The Payback

On Wednesday, many people were taken aback by an announcement from the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of a new ‘framework initiative’ that would return the 90 million gold francs paid by Haiti from 1825 to 1947.

This indemnity has long been a bone of contention, pressured as Haiti was to pay ‘compensation’ for the loss of colonial property in return for international recognition of the newly independent state.

When the Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, brought up the question once more, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the death of national hero Toussaint L’Ouverture in a French cell in 1803, his counterpart Jacques Chirac was not impressed.

Even though two years earlier the French parliament had recognized slavery as a crime against humanity, the official response to the bill for $21,685,135,571 and 48 cents (its modern equivalent, with interest) was brusque, even bad-tempered. The foreign ministry commissioned a report on Franco-Haitian relations, which dismissed the claim for reparations as anachronistic and mocked the way in which Aristide had presented it.

There was precious little support even in the left-wing press in France, leading the Haitian writer Louis-Philippe Dalembert to pen an article in Libération wondering why intellectuals in the land of Hugo and Zola had all turned into foreign ministers whose main aim was to defend French interests. Dalembert was no friend of Aristide, and doubted whether Aristide was the best person to raise the issue, but he insisted that the demand for the restitution of an ‘immoral and iniquitous debt’ should not be allowed to be forgotten.

And indeed it has not. So despite Aristide’s enforced departure in the coup of February 2004 and Gerard Latortue’s prompt reassurance that the ‘illegal’ and ‘ridiculous’ claim would not be pursued, when Nicolas Sarkozy visited Haiti in February this year, he faced angry protests demanding that France pay up and help return Aristide to office.

The announcement of 14 July did not, then, come out of the blue. But, only a day after the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of a ban on wearing the ‘Islamic full veil’ in public, it was unexpected, to say the least. And, of course, it was too good to be true.

In a manner reminiscent of the tactics of Les Liens Invisibles or The Yes Men, the announcement was carried on a site imitating that of the French Foreign Ministry, backed up by a news release purporting to be from Agence-France-Presse.

‘Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,’ goes Gramsci’s slogan. For those with too much of the latter, the news may have prompted a flurry of excitement, but disappointment would inevitably follow. Those with an excess of the former may have taken some cynical delight in pointing out that the website was ‘fake’ or a ‘hoax’, as if it were therefore of no further account.

But both responses miss something interesting. It is no more ‘fake’ than a play or a film. The point of the excercise is not to kid people that something has taken place but to make it seem strange that something hasn’t. We might think of it as a kind of historical re-enactment but of the future rather than the past.

It stages a possible – or alternative – future, by composing a plausible statement that combines the language of neo-liberalism with that of France’s long-standing democratic traditions, without making reference to the claims of Aristide and his supporters.

In doing so, it invites us to imagine a rationale that would allow France to do a U-turn without losing face. Anyone reading the statement would find it hard to dismiss it as giving in to ‘illegal’ and ‘ridiculous’ demands. And thus the demand – whose symbolic importance should not be underestimated – is kept alive.

Sweetest of all perhaps, it has forced the Ministry to deny that it is planning to do anything so noble and to declare that it is considering legal action against those who dare to imagine such a thing.

[See follow-up post to this: The Payback II]

Twenty Days of Aftershocks

A selection of testimony and opinion pieces – reflecting a range of views – which have appeared online over the last three weeks.

Useful sources include the excellent Repeating Islands blog, email bulletins from the Haiti Support Group, and Bob Corbett’s Haiti List.

Edwidge Danticat, A Little While, New Yorker, 1 Feb 2010.

Laura Wagner, Haiti: A survivor’s story, Salon, 1 Feb 2010.

Peter Slevin, As food distribution improves, Haitians want U.S to ‘take over’, Washington Post, 1 Feb 2010.

Nick Allen, Haiti earthquake: voodoo high priest claims aid monopolised by Christians, Daily Telegraph, 1 Feb 2010.

Gary Younge, The west owes Haiti a bailout. And it would be a hand-back, not a handout, Guardian, 31 January 2010.

John Maxwell, Protecting Haiti’s Interest, Jamaica Observer, 31 January 2010.

Peter Hallward, The Land that Wouldn’t Lie,, 29 Jan 2010.

John Pilger, The Kidnapping of Haiti, New Statesman, 28 Jan 2010.

Melanie Newton, World’s Future in Haiti, (Barbados) Nation News, 27 Jan 2010.

Eduardo Galeano, A história do Haiti é a história do racismo, Adital, 25 Jan 2010.

Ker Than, Haiti Earthquake & Voodoo: Myths, Ritual, and Robertson (Interview with Wade Davis), National Geographic, 25 Jan 2010.

Tom Phillips, Haiti earthquake: religion fills the void left by aid agencies, Guardian, 24 Jan 2010.

Rodney Saint-Éloi, La tendresse et l’élégance nous sauveront du séisme,, 23 January 2010.

Sites sur Haïti : témoignages d’auteurs à consulter
, Etonnants Voyageurs, 22 Jan 2010.

Peter Hallward, Securing Disaster in Haiti,, 22 Jan, 2010.

Dany Laferrière, Tout bouge autour de moi, Novel Observateur, 21 Jan 2010.

Amy Wilentz, The Haiti Haters, The Nation, 21 Jan 2010.

Richard Morse, Haiti: My Experience on the Ground, Huffington Post, 21 Jan 2010.

Juan Carlos Chavez, In wealthy enclave of Pétionville, another picture, Miami Herald, 21 Jan 2010.

Andy Kershaw, Stop Treating These People Like Savages, Independent, 21 Jan 2010.

Tracy Wilkinson, Haiti’s Elite Hold Nation’s Future in their Hands, Los Angeles Times, 21 Jan 2010.

Évelyne Trouillot, Aftershocks, New York Times, 21 Jan 2010.

Colin Dayan, ‘Civilizing’ Haiti, Boston Review, 20 Jan 2010.

Dianne Diakité, The Myth of “Voodoo”: A Caribbean American Response to Representations of Haiti, Religion Dispatches, 20 Jan 2010.

Sir Hilary Beckles, The Hate and the Quake, Barbados Advocate, 19 Jan 2010.

Robert Booth, Cruise ships still find a Haitian berth, Guardian, 17 Jan 2010.

John Maxwell, No, Mister! You Cannot Share My Pain!, Jamaica Observer, 17 Jan 2010.

Haïti : le témoignage bouleversant de l’écrivain Dany Laferrière(interview), Le Monde, 16 Jan 2010.

Ruth Gledhill, Voodoo faith ‘could hinder Haiti’s recovery from quake’, The Times, 15 Jan 2010.

David Brooks, The Underlying Tragedy, New York Times,14 Jan 2010. And responses from Matt Taibbi (18 Jan) and Tom F. Driver and Carl Lindskoog (19 Jan).

Edwidge Danticat Voices Haiti, Always, Women’s Voices for Change, 14 Jan 2010.

Tyler Cowen, Why is Haiti so Poor?, Marginal Revolution, 13 Jan 2010.

Alain Mabanckou, Haiti ou l’énigme d’un séisme, Black Bazar, 13 Jan 2010.

Témoignage de Rodney Saint-Éloi (interview),, undated.

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.

Retweeting Retrouvé

Three characters on stage, two men in bowler hats either side of a man bending under the weight of luggage.

estragon: What did we do yesterday?

vladimir RT @estragon: What did we do yesterday?

Evan Williams has posted this response to criticisms of the experimental retweeting feature on the Twitter website.

Citing other people’s tweets is as old as Twitter itself and takes many different forms. The new feature is an attempt to provide an alternative to this well-established ‘organic retweeting’ that is easier to use and and that avoids some of the problems associated with it. These include attribution confusion, noisiness, untrackability, redundancy, and the fact that the results are often ‘mangled and messy.’

To me, this doesn’t sound like a case for an optional alternative to organic retweeting but a rather nervous moral condemnation of it. Of all the problems, it seems as if those relating to attribution are fundamental. The post seems particularly concerned that people can be made to say things they didn’t and that things they do say can easily be misread as someone else’s. In other words, the ‘mentions’ in retweeting – the references to the original author’s username (or authors’ usernames if one is retweeting a retweet) – are often inaccurate or misleading.

I think this misses some important aspects of how retweeting actually works. What if we thought of retweeting not as a threat to the integrity of a tweet but rather a creative practice that adds value to it? Consider this fictional example:

hamish Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

A straight retweet, we might say. But, as the patron saint of retweeters would no doubt remind us, there is no such thing. Tyrone takes this joke from Hamish’s timeline and copies it into his own, giving it a different meaning in a new context. And a meaning that will change as Tyrone follows it with more tweets – or retweets – of his own. Tyrone may be inserting the joke in a series of tweets on a related topic (say, the trials and tribulations of hiring an outfit for a friend’s wedding or amusing photos of his recent Scottish holiday). Perhaps Hamish is one of Tyrone’s followers, and offered the joke as an implicit invitation to retweet it, given its relevance to the subject currently absorbing him. Alternatively, it may serve to purposely lower the tone after a number of what Tyrone fears might have been overly serious or pretentious updates. Or mark the end of a light-hearted sequence before turning to weightier matters. Or Tyrone might be one of those who fires off seemingly random tweets on a wide range of subjects at regular intervals without rhyme or reason.

Furthermore, retweeting is not always an endorsement or appreciation of the original. In this case, Tyrone may be prompted by a desire to share a good joke. But he may wish to remind us of a particularly bad one. In other words, one can retweet ironically – though the irony may be lost on those who don’t follow Tyrone closely. So the retweeter is always – intentionally or not – always adding something even when quoting verbatim. And for that, the ‘original’ author cannot take all the credit. Even when they are the ‘original’ author – which, in this case, Hamish certainly isn’t. Indeed the joke is an old one, and frequently attributed to Spike Milligan.

So when Tyrone credits Hamish, is this confusing? No, because the mentions in retweets are acknowledgements rather than attributions. The difference is important. For something is worth retweeting regardless of who wrote it first. Retweets are not usually intended as (or taken to be) representations of the retweeted, who are often not known to those reading the timeline in which they occur – although they may lead the reader to check out their profile and even follow them. Tyrone makes Hamish’s tweet – however briefly – his own. And immediately makes it available for retweeting again. For this creative quoting and requoting, the @hamish is a nod recommended by etiquette. It should not be expected to meet the standards of a citation required in a research paper.

I would emphasize this is true even when the retweet is verbatim. But, of course, a retweeter may abridge, annotate, paraphrase, tag or otherwise transform the original:

tyrone I’d forgotten this – RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order! LOL

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? No, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? No, your holiness, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order! #worldsworstjokes

Abridgements and minor corrections are usually made silently, but annotations and interpolations and additions are more likely to be clearly identified. So the last one might be more fairly retweeted as follows:

tyrone RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order! >> #worldsworstjokes

tyrone Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order! #worldsworstjokes (sorry @hamish!)

These often add value to the ‘original’ even if not always appreciated by the first author. And this is complicated by the fact that tweets are themselves compounds and which part of the tweet is supposed to bear the weight of the retweet is significant. For instance, imagine the first tweet came with a link, thus:

hamish Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order:

Now this link is to a video clip. One would not be surprised to find it to be a clip in which the joke appears or (as here) in the brief description provided by the person who uploaded it. It could be that the body-text of the tweet serves here as a caption for the clip, encouraging more to click on it (than would if the tweet had consisted only of the link). But equally the clip may have been added almost as an afterthought, as a kind of illustration of the joke.

Tyrone may retweet primarily in order to draw attention to the clip and, not impressed with the joke, may share only the link:

tyrone: RT @hamish:

Or supply new accompanying text of his own:

tyrone: RT @hamish: The Tartan Terrors are amazing:

Alternatively, not impressed by the clip, he may choose to share only the joke:

tyrone: RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order!

Or add a different link:

tyrone: RT @hamish: Is anything worn under the kilt? Nae, madam, it’s all in perfect working order:

Sometimes the changes may warrant a more relaxed via @hamish rather than the more formal RT @hamish. But it is not often clear when to prefer one over the other. There is no obvious marker on what is a continuum of creative borrowing. The finely-tuned aphorism or critical judgement must often be extracted from a longer or less elegant tweet before it is retweeted.

Williams speaks up for those who struggle with what he calls the extra ‘mental parsing’ that is needed to compensate for the scandalous reappropriation of a tweet by a retweeter. The same people, perhaps, who are disturbed when their carefully-chosen friends pervert their own timelines by quoting the words of others. ‘The perfect Twitter would show you only the stuff you care about,’ he writes.

Even if the idea of the ‘perfect Twitter’ weren’t highly dubious, I would hope it would also show me stuff that I didn’t know I cared about, stuff that I never thought I would care about, stuff that I don’t care about but which, unexpectedly, against all odds, move or intrigue me. And what’s why I prefer my Twitter noisy, mangled and messy.