Recently Pat Robertson got a lot of flack for saying Haiti’s history of suffering, including the recent earthquake, was due to a historical “pact with the devil.” But I don’t think anyone takes Pat Robertson seriously. I know many people, however, who do take NY Times columnist David Brooks seriously. So that is why I think his comment that “Haiti, like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.” is much more insidious.
Brooks acknowledges that historical factors might be important, but quickly brushes them aside.
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.
OK, but not all histories of “ruthless dictators, corruption and foreign invasions” are equal. Lets look a little at Haiti’s actual history. A good place to start is Gina Ulysse’s 2005 interview with Sibylle Fischer, which highlights the specific racial dimension of Haiti’s history:
Yes, this association with Public Enemy and Fear of a Black Planet is absolutely right. The greatest fear of the white elites in the slaveholding areas was a repetition of Haiti—of another black state.
She argues that some of the most virulent racism was found right next door, in the Dominican Republic.
even today, anti-Haitian racism is endemic and the human rights situation of Haitian migrant workers on Dominican sugar plantations is appalling.
Or this recent article from the Times (UK), which highlights the tremendous debt burden Haiti faced for much of its history:
After a dramatic slave uprising that shook the western world, and 12 years of war, Haiti finally defeated Napoleon’s forces in 1804 and declared independence. But France demanded reparations: 150m francs, in gold… For Haiti, this debt did not signify the beginning of freedom, but the end of hope. Even after it was reduced to 60m francs in the 1830s, it was still far more than the war-ravaged country could afford. Haiti was the only country in which the ex-slaves themselves were expected to pay a foreign government for their liberty. By 1900, it was spending 80% of its national budget on repayments. … In 1947, Haiti finally paid off the original reparations, plus interest. Doing so left it destitute, corrupt, disastrously lacking in investment and politically volatile. Haiti was trapped in a downward spiral, from which it is still impossible to escape. It remains hopelessly in debt to this day.
What do you know, the Haitian’s did make a pact with the devil – France! I’m far from an expert on the region, but what little I do know leads me to think the combination of international racism towards the freed slaves and crushing foreign debt give Haiti a unique history that is not easily dismissed as identical to that of its neighbors.
But this isn’t the first time that Brooks has argued for a kind of civilizational view of culture as psychology which can explain economic differences between nations. He’s been making similar arguments about Asians for a long time. There is a good debunking of these by Language Log. That link will take you to a page full of earlier Language Log posts trashing Brooks’ often sloppy reading of the literature upon which he basis his claims. Please take some time to click on the links just so you can see how sloppy and misguided Brooks really is.
UPDATE: Anthropology Works has a nice roundup of recent scholarship on Haitian culture and social change.
UPDATE: Joshua Keating to Brooks: “Don’t ignore the politics.”
Brooks’ analysis also seems to assume that all dictators are created equal.
Also, Anthropologi.info is doing a great job of tracking the ongoing discussion about Haiti.
UPDATE: In my rush to post this article I totally skipped over another egregious comment by David Brooks:
There is the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile.
Fortunately, this has been taken up elsewhere: Razib at Gene Expression, Jim Sleeper at TPM Café, and Jason Pitzl-Waters at the Paganism blog The Wild Hunt. Some of the comments on the NY Times website are worth reading as well.
UPDATE: Sam Martinez has a post on Anthropology Works:
Nothing matches up in Brooks’ linkage of Harlem and Port-au-Prince — the comparison is a total clunker — nothing matches up, that is, other than a discourse of veiled white supremacy designed to blame Blacks for whatever ill God and man throws their way and to provide a white-dominated state with a standing excuse for doing too little, too late.