Saturday, January 16, 2010

David Brooks Inspires Another Blog Post

There’s much to criticize in Friday’s OpEd by David Brooks in which her argues that Haitian “culture” is progress resistant and a cause of their poverty. He comes to this conclusion after remarking that Barbados, which was once a slave society, is not so poor. He does not acknowledge the significant differences in the histories and circumstances of Barbadians and Haitians. It can’t be the history of slavery, Brooks impliedly concludes, so it must be something else. It can’t be geography, he argues since the DR is on the same island and not nearly so poor. It must be something about the Haitians themselves. Brooks can’t really come out and say that the Haitians are stupid and shiftless, so he uses the concept of “culture” as cover. Haitians do what appear to Brooks to be stupid and counterproductive things because their “culture” makes them do so. I don’t suppose Haitians are reckoned to have any kind of agency in this analysis.

Brooks does allow that it is worth trying to instill in them bourgeois sensibilities. He praises programs that “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”. Perhaps it would more efficient simply to send free motivational CDs and CD players to every Haitian to get them in an achieving mood. Does Brooks suppose that Haitians want to be poor and desperate? That they mistakenly cling to a fatalistic mentality and favor short term planning because some memetic virus prevents them from doing otherwise?

The fact is that for most Haitians clinging to hope of achievement would be delusional and would lead to even greater unhappiness. There must be realistic opportunities to achieve before a “culture of achievement” will do any good.

Brooks remarks that Haitians have a great deal of social mistrust. It seems to me that social mistrust is the most rational position under the circumstances. Before social trust will rise, there must be trustworthiness on the part of social institutions.

Haitian immigrants bear witness that Haitians are not so fettered by “culture” as to want re-education. Where opportunities exist, they pursue them. Where institutions are trustworthy, they come to trust them. All this they do without undertaking any fundamental “cultural” shift. They adapt to their circumstances and negotiate their way in the world as they find it.

It is undeniable that ideas and values, cultural facts if you will, may be resistant to progress. The Amish, for example, resist technology. Religious fundamentalists resist modernity. The Amish want to live simply. Fundamentalists want to live in a pre-modern social order. Poor people do not as a rule want to be poor, so it is a mistake to confuse their adaptations to the existential conditions of poverty as cultural constraints on achieving prosperity. They can my no means be said to have eschewed prosperity on the bare basis that they happen to be poor.

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