Friday, January 23, 2009

Paul Knox reviews Peter Hallward

Paul Knox, a former Latin America correspondent for the Globe and Mail and currently the chair of the School of Journalism at Ryerson University in Toronto, has reviewed Middlesex University philosophy professor Peter Hallward’s thoroughly absurd book on Haiti, Damming the Flood: Haiti, Aristide and the Politics of Containment, in the new Literary Review of Canada. An interesting and accurate observation by Knox (whom I met once briefly in Haiti in 2004) runs as follows:

If you relied solely on these 360 pages, you would not know what Haiti looks or sounds like, nor would you have much sense of what it is like to live there. You would not be able to visualize the bare brown hills, stripped of wood for fuel; the rich rice fields of the Artibonite valley; the dark, cramped dwellings squeezed along impossibly narrow alleys in Port-au-Prince’s slums. You would be ignorant of vaudou, Haiti’s politically significant popular religion. You would know almost nothing about the devastating environmental consequences of Haiti’s peculiar forms of exploitation. You would be unaware of its rich artistic traditions—the popular music and the folk paintings that express political feeling and personal consciousness...Even when surveying his chosen field, he narrows his gaze sharply. There are Haitians who do not share his views about the importance of Fanmi Lavalas and have chosen to act accordingly. They form other political groups; they make alliances; they keep their distance from Aristide. For Hallward, these people were either bought off, politically misguided or rotten from the start. Intellectuals who were persecuted by the Duvalier regime but found it impossible to work with Aristide are excoriated as opportunists whose true bourgeois colours eventually bled through. The anti-Aristide workers’ organization Batay Ouvriye is guilty of “a distorted sense of betrayal and resentment.” Leslie Voltaire, a former presidential chief of staff, is accused of “collusion” for agreeing to serve on a post-Aristide interim ruling council, even though no evidence is offered that he used the position to betray the departed president. Many of these people are voted off the island by Hallward because they received money from U.S. and other foreign foundations. He refrains from noting that some prominent American backers of Aristide were paid consultants for his government.

Having myself waded through Damming the Flood’s tedious marriage of sloppy scholarship and moral cowardice masquerading as academic inquiry, I have to say that I find much of Knox’s critique quite on the mark.

Readers can find my own review of Hallward’s book here.

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