Paul Shirley's Modest Proposal for Haiti Gets Him Fired From ESPN


ESPN cut ties with NBA player turned author Paul Shirley after an inflammatory column that criticized relief efforts in Haiti. Those of a certain bent will frame this politically and make him a martyr, but it’s not a case of valid viewpoint discrimination.  Shirley’s words were inexplicably ignorant.

Historical issues can be explained two basic ways, structure and agency. Structural explanations focus on environmental factors, while agency-centric explanations focus on the individuals involved. Responsible historicism blends the two. “Using history as his guide,” Shirley attributes so much to agency it defies logic.

He blames the Haitians themselves for the disaster.

Before the reader reaches for his or her blood pressure medication, he should allow me to explain. I don’t mean in any way that the Haitians deserved their collective fate. And I understand that it is difficult to plan for the aftermath of an earthquake. However, it is not outside the realm of imagination to think that the citizens of a country might be able to: A) avoid putting themselves into a situation that might result in such catastrophic loss of life.  And B) provide for their own aid, in the event of such a catastrophe.

He blames the Haitians for living in Haiti.

If forced to do so through logic-colored glasses, no one would look at Haiti and think, “You know what? It was a great idea to put 10 million people on half of an island. The place is routinely battered by hurricanes (in 2008, $900 million was lost/spent on recovery from them), it holds the aforementioned title of poorest nation in the Western hemisphere, and it happens to sit on a tectonic fault line.”

Mr. Shirley, look at the skin color of 95 percent of the Haitian population. They weren’t given “logic-colored glasses.” They weren’t given a choice. Enlightened westerners whisked them away from their villages, provided them a one-way passage across the Atlantic chained to the bowels of a ship, and sold them into lifelong toil.

After earning their freedom, that was their home. They had been there for hundreds of years. Even assuming they had the means and perfect knowledge, there was no definite homeland in Africa. It was also 1804. Every other place in the western world had slavery and the slave trade. They were stuck.

Shirley harps on Haiti’s poverty and poor infrastructure blaming them for the disaster’s aftermath.

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.

Haiti is the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere, primarily because it had the poorest starting point. Most Caribbean countries who wanted independence had 100 years or more of colonialism post-slavery. They achieved independence in a safe post World War II environment, with intact political structures, with well-educated elites and with strong economic ties.

Haiti went straight from plantation to independence, more than 100 years before anyone else, when black slave rebellion was the Western world’s greatest nightmare. The country had few economic ties, no infrastructure and no education. France still viewed Haiti as a colony in rebellion well into the 19th century, only recognizing independence when Haitians agreed to pay 150 million francs in property restitution, for themselves.

Stability is required to build and maintain infrastructure (See Dark Ages in Western Europe). Haiti began with societal destruction and a power vacuum, and has still been struggling to attain it.

People are responsible for their own destinies, but can only operate within the constraints society gives them. Shirley should understand limitations. No amount of initiative would have made him the next Kareem.

Finally, Shirley at his most callous, blames the Haitians for reproducing, as he hinted when referring to “birth control.”

What I do know is that it is not the responsibility of the outside world to provide help. It’s nice if we do, but it is not a requirement, especially when people choose to influence their own existences negatively, whether by having too many children when they can’t afford them or by failing to recognize that living in a concrete bunker might not be the best way to protect one’s family, whether an earthquake happens or not.

His sentiment is hardly original. It was the English attitude toward Ireland for hundreds of years, one that Jonathan Swift skewered in his great satire “A Modest Proposal.”

It is a melancholy object to those who walk through this great town or travel in the country, when they see the streets, the roads, and cabin doors, crowded with beggars of the female sex, followed by three, four, or six children, all in rags and importuning every passenger for an alms. These mothers, instead of being able to work for their honest livelihood, are forced to employ all their time in strolling to beg sustenance for their helpless infants: who as they grow up either turn thieves for want of work, or leave their dear native country to fight for the Pretender in Spain, or sell themselves to the Barbadoes.

I think it is agreed by all parties that this prodigious number of children in the arms, or on the backs, or at the heels of their mothers, and frequently of their fathers, is in the present deplorable state of the kingdom a very great additional grievance; and, therefore, whoever could find out a fair, cheap, and easy method of making these children sound, useful members of the commonwealth, would deserve so well of the public as to have his statue set up for a preserver of the nation.

Swift continues outlining in fine detail a plan for the Irish to harvest their own children as a food source. If only they had had blogs in the 1700s.

Unlike Mr. Shirley, I do feel responsible for helping Haiti. Maybe it’s guilt because my ancestors screwed them and left me in a position of privilege. Maybe it’s because I believe if you live by Jesus’ “teach them to fish” parable, you also equally need to account for him feeding the hungry and healing the sick without question. Maybe it’s because I have not become jaded enough to let my masterful intellect override my natural instinct to help people who need it and criticize others who wish to do so.