Haiti and the ‘Basket Case’ Metaphor

Basket Case

Intrigued by the persistent use of the term by journalists and other commentators on Haiti I’ve been doing a little research into the origin of common epithet for Haiti, a country which has been described variously as an economic basket case, an environmental basket case or more generally the basket case of the western hemisphere. It seems that the first use of the expression in relation to Haiti was by Lars Schoultz in his 1981 book Human Rights and United States Policy Towards Latin America since when it has become something of a reflex journalistic cliché for anyone seeking to represent the Haitian nation as an irredeemably damaged and incurable political-economic entity.

A brief review of the history of the expression itself is revealing. The term was first used officially at the time of WW1 by the Surgeon General of the US armed forces in an attempt to quell potentially demoralizing rumors amongst military personnel that hospitals were filling up with men who had lost both sets of limbs in battle and, as a consequence, were being transported home in baskets (Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd Edition). Similar rumors began to circulate again during the second world war. Interestingly for Haiti, the first recorded use of the term in the context of international relations was a reference made in a 1967 British newspaper article suggesting that the political solutions proposed for southern Africa by Kwame Nkrumah – the Pan-African independence leader and first president of Ghana – did not make him a basket case. This seems to be the first time the expression was used to describe a mental rather than physical state of irreparable damage or disability. Importantly, from the perspective of Haiti, Nkrumah brings together the association of unworkable agricultural and economic policies in post-colonial nations with the idea of African despotism. Like several Haitian presidents before François “Papa Doc” Duvalier, Nkrumah also eventually made himself ‘president for life’. However by the 1970’s the term “basket case” was also being applied to the disastrous national agricultural policies of European states like Bavaria and Italy. Interestingly the two themes of post-colonial national independence and disastrous agricultural policy have recently been brought together in the frequently repeated simile: from bread basket to basket case. Behind these different levels of meaning there is often a sense that a basket case nation is usually led by a basket case president.  

Horror film fans will probably be more familiar with the use of the term to describe a person driven irredeemably insane by terror, like these unfortunate gentlemen who made the big mistake of watching a sexploitation horror double-bill: The Blood Spattered Bride (1972) and I Dismember Mama (1974). The term was given a new lease of life with the release of Frank Henenlotter’s 1982 comedy-gore exploitation film Basket Case in which the able-bodied brother of siamese twins carries around his mutant and murderous twin Belial – named after the Judaic demon identified in the Dead Sea Scrolls  as leader of the Sons of Darkness – in a basket.

On a more controversial and “neoreactionary” note (for Zombi Diaspora at least) Mark Krikorian, author of The New Case Against Immigration (2008), has argued that Haiti’s basket case status is due in part to the fact it it was not colonized for long enough (the argument being that the revolution cut short the possibility of Haitian’s benefiting from ‘the more advanced civilization of the colonizers’) and partly, echoing sentiments expressed by Lawrence Harrison elsewhere, because of ‘the strength of paganism, in the form of voodoo’ that the French ‘weren’t around long enough to suppress’.

In fact there have been ongoing systematic attempts to suppress and eradicate Vodou from Hispaniola since well before the revolution, and long after. And it was not only the French who sought to rid the island of this unruly ancestor cult but also many of the Haitian leaders themselves (later in cahoots with the US army and Catholic Church). That being said Duvalier’s overt public embrace and political use of Vodou as a source of noiriste Afrocentric nationalism didn’t exactly help the religion’s reputation in the outside world. By the time of this rare interview with Alan Whicker in 1969 the difference between actual basket cases caused by war, the thousands of psychological basket cases produced by his reign of terror, and the mind ‘Voodoo Dictator’ himself had become abysmally undifferentiated.