There are many reasonable people (and even some otherwise unreasonable ones) who would maintain that Pat Robertson’s take on the recent earthquake in Haiti need not be dignified with a response. I understand that point, and I see where its adherents are coming from. But we are fooling ourselves if we think that Robertson’s position represents an isolated analytical island way off somewhere by itself, with no implications for the rest of us. We ignore him at our own peril, especially since there are many people (“religious” or not) who accept his basic premises without question. So, I do feel like a few words are in order about the significance of his supernatural claims about divine justice.
One thing to note is that the political “fringe” is no longer as fringe as it might once have seemed. I received about 10 messages (via Twitter, e-mail, and Facebook) about Robertson’s comments within a few hours of him making them. I’ve also seen his thoughts discussed on several cable-news programs on several different channels more than just a few times in the last day and a half. His comments have gone viral, and it means that “dignified” or not, they are circulating quite widely already.
If you are still one of the few people who haven’t heard it, Robertson argues that 18th- and early 19th-century Haitians were able to throw off the chains of race-based slavery and colonial dependency by (literally!) making a pact with the devil. As a function of that Faustian bargain, they have been cursed by God, which explains their history of violence and their contemporary degree of poverty.
I got the surreal news (via text message) about the Haitian disaster on an Amtrak train from Washington, D.C. to Philadelphia Tuesday evening (after attending the AAA symposium on race that I blogged about on Monday). And it just so happens that I was reading, in an almost eerie kind of irony, a small new book by Susan Buck-Morss during that train ride, Hegel, Haiti, and Universal History.
The book is an extrapolation on her Critical Inquiry article (from 2000) where she tried to argue that Hegel got his master-slave metaphor from the Haitian revolution, and that such a seemingly clear and self-evident historical fact has been sorely under-appreciated (in fact, missed just about entirely) by the best and brightest philosophers and historians who have worked on Hegel. She chalks these omissions up to a series of factors, including the narrowcast biases of disciplinization and academic specialization. Buck-Morss maintains that the early Hegel was clearly influenced and inspired by the Haitian revolt (championing the psychic need for slaves to forcibly reclaim their full humanity by asserting it in the face of brutal reprisals), even if the later Hegel (of The Philosophy of History) ends up dismissing all of Africa as radically ahistorical, uncivilized, and unprepared for full sovereignty.
In many ways, Robertson’s pseudo-religious reading of the Haitian tragedy is a sensationalized version of the very logics that Buck-Morss critiques.
I call it “pseudo-religious” because I think of Robertson’s comments as self-serving political claims hiding behind the cloak of religiosity. Of course, religion is inescapably political, but Robertson’s own religious texts don’t provide evidence for such wildly specific and offensive claims of Satanic collusion. On what evidence, from what sacred book, does Robertson base his theory of Haitian history (or any of his past pronouncements, including the “argument” that 9/11 was divine retribution for America’s legalization of abortion)? Is he merely performing a xenophobic reading of Voodoo’s spiritual difference from his particular version of Christianity?
Instead of seeing 18th- and 19th-century Haitian freedom fighters as subjects of history, agents capable of throwing off the shackles of foreign oppression (in a manner similar to America’s 18th-century revolutionists, a group that I’ve never heard him call lapdogs of Satan), Robertson removes them from the political and geopolitical playing field altogether, dismissing their post-revolutionary plight as comeuppance for a bad deal with the devil. About that theory, two last things:
First, I would recommend that Robertson read Randall Robinson’s An Unbroken Agony: Haiti, from Revolution to the Kidnapping of a President, which shows, quite compellingly, that Haiti’s current politico-economic predicament is a direct result of how Europe and the United States responded to the country’s 1804 assertion of autonomy: by very purposefully isolating and exploiting Haiti (politically and economically) for the next two hundred years. Therein lies much of the answer, Robinson demonstrates, to Haiti’s current woes. (The details he provides, mostly uncontested and unhidden facts of history, will be shocking to many readers).
Second, if the Satan theory is accurate, I would ask that Robertson finally let them out of their contract with him. As a function of the kinds of horrible and inhumane ideas he spews, Robertson must be the other contractual party of which he speaks. It would explain how he knows so much about such a secret compact.