The V Word Revisted

There are so many trapped in the rubble of rational thought which tragically collapsed this week in parts of Europe and North America. Can someone help Lord Griffiths of Fforestfach?

I can hear him calling out. What is he saying? ‘The fatalism inspired by the voodoo religion would militate against recovery’.

Unlike, presumably, the fatalism inspired by the removal of a democratically-elected president. Twice.

Nothing he is quoted as saying seems to admit that ‘fatalism’ may have secular as well as spiritual sources. And is it really so inconceivable that people combine vodou – or any other religious – beliefs with activities like making a living, bringing up children, going to school, getting involved in community projects, or pulling people out of wrecked buildings and caring for them? Can’t we at least agree that it just might be possible?

I hear an echo. What’s that? ‘There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile.’ David Brooks on The Underlying Tragedy in the New York Times. Couldn’t he have said the same thing about the global financial crisis? In any case, it sounds like David Brooks is spreading that message well enough himself.

And then there are Tyler Cowen’s scatter-gun hypotheses that try to answer the rather loaded question Why is Haiti so poor?. They include this intriguing suggestion:

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?)

Cowen is actually not the only one for whom Hegel has recently become an authority on Haiti (and I will return to this in a future post), but he is unusual in claiming that this is because of the philosopher’s alleged views on voodoo.

That word again. It’s been around for a while, though it’s not as old as Hegel, at least not in this spelling. In The V Word I tried to show how voodoo emerged victorious in English in the late 19th Century over French or Creole versions like vaudoux or voudou. And in doing so it rapidly mutated as a metaphor that took it far from the island of its birth to refer to practically anything that was inexplicable or malicious or both.

At the same time the religion attracted the interest of more sympathetic scholars (inside and outside Haiti) and by the 1980s and 90s, something of the reality of vodou – to adopt the spelling in the language spoken by most of its followers – had seeped into the Western mainstream, and its difference from the cartoon voodoo was recognized by anyone who gave serious consideration to the matter.

I suggested that the two forms had diverged to the extent that we could afford to relax. Almost no-one used voodoo to define Haiti anymore. The word had drifted away from its Caribbean moorings to harmlessly scare (or lure) a world blissfully ignorant of where it came from. And we could begin to expect that discussions of the religion – given official recognition by Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2003 – would be more likely to dignify it with the name vodou,and treat it accordingly.

But I may have been proved wrong. Last week the ghost returned, as those who sought facile explanations or excuses for the desperate scenes unfolding in the media seemed to find a large captive audience willing to accept them.

How much it will be allowed to haunt the efforts of emergency relief and reconstruction remains to be seen. At least that captive audience is now beginning to answer back.