David Brooks: White Cultural Appropriation Will Solve All Problems

The very worse kind of intellectual, is the intractably self-important one, who though he has seen little, has few friends from diverse backgrounds, has many mighty opinions and no problem opining. Such must be the case for New York Times columnist David Brooks, who wrote on January 15, 2010 about the Haitian earthquake:

… it is time to put the thorny issue of culture at the center of efforts to tackle global poverty. 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.

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.

We’re all supposed to politely respect each other’s cultures. But some cultures are more progress-resistant than others, and a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by one of them.

Brooks drunk on the headiness of his thinly veiled white supremacist notions of culture, goes on to say,

These programs, like the Harlem Children’s Zone and the No Excuses schools, are led by people who figure they don’t understand all the factors that have contributed to poverty, but they don’t care. They 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.

It’s time to take that approach abroad, too. It’s time to find self-confident local leaders who will create No Excuses countercultures in places like Haiti, surrounding people — maybe just in a neighborhood or a school — with middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.

Say what, word, David Brooks? One word: Egregious. This is the kind of tripe, that quite frankly, puts Brooks in the same category with devil-deal making Pat Robertson and Rush Limbaugh. What Brooks offers, however, is the suggestion of cultural imperialism. Thankfully, Tom F. Driver and Carl Lindskoog, of t r u t h o u t are far more eloquent than I am. They responded in their piece “An Open Letter to David Brooks on Haiti”. I am grateful that they point out that, David Brooks and “his ilk,”

Lacking a foundational understanding of Haitian history and culture, and bearing the familiar colors of American imperialism, you and your ilk will do vastly more harm than good.

And that they take Brooks to task on his libelous assertions about Haitian culture – which he clearly knows nothing about. Driver and Lindskoog tell Brooks,

Equally unconvincing is your argument about “progress-resistant cultural influences,” which brings us to important truth number two: Haitian culture is not “progress-resistant” as anyone familiar with the examples you yourself provide can attest to. If Vodou or “the voodoo religion” as you put it, “spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile,” how do the majority of Haitians manage to survive on scant resources and less than two dollars a day? How do so many Haitians manage to travel abroad, find and maintain difficult jobs and send money back home if not through careful planning and a fierce defense of precious life? How do the nationwide customers of Fonkoze, the Haitian banking operation that teaches literacy and business practices to curbside marketers to whom it makes small loans, achieve such strong records of loan repayment? In fact, it might be Haitian culture itself (and even Vodou) which allows Haitians to persist.

I lack the eloquence – and am so grateful that there are those who are able to debunk the myths that Brooks and others thoughtlessly spread.

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