Friday, January 15, 2010

Haitian Earthquake, Poverty, and Culture

As bodies are being recovered in Haiti and in what one hopes is at the very least the midst of the devastation but more likely its infancy, the armchair analysis of why the earthquake's effects are so tragic in Haiti have already started.  Pat Robertson has offered his take, Haitians made pact with the devil, which is why they're so cursed.  John Stossel has offered his take, which is that Haiti lacks economic freedom.  And NY Times columnist David Brooks, not to be outdone by Robertson and Stossel, chimes in with the old chestnut that Haitians are poor because of their culture.  Of the three, I find Brooks the most problematic not least because I have always thought of Brooks as one of the more thoughtful and reflective prominent columnists.
Brooks "argues" that:
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.

To be honest, I have no idea where Brooks is getting this stuff or what it means.  Yes, some Haitians practice voodoo, but the majority if not most have only an episodic, at best, connection to the practice.  Quite frankly, as someone who grew up in a Haitian culture, this is the first I've heard that voodoo has this the influence on Haitian culture as Brooks describes it.  Moreover, this idea that child-rearing is neglectful in the early years and retributive in early adolescence is not a practice of Haitian society as I understand it from empirical work or anecdotes.  With respect to the high level of social mistrust, I just don't know what that means.  Haiti is a country, like many poor countries, where parents leave their kids with relatives, often for years and sometimes decades, while the parents or parent comes to the United States so that they can work like a dog to send money back home to feed the kids.  What makes this practice possible is a fair amount of social trust.  Desperation drives these parents from their kids, but the option to leave is facilitated by the fact that you can trust relatives to take care of your kids as if they were their own.

From a more analytical perspective, I am always skeptical of arguments that blame a people for their purported cultural defects when their government have oppressed them, often for years and sometimes for decades.  African Americans are more than familiar with that argument; every once a while some conservative commentator will offer a revised iteration of the black people in the U.S. are less well off because they have a culture of depravity argument.  Forget the fact of slavery, jim crow, segregation, lack of governmental responsiveness, insufficient attention by people in power, etc.  By the way, Haitian life was not always this bad.  Though Haitians lived under the Duvalier dictatorships (Pere et fils), which were often brutal, they were better economically than what Haitians have experienced in the last 25 years or so.

The earthquake will be more devastating than it might have been because Haitians have not had a government that works.  And indeed, the irony is that the Preval government was showing faint but noticeable signs of working.  What is most tragic about this earthquake is that it crushed (at least for the moment) nascent signs of improvement, something that we have not seen in Haiti in a very, very long time. I honestly thought that David Brooks was smarter than this column.  I also thought that he was more compassionate than that.  I hope I am not wrong.

1 comment:

  1. I was also appalled by the Brooks oped. Thank you for your response