David Brooks: Worse than Pat Robertson?

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.

5 thoughts on “David Brooks: Worse than Pat Robertson?

  1. I want to thank the AAA President Virginia Dominguez for her leadership in drawing attention to how anthropologists can appropriately respond to the Haiti earthquake disaster. As someone conducting what is now a 25-year study of economic and cultural change in one Haitian valley on the southern peninsula, Fond-des-Blancs, about 60 miles west-southwest of Port-au-Prince, I would like to orient our members, especially those in the classroom, on the issues on Haitian poverty and responses to the earthquake.

    Reframing the question why is Haiti so poor is of particular importance. We might better ask why are there virtually no functioning social institutions and no reliable infrastructure in Haiti? For example, the pre-disaster national highway along the southern peninsula showed no significant improvements since 1985 despite there being numerous projects at improving Haiti’s highways and bridges including a major U.S. AID food-for-work initiative in the mid-1990’s. There always seems to be a road or bridge project by this agency or that country with no long-term improvements. Road repairs are simply never maintained and they quickly deteriorate. The Government of Haiti has never, or never been allowed to, develop an organization capacity for maintain roads. The lack of institutional commitment and organizational structure holds true for schools and health care facilities as well. In rural Haiti, nearly all education and health care needs are delivered by expatriate non-governmental organizations. The cultural implications of expatriates delivering core developmental and medical needs are profound. Rural Haiti is one of the least developed areas in the Western hemisphere — paved roads, electric grids and public water systems are nonexistent outside of provincial towns like Cap Haitian or Les Cayes. The Haitian central government bestows virtually no funding to rural areas, and provides no public services except for tax collection and judicial facilities – both being notoriously arbitrary and capricious.

    An enlightening rhetorical response to why Haiti is so poor is why is 99% of Haiti so poor? We must not lose sight that Haiti has a small-scale very wealthy, very well schooled, very political astute elite caste. One cannot understand the Haitian situation without understanding Haitian elite’s very close ties with the U.S. Embassy. No one from any political stance can reasonably deny the U.S. role in the anti-Aristide coups. The fact that the Government of Haiti and the Haitian elite have been in absentia since the quake attests to their inability for civic engagement with the people of Haiti. The fact that in the days following the earthquake the U.S. Department of State confirmed signing two Memoranda of Understanding with Haiti to control its air space, to off-load all aid, and to give authority for U.S. medical personnel to operate on Haitian citizens attests to Haiti’s unofficial protectorate status vis-à-vis the U.S. The most important question may be, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot might ask, why has the Haitian state historically acted against the Haitian nation? As events unfold let us be vigilant to document if Haiti will be rebuilt for the Haitian state or for the Haitian nation.

  2. bq. The most important question may be, as Michel-Rolph Trouillot might ask, why has the Haitian state historically acted against the Haitian nation?

    Anthony, Che Guevara (among many others) has made the same point about Latin America and the Caribbean more broadly. Would you argue that aside from the level of poverty that Haiti is somehow distinct?

    And not to be a wet blanket, but would you mind operationalizing ‘nation’? I have a real intellectual curiosity about how people use the term.

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