By Robert Lawless
Schenkman Books, Inc. 1992
ISBN # 0-87047-060-4 Cloth
ISBN # 0-87047-061-2 Paper

Reviewed by Bob Corbett

This is both one of the most useful and informative books I've ever read on Haiti, while being one of the most exasperating and aggravating books at the same time!

Lawless is concerned with foreign images of Haiti, especially American and British ones. He is wedded to a neat and useful theory which separates beliefs into "folk models" of the world and "analytic models." The folk models are views we hold which are not very carefully or critically examined, and are deeply rooted in unthinking tradition. Analytic models are scientific models which are carefully constructed, criticized and constantly updated.

Lawless holds that most writing about Haiti, especially many of the important formative books of the 18th and 19th century were written within the folk models of the authors, which included racism, a belief in Western superiority and featured a general denigration of most things Haitian, especially the Voodoo religion. Lawless knows the literature about Haiti, and writes with authority and incredible breadth and knowledge of sources.

However, it's as though Lawless assumes a position that all's perfectly wonderful and well with Haiti and that any negative criticism is false, racist, or ill considered. At one point he even apologizes profusely for finding fault with the regime of Papa Doc Duvalier.

The umbrella of Lawless' ideology is a value neutral multiculturalism. He argues one position with which I can concur wholly -- that a culture must be seen from within the values and traditions of that culture itself. But, where I cannot agree with Lawless is that virtually anything that goes on within a culture, and particularly Haiti, is simply wonderful since it comes from Haitian people.

I've been to Haiti too many times and seen the incredible suffering there to believe that all aspects of Haitian culture are so wonderful. If this makes me culturally insensitive, a racist, a boob who only follows some unwise "folk model" of culture, well then so be it. I'll accept all those negative judgements of Lawless and try to survive.

This does not mean that I don't think much of Lawless' critique is brilliant and correct. I do. His chapter on the treatment of AIDS in Haiti is quite provocative and very useful. He shows how uncritical news media, guided by previous unsubstantiated attitudes toward Haiti, accepted a view that was not justified by the facts.

In a similar fashion he defends Voodoo from the worst negative images that Hollywood and early sensationalist literature paints of it. But, perhaps this Voodoo example can illustrate my objections to Lawless -- namely that he paints with too broad a brush. I, too, have been most sympathetic to Haitian Voodoo in my writings in STRETCH magazine. The common public images of Voodoo are the sheerest nonsense. It is a serious religion, and tries, as any religion does, to help people organize and understand their lives. However, this does not mean that Voodoo does not contain theories and practices which are contributory to the misery of Haiti. I think any careful analysis of Voodoo will show that it does, particularly a rather fatalistic attitude toward the role of the lwa in people's lives. This is the same sort of criticism that Karl Marx made of Christianity -- that's it's theories turned people's minds too much away from how they could take control of their lives and struggle against their own misery. I doubt very much if Lawless' concept of political correctness would offer the same criticisms of Marx that he does of the observers of Haitian Voodoo.

In my own work and teaching on Voodoo I've tried to avoid what I find are the excesses in Lawless' approach. My own reasons for being quite positive toward Voodoo and soft peddling any negative criticism are different from Lawless'. I argue that at this time in their history the Haitian people are struggling against many enemies -- a long history of oppressive governments, a steady stream of international interference, a devastating system of agriculture and land management, a killing system of land ownership, a shockingly insensitive sycophantic elite and so on. Among these factors it has always seemed to me that the negative features of Voodoo are small change. (By negative features I mean ones which encourage a material lifestyle which has more suffering in it than is likely without these encouragements to inactivity.)

Additionally, Haitians suffer a horrible self-image and struggle to get out from under an overwhelming system of oppression. But, they are fighting now in the 1990s in a way they haven't fought in many generations. Thus, in this milieu it seems to me that it is counter-productive to emphasize the negative images of Voodoo rather than the positive.

My own belief is that Lawless is guided by an ideological bias that says one should compensate for the negative and false images of Haiti portrayed by the media and many foreign writers of Haiti, by denying all negative descriptions. I would much prefer a system of reporting that sticks with accurate reporting of facts, and, when value judgements are made, defends them with arguments for why one uses these judgments. Lawless, himself, in his informed analysis of many important historical records from the 1700 to 1900s seems to disprove any negative reporting by citing some positive report of the same period. This really doesn't help us know which, if either, report was correct.

Lawless recognizes this problem. In places he argues the very strong position that all reports which precede modern anthropological methods (what Lawless calls the analytic model of cultural analysis) are worthless. However, in other places he uses those earlier models (folk models) which he likes in order to criticize or dismiss those he doesn't like. I think one can't have it both ways. If folk models are to be dismissed as too unscientific, too impressionistic and so on, then the ones that fit one's own bias can't be used to support those one doesn't like.

However, I would argue that Lawless is too hard on these early accounts (both those generally favorable to Haiti and those not). Lawless is perfectly correct. Many writers display an appalling bias, and that can be clearly seen in the way they write about Haiti. These biases should be noted and the vision of Haiti in their books corrected by us critics in the retelling. But, it doesn't follow that all observations they make are equally worthless. This depends on the facts of the case. When we don't have other data how do we get the facts of the case? Certainly one manner is to compare and contrast and study older texts, trying to find common features which seem to survive our critical attitudes, or to find claims that can be checked against other data. Lawless seems to me to be too ready to chuck out anything that doesn't fit his model -- a model which seems to say "Any negative comment is false."

In general Lawless' thesis is quite correct and the book attacks the roots of various myths about Haiti. What bothers me is that he seems to exaggerate his case and to forget that not everyone who writes (or simply lives for that matter) is doing so for scholarly purposes. It would seem to me that one judges a piece of writing in part by the intention of the writer. Some of the "touristy" writings are indeed impressionistic and written with a careful eye on the market. That's not the best way to uncover profound insight or truth, but it is it's own reason for being.

I guess what bothers me in Lawless' approach is his all or nothing approach. At one point he does a provocative and very useful analysis of Sir Spencer St. John's notorious book, HAYTI OR THE BLACK REPUBLIC, published in 1884. This is a paradigm case of what racism and cultural elitism is all about. However, in the same section he criticizes a journalist writing in the 1980s who writes: "A band was playing exuberant, drum-filled music; on a large platform, couples were dancing with an elegance and eroticism that would shame most American discos." (p. 68). I must say, I've seen scenes exactly like the journalist describes and had the same feelings. It seems to me that the journalist's description is a far cry from Loederer's description which Lawless cites just a couple of lines earlier: "Rhythm and the dance are probably the single most pressing need in the organism of the Negro in his primitive state." (p. 68).

The exasperation for me is that Lawless treats the two claims as though they are of exactly the same order. Loederer's claim is a universal judgment of a people; the journalist's an observation of an experience he witnessed and compared with his experience of American discos.

Despite this problem I have with what seems to me an attempt to cram too many things into too small a bottle, the book is one not to be missed. Lawless' first book on Haiti (which was reviewed in an earlier STRETCH), was his wonderful research handbook. Now he follows up with a sort of lengthy annotation many famous sources, all analyzed in terms of his views of the impact on Haiti; an impact that he believes creates a false and negative image of Haiti.

I don't disagree at all with Lawless' general thesis, it is simply that he seems to approach it all from a platform of the holier-than-thou scholar who has an all-saving method which should be applied to all writing, no matter what sort. It comes off as very arrogant.

HAITI'S BAD PRESS features extremely useful sections on AIDS in Haiti, the racist views people have had, and the manner of exploitation against Haiti, among other important material. No one who is interested in Haiti will want to miss this book, but if you're at all like me you'll want a hand full of Tylenol close at hand as you read.


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Bob Corbett corbetre@webster.edu