02.01.10

Remember That Awful Thing the Former NBA Power Forward Wrote About Haiti?

Posted in Blogged Down, Free Expression, Internal Affairs at 3:02 pm by

Yeah, you remember. Anyway, here’s what I thought about it last week.

Actually, wait: what’s below is pretty long, and thus probably needs some contextualizing. I have contributed a couple pieces to the website Paul Shirley started, and which he then just about blew up last week with his spectacularly ill-tempered, ill-informed, ill-advised and generally illness-inducing Haiti-needs-to-get-bootstrappin’ rant.

Obviously the whole deal was kind of a bummer for me — I found out that his piece existed when everyone who has contributed to the site was CC’ed on a “hey, fuck right off” email from a, uh, concerned reader, and have received emails from people I know since then wondering what I was doing anywhere near something like this. I wrote a (predictably lengthy) critique/contextualization of Paul’s piece for the site, which he opted not to run, since he would like (oh, how he would like) to move on and see the story blow over. Which it kind of has, although Deadspin had a post this morning sifting through his old ESPN music stuff for telltale traces of dickery. I don’t know whether I’ll write for his site again, but considering that my name was right there alongside his hatefuck opus, I felt like I should probably respond someplace. You know, to address my imaginary public.

So, then: GC has okayed me posting my long and only tenuously relevant take on Big Shirl’s fearlessly critical anti-analysis of our hemisphere’s unluckiest nation. Here it is, and thanks to GC for letting me drop the word-bomb.

ContraContrarianism

Poor Microsoft Word “ crash-prone, counterintuitive, unloved in its ubiquity, and the last to know when new words enter the language. When I type the word “contrarian,” MS Word helpfully underlines it in red. This is its way of telling me that I have just used a word that is not a word “ I get the same thing when I write “berrylicious,” for instance. And yet just because it’s not in MS Word doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist “ “compassionate libertarianism” and “groundbreaking romantic comedy” aren’t underlined, for instance, and yet both are strictly as notional as a Yeti-led illuminati that meets in Atlantis. Trust this: as surely as certain types of Skittle are indeed berrylicious, contrarian is a word and an actual existing thing. You even know what it means. Or you know it when you see it, at least. It’s all around you.

There are legitimately contrarian people active in our world as well, and doubtless you’re able to identify them as well. They’re the people at the party arguing the badness of something good or the goodness of something bad at someone’s departing back. There are a great many impolite, non-MS-Word-sanctioned names for this particular person, but contrarian is one that limits its critique to that person’s argumentative technique, and which is useful to us here. The idea is this: you take a position that’s in conflict with what’s generally believed to be so “ the more glaring and seemingly inarguable the conflict the better “ and you argue it.

Will you win this argument? That depends, really, but it’s kind of beside the point: contemporary contrarianism is less about the argument than the arguing. At an abstract level, it’s easy enough to defend this: it can be bracing and helpful to have expectations challenged, and the more thoroughly received the bit of perceived wisdom, the more it could stand a good windmill-tilt. I’m not necessarily making that defense myself “ I am, in fact, preparing to do the opposite “ but, sure, I see it. And anyway, contrarianism circa now is less about challenging conventional wisdom than it is about contrarianism itself. That is, it’s mostly about its own cheap heat. And therefore, fundamentally, about nothing much at all, defensible or otherwise.

At the websites-trying-to-make-money level, the click-through is the thing “ this is as true at loathsome n’ useless hit-beggars as it is at your more respectably contrarian venues (including some that I’ve written for myself), although you’ll generally find more than Drudge-baiting scandal-manufacture/outrage-fuel at your Slates and New Republics. It, by which I sadly mean just about everything we do, is finally a business, so, sure, there’s some calculation in play every time someone sits down to write. And pissing you off is indeed a way to hold your interest. It’s a matter of degrees, but that calculation itself is not as cynical or as irritating as the 300-pages-of-jabs-to-the-ribs school of contrarianism you see in, say, Freakonomics. There, we get Very Provocative Theses of an uninformed (but very well educated) guy concerning how global warming maybe doesn’t exist and anyway could be stopped by a miracle invention because capitalism is magic “ for actual example “ made by someone who knows nothing of what he writes, and argues solely from a place of abstracted self-amusement. The challenge is the thing; the argument, the actual mustering of something beyond build-to-suit anecdotes, is secondary, if it’s there at all. There is nothing inherently wrong with an intellectual provocation. But there is something wrong “ something empty, childish, poor “ with doing it just for yuks, or out of some aggrieved boredom or idle ill-informed cruelty or simple wish to argue for arguing’s sake. Which is a long way of bringing me to Paul’s piece about Haiti.

Paul’s piece was obviously provocative, and a look at the number of comments it has drawn “ 585 as I write this “ would suggest that it succeeded in a certain sense. It got people talking, or typing; made them mad or (ugh) amused them. And yet success on those terms does not “ in this case and in general “ preclude what is otherwise a stunning and hugely objectionable larger failure. I like Paul, as a person and as a writer, and I can tell you that he’s not an ideologue and certainly not an idiot. But his piece is really one of the nastiest and most vacant and ungenerous pieces of writing I’ve ever read by someone whose work I enjoy. It’s on him to explain himself, if he wants to do so, or to apologize or not apologize “ I’ll say that I found the piece embarrassing and embarrassingly wrongheaded, personally. But it’s not without precedent.

The worst type of contrarianism “ the contrarianism-of-self-amusement, which is basically a provocation for provocation’s sake, an argument beamed directly from an internal wish that everyone would just stop being so stupid — is all over Paul’s piece, but it’s to be found most clearly right there up top, in the “maybe I’m naughty for even writing this” disclaimer. It’s a sign that what follows isn’t going to be up to the seriousness of the task. If you want to argue that Haiti is not a good investment, I guess you can do so “ David Brooks did it in the New York Times, and Anne Appelbaum did it at Slate “ but it’s not a coincidence that the two people between those em-dashes are kind of assholes. It’s a callous argument, and one that overlooks a whole world of bloody and very real context about Haiti itself, a nation that was born in debt (and which eventually paid off the equivalent of hundreds of millions of dollars to France, the nation from which it won independence in a national slave revolt) and which has suffered at the hands of a litany of meddling global powers ever since. But it’s an argument you could make, I suppose.

Let’s leave aside the moral ugliness of ignoring the human facts of Haiti’s ruin “ its status as the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere (as Paul mentions) is a reflection of a morass of moral and political problems, but it’s also a provocation in its own right. As with New Orleans post-Katrina, Haiti’s circumstances stare America’s fat middle right in the face, demanding a childish culture take a break from trying to figure out what plasma TV would look best on the wall in the bathroom to consider the astonishing fact of extreme poverty’s simultaneous nearness and distance to us here. It is not a rhetorical problem or an abstract thing; it’s a real-life actual-existing problem. The ruin of Haiti, the total system failure that was on display there even before the ground moved beneath it, exists in a different universe than the isn’t-that-interesting whimsy of Freakonomics-style devil’s advocacy.

But Paul’s piece isn’t a sports-media what-if orgy “ call them “rosterbations:” those speculative reorderings of a team’s roster through a series of improbable trades and free agent signings, with a big dumb QED on top, that run through the way sports gets talked about online. Paul’s not suggesting ways in which Haiti could lift itself, up, up, up, until it looks (as Brooks half-argues) like Barbados. Paul’s piece reads even nastier and pettier and dumber than that. It reads like he’s annoyed at Haiti for being so incredibly abject. I can’t imagine he really thinks this, but it’s difficult to draw any conclusion after reading the piece.

If the essay is not quite a suggestion that Haiti take a good long look at itself and figure out how or why it got hit by an earthquake that buried 150,000 people alive, it’s not nearly far enough from that to be in a comfortable moral place. It’s not worth going point-by-point on Paul’s essay, which is both terribly callous and not terribly well thought-out. The grisly gist of it, though, is a sort of half-assed crypto-libertarian critique in which Haiti’s failures are Haiti’s fault alone “ which is just ignorant “ and thus render the outpouring of global money and sympathy somehow co-dependent, the sort of thing that just encourages nations to get as abject as possible. As if the money we donated was arriving on shrink-wrapped pallets and then being distributed to Haiti’s people in great fistfuls destined to be spent on foie gras and blu-ray players. And as if there was no broader moral consideration here at all.

So, I’m scolding, now. (This, incidentally, is another thing that bugs me about contrarianism “ its facile rhetorical bravery moves put people defending actual facts in the role of Prof. Nannystate Soy-Latte, leaving the person arguing the Multifariously Untenable Position TBD in the heroic Rugged Individualist position) And Paul’s piece is so self-evidently unserious and obviously under-reasoned that, again, it’s not really worth running down everything that’s objectionable about it. But while it’s an individual failure on his part “ and on the part of whichever Flip Collective member edited the piece without telling him to spike the fucking thing or start over “ it’s also part of a broader failure of seriousness in the discourse. I suppose the stars-and-sentimentalism of a telethon fits into that failure “ that’s an emotional appeal, too “ but if both come from a recognizably human place, at least telethon sentimentality reflects the human attributes we’re pleased to see surface in ourselves.

Contrarianism, finally, is about play, both on the part of the writers who construct their mock arguments and the readers so apparently eager to consume those empty intellectual calories. Paul’s failure to consider the earthquake’s repercussions in any morally or intellectually serious way reflects this fundamental unseriousness in all its ugliness. If we’re so hard up to feel something like interest in anything that we need some joker to provoke us with some bullshit riffs about how it maybe isn’t the way it seems, then the realities under the surface noise of the discourse just aren’t hitting home for the writer or the reader. Contrarian arguments “ or the basic contrarianism-for-contrarianism’s-sake, the in-your-face stuff which is the dominant contrarian mode at present, and the category in which Paul’s piece best belongs “ do not really challenge intellectual complacency so much as they flatter it. In their bloodless, self-amused abstraction, these arguments challenge readers with the prospect that the way you feel about The Thing may not be superior to this other way to feel. They do not, however, suggest or demand or reflect any serious thought about The Thing itself. Which is to say that they’re not really challenging at all, and actually quite easily and quite reasonably dismissed.

13 Responses to “Remember That Awful Thing the Former NBA Power Forward Wrote About Haiti?”

  1. Mitchell says:

    I read Paul’s piece, and he basically argued that Haiti was a bad investment and that the Haitian people also shouldn’t support such a corrupt government, whose policies lead to the disaster caused by earthquake, based on the country having no infrastructure and poorly-built buildings.

    I don’t know enough about Haitian histroy to analyze the validity about how much the citizens can actually do to improve their economy and government, but I don’t think many of his critics care to analyze that argument either.

    I think most of his critics are just looking at the fact that he’s expressing these opinions in light of a tragedy, but regardless of the sentiment towards the suffering of the Haitian people, the argument over whether or not they had any control over their infrastructure isn’t affected by those sentiments. It’s a straightforward argument, but most people are just dismissing it for emotional reasons.

  2. cp says:

    I read a review of one of Will Self’s books (Great Apes, maybe) in a British publication that was five words long “Will Self is a cunt.” I love Will Self, but the review made me giggle like a schoolgirl. It would have been easy to offer the same sort of response to Shirley’s diatribe, which you correctly pegged as bullshit fustian contrarian jive. I’m glad you chose to go the other direction and give this piece some thought. It’s probably the best and most intelligent response I’ve read yet to his sad little rant. And it comes from a Sox fan. Christ.

  3. David Roth says:

    Mitchell, you’re not wrong in your summary of Paul’s argument, but that doesn’t mean you’re right. The ability of people to “support” a bad government, the responsibility of those people to “improve” their own conditions (you know, the way we do here, in the sports blogosphere) — all this is not nothing, it’s not some abstraction. We can all agree that everyone ought to take more responsibility for their actions or whatever, but the world is full of things that devalue that sort of conceptual thought — reality, let’s call those things — and if you remain willfully ignorant of those things, then your argument isn’t going to be worth much. Also the tone of his piece was abhorrently callous.

    And CP, thanks for that. But I’m a Mets fan. Warmowski’s your Sox fan, and probably a better bet for a “…is a cunt” on this one, given his midwestern pith.

  4. Tommy Hoops says:

    I second what CP said. I could barely hold back my anger at the disgusting ‘letter to the Haitian people’ he wrote within his piece, but you managed to step back and take him to task like an adult. Well done.

    Tom.

  5. cp says:

    Eep. Sorry about that. The compliments still stand of course.

  6. Allen says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful analysis. Now that everyone has a printing press on their lap, talk is cheaper than ever. And it’s easy for a smartypants to argue abstractions without any particular knowledge or even conviction. If we want to do that, we ought to restrict topics to sports or punkrock. Like you said, this is actual reality that we’re talking about in this case.

  7. I missed all of this – just like Shirley missed all the decades of neoliberal economics as practiced by the US dumping massively subsidized Louisiana rice in Haiti, destroying their hobbled-since-birth self-sufficiency. He also missed the debt of the country being used as a gun to its head by the IMF to savage its own economy, privatize its institutions, and destroy any chance of a public sector developing in order to enforce building codes. He missed the cold war, he missed US support for the Touton Macoutes, he missed all of what globalization means.

    All of this is a fair mistake for a guy who doesn’t write about geopolitics…until he writes about geopolitics. What isn’t fair – what’s galling – is that his failure to mention, let alone synthesize any of the above objective historical realities means he either didn’t know (or care) to look for them, or, once having found them, presumed they were propaganda. Let’s give him a benefit of the doubt (and a presumption of a work ethic) and guess it’s the latter.

    A monster problem for people who are geopolitical dilettantes is pro forma skepticism. That is to say, looking at an event with the expectation that two opposing narratives exist and presuming that both are necessarily partisan or ideological and therefore cancel.

    That applies often enough to propaganda. But economic history is not commonly propaganda. In fact, it’s a great rule of thumb that very, very little that is boring to read is or can even be propaganda. Also, things that are boring to read have the additional quality of not being diametrically opposable. Read enough and then you can triangulate a defensible position, not before.

    In short, if you haven’t yet been bored by your research on a subject, you haven’t done enough of it and should keep your yapper shut.

    Unless you’re recklessly whoring for clicks. And if you’re doing that, fuck you.

  8. Nick says:

    well said, Rob. My guess is that Shirley didn’t do any of the research except for a cursory look at the effects (and only the effects) of the neoliberal policies that you cite. But this goes to the heart of David’s argument above: contrarianism for contrarianism’s sake eschews all substance and the actual need to be familiar with what one is being contrary about. It’s all form and no substance. It can be used for any situation. I still say Shirley’s biggest crime is being a dick.

  9. David Roth says:

    I promise you PS did no research. Which would explain how he missed everything that globalization means. The piece (which I’m sorry you had to read, after having avoided it for so long) was strictly reactive and emotional and peevish. Which is one of the dozen or so reasons I hated it as much as I did. But well done and well-said, RW.

  10. Pete Segall says:

    “Let’s give him a benefit of the doubt (and a presumption of a work ethic) and guess it’s the latter.”

    If this is what the platform of any credibility that Shirley has/had rests upon then the guy is coming from a very distant and logically-benighted place. But we already knew that. What’s far sadder, and much more frightening, is the dawning realization that his sentiments – or those almost identical – will be passed around like hors d’ouevres or Legionnaires disease at the Tea Bag convention in Nashville this week. In fact, I can envision Shirley walking gleefully into that khaki-and-powdered-wig clusterfuck to the biggest standing ovation of his life (he plays Spain, right? There aren’t direct flights from Bilbao to Nashville yet, are there?).

  11. Dave says:

    Ask the internet and ye shall receive, eh? That was better work than I would have come up with Dave, especially considering it was more about the world the idea exists in instead of the piece itself, but it still didn’t turn in to some ouroboros of commentary. I can’t really add anything on to what Rob said about the history of Hati without sounding like a dilettante, so let me just say good show sir.

  12. justicenaczycz says:

    dave that’s another well reasoned response to mitchell above but I can’t help but add that iff mitchell thinks that the piece he is commenting on doesn’t examine shirley’s argument thoughtfully and is some sort of emotional off the cuff rant than I can only assume he has trouble with the vocabulary or didn’t read it. And if he thinks that no one has given the argument any real thought than I believe he is attributing blog commenters as being the only people on earth with any opinion on the subject. I guess it comes from a blog and we’re on a blog, and blog blog blog, but this isn’t just about paul shirley. It’s about a movement that has gained far too much momentum despite no organization (outside of media providing jobs for these fucks).
    It comes down to what david says at the end of the piece about flattering intellectual complacency. It’s the same as the bullshit “I’m just folks like you” of bush and palin and continues to the just unbelievably hateful pat robertsons. and there is some responsibility as a writer (and hopefully a noursiher of discourse and intellect or at least information) to not contribute to this backwards and destructive idiocy. The people who are convinced by stuff like this don’t need any more legitimizing. They’re already seriously delusional about the facts and their ability to reason with them.

  13. Erin B. says:

    Paul Shirley’s post didn’t actually offend my sensibilities.

    I think there’s a tendency to, when someone says something in strident opposition to what is considered The Absolute Moral Right (whether Absolute pertains to the reader/listener’s own personal internal compass or what they perceive to be the world’s compass) just go completely fucking batshit on that person, as though shaming them will change their mind and redirect them to The Absolute Moral Right.

    Unfortunately, the world tends to be a fucking complicated place. Haiti is a country that’s started out pretty screwed up and it hasn’t really managed to ever recover from that initial state. It’s for a variety of reasons. You don’t need a master’s in global politics and history to get the basic gist. Understanding the basics would have probably improved the overall tone of Shirley’s ranticle, but I doubt it would have changed his mind.

    It’s ugly and it sucks and I hate thinking about it, but giving aid — especially on the massive scale post-earthquake, post-tsunami, post-Katrina, post-9/11 — should be a point of consideration. Someone’s hurt, dying, sick, bleeding, whatever; the natural human response is, “Oh God! What can I do to help!? Here, have a $5 sent-by-text donation!” And that’s good. I don’t think Shirley ever insinuated it wasn’t.

    But donations and aid of any form are only as good as the use to which they are put. Truth, hard and cold. It’s great if we can get together x million dollars to send out into the ether to fund the various humanitarian operations working to get relief to Haitians right now. It’d be better if we could get together x million dollars to send to various humanitarian operations working to rebuild Haiti and make it BETTER, STRONGER, FASTER. We have the technology, my friends.

    Something that’s gotten lost in all this mess, to a degree, is the fact that there are actual Goddamn people living in Haiti. At first blush, Shirley’s ranticle read to me as essentially saying, “How dare those poor people be so poor!” And, sure, that’s an easy read to take. It serves to feed the confirmation bias of “Everyone who disagrees with me and doesn’t do so in a manner that I endorse is just doing so to be a troll”. Saying that perhaps the citizens of Haiti aren’t simply victims doesn’t amount to saying that they deserved the decades of abuse prior to now or that they aren’t deserving of any aid at all.

    Everybody wants to help Haiti. Some of us are simply not convinced that throwing money in the country’s vague direction is the best plan of attack. If Paul Shirley’s guilty of anything, for my money it’s bad writing.

    Now can we all stop being so precious about this and demand that the relief organizations which have received (which is, no matter how you slice it, a lot. One example: http://www.physorg.com/news182698254.html ) openly discuss their tactics for best distributing aid and helping the citizens of Haiti set up an infrastructure that will help minimize the impact of future natural disasters?

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