Paul Shirley, who apparently used to play basketball or something, has come under a wee bit of fire for remarks made about giving aid to Haiti that might be construed as a bit… classist completely ignorant insensitive.
Shirley, who it seems is more known now for being a ball player who writes than basketball, penned a heartfelt (or lack of heart-felt) missive deriding the folks in Haiti for what he deems their self-induced plight- it’s cringe-inducing to read in that you feel like you’re eavesdropping someone’s racist comments on a phone call or in a bar. To be fair to Shirley, I don’t think his rant is racist per se- more that the targets of his ire happen to be overwhelmingly poor black people.
Shirley opens with conceding that he realizes he’s going against the tide with his Haiti-critique, and he is- just over two weeks after a humongous disaster that killed hundreds of thousands of people, no one wants to be the guy who points out uncomfortable facts, so points for bravery. Haiti is indeed historically rife with corruption, horrifically poor- a nation for whom the question was not if the house of cards would collapse tragically, but when.
The post comes out offensive from the start, first comparing the dead and dying masses of Haiti to homeless people with misspelled signs before moving on to likening them to cavemen who are “morons,” but it really gets bad here:
Instead, I’m referring to the circumstances in which people lived. While the earthquake was, obviously, unavoidable, the way in which many of the people of Haiti lived was not. Regrettably, some Haitians would have died regardless of the conditions in that country. But the fact that so many people lived in such abject poverty exacerbated the extent of the crisis.
How could humans do this to themselves? And what’s being done to stop it from happening again?
Yes, I ask along Paul Shirley- how can people live like that? In shantytowns? My mansion is so much more comfortable than a tent in Port-au-Prince. Hey, Haitians- have you tried not being poor? It’s like, so much better than not having things! You should try it!
And it’s not just the Haitians that labor under the delusion that living in abject poverty is somehow the way:
After the tsunami of 2004, the citizens of the world wailed and donated and volunteered for cleanup, rarely asking the important – and, I think, obvious – question: What were all those people doing there in the first place? Just as important: If they move back to a place near the ocean that had just been destroyed by a giant wave, shouldn’t our instinct be to say, “Go ahead if you want, but you’re on your own now.”?
Hmmm… my guess, and the same with his subsequent questions about Katrina, is that the populations to which Shirley refers had nowhere else to go. On a more local scale, many people did ask the same question after New Orleans was decimated- why didn’t these people evacuate to save their own lives? And the answer remains the same- because poverty is a prison, and they couldn’t. If you have three dollars in the bank, no car, no resources, and a family to contend with, you lack the abilities to easily pull yourself out of the quagmire of not having.
Shirley asks if there should be a “slight reprimand for the conditions prior to the earthquake,” and helpfully composes a sample text for us to consider:
Dear Haitians –
First of all, kudos on developing the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Your commitment to human rights, infrastructure, and birth control should be applauded.
As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it’s possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty- and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?
The Rest of the World
Yes, Haiti. As soon as you finish collecting up the bodies of your children and enjoying your fun tent adventure, we would like a word. Because even if corrupt governments and weak infrastructure made it impossible for you to overcome the overwhelming poverty in which you marinate, you can fix that easily:
One could argue that in totalitarian regimes, they do not have much control, but in the end, it is their government. And therefore, their responsibility. If the government is not doing enough for the people, it is the people’s responsibility to change the government. Not the other way around.
Ultimately, I think Shirley’s problem is one of ignorance and misconstruing facts in his own head, not for an agenda. He quotes a distraught Haitian woman who ponders whose “responsibility” it is to provide food and other necessary resources in the wake of the disaster:
“We need so much. Food, clothes, we need everything. I don’t know whose responsibility it is, but they need to give us something soon.”
Shirley recoils at what he sees as entitlement, that the responsibility of the care of Haitians should fall on the Haitians. But when someone is truly debilitated to the point they can’t help themselves- as Haiti is right now- a) responsibility is a distant second to stabilization and b) people truly lack the ability to help themselves. I would have read that quote as an entirely different musing- not that the woman felt entitled, merely that she was lamenting a lack of oversight and structure in her country. When the roads goods come in on are gone, the structures fallen and transformed into mausoleums and the basic ability to fend for oneself eliminated, I think most humans would default to wondering when the cavalry will arrive.
I don’t think Paul Shirley is a jerk, merely that he’d benefit from a larger dig into what caused the situation that precipitated the situation in Haiti before writes off aid to Haiti. Yes, some of it will be misappropriated, some of it surely already has. But is it worth fifty cents to buy a dollar of care for a child who really isn’t responsible for the circumstances into which they were born? Perhaps that’s the real question Shirley should be asking.
Update: Shirley was asked to no longer contribute to ESPN’s content. I have to say, I’d rather that not be the case. Just because someone expresses an unpopular opinion doesn’t mean they shouldn’t have a platform.