On Wednesday, many people were taken aback by an announcement from the French Ministry of Foreign and European Affairs of a new 'framework initiative' that would return the 90 million gold francs paid by Haiti from 1825 to 1947.
This indemnity has long been a bone of contention, pressured as Haiti was to pay 'compensation' for the loss of colonial property in return for international recognition of the newly independent state.
When the Haitian president, Jean-Bertrand Aristide, brought up the question once more, on the occasion of the 200th anniversary of the death of national hero Toussaint L'Ouverture in a French cell in 1803, his counterpart Jacques Chirac was not impressed.
Even though two years earlier the French parliament had recognized slavery as a crime against humanity, the official response to the bill for $21,685,135,571 and 48 cents (its modern equivalent, with interest) was brusque, even bad-tempered. The foreign ministry commissioned a report on Franco-Haitian relations, which dismissed the claim for reparations as anachronistic and mocked the way in which Aristide had presented it.
There was precious little support even in the left-wing press in France, leading the Haitian writer Louis-Philippe Dalembert to pen an article in Libération wondering why intellectuals in the land of Hugo and Zola had all turned into foreign ministers whose main aim was to defend French interests. Dalembert was no friend of Aristide, and doubted whether Aristide was the best person to raise the issue, but he insisted that the demand for the restitution of an 'immoral and iniquitous debt' should not be allowed to be forgotten.
And indeed it has not. So despite Aristide's enforced departure in the coup of February 2004 and Gerard Latortue's prompt reassurance that the 'illegal' and 'ridiculous' claim would not be pursued, when Nicolas Sarkozy visited Haiti in February this year, he faced angry protests demanding that France pay up and help return Aristide to office.
The announcement of 14 July did not, then, come out of the blue. But, only a day after the National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in support of a ban on wearing the Islamic full veil in public, it was unexpected, to say the least. And, of course, it was too good to be true.
'Pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will,' goes Gramsci's slogan. For those with too much of the latter, the news may have prompted a flurry of excitement, but disappointment would inevitably follow. Those with an excess of the former may have taken some cynical delight in pointing out that the website was 'fake' or a 'hoax', as if it were therefore of no further account.
But both responses miss something interesting. It is no more 'fake' than a play or a film. The point of the excercise is not to kid people that something has taken place but to make it seem strange that something hasn't. We might think of it as a kind of historical re-enactment but of the future rather than the past.
It stages a possible - or alternative - future, by composing a plausible statement that combines the language of neo-liberalism with that of France's long-standing democratic traditions, without making reference to the claims of Aristide and his supporters.
In doing so, it invites us to imagine a rationale that would allow France to do a U-turn without losing face. Anyone reading the statement would find it hard to dismiss it as giving in to 'illegal' and 'ridiculous' demands. And thus the demand - whose symbolic importance should not be underestimated - is kept alive.
Sweetest of all perhaps, it has forced the Ministry to deny that it is planning to do anything so noble and to declare that it is considering legal action against those who dare to imagine such a thing.
Unlike, presumably, the fatalism inspired by the removal of a democratically-elected president. Twice.
Nothing he is quoted as saying seems to admit that 'fatalism' may have secular as well as spiritual sources. And is it really so inconceivable that people combine vodou – or any other religious - beliefs with activities like making a living, bringing up children, going to school, getting involved in community projects, or pulling people out of wrecked buildings and caring for them? Can't we at least agree that it just might be possible?
I hear an echo. What's that? 'There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile.' David Brooks on The Underlying Tragedy in the New York Times. Couldn't he have said the same thing about the global financial crisis? In any case, it sounds like David Brooks is spreading that message well enough himself.
And then there are Tyler Cowen's scatter-gun hypotheses that try to answer the rather loaded question Why is Haiti so poor?. They include this intriguing suggestion:
Hegel was correct that the "voodoo religion," with its intransitive power relations among the gods, was prone to producing political intransitivity as well. (Isn't that a startling insight for a guy who didn't travel the broader world much?)
Cowen is actually not the only one for whom Hegel has recently become an authority on Haiti (and I will return to this in a future post), but he is unusual in claiming that this is because of the philosopher's alleged views on voodoo.
That word again. It's been around for a while, though it's not as old as Hegel, at least not in this spelling. In The V Word I tried to show how voodoo emerged victorious in English in the late 19th Century over French or Creole versions like vaudoux or voudou. And in doing so it rapidly mutated as a metaphor that took it far from the island of its birth to refer to practically anything that was inexplicable or malicious or both.
At the same time the religion attracted the interest of more sympathetic scholars (inside and outside Haiti) and by the 1980s and 90s, something of the reality of vodou - to adopt the spelling in the language spoken by most of its followers - had seeped into the Western mainstream, and its difference from the cartoon voodoo was recognized by anyone who gave serious consideration to the matter.
I suggested that the two forms had diverged to the extent that we could afford to relax. Almost no-one used voodoo to define Haiti anymore. The word had drifted away from its Caribbean moorings to harmlessly scare (or lure) a world blissfully ignorant of where it came from. And we could begin to expect that discussions of the religion - given official recognition by Jean-Bertrand Aristide in 2003 - would be more likely to dignify it with the name vodou,and treat it accordingly.
But I may have been proved wrong. Last week the ghost returned, as those who sought facile explanations or excuses for the desperate scenes unfolding in the media seemed to find a large captive audience willing to accept them.
How much it will be allowed to haunt the efforts of emergency relief and reconstruction remains to be seen. At least that captive audience is now beginning to answer back.
Many now recognize the importance of Frederick Douglass' visit to the British Isles in 1845-47, a lecture tour that took him the length and breadth of the country and which secured his international reputation as an anti-slavery campaigner.
His second visit has attracted much less attention. In November 1859, Douglass arrived in Liverpool to begin a speaking tour, arranged long before John Brown's fateful attempt to capture the federal arsenal at Harper's Ferry the previous month. In the wake of Brown's arrest it was probably the safest place for him to be, as Douglass was rumoured to have been one of his co-conspirators. Brown himself was executed in December.
His speeches discussed the significance of the raid and, mindful of the deepening sectional rift in the United States, promoted an anti-slavery interpretation of the Constitution.
As it happened, Douglass' tour was largely confined to Scotland and the North of England. In Yorkshire he stayed with his old friend and collaborator, Julia Griffiths (newly married). James Walker, secretary of the Leeds Young Men's Anti-Slavery Society observed: 'His powerful and eloquent appeals deepen our detestation of slavery, and have imparted to us a stronger impulse for, and led us more actively into, anti-slavery work than ever.'
Leeds Metropolitan University have organized a week of events (Mon 30 Nov to Fri 4 Dec 2009) marking the 150th anniversary of Douglass' visit to the city. On the programme are several talks, an anti-slavery walk, a play and a re-enactment of the speech Douglass gave in Leeds Music Hall on 22 December 1859. More details on this flyer.
News of the death of his youngest daughter Annie, aged ten, back home in Rochester, New York, forced Douglass to postpone engagements in Ireland and the south of England. He returned in May 1860, relieved to find that the moment of danger had passed, but pressing political concerns preventing him fulfilling his promise to resume his tour in the near future. In fact he did not visit Europe again until 1886, this time in the company of his second wife, Helen Pitts.