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”.


  1. Marshall says

    Dear Robert,

    In what ways do you think the rich suffered less or more in the earth quake? Even the buildings of the government fell down and the upper crust hotel on the mountain is the tome of well to do people.

    • Robert A. Letcher says

      Marshall–I used “rich” exactly once, in quoting Twain. So, i hope you won’t make too much of that level of analysis. However, I agree with you: the earthquake killed poor and rich… Haitians. But even rich Haitians are not among “elites of the world” which IS the level of analysis i had in mind, as well as the construction in which the word “elite” first appears.. I realize that a proper analysis would be more precise, but it would also have been boring. My main point still holds: World elites resist “disaster” designations as long as they can, because they’ve learned that such designations cost them resources and power; but world elites have learned that in the face of obvious disasters and in keeping with Machiavelli’s advice, it’s just plain cheaper for them to accept the designation.

  2. Marshall says

    As much as we would like it, we are not able to have it both ways. As an example, I offer the words of two of our Presidents which most educators think were great.

    One President said;
    1.The right to a useful and remunerative job in the industries, shops, farms, or mines of the nation;

    2.The right to earn enough to provide adequate food and clothing and recreation;

    3.The right of every farmer to raise and sell his products at a return which will give him and his family a decent living;

    4.The right of every businessman, large and small, to trade in an atmosphere of freedom from unfair competition and domination by monopolies at home or abroad;

    5.The right of every family to a decent home;

    6.The right to adequate medical care and the opportunity to achieve and enjoy good health;

    7.The right to adequate protection from economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment;

    8.The right to a good education.

    Another President said;
    1. You cannot permanently help men by doing for them what they should and could do themselves.
    2. You cannot build character and courage by taking away man’s initiative and independence.
    3. You cannot further the brotherhood of man by encouraging class hatred.
    4. You cannot help the wage earner by pulling down the wage payer.
    5. You cannot keep out of trouble by spending more than you earn.
    6. You cannot strengthen the weak by weakening the strong.
    7. You cannot bring about prosperity by discouraging thrift.
    8. You cannot help the poor by destroying the rich.

    Which ever one you think fits your thinking, I doubt if you will be able to fit both of them into your way of life. I think if we manage to free ourselves of both the poor and the wealthy, we will no longer be free. I found it interesting that both made 8 points.

    • Robert A. Letcher says

      Marshall—thanks for your comments… which raise many questions…

      Who chose the two Presidents whose lists you’ve included? What criteria did they use? How do you know how “most educators” think of your two mystery presidents? What about historians, philosophers, and everyday people? How about the criteria according to which the educators were “selected into” the sample you cite?

      How would you characterize the two choices that you assert can’t “both” be had? How can you be so certain that there are only two choices? Does the real world cleave as neatly as you present your two “President’s lists” as demonstrating?

      How can you be so sure that humans are incapable of transcending oppositions? For example, have you never had a love-hate relationship, nor known anyone else who has had one? And sometimes, the loving and hating happen at the same time; other times, it’ts love, then hate, then love, then…

      Please think through these questions, add specifics, and then write back.

  3. Robert A. Letcher says

    Two corrections… BBC broadcast was 9:30 AM/EST (i forgot the time zone). also, correcting my math, the death toll for Haiti’s earthquake was roughly one-thousand times that for the Concorde crash (not ten-thousand) i apologize to readers.

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