The massive earthquake that upended the island of Haiti last week has given way to a near-unprecedented outpouring of charity and relief efforts from around the world for the Haitian people. Regrettably, it also provided some with an opportunity to make tasteless and insensitive remarks, as talk-show host Rush Limbaugh did last week when he accused President Barack Obama of trying to manipulate the United States’ response to Haiti’s crisis for political advantage.
Ever the provocateur and certainly not known for holding his tongue, the conservative firebrand wasted little time in launching a broadside that charged the White House would “use this to burnish their, shall we say, ‘credibility’ with the black community—in the both light-skinned and dark-skinned black community in this country. It’s made-to-order for them.”
As a talk-show host, Limbaugh was doing what most partisan commentators do with gusto—using his media platform to generate controversy and stoke public debate. But his crass remarks came during a time when heartrending images of corpses and gravely injured citizens are very much the focus of international headlines. Limbaugh’s tirade drew deserved rebukes from other conservative commentators, and stood in contrast to remarks made by former President George W. Bush, who spoke approvingly of President Obama’s rapid response to the earthquake.
In addition to demonstrating a stunning lack of humanity, Limbaugh’s tone-deaf and classless remarks also denigrate the inspiring efforts undertaken by governments and private citizens from around the world, many of who have been motivated by the horrifying devastation in Haiti.
But the response to the crisis has also highlighted the longstanding socio-political dysfunction that has paralyzed Haiti’s economic development, and rendered it the poorest country in the Western Hemisphere. Despite being the oldest predominantly black republic in the West, the impoverished Caribbean island has been characterized by endemic political corruption and seemingly endless political unrest and social instability over the years. The Port-au-Prince government’s sclerotic leadership and years of inadequate infrastructure has coalesced to create enormous logistical challenges as aid pours in from around the world. And despite the more favorable view President Obama enjoys when compared to his predecessor, it has not much spared him much of the international suspicion over the United States’ long-term objectives in Haiti.
That said, Limbaugh’s remarks are certainly not reflective of the broader sentiment amongst conservatives, many of which have been spurred into action by the crisis in Haiti alongside other American citizens. Their response to the humanitarian crisis in Haiti has been a study in individual altruism and non-governmental philanthropy. Millions continue to donate money through charitable and relief organizations such as the American Red Cross and the Salvation Army, on a scale not seen since the massive Indonesian tsunami that extinguished more than 200,000 lives in 2004. Certainly the mainstream media has always managed to overstate Limbaugh’s influence on the conservative movement, whose members are far from monolithic and do not take their marching orders from the talk-show host. A more thoughtful and sensitive conservative perspective can be found in a published article by Rev. Robert Sirico, who mulls the fine balance that must be struck between the natural impulse to give, and the reasonable skepticism that must accompany international relief efforts that are bound to be fraught with risk and unintended consequences.