It’s All Voodoo’s Fault!

Jason Pitzl-Waters —  January 16, 2010 — 9 Comments

I was meaning to get to Massachusetts Democratic candidate Martha Coakley today, and her ties to SRA ritual-abuse panic, but it looks like I have at least one more Haiti/Vodou post to get to first. I’ll try to write about Coakley before Tuesday’s elections. In the meantime, check out Chas Clifton’s take on the subject, and my original post concerning Coakley. Now then, back to Haiti, specifically, Haitian Vodou. It seems that, in the struggle to answer the question of “why” Haiti was so devastated by the quake, of why it is so poverty-stricken, a strange new consensus has emerged.

“As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10. We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.”

That was conservative commentator David Brooks, who argues that we should encourage a new moral “paternalism” instead of sending more aid money to Haiti. This, naturally, appeals to Rod “Crunchy Con” Dreher, who never much liked Vodou (or Santeria, which he calls savage demon-worship) anyway.

“The kind of religion one practices makes a huge difference in how the community lives — for better or for worse. I suppose it’s at least arguable that the Haitians would be better off at the Church of Christopher Hitchens rather than as followers of voodoo.

Dreher bizarrely tries to bolster his point by talking about black American Christians, how the poor in Turkey are so tidy, and stuff his “Mexican immigrant housekeeper” told him. I don’t even want to begin unpacking the problems with his post, it would take me a week. Next up to the punching-bag is economist Tyler Cowen.

“Hegel was correct that the “voodoo religion,” with its intransitive power relations among the gods, was prone to producing political intransitivity as well. (Isn’t that a startling insight for a guy who didn’t travel the broader world much?)”

He keeps using the word “intransitive” to describe Vodou. Either he doesn’t understand what that word actually means, or he knows next to nothing about human-loa interactions within the faith. But trust him, he’s an economist! Next, Ruth Gledhill, religion correspondent for the Times, interviews Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach, superintendent minister of Wesley’s chapel in the City of London, who was ordained in Haiti. Guess what he thinks of Vodou in Haiti?

“Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach … said he feared the fatalism inspired by the voodoo religion would militate against recovery … Lord Griffiths told The Times: “I would say that 90 per cent of the time, the voodoo is non-malign. It is not just sticking pins into dolls, although there is a bit of that.” The tragic religious “fault line” which could now impact recovery from the earthquake was the “fatalism” of the voodoo belief system.

Man! Haiti must be totally doomed! I mean, everything would be just fine, eventually, if it weren’t for all that darn fatalistic, intransitive, futile, un-tidy Vodou! Never mind that Haiti has been kicked when it’s down so many times that it’s amazing it still exists at all, if we just inject some paternalistic, moralistic, Christianity into the country, the road to recovery can begin. The only commentator I could find who didn’t think Vodou was holding the country back was Ian Thomson, author of “Bonjour Blanc: A Journey Through Haiti”.

“For most Haitians, Vodou is the only way to rise above the misery of poverty and the devastation wreaked by hurricanes, mud slides, storms and now this humanitarian catastrophe. When a Haitian is possessed by a loa (spirit) he is taken out of himself and transformed. At night, Port-au-Prince is now said to flicker with candles, as swaying, homeless Haitians offer prayers to the loas in hope of deliverance.

Vodou also reflects the rage and ecstasy that threw off the shackles of slavery. On the night of August 15, 1791, a ceremony was held in the north of Haiti that marked the beginning of the revolt. A rain of burning cane straw, sweet-smelling, drifted over the plantations as the slaves set them ablaze. Toussaint L’Ouverture was said to have taken part in this Vodou-inspired uprising – proof that religion is not always an opium of the people, but a prelude to action.”

Hey! Someone remembered that Vodou had a role in ending slavery in Haiti! Maybe all these commentators who seem to think they know all about Vodou and its “fatalism” should take their theological and idealogical blinders off for a moment, and realize that the faith has survived, thrived, and been exported around the world, because there is something to it besides their cheap over-simplifications. The sheer lips-smacking missionary opportunism displayed here is shameful, and casts a very dim light on the “moral” superiority of the Christian faith.

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Jason Pitzl-Waters

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