Rihanna has released a version of Bob Marley’s Redemption Song in order to raise funds for people in Haiti. As the pop star told Oprah, “This song, for me, any time there was a difficult situation, I always listened to this song. It’s so liberating. Even now, I listen to it when my back is up against the wall. I feel the people of Haiti need to hear something inspiring.” Hmmm….
Redemption Song is my favorite Bob Marley track. Rita Marley said that her late husband was already in a lot of pain when he wrote it. I don’t know if that pain is what separates the song from others. Or if it’s the simplicity of a man singing with nothing but a guitar to aid him. Or maybe it’s the knowledge that there’s something subversive in the lyrics, even if you don’t know what that something is.
Years ago, in a dingy room in one of the halls of residence at the University of Zimbabwe, a friend tried to explain to me exactly why those lyrics are subversives. Imagine genuinely believing that someone had literally saved your soul from eternal damnation; pulled you out of ‘the bottomless pit’, so to speak. Imagine then that the same person, minutes later, put you in chains and sold you into a cruel, brutal captivity.
Old pirates, yes, they rob I;
Sold I to the merchant ships,
Minutes after they took I
From the bottomless pit.
What does that have to do with Haiti’s earthquake? Simply put, I think you, me, Rihanna and anyone else who can afford to get onto the internet and read this, we’re today’s pirates.
I once lived in a cockroach infested house. They were invisible most of the time and would only come out after we had all gone to bed. But if you got up in the middle of the night and switched on a light, especially in the kitchen, you would see them scurrying towards the closest hiding place. The response to Haiti’s earthquake reminded me of that house; I felt as though I were seeing the same process, only in reverse. Disaster struck, and where many saw international solidarity and good will, I saw a swarm scurrying onto a vulnerable population for all sorts of reasons – some, genuinely there to help; more for chess-like geopolitical positional advantage; and even more for marketing reasons, in order to gain greater brand exposure and recognition for one’s country, company or organisation. And I suppose it was inevitable: a disaster like that, it was bound to have a huge television audience.
And let’s be honest, under normal circumstances, who cares about Haiti? Who really cares about it’s history? So what if the French and Americans have plundered and sucked it dry? And if it’s political instability is in good part the result of the meddling of Western countries (including the seemingly benign, like Canada) and institutions like the United Nations?
What if said meddling leads to your financial gain and mine? Thomas Pogge, in several books and academic papers, argues that if we are involved in, or benefit from institutions that exploit or in other ways harm people, even if those people are on the other side of the world, we are guilty of harming those people and have a duty towards them. Pogge, in my opinion, convincingly makes his point, and he clearly demonstrates the fact that we the global aristocrats – we who don’t worry about whether or not we’ll eat anything tomorrow – do in fact benefit from institutions that harm people in places like Haiti.
But if we took the likes of Pogge seriously, we couldn’t continue to live as we do. So when Senator David Norris suggested on radio yesterday that people in Ireland may be partially responsible for the situation in Haiti, he was unsurprisingly put in his place by his audience. Not only was he told that the Irish are incredibly generous (the Department of Foreign Affairs have been very busy lately because there has been a lot to say about the Irish government’s response to the earthquake), but what happened in Haiti was a natural disaster. It wasn’t, of course. There may have been an earthquake, but the exaggerated loss of life resulted from the structural failures that led to poor infrastructure and administration in that country. Those structural failures, if you believe Pogge, come back to you and I.
So what are we to do? We’ll express remorse. We might even learn where the country is on the map. Some will give. Some will give a lot, maybe even of their time. They’ll try to raise funds for the disaster relief, and they may even go to Haiti or other miserable places to help comfort the suffering. But for most of us, something else will capture our attention in the coming months. The World Cup maybe. Or we’ll find out that some other celebrity had an affair. Or a row will erupt over whether bankers should be burdened with an additional tax on their second imported luxury car. Whatever it is, we’ll forget about Haiti until its next disaster.
Institutionally, the likes of John O’Shea and The Economist will do their best to turn Haiti into a modern day colony, only with benevolent colonial masters. Bill Clinton will probably get another term in office, even if it is a smaller one. Naomi Klein will despair as she watches the process she described in her book unfold. Things will probably go wrong. Poor Haitians are likely to go on being the wretched of the earth (or at the very least, the wretched of the Western Hemisphere). And you and I will be the better for it, even if we oblivious to the workings of the world.
I wonder if that is what Rihanna had in mind when she decided to fundraise for Haiti with Bob Marley’s song? Probably not. But I’m sure Marley would have seen the irony in the fact that I gain financially from this piece. I too am a pirate.