, which I think answers your question. I thought I'd share it
with you and the others on the list.



I call it “The Prase’’ and it comes up almost anytime Haiti is mentioneed in
the news. The Poorest Nation in the Western Hemisphere. There seven words
represent a classic example of something absolutely true and absolutely
meaningless at the same time.
On a recent trip to Haiti, I asked a young journalist working for an
international news organization why The Phrase always appeared in her
stories. “Even when I don’t put it in,’’ she confided, “the editors add it
to the story.’’
The Phrase is a box, a metaphorical prison. If Haiti is the poorest country
in the Western Hemisphere, that fact is supposed to everything in context.
Wehy we have such suicidal politics. Why we have such selfish politicians.
Why we suffer so much misery. Why our people brave death on the high seas to
wash up on the shores of Florida.
After all, in thiss age where an advocacy of free markets is a substitutefor
foreign policy and Internet billioinaires are created by the minute, being
poor automatically makes you suspect. You must have some moral failing, some
fatal flaw, some cultural blindness to not be prosperous. And what applied
to the individual also applies to entire countries.
In my parents’ generation, more than a few middle-class Haitians tried to
deny that poverty back home was so prevalent. When I heard older haitians
stammer and obuject to the characterization, I wondered if they were trying
to put Haiti’s best foot forward, or just trying to convince themselves.
Of course, the poverty was not always as obvious as it is now, having moved
from the countryside into Port-au-Prince so that it spills into the main
thoroughfares and the fashionable neighborhoods. Too many of us Diasporates,
having the advantage of distance to confront the truths our Haiti, would not
even consider denying the desperate state of our poor brethren.
But The Phrase still grates with us because it also denies so much else
about Haiti: our art, our music, our rich Afro-Euro-American culture. It
denies the humanity of Haitians, the capacity to survive, to overcome, even
to triumph over this poverty – a historical experience we share with so many
other in this same Western Hemisphere.
The Second American Invasion cast a harsh media spotlight on Haiti. The
first black Republic got more attention from the powerful news organizations
of the West than it ever had in its history. But that scrutiny was
ultimately disappointing. We learned once again that coverage is not the
same as understanding. The Phrase became an easy out for reporters
confronting the complexities they could barely begin to plumb.
What a difference it would have been if American, or French, or British
journalists had looked through the camera at their audience and declared,
“Yes, this is a poor country, but it has also produced great art – like
Ireland or Portugal. Yes, this poor country has suffered brutal government
and yet produced great writers and scholars – like Russia or Brazil. Yes,
many of Haiti’s most downtrodden have fled – and achieved more success in
exile than they ever would at home – like the Jews in America or the
Palestinians in the Middle East.’’
Such statements would have linked Haiti to the rest of the World. They would
have it less mysterious, less unsolvable, less exotic. But then, that really
wasn’t the purpose of most reporting about Haiti over the last few years.
Keeping the veil over the island was easier than trying to understand
factions and divisions and mistrust and history. And it gave America an out
if the intervention failed.
So foreign journalists fell back on The Phrase. It was shorthand. It was
neat. And it told the world nothing about Haiti that it didn’t already know.

-----Original Message-----
From: Robert Corbett <bcorbett@netcom.com>
To: Haiti mailing list <haiti@lists.webster.edu>
Date: Monday, December 13, 1999 9:02 PM
Subject: #1358: Fires rages in Haitian city of Jeremie - Antoine comments

>From: Guy Antoine <gstenio@sprintmail.com>
>The fire in Jeremie is a tragedy and is dutifully reported by Reuters,
>and I am grateful for their coverage.  As an aside, I have a comment
>of a different sort to make.  The Reuters report ends with the phrase:
>"Jeremie is the fifth largest  city in Haiti, the poorest nation in the
>Western Hemisphere".  I do not mean to target Reuters especially
>for this practice, because nearly 100% of ALL the stories I have read
>from ALL foreign wire services, on any subject whatsoever, seem
>obliged to embed "Haiti, the poorest country in the Western
>Hemisphere" somewhere in the text.  I suspect that without that
>obligatory phrase the story just would not cut it.
>Now I am a realist, and far from me the thought of denying Haiti's
>abject physical poverty.  Please spare me the comments to the
>effect that Haiti will stop getting that label when it is no longer
>"the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere".  That is more
>than obvious.  What I want to discuss is something else entirely.
>What I would like to ask members of this list is whether in their
>opinion there are pernicious effects from such standard labeling.
>Obviously, the fact that "Haiti is the poorest country in the Western
>Hemisphere" is no longer news, unless one has never read more
>than one news story about Haiti or never heard a TV news report.
>It is not news, it is a label.  I cannot think of other countries in the
>world that have labels so uniformly, so predictably, so automatically
>attached to their name.  I know that in a family of several children,
>where one of the children is fatter than all the others, it would not
>be recommended for everyone to refer to Joe at every turn as
>"Joe, the fattest of the Antoine children" (I don't have a son called
>Joe by the way).  Imagine if Joe's parents, his siblings, his teachers,
>his classmates, and everyone else always followed that practice.
>For instance:
>"Today, Joe came home after class, and he found nobody home.
>Joe is the fattest of the Antoine children," or "Last summer, Joe
>went on a fishing trip with his Dad, who is an immigrant from Haiti.
>Joe is the fattest of the Antoine children, and Haiti is the poorest
>country in the Western Hemisphere."
>I just wonder about such labeling practices.  Are they warranted?
>Do they have pernicious effects on nations as they would have on
>individuals?  I am not accusing, I would just like to know.
>Again, to those who would answer that it is a fact, don't bother.  If
>I had not learned that after a zillion times... ... ...
>Guy S. Antoine
>Look thru & Imagine!