Sunday, January 17, 2010

David Brooks says earthquake casualties caused by voodoo religion and anti-progress culture. Solution: paternalism!

Brooks’ poorly argued, enormously insensitive, and borderline racist column takes on the role Haitian poverty played in exacerbating the consequences of the earthquake, and how he believes locally-led paternalism (whatever that is), not aid, is the answer to Haiti’s plight.

He opens:
On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died. This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It’s a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.

He goes on to blame those things on Haiti’s “progress resistant” culture.

For starters, I think it’s a little too soon to start suggesting that Haitians are partly to blame for their own devastation, similar to how, immediately after 9/11, arguing that America’s obesity epidemic and lack of physical fitness led to people not getting out of the towers in time might be considered a tad gauche.  Putting that aside, Brooks is comparing things that are completely non-comparable, a trend that will continue throughout the column.

Forget that things like population density, location of epicenter, time of day, and topography can all influence the number of casualties from an earthquake of the same magnitude--according to Brooks, San Francisco and Port-au-Prince are exactly the same, and therefore Haiti getting so messed up by this li’l ole 7.0 magnitude earthquake clearly has to do with culture.

Brooks worries about Obama keeping his promise to provide ongoing support to Haiti without drastically rethinking our approach to aid.  Although I am an aid skeptic, and Brooks is right to point out that we really don’t know what creates long term economic growth, that’s really not what’s being discussed here.  Post crisis humanitarian aid is not the same thing as indefinite budgetary support.  Providing relief to people in need after an unimaginable crisis is a mark of our nation’s humanity.  To withhold it because we want to tie it up in some broader debate about macroeconomic growth would be cruel beyond imagination.  Aid might not be able to solve problems, but it can save lives.  And right now, that is desperately needed.

But Brooks’ column only gets more wrongheaded from there. is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty. Why is Haiti so poor? Well, it has a history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But so does Barbados, and Barbados is doing pretty well. Haiti has endured ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions. But so has the Dominican Republic, and the D.R. is in much better shape. Haiti and the Dominican Republic share the same island and the same basic environment, yet the border between the two societies offers one of the starkest contrasts on earth — with trees and progress on one side, and deforestation and poverty and early death on the other.
That’s right, we can hold one variable constant between two places, compare their economic outcomes, and chalk it up to culture!  Slaves, slaves.  Dictators, dictators.  Island, island.  What’s wrong with you, Haiti?!

Oh, that’s right, that darn progress-resistant culture.
As Lawrence E. Harrison explained in his book “The Central Liberal Truth,” Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences. There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile. There are high levels of social mistrust. Responsibility is often not internalized. Child-rearing practices often involve neglect in the early years and harsh retribution when kids hit 9 or 10.
We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.
Cough, cough—what?  In his ever-astute connection drawing, Brooks probably thinks voodoo caused Hurricane Katrina, too (although they are different types, and Haiti's is actually called vodou).  This analysis would never pass muster in any major economics journal—there's a clear issue of reverse causality.  Poverty, low levels of education, and disease all can lead to greater social mistrust, higher influence from traditional religions, and a general sense of despair.

This is not to say that cultural influences can’t matter in development.  I’ve no doubt that they can.  But cultures are created.  Haiti’s was created by kidnapping, enslavement, death (it was one of the most brutal slave regimes), imperialism, rebellion, more imperialism, coups, disease, and devastation.  To say that “most of the world’s poorest nations” suffer from “progress-resistant” cultures is simply lazy.  They’re poor, so they must have something that makes them poor.  We’re rich, so we must have something that makes us rich.  Let’s call it culture.  The end.

It’s much more difficult to think about the role that European powers and the United States played in creating the problems that currently plague Haiti, and how these problems are unique to Haiti’s geography, history, ethno-linguistic makeup, and many more things.  Is Haiti really so similar to the Dominican Republic?  No.  Haiti is a 95% black, French-speaking nation in the middle of a Spanish and English-speaking hemisphere.  Haiti is the only nation formed by a successful slave rebellion.  Haiti was warred over by French, Spanish, and American colonial powers for centuries.  Haiti has suffered from a string of brutal dictators and coups (32 in 200 years), many supported by the US.  Now, Haitians suffer from discrimination in their own corner of the globe, due to their darker skin, different language, and poor reputation.  In 1937, Haitians living in the Dominican Republic were brutally massacred, and since then have been subject to an explicit discrimination policy known as antihatianismo.

I apologize if I’m being over-sensitive, but to me, attributing these myriad historical and situational differences to culture appears to reflect underlying racism.  Haitian culture, including vodou, comes from Africa.  Africa is poor.  Haiti is poor.  Therefore, African culture must be bad.  This becomes more apparent when he compares Haiti’s situation to that of Harlem and other poor (read: black—he’s not talking about Appalachia) areas in the United States:
…it’s time to promote locally led paternalism. In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They are going to replace parts of the local culture with a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance.
I am a huge fan of the Harlem Children’s Zone, and admire what it’s been able to accomplish for just the opposite reason.  To me, far from operating on a principle of paternalism, the Harlem Children’s Zone provides opportunity—opportunity for increased instruction time, individual attention, excellent teachers, and a supportive peer group.  By getting incredible results (see another Brooks column) through providing these opportunities, HCZ proved that there was no “problem” with African-American students.  They had simply never had the opportunity to learn in such an environment.  When given that opportunity, test scores soared.  To call this incredible program paternalism is sickening and, again, reeks of insidious racism.  This is not 1965.  It is not acceptable to imply that black people in Haiti nor Harlem are children requiring paternal guidance.  Perhaps the types of opportunities Brooks suggests could help Haitians in need.  But they are just that—opportunities.  And if provided, nothing in the Haitian culture will stop them from being seized.

NYT's David Brooks: The Underlying Tragedy 
Donate to Haiti relief: Yele, The Clinton Foundation, Red Cross, International Rescue Committee

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