Saturday, January 16, 2010

the devil. true story.

"Something happened a long time ago in Haiti, and people might not want to talk about it," he said on Christian Broadcasting Network's "The 700 Club." "They were under the heal [heel] of the French. You know, Napoleon the third, or whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said, we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story. And so, the devil said, okay it's a deal." [Pat Robertson via Ta-Nehisi Coates]

Ok, we all heard about that and were suitably outraged and embarrassed. There's a bit of a thing going on at The Atlantic's Coates' blog-- a blog I often find things to take issue with but continue to visit on occasion because it does provide interesting and smart discussion.

Coates posted about Robert Tabor's "A Qualified Defense of Pat Robertson." As Coates eventually points out, this article suffers from a misleading title. Besides a brief conciliatory note, which I don't think is hardly ever a bad thing and is, anyway Tabor's opinion, I don't find that Tabor is defending Robertson's intentions. He is instead explaining the background Robertson is drawing upon. It's a very interesting article on its own, just in terms of ideas and history, and gives a brief focused primer on Haiti's political woes. It's well-written and most importantly, it provides a description of what needs to be thought about when viewing Robertson's as-usual nasty remarks.

I take issue with people's reactions to the article. Many are quite nasty themselves, saying that the history and information Tabor's article contains is irrelevant or shouldn't be mentioned if it is used to cast a wider, more revealing but not necessarily more negative light on Robertson.

Both these objections represent the same frightening strength of uninformed opinions. I don't understand how revealing further information about a comment is irrelevant. I agree that Robertson should be criticized, but he must be criticized using as much information as possible to do so. Simply dismissing his statement as loony racist pseudo-Christian babble is, Tabor has proven, not the entire truth. It is the result of a loony racist pseudo-Christian's ideas, but it not itself only something PR dreamed up. Robertson is using information to misinform, a very smart piece of demagoguery because the tiny kernel of fact present, however distorted it eventually becomes, tends to make for even more convincing and thus more dangerous arguments for those willing to believe something.

I think people are upset that Tabor didn't offer anything that outright refuted or proved Robertson wrong. This is obviously not something he chose, and Tabor is doing a favor for those who would rather lazily wholesale dismiss Robertson's comments based on their admittedly warranted dislike of him. Tabor is helping people form informed opinions, vital to any dialogue that is going to get anywhere. Tabor is providing context that anybody who wishes to form criticisms must take into account if they want to create a strong and solid counter-argument. Vitriol only gets you so far, and it tends to bring any and all opinions, no matter how diverse, to about the same muddy place to spin your wheels in.

Coates is smarter than me. This is obvious and so I think I may be misunderstanding what he is saying here:
What really got me, and perhaps too much, was the idea that the history--while very important--offered any kind of defense of Robertson. Suffice to say, I still believe that, and I still stand by my point about the generous reading.

I am not sure about this. The history Tabor provides is the background. It is not defending what he said or what he meant. It is showing that Robertson is not making shit up all on his own, but that he is distorting things. And again that is his real crime, taking something and using it to misinform. Tabor is allowing people to not be misinformed, because those who think Robertson pulled it out of his ass (which thought until I read Tabor's piece-- when I, funnily, caught up with Pat Robertson re: some aspect of Haiti's history, distorted or not) are just as misinformed as those who believe he is telling the historically accurate truth-- in any aspect history is not just "very important," it is critical. Which Coates does say in the same post: "As I told Robert, and I think as was clear in the thread, I certainly do not object to anything that helps clarify the history and origins of Haiti. It's important to understand. Pat Robertson's ugliness aside, I think, as one commenter said, the good thing is we've all been a little enlightened here." History isn't the core of the argument, but it is still vital information.

But is Coates also saying that no context should be given if it makes Roberston look a little less. . . crazier than usual? Because that's what some of the more hysterical comments on all the posts mentioned here are saying, and I find it hard to believe that Coates agrees. But regardless what he's saying, others are saying it. It's a dangerous thing to deny history when you disagree with it. We all know that and all the easy examples of why this is so are found in the last 100 years, which gives us some nice material evidence that is harder to locate the further back in time you go, for example Haiti at the end of the 18th century with an educated non-native elite. See also, Timothy Snyder's article "The Holocaust: The Ignored Reality" for a description of the problems with relatively recent history (again despite the existence of a greater amount of primary, some still living, sources) and how it has been distorted, to history and to its victims loss, by cherrypicking facts.

I appreciate that Coates has provided a forum for mostly reasonable exchange. (Though not quite so in his original post, which contains some odd assertions.*)He is eventually very gracious towards Tabor, who provides a good clarification of what he was writing, and it is good to see a space online for that kind of interaction.

Bonus funtime music: Satan is Real - The Louvin Brothers

The Rumpus has a good roundup of ways to help Haiti.

* Coates draws this comparison:
Again, if I go on TV and claim that the Boston Tea Party was actually the Boston Cocaine Party, then claim that the drug trade is what liberated America, and then further claim that the Meth epidemic is a direct results, saying "But there was a party," isn't a defense--not even a qualified one.

This is hyperbolic and does not draw any kind of parallel to Tabor's article. There is no myth, oral tradition, or anything that involves cocaine; Coates is presenting this as the devil of Robertson's argument (and I suppose trying to be as silly as Robertson is), but it doesn't make sense if he is trying to attack Tabor. This is different from Tabor's description of the trajectories of syncretic Haitian traditions and institutionalized Christian traditions.

One of the first things that comes to mind in any discussion of Haiti, Voudou is a complex blending of West African and popular Catholic traditions. Paul Farmer gave the best description of Voudou’s place in Haitian culture and society when he thus described a firmly Christian peasant: “Of course he believes in Voudou. He just believes it’s wrong.” The Voudou question strikes at the heart of Haitian religious life. For its practitioners, Voudou offers a pantheon of friendly spirits, or lwas, that offer avenues to healing and hope. For its opponents, including many conservative Protestants and Catholics, it is spirit possession and satanic worship. The two sides disagree on what percentage of Voudou involves curses and malevolence, but both agree that such things are part of the religion. And, for those who oppose Voudou, Boukman’s ceremony in Bois Caiman sold the country to the devil.

Tabor isn't saying "there was this party." Coates is simplifying what Tabor has bothered to spell out and expand on in his article. Tabor is saying "there was this party, and there are some sources and traditions that suggest they were smoking rocks."

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