Every writer knows how useful oxymorons can be; they allow you to express very complex ideas in a single phrase, often in an appealingly funny way. I ran into a great example of that when I did a google search on the word and found a site with this gem of an oxymoron – ‘academic fraternity’. That’s something of an insider joke I suppose but if you’ve been there, you’ll understand. Today’s oxymoron though, is essential peripheral. (No, it’s not listed on that website)
Peripherals aren’t usually essential. That’s almost by definition but if you’ll follow my example, you’ll understand why that’s not the case in this case and why the phrase is so heavily laden with meaning. The essential peripheral, in this case, is this blog entry, which is more about Haiti than about the story I’m working on presently, (The Brooklyn Museum Exhibit). That makes it peripheral. Yet this entry is essential to an understanding of the story, of its artistic substance, and of what I’m trying to accomplish in writing it. That makes it essential.
It’s about the takeaway.
Haiti is one of the most maligned and misunderstood places in the world. Vodoun is a religion, one of the ancient religions of the world, an African religion with origins that predate Moses. In the Vodoun tradition Moses’ (yes, that Moses) wife, Sephora or Zipporah was a Midianite, a black woman, a daughter of Vodoun, and that Moses himself was an initiate, though he later repudiated her and left the religion at the urging of his sister and brother.
The narrative about Haiti is that it’s the poorest country in the world (it is not) and that Haitians continually engage in self-destructive behavior (they do not – no more than we do). What’s wrong with Haiti can be summarized, fairly and concisely, in two words — foreign interference — especially by the United States of America.
A painful, recent iteration of that is Hilary Clinton’s leadership in the installation of Michel Martelly, whose blatant corruption and mismanagement was not enough to disabuse his friends from the Clinton Foundation and the US Government of his value and importance to them. Makes you wonder about their priorities.
More generally, much has been written about how Aid dollars go astray, even with the best of intentions. Haitians can tell you better than I about the foreigners who come in to make the decisions about how the money is spent, and how most of it is wasted on projects that are designed and run by people who don’t have a good understanding of what’s needed or what’s likely to work.
Jonathan Katz writes that “until money and other resources come into Haiti in a way that builds up local institutions, including the government, and gives Haitians control over their own lives, no number of emergency aid deliveries or one-off development projects are going to leave Haitians in a position to weather future disasters of any kind.” (more here)
Haiti is not just an essential peripheral to The Brooklyn Museum Exhibit but as Hilary Clinton herself noted, it’s an essential peripheral to all of us here in these United States of America.
It’s important that we make an effort to understand why.
PS: I have to acknowledge the late William Safire for the title and spirit of this blog entry. Though we inhabited different, even opposite sides of the political corpus, I always admired his skill as a writer and read his column in the Times whenever I could. It was called ‘On Language’. He was a great writer.