Calling a Disaster a Disaster

“One hundred thirteen people were killed in the disaster…”
BBC reporting ten-year anniversary of a Concorde crash. Reported over-the-air on 2 FEB 2010, 9:30 AM

As the world nears the one-month anniversary of the disaster that might have killed ten-thousand times as many Haitians as died in the Concorde “disaster,” I found myself wondering, “How does a situation come to be referred to as a “disaster,” who decides, and how do they decide”.

At first, I was confused. Somehow, just being the poorest people in the Western Hemisphere hadn’t qualified pre-quake Haiti as a disaster. So, it seemed, destitution and death, poverty’s shadows, weren’t enough. Then the reporter from the highly respected BBC—highly respected, that is, among those who highly respect it—characterized the loss of 113 lives (and one, admittedly expensive airplane) as “a disaster.”  And that left me even more confused.

But, in time, that reporter helped me see my mistake. I had been trying to understand the situation from the perspective of poverty-stricken Haitians, as if the elites of the world allowed any poor people to label their own circumstances. What if what really matters in this situation were precisely what matter in most other states of affairs: how elites characterize them? Elites, owing to their different experiences, tend to view situations differently and from a different vantage than either bought-off middle classes or struggling-just-to-exist poor people. For elites, questions revolve around power, the currency by which elites are different. As Mark Twain famously reminded us, “The rich are different; they have money.”

For decades until the recent economic “troubles”, middle classes readily bought into the elite-serving argument: if we don’t question the morality of—and possible connections between—extreme poverty and extreme wealth, elites will act to assure that most of us will never be as poor as those poor Haitians (best delivered with a Glenn Beck quiver). Many middle-class people actually believe this gloss on the age-old prayer of the long-suffering: “There, but for the promises of elites, go I.”

But, states of affairs like Haitians experienced after the earthquake are another matter entirely. Elites know that they can’t protect people from earthquakes. Elites also know that middle-class people know that too. All that elites can do is use their resources to cover over the fact of any contributions they may have made to the specific aftermath (e.g., lax building codes or lax enforcement) and to mask over any responsibility for such terrible aftereffects. More middle-class people, when they see Haitians in the context of death and destitution, return to the original wording of the prayer of the longsuffering: “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” And elites know that, too.

This leads me to some potential answers to the questions I posed in the first paragraph. Elites decide what counts as “a disaster”. Elites chose not to label pre-quake Haiti “a disaster” because they knew that if that term stuck, they would have to pay, in two dimensions:

  • transfer of resources, and
  • increased solidarity among opposition groups.

After the quake, with elite culpability masked by sheer suffering, elites acquiesced to general use of the term—because they didn’t want to risk alienating quiescent middle class people. As Machiavelli wrote centuries ago, elite lose less when they lose a bit instead of trying to hold on to everything they have.

letcherOf course, there are exceptions, but many merely prove the rule. Take the “Concorde disaster”; that qualifies because the ticket price assured that most passengers were elites, as others couldn’t afford to be on the Concorde, alive or dead. Take the “Great Johnstown (Pennsylvania) Flood”: calling it a “flood”—a natural enough term—obscured the culpability of elites in negligence that actually caused the disaster.

In the end, and with this I will end, a disaster is constructed as “a disaster”.

Robert A. Letcher, PhD

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D describes himself as “an academic with a disability instead of a portfolio, a writer, and a Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn”.

Published by the LA Progressive on February 10, 2010
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About Robert Letcher

Robert A. Letcher, Ph.D. is a political economist who describes himself as "an academic without portfolio, writer, political activist, and Qigong practitioner who tries to help people learn".