Friday, January 15, 2010

Brooks's nonsense about Haiti and poverty

I hadn't intended to post again this month, but this passage from David Brooks's NYT column today (hat tip: HC) is beyond the pale in trotting out stale, dubious clichés about the alleged cultural roots of poverty:

"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."

The notion that these things are why Haiti is poor is arrant nonsense. In fact I've just read the whole column and virtually the whole thing is nonsense. It starts at the very beginning of the piece, where Brooks confuses GDP growth with poverty alleviation. The two are related but they are not the same. You can have a lot of GDP growth without much poverty alleviation, and vice-versa. This has been obvious for decades. Then there's all this stuff about culture and poverty. It's a convenient device to obscure the way in which global institutional and economic structures (in which we're all complicit) create conditions that facilitate the continuation of poverty and maldistribution. To be sure, there are local differences. The Dominican Republic is much better off than Haiti. But is that because they have different cultures, because the Dominican Republic has "a culture of achievement" and Haiti doesn't? I don't think so. In all likelihood it's a result of complicated histories (including U.S. occupation) and the different ways they are positioned in the regional and global economies, among other things.

I'll be the first to admit I don't know much about Haiti, except what I see and read in the media. But David Brooks knows nothing about global poverty and its causes and possible solutions. An intelligent seventh-grader could have written a better column than this piece
of garbage.


Anonymous said...

I am guessing that the Brooks piece is going to make sense to a lot of people though I agree with you about the merits (or the lack of any)of the argument. Thanks for the posting. I think people will buy it because they will agree with his critique of development efforts. I was pleasantly surprised to see that today's Washington Post had a quote from Paul Farmer who has written quite a bit about Haiti.

LFC said...

Thanks for the comment, and I agree the Brooks piece will probably find a receptive audience in some quarters. Occasionally he really annoys me and obviously this was one of those occasions. :)

I know who Paul Farmer is -- he has done good work in Haiti and also written about Haiti, as you say. I think I heard Clinton (Bill, that is) say on the news last night that Farmer is working with him now. -- L.

LFC said...

Actually Brooks annoys me more than occasionally, but I don't read him that often.

Anonymous said...

Maybe it's because they pay so much lip-service to living up to one's obligations that conservatives seem hell-bent on making sure that they are blind to them. I see this article, as with much of support for laissez-faire capitalism, as simply a set of statements designed to relieve the reader of any sense of obligation to do something about human problems.

As such, personal responsibility is stressed as long as the person involved is weak and/or poor, and definitely not if the 'person' involved were artificial.

Blaming a culture is a little more charitable, but in the end doesn't get much further than, 'These people are poor because they are such-and-so, therefore it is useless to help them so long as they are so.'

It's all a way of saying, 'Ignore this, look to your own, life is basically just,', a comforting moral pabulum that led to some of our soldiers who liberated death camps to say, 'They must have done something terrible to have been treated like this.'

By so well playing Pangloss, the conservative screed of this type soothes the whatever bit of conscience which Creative Destruction may have left intact.

LFC said...

Anon: Thank you for visiting (whether it's your first time here or not) and for this comment. I think you have identified a key reason why cultural 'explanations' are popular with conservatives. There are a lot of big, interesting questions lurking here which I can't address properly right now, so I'll just leave it at that.