Monday, 15 February 2010

Pat Robertson, Haiti and Wikipedia

Today I heard an interview with a survivor of the horrific earthquake in Haiti last month, and it came up that some people in Haiti are blaming the earthquake on "the Americans." This is an intriguing twist, understandable perhaps from a people surrounded by a tradition which can impute malicious motives to almost any misfortune. It appears this claim may have originated with Hugo Chavez.

Coming from the rationalist culture that I do, it is hard for me to imagine inhabiting a mental world so utterly different. In my world, we know that earthquakes are caused by sudden slippage of huge tectonic plates sliding past each other. We know where the fault lines are, when the largest recorded quakes took place in the past, and how to detect a quake anywhere in the world as it is happening. But we have no capacity to either explain or predict any specific quake happening at a particular time. At most we can say a given region is 'due' or 'overdue.' In short, we don't know why this quake happened then and there, but we know it was simply a terrible natural occurrence. There is nobody to blame, aside from debating how Haiti came to be so poor that it has no building code and thus nearly all its buildings are unsuited to the high-risk earthquake zone they have the misfortune to occupy.

Then there are the people in our supposedly enlightened culture who continue to insist on imputing natural disasters to the moral blame game of divine retribution.
Right after the quake, America's most overexposed televangelist Pat Robertson opened his mouth to switch feet. He announced that God chose to send the earthquake to devastate Haiti because of some "pact with the devil" that Robertson claims the Haitian people made in the course of pursuing their independence from French colonial rule. Everyone else up to President Obama rushed to denounce this claim; CBN posted this charming non retraction.

Whoa. Where to begin? I decided to review this zany claim on the terms we would use in looking at some contentious edit on Wikipedia. On Wikipedia, anyone can contribute, but you are expected to cite Reliable Sources for whatever you put in. Your own first-hand accounts aren't eligible, and neither are unverifiable third party suggestions of the sort you might find on blogs or hear through the rumour mill.

Now, I'm having trouble picturing how Pat Robertson could back up his "pact with the devil" claim about Haiti. I doubt if Robertson is willing to argue that Satan has some kind of registry office where you can do a title search on all the souls the evil one has supposedly claimed under contract in return for hollow and fleeting fame, money or power in this life. I'm afraid whatever contracts may be out there binding souls are only written in some kind of invisible ink, legally binding beyond the grave and inaccessible to earthly investigators. So, not really suitable for attribution for the earthly Wikipedia.

This is of course just another sad example of smug and judgmental fundies choosing to blame the victim out of some twisted desire to make "sense" of everything bad that happens. Instead of having to reconcile that he can't explain why any given earthquake happens at a particular time and place, Robertson chooses to dump on the already suffering populace of Haiti by declaring them hereditary satanists, to blame for their own misfortunes due to some vicious rumour that Robertson is willing to propagate.

Here's someone who appears to have done some actual fact-checking on this subject, unlike Roberston: Michael Ireland on the Haiti 'pact with the devil' slur

If I could speak to Robertson, I'd warn him to think hard about the Ninth Commandment, "You shall not bear false witness against your neighbour." Robertson has a higher responsibility as he commands the attention of an enormous audience through his own cable and radio broadcasting network, CBN. If repeating a vicious rumour imputing blame to someone you've never met, based only on a rumour, can be viewed as "bearing false witness" - I think it can - then Robertson has sinned, egregiously and publicly.

The people in Haiti who blame the USA for the earthquake are equally misguided about the absence of any link between geophysics and our ideas of right and wrong. However, I submit that we need not be too put out by the USA-earthquake suspicions harboured by some Haitians. They have experienced the ham-fisted interventions of successive U.S. administrations and a continuous stream of competing missionary groups. The poorest nation in the Western Hemisphere even before the quake, Haiti deserves some slack for being succeptible to rumours and looking for someone to blame.

Pat Robertson - not so much.

[Update - 2010-02-17: I just found this article citing a rabbi who claims that gay sex caused the earthquake - and Katrina, and the 2004 tsumani. What a country - the freedom to practice your religion in the most insane way possible.]

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