Paul Shirley is a victim. The former NBA journeyman and freelance writer just can’t understand the outpouring of dismay and revulsion at his recent comments on Haitian relief efforts. Shirley blogged that any donations he might give would be akin to tossing a few coins at the homeless. And he is particularly annoyed that Haitians don’t use condoms frequently enough to suit his stance on eugenics as a form of disaster preparation.
His open letter to the Haitian people, part of a longer piece of increasingly feeble sophistry, was recently posted on Flipcollective.com:
“Dear Haitians -
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.
As we prepare to assist you in this difficult time, a polite request: If it's possible, could you not re-build your island home in the image of its predecessor? Could you not resort to the creation of flimsy shanty-and shack-towns? And could some of you maybe use a condom once in a while?
The Rest of the World”
Shirley’s astonishingly tone-deaf attempt at humor is the cornerstone of a larger ”serious” effort to distribute Reaganite tough love from the comfort of his laptop, uploading it directly to hundreds of thousands of people mired in a near-biblical struggle for survival. His bootstrap philosophy is further explained through the prism of 80’s African starvation relief:
“The solution found, of course, was to send bag after bag of food to those people, forgetting the long-understood maxim that giving more food to poor people allows them to create more poor people.”
This starkly fascist (in the purist sense of the word) sentiment is breathtaking, all the more so because it comes garlanded with a few inevitable and disingenuous acknowledgements that “no one is really saying we shouldn’t send help.” In fact, it is precisely what he’s saying, but without an ounce of the creativity or policy nuance of South Carolina Lt. Gov. Andre Bauer.
Paul Shirley is annoyed. He sees the earthquake as yet another example of our valuable resources being drained by those not sufficiently imbued with a sense of individual responsibility to warrant help. Why after all, did the people of Port-au-Prince build shelters not up to seismic code when it has been clear an earthquake has been coming for at least two hundred years? Why do they continue to accept living under an ineffectual and corrupt government when, if they only had a little gumption, they would organize into a democratic or parliamentary system? But why, most importantly, do we have to keep giving them big bags of cash when they never learn their lesson?
But even these questions, framed as they are in a truly myopic absence of historical context, pale in comparison to his assertion that
“What is alarming, I think, is the sometimes illogical frenzy toward casting those affected by the earthquake as helpless, innocent souls who were placed on the island of Hispaniola by an invisible force.”
It should come as no surprise in the era of death panel political discourse that anyone with a keyboard and a growth of morally relativist fungus can and will say just about anything over the internet. But even in this climate of Birthers and Marxist prostate exams, what is truly “alarming” is Paul Shirley’s ignorance of the fact that the Haitian lineage was indeed brought to the island of Hispaniola by an “invisible force”, usually referred to as the Atlantic slave trade.
In the end it would be easy to ask why these comments, coming from a man whose claim to fame is having written a thin, self-indulgent memoir about his shortcomings as an athlete, even warrant rebuttal. But follow the links around Shirley’s blog and you will quickly be immersed in quasi-Libertarian cheering. Most of Shirley’s supporters use a factually sterile shorthand incorporating random statistics, the worship of Milton Friedman, and the notion that even the most complex problem can be solved with a healthy dose of Vince Lombardi. A surprisingly large number even manage to transpose the failures of Katrina from Bush/Brownie unto Haiti/Obama. The distastefulness of this brand of revisionism is compounded by one unavoidable fact: the skin color of the residents of both the Ninth Ward and Port au Prince is as formative to that worldview as the nihilist math that props up its economics. Paul Shirley and his mostly anonymous supporters insist they are merely giving voice to unpopular but axiomatic colonialist sentiments the rest of us secretly embrace but are too cowardly to vocalize: Haitians are incapable of caring for themselves, and so, after a century of benevolent American stewardship, it is time to let them learn the hard way.
“I would like to help, but only if I feel that my assistance is deserved and justified. If I perceive that I am being told to feel a certain way, and if I can point to a pattern of mistakes made in similar situations, I lose interest.”
We can all count the interest of Paul Shirley, who is not currently sleeping under a plastic tarp with a crushed limb while awaiting rudimentary surgery, as having been thoroughly lost.
In the end, Shirley is emblematic of a certain type of a fringe athlete who has spent his life around men physically superior to him, and in attempting to process what must have been a difficult few years of professional rejection, now finds solace in measures of relative intellect as opposed to vertical leap. Given that few professional athletes make time to immerse themselves in literature or history, Shirley seems to feel that reading the first three chapters of The Fountainhead makes him a dynamic thinker in comparison. In fact, Shirley spends most of his condescending and generally insipid memoir Can I Keep My Jersey? talking about how stupid everyone (else) in the NBA is. He spends chapters discussing the stupidity of NASCAR, the stupidity of foreign foods, the stupidity of agents, the stupidity of people in Russia, and the stupidity of all things non-Shirley.
To be fair, his post does make one valid point: the Western model of throwing money at long-broken infrastructure as a method of disaster relief is largely ineffective in terms of enacting lasting social change. However, instead of leaping into the void where empathy trumps self-satisfying Ayn Randian individualist bullshit, Shirley has decided to posit himself as The One Man With The Courage Not To Give. If Paul Shirley is so anxious for Haitians to take responsibility for their past, then he should be willing, as an American, to take responsibility for his own country’s past. Which, of course, includes enjoying all the benefits of living comfortably under a government whose past foreign policy is largely responsible for the current cycle of Haitian poverty and dependence on foreign aid. Shirley could start exercising that personal responsibility by forcing himself to skim almost any book about Toussaint Louverture. He could then flip through almost any account of Woodrow Wilson’s decision to send Marines to occupy Haiti in 1915 (primarily to protect American banking interests) where, during our 19 year Iraq-like occupation, the economy and potential for self-determinacy of the island was destroyed mainly to ensure corporate debt repayment. Once he has accepted full blame on behalf of a century of duplicity, avarice, and racial animus that the American as well as French, British, Spanish, and German governments have bestowed upon Haiti, perhaps he might bend his principles far enough to make further amends in the form of a $25 donation.
An open letter to Paul Shirley’s parents:
Dear Paul Shirley’s Parents:
Could you have maybe used a condom once in a while?
The Rest Of The World.
In the meantime, please continue to give generously to the people of Haiti here and elsewhere, an act that is, as it should be, ideologically neutral and entirely human.
(Postscript-Paul Shirley was fired from his position as a freelance commentator for ESPN almost immediately after this article was written. Despite my comments above, I’m not an advocate of people losing their jobs for having an opinion, no matter how sclerotic or ill-informed. Shirley has his views, I have mine. It’s a big internet. In fact, I think ESPN would serve the public more effectively by demanding Shirley further explain, or even defend his thoughts, instead of silencing him before they begin to lose advertisers. But, as Shirley recently said on his Twitter account, after attempting to temper his words with the predictably limp “just trying to get people to think” and “my words were taken out of context” gambits, he is now concentrating on simply “moving on…”)