Pat Robertson’s Racist Blaming of Haitian Victims; and the Televangelist Misuse of History

h/t Daily Kos: Evangelist Pat Robertson manages to blame Haitians for the earthquake, instead of a shift in tectonic plates:

And you know Christy, something happened a long time ago in Haiti and people might not want to talk about it. They were under the heel of the French, uh you know Napoleon the third and whatever. And they got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said we will serve you if you’ll get us free from the French. True Story, and so the Devil said OK it’s a deal. And they kicked the French out. You know, the Haitians revolted and got themselves free. But ever since they’ve been cursed by one thing after the other desperately poor. That island is Hispaniola is one island. It’s cut down the middle. On one side is Haiti on the other side is the Dominican republic. Dominican Republic is prosperous, healthy, full of resorts, etc.. Haiti is in desperate poverty. Same island.

The video is here

It is of course morally despicable for Robertson to blame a horrific earthquake on the supposed misdeeds of the distant ancestors of the current victims! But then, he blamed the September 11 atrocity on the United States, as well. I have nothing against evangelicals in general, and I know that televangelists are peculiar in typically not being under any church authority and so they can hold very strange views. But the Robertson type of evangelicalism strikes me as a social pathology that is actively evil and damaging to rational ethical thinking in our republic.

So what in the world is Pat Robertson talking about? Presumably he is referring to the Haitian Revolution of the 1790s through independence in 1804. The latter part of the revolution was against Napoleon Bonaparte, not against his nephew Napoleon III (r. as emperor 1852-1870). So Robertson was off by a mere 50 or 60 years.

As Charles Tilly pointed out, all revolutions are multiple revolutions. The Rights of Man were declared by the French Convention in 1789. Thomas Jefferson and other US Founding Fathers were delighted about this, by the way. Initially it was the mixed-race free mulattoes who agitated to have the Rights of Man applied to them in Haiti. But then slave revolts broke out and by 1794 the French legislature had abolished slavery in French overseas territories. So you had urbane, French-speaking free persons of color demanding inclusion in the new liberties proclaimed by the French Republic. But you also had slave revolts, in which newly-arrived slaves from West Africa (places such as what is now Benin) participated–though the organization was probably supplied by longer-established slaves. The newly-arrived slaves had after all been free Africans not so long ago. Despite the efforts of French orders such as the Dominicans and Capuchins, many slaves had still not become Christians or wore their Christianity very lightly. Some proportion of the slaves was Muslim, and some historians have suggested that previous slave revolts were led by Muslims. Over time, Muslim Africans were forcibly converted to Catholicism.

So some of the slave revolts invoked African religion against white French colonial power. What many now call voodoo or voudoun is a Haitian version of religious traditions roughly from what is now Benin, Togo, Nigeria and the Congo. The word just means spirit. The African slave religious traditions were expressed in Creole or Kreyole, based on Kwa dialects but incorporating elements of French.

One of the [pdf, p. 223] first major events of the Haitian revolution unfolded thusly: “In 1791 Boukman Dutty, a Vodou priest and one of the leaders of the first wave of slave uprisings in the North of Haiti, led a ceremony in the now-famous Bois-Caïman that launched the revolution and inspired slave revolutionaries to begin destroying plantations.” The ceremony allegedly involved the sacrifice of a pig and use of pig blood and a sermon that invoked the good God of African religion to give the slaves liberty and condemned the evil God of the white slave-owners. It has been argued that this event has been mythologized in subsequent Haitian history-writing.

The traditional account is here.

The slave revolts informed by voudoun, however, were only one of a number of rebellions in the 1790s. An influence was felt among intellectuals of French Deism and anticlericalism and the privileges of the Catholic Church were abolished. In the north of the country, mass stopped being said.

But revolutionary leader Toussaint L’Ouverture restored the privileges of the Church in in 1800. Subsequent cultural and political struggles after independence in 1804 (which was accompanied by a massacre or expulsion of French whites after Napoleon’s invasion force was defeated, causing an exodus of Catholic priests) again constrained the Church, though a concordat was reached in 1860.

So Robertson’s account sees the assertion of African religion in 1791 against slaving Christianity as a ‘pact with the devil’ that then led Haiti to be cursed ever after. But even in his own terms, how does he account for the multiple steps by subsequent Haitian states reinstating privileges for Christianity? Even if he does not count Catholicism as Christianity, what about the fact that about a quarter of Haitians are now evangelical Protestants? Didn’t the earthquake hit them? And, why is West Africa where the initial African version of voudoun originated and is still practiced by a minority, among the least earthquake-prone regions in the world?

Ultimately, Robertson’s version of Haitian history as cursed replicates the old racist anti-Black ‘curse of Ham’ theme in White American popular religion. Is he saying that Haitians had less right to revolt against European colonialism than did white Americans? (Only about 16% of colonial-era Americans belonged to a church, so it isn’t as if they were more pious). And, ultimately, his account fails to deal with the sins of slavery and racism in which Southern US Christian traditions– Baptism, evangelicalism, etc., were deeply implicated. There is a Southern Baptist church to this day, almost all-white, precisely because it split from the national organization to protect the enslavement of African-Americans.

Evil and the devil are tricky. Robertson projected them on a revolt of African slaves asserting their African traditions against oppressive white colonial society. But they lurk in the traditions of his 700 Club, in the exaltation of irrationality, in blaming the victim, in a subtext of racism, and in a failure to repent for White Christian enslavement of Africans for centuries.

End/ (Not Continued)

27 Responses

  1. "The Rights of Man were declared by the French Convention in 1789. Thomas Jefferson and other US Founding Fathers were delighted about this, by the way."

    They certainly were. But less so in their own backyard.

    Please remember Jefferson's response to James Monroe (then governor of Virginia) concerning the Haitian revolution and the Richard slave revolt.

    "The same question to ourselves would recur here also, as did in the first case: should we be willing to have such a colony in contact with us? However our present interests may restrain us within our own limits, it is impossible not to look forward to distant times, when our rapid multiplication will expand itself beyond those limits and cover the whole northern, if not the southern, continent, with a people speaking the same language, governed in similar forms and by similar laws; nor can we contemplate with satisfaction either BLOT or MIXTURE on that surface"

  2. Garbled history and prejudiced meanderings. How quintessentially Pat Robertson. I guess it would be too much to expect, that the dupes who send him money would finally wise up.

  3. How many Voltaires does it take to explain this to the likes of Pat Robertson?

  4. "We all know Robertson is crazy. Why waste time on him?"

    Because failure to publically smack him on the snout could be construed as tacit agreement, and would encourage his fellow-travellers on the road of religiously-inspired lunacy into thinking this was all right.

  5. It worthwhile criticizing Robertson on this. Before the Haitian massacre of whites, it was not uncommon for large US slave owners to have clauses in their wills freeing their slaves after the owner's death. This was comparable to European aristocrats willing land to the church in atonement for earthly sins. Fear of the events in Haiti led states to ban the practice, caused a general worsening of the treatment of US slaves, hardened resistance to abolition.

    If there is a Haitian curse, it is on us for not yet escaping this inherited fearmongering. Perhaps Mr. Robertson would submit to an excorcism?

  6. Too bad Christmas is gone. I could have given Robertson a copy of The Black Jacobins, by C.L.R. James

  7. Looks like Pat Robertson should join Fox News as a commentator. His telling of 'truth' to the World would fit right into their philosophy…

  8. Left out of the discussion entirely is that Haiti is perhaps the most invaded and occupied country by the U.S.

  9. Most of Hollywood are rich and famous, and most of them practice some form of satanism. So it would seem that Haiti should be very prosperous, if that were the case. Most of the world's rich and powerful are definitely not Christians, and they control almost every aspect of this world system.

  10. Thank you for clarifying where Robertson got his "true story" from. The man is not only crazy, but a poor student of history. I don't know why any stations give him airtime. To make a statement like the one he made when people are suffering as they are is not only despicable, but un-Christian.

  11. "Napoleon the third and whatever"
    More like Napoleon XIV (They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Haaa!).

    "so the Devil said OK it's a deal"

    Hardly a pronouncement of biblical proportions. This makes me think of Howie Mandel dressed in a Halloween costume.

  12. One of the posts says US Southerners were deeply fearful that the slave revolt in Haiti would be repeated in the US. This cannot be stressed enough. That racist animus toward Haiti has been passed down through the generations, and the only odd thing about it is that an American figure of some notoriety has had an occasion to verbalize it for all to see. The moron!

  13. Hang on. I'm not a history buff. Did a white guy on national TV in the 21st century just claim that black slaves who revolted against the oppression of their white masters were evil and justifiably punished by a natural disaster?

    There is not a big enough version of the word "WOW".

  14. At 8:30 PM, Anonymous said…
    We all know Robertson is crazy. Why waste time on him?

    Well there's this from tristero over at Digby's site….

    " I'm sure everyone's heard about this already. I have only one thing to add, and this is addressed directly to all my fellow liberals.

    Dear Friends,

    You can sneer all you want at Pat Robertson. You can condemn him all you want. And I'll join right in. He deserves everything you care to say about him, and much, much more. He is a seriously disturbed man.

    But you dismiss and ignore him at your peril. Remember: this man used to call up the fucking president of the United States. And he got through. And the president listened to him.

    You ever had that kind of access to power? Got it now? Thought not. Me, neither. You got his hundreds of millions of dollars? Got millions of fans giving you hard-earned- bucks? Nope, I don't have them either.

    Sure, go ahead: Repeat the obvious: Of course, it's a sad state of affairs when an ignorant, moral degenerate like Pat Robertson is so influential to the most powerful men – and yeah, it's basically men – in the world.So what? Don't ever forget he had that access, and still has access, to far more powerful men (and the occasional woman) than you can even imagine. So…

    Until that changes, you should never, ever, underestimate him, or his unbelievable power – not only in the public discourse, but in the direction of American governance, jurisprudence, and culture.

    Don't like it? Neither do I. But there it is, and it's not gonna change if you merely dismiss him.

    You want to start to see genuine change in this country? Take Pat Robertson very, very seriously. For example, I doubt there are more than two major universities in this country that bother to teach a course on Pat Robertson and his influence. Until he is given the genuine attention he deserves – and I mean, until Robertson is really held up to intense, withering, and sustained scrutiny by people who seriously care about this country's liberal traditions – he and his ilk will continue to have a disproportionate input into our national dialogue.

    End of rant."
    tristero 1/14/2010 12:30:00 PM

  15. For what it's worth, Robertson's Wikipedia bio includes that his undergrad major at Washington & Lee University was *history*. The article states that his BA was granted magna cum laude. (This may say as much about W & L standards as it does for Pat's scholarship.) A claim that he made Phi Beta Kappa hasn't been substantiated. Now, while 18th and 19th C. Caribbean colonial history might not have been large in his studies, nevertheless, as a "history major" and undergrad performance bringing accolades, one would think (!) that he would have been more thoughtful in this, his latest loopy spout delivering historical "facts". But, a lot of water has gone over the dam since his undergrad days, and one can chalk up this recent public statement as a business calculation, possibly to deflect any impulses by "his" flock to (gasp) send those funds that belong to him to relief in Haiti — it's just Pat taking care of business, no intention to be racist or anything ;oD

  16. I agree…why give Pat Robertson
    even the time of day….in my opinion, he is a nutcase like the rest of the so called "religious" right..I say, give them the boot on their butt and maybe that will rattle their brain into some kind of sense.

  17. I'm reminded of the story of last remaining native Cuban as he was dying. He was asked "Don't you want to accept Jesus so you can go to heaven?"

    The native Cuban replied "Are there Spaniards there?" To which the priest answered "Yes!" To which the last native Cuban replied "No, I don't want to go to heaven".

  18. Don't forget Robertson's blaiming New Orleans for the mardi gras and such after the hurricane struck.
    Just think , way back when he tried to run for President. God forbid. I heard shoot down Gay rights because "you wouldnt want to have a boss that was Gay, would you" The man is an asshole with lots of money to put his network on cable. 700 club? More like the 666 Club.

  19. It is very sad that a person who is supposed to be a man of God thinks this way. With all the death a suffering that is occurring in Haiti his statement were far less than compassionate. To the followers of Pat Robertson I will pray for you. This doesn't appear to me to be a ministry based on the true principals of Christianity. For the God that I know is one of compassion and love.

  20. Guardian.uk => Rush Limbaugh enters race to the bottom on Haiti : “It's true that a certain kind of white person will never forgive the Haitians for freeing themselves from the French – just as another kind of person, white or black, will recall that same glorious history as one of the reasons not to write off Haiti or the Haitians. (And if you have any interest in the history, I urge you to read CLR James's great The Black Jacobins: Toussaint L'Ouverture and the San Domingo Revolution, published more than 50 years ago and still one of the best books about Haiti ever written). But it's also a sign of how crazed the American right has become that Mr. Limbaugh could claim the Haitian earthquake was "made to order" for Obama because it would allow the president to "burnish his credibility … with both light-skinned and black-skinned" African Americans. Now there are plenty of reasons to be disappointed with Obama… But you'd need more than a serious OxyContin habit to think Obama needs any burnishing among African Americans. No, what Rush is really doing is what he gets paid for: speaking aloud the things his millions of dittohead followers would love to say, but know they shouldn't.

  21. As the Ambassador of Haiti to the US said yesterday in an interview on MSNBC's Rachel Maddow show, if the Haitian Revolution had not occurred, the US would not have been able to purchase Louisiana, the French needing funds. He suggested that the 'pact' also allowed us, as a country, to become what we are. So the 'devil made us do it', eh?

    Robertson should just disappear. His handler didn't rein him in in time–and Limbaugh. What a demonstrably racist windbag.

  22. I was brought up without the religious metaphors, and I pity the people that are bound to the ridiculous absurd stories that they swallow every day from such lunatics as Pat Robertson and many others like him. Perhaps in time we will wake up to those scoundrels and deny them access to the media channels.

  23. It is beyond me that anyone claiming to believe in our Lord Jesus Christ can follow such a person build on hate.Pat and his sheep need to be praying for those injured in Haiti.

  24. Robertson (or Sleazebertson as I like to call him)is a sleazebag. Anyone who believes his line of thinking is also said sleazebag.

    My concern is that white Christians will get preferential treatment during this disaster. Ditto for European Whites, and "missionaries", and wealthy Haitians (Yes, there are quite a few).

    My other concern is that the "Christian Charity" organizations will not help all Haitians, will help only if they are Christians in their interpretation of what Christianity is, and others will suffer.

  25. One thing that must be pointed out about these christianists who blame whole populations for angering God who then visits a catastrophe on them is that they most definitely do NOT believe in the personal god of Christianity. A personal god would NEVER punish someone for something that someone else had done. So to say that God killed the people in the WTC and the Pentagon, not to mention in the airplanes because someone else had performed abortions is proof positive that they are not at all acquainted with Christianity. The same goes for all the people along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts who suffered during Katrina or the people in Houston during the hurricanes that hit there.

    What Robertson and his ilk are actually preaching is a pagan religion of some sort of vengeful god on the order of Odin who cares little for individuals. They believe in some sort of tribal deity who regards mankind as some sort of herd animal to be used for its own use the same way that we raise cattle to be sent to a feedlot and then slaughtered for meat and leather.

  26. Thank you, Juan Cole, for shining the spotlight on another part of the ugly colonial history in our own back yard. Perhaps you can add some additional information regarding the roots of Haiti's persistent economic difficulties that Robertson also blames on the devil. I found this interesting account:
    "According to the booklet, which will soon be published under the name of the Haiti Restitution Commission, following the 1804 revolution that expelled France, Haiti was divided into two districts, northern and southern, but was re-united following the death of Henri Christophe in 1820.
    Under the new president, Jean Pierre Boyer, diplomatic notes began to be exchanged with various French functionaries on the diplomatic recognition of Haiti.
    Finally in 1825, France, which was being encouraged by former plantation owners to invade Haiti and re-enslave the Blacks, issued the Royal Ordinance of 1825, which called for the massive indemnity payments. In addition to the 150 million franc payment, France decreed that French ships and commercial goods entering and leaving Haiti would be discounted at 50 percent, thereby further weakening Haiti's ability to pay.
    According to French officials at the time, the terms of the edict were non-negotiable. And to impress the seriousness of the situation upon the Haitians, France delivered the demands by 12 warships armed with 500canons.
    The 150-million-franc indemnity was based on profits earned by the colonists, according to a memorandum prepared by their lawyers. In 1789, Saint Domingue – all of Haiti and Santo Domingo – exported 150 million francs worth of products to France. In 1823 Haitian exports to France totaled 8.5 million francs, exports to England totaled 8.4 million francs, and exports to the United States totaled 13.1 million francs, for a total of 30 million francs.
    The lawyers then claimed that one half of the 30 million francs went toward the costs of production, leaving 15 million francs as profit. The 15 million franc balance was multiplied by 10 (10 years of lost revenues for the French colonists due to the war for liberation), which coincidentally totals 150 million francs, the value of exports in 1789.
    To make matters worse for Haiti, the French anticipated and planned for Haiti to secure a loan to pay the first installment on the indemnity. Haiti was forced to borrow the 30 million francs from a French bank that then deducted the management fees from the face value of the loan and charged interest rates so exorbitant that after payment was completed, Haiti was still 6 million francs short.
    The 150-million-franc indemnity represented France's annual budget and 10 years of revenue for Haiti. One study estimates the indemnity was 55 million more francs than was needed to restore the 793 sugar plantations, 3,117 coffee estates and 3,906 indigo, cotton and other crop plantations destroyed during the war for independence.
    By contrast, when it became clear France would no longer be in a position to capitalize on further westward expansion in the Western hemisphere, they agreed to sell the Louisiana Territory, an area 74 times the surface area of Haiti, to the U.S. for just 60 million francs, less than half the Haitian indemnity." link to nathanielturner.com

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