Conservatism and Paternalism

David Brooks has a preposterous article in the NYT, Jan 14 2010, called “The Underlying Tragedy” (text here: ). He speaks of the devastation and ruin in the wake of the recent earthquake in Haiti and says, in effect, the Haitians are largely to blame for the extent of the damage. That is, he actually says that due to the “progress-resistant” Haitian culture, “a horrible tragedy was just exacerbated by … them.” A statement ill-timed and in poor taste, typical of an article whose few truths are completely shadowed by the writer’s undisguisedly evangelical and godfatherly policies. 

I lingered long over the implications of his statements: not only is Brooks blaming a people for the fallout for a natural tragedy, he is actually saying they brought it upon themselves and thus, this was inevitable and the Haitians are responsible for this. Somehow he doesn’t make the San Franciscans responsible for their earthquakes damages, ostensibly because they knew one was coming and they were as a community rich enough to control damage quickly. Does that mean the San Franciscans deserved a better fate? If that sounds specious, it should; for it confuses victimhood and suffering with responsibility and ability. And, it proves just how dangerous Broooks’ own argument is by carrying it to a logical conclusion.

Brooks is careful with his words, in some places. Of course, the Haitians did not cause the earthquake, but, Brooks says, they did not build nation or house or future strongly enough to withstand its force. Brooks has a common-sense point: if one bets against the unexpected, one has a good chance of losing. Yet, and yet, I wonder how many houses in the world can withstand a 7.0 earthquake, how many places in the world (those along the Pacific Ring of Fire, Japan?) are always ready for one. And I wonder if Brooks remembers the truths about Katrina, the still-present damage, and the construction conditions of the dams and levees on the Red River  that contributed to a vast disaster.

Men suffer disaster because they live within the natural world and until far into the future they will continue to do so. I doubt there is sufficient available technology or consensual social will to save large masses of people from natural calamities. Still, when there is a humanitarian crisis, aid can be given, freely, as much as possible, in good will. Immediate and short-term, emergency relief need not come with strings attached. Long-term aid is another story. And Brooks takes it up with a cudgel.

Although Brooks’ main point–that a stream of handouts cannot guarantee development–is sound, yet, instead of outlining a long-term plan for development that would actually help Haiti and Haitians at home and abroad without forcing them to lose their independence in exchange for it, Brooks argues that Haiti has not been able to show its own independence and stature in the time since it was given the chance of doing so. Since it must be controlled by someone or the other, it is better that America abandons all pretense of non-interference where its investments (sorry, aid) are concerned and just goes in to make sure there are adequate results to show for the help. All nations do not have equivalent technological ability. That has always been the case in history and, when this difference has been deployed in war, the results have been genocidal. Now, in the cause of Haiti, when the occasion is humane and the trauma initiated by the wrath of nature, should not Brooks advocate that the aid package to Haiti include engineers and construction workers, doctors and midwives, ecologists and those trained to manage natural reserves, multilingual teachers and librarians? Would that not be a better way to intervene, if biased intervention is inevitable? Most people in dire straits will still accept biased and conditional aid if it benefits their community’s future.

To give him credit, Brooks acknowledges that Haiti is poor now becauseof its history of oppression, slavery and colonialism. But then he admonishes supposedly postcolonial Haiti for not ‘developing’ into a nation worthy of aid and non-intervention. Brooks defines “development” narrowly: it must conform to the American social experiment and the American Dream, reflect a “culture of achievement — involving everything from new child-rearing practices to stricter schools to better job performance,” along with “middle-class assumptions, an achievement ethos and tough, measurable demands.” Plus, he’s asking for a ‘return’ on aid that is tangible, immediate and satisfactory to aid-giver. In a world that has become more interdependent than not, nothing comes without a price or strings attached. Besides, The U.S. has plenty of trouble at home at present. In such a context, Brooks’ belligerence would be understandable as the risk aversion of a singed investor, and his write-up, too, would be a read as a volatile but reasonable critique, if only his rationale were better framed.

I cannot help but point out that Brooks just assumes that because he has determined that Haiti’s socio-cultural condition is deplorable, its sovereignty, however nominal and insignificant to America, is of no consequence to its own people. If it is to receive help, it must take the terms laid out by the lender or receive none. How is this substantially different from the bad credit practices that led to the meltdown of the American economy so recently? And how different this is from the U.S. response to Pakistan’s national outrage when its regular aid of billions was to be tied to conditions on spending that would more directly benefit its poor population and the self-appointed spokespeople of Pakistan perceived it to be an assault on its sovereignty. If Haiti had guns and nuclear weapons, would Brooks adopt an equally beary tone with it? Or would he speak as the U.S. speaks to Pakistan–softly and with more carrots than sticks? One begins to imagine that only those people are exempt from paternalistic intentions who are capable of instilling fear into the hearts of the Fathers.

It would have been better for Brooks to advocate no aid or very little, and no interference. Let each nation fare as it can. In a way it would have been truer to the American cultural preference for individual responsibility for one’s life, for better or worse, and truer to social Darwinism and capitalism. But he could not help exhibiting the other, missionary, extreme. Tell me, why is it so impossible for Big Brother to stand by and watch Haitians trek to perdition, so that he must step in but all little brothers must do as they are told or else? Why is it so tempting to control flailing nations with nary a design on ruling anyone else? Why so tempting to follow in Haiti China’s policies in Africa?

Brooks does not endear himself to any Haitians reading his work or to the general non-partisan reader by advocating a return to the “White Man’s Burden” of civilizing the dregs of nations and lifting them into conditions acceptable to the benevolent Fathers of the Western World at any time. He concludes that foreign aid doesn’t work because it is forestalled by corruption, lack of infrastructure and sound policy; that microfianance is insufficient; that “most of the world’s poorest nations” suffer “from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences” which hinder their development. And thus, the “programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.”

In effect, Brooks is saying that ‘backward’ cultures hinder forward ‘progress’; that helping them help themselves (e.g. microfinance) isn’t a good way forward; that there’s nothing much you can do to improve the venal natures of the public of the poorest countries (their governments are corrupt, their people under the sawy of benighted influences, they don’t care about their own future, etc.); and the only way to save them from themselves (hear the evangelism?) and from wasting U.S. money (ah, now we’re talking about being fiscally prudent, a policy that applies only to foreign policy, not apparently to the U.S. at home)  is for the U.S. to go in and ‘husband’ their lives into some sort of order. In short, the natives must be taught to live properly, to learn enlightened ways and to act in ways pleasing to the Law of the Father.

Brooks is, in sum, advocating the return of the very practices that led to the systematic colonization of the world, to the dehumanization of generations and the enormous one-way flow of wealth from non-European places to European and, later, American ones. Yes, America was complicit in the last wave of colonization and trafficking of human destinies, and now Brooks wants it to rule the world as it hadn’t ruled before. Control over poor nations without sufficient power to rebut is exactly how capitalist empires are run. If Brooks is a mouthpiece for a sentiment held in common by even a quarter of Americans, the practical thrust of his pronouncements seems to reflect an older conflict: once upon a time the British clashed with the Chinese in the Opium Wars because the Brits wanted ‘free trade’ (in illegal drugs, mind you, for which they laid waste to swathes of arable land in the Ganges belt) and “Lord’s work.” Now, with the rise of a belligerent China, the US according to Brooks would like to cast off kid gloves and continue nakedly with the things closest to its heart: control and convert, both for profit.

Brooks cites a book or two on development. His readers cite some more, both in support and in opposition to his comments. I would add to the list Mike Davis’s _Late Victorian Holocausts_, if only to point to the fact that disaster is never solely natural but there is no sane way to blame the victim  entirely for what happens without taking refuge in a quite abhorrent sort of so-called Christian ethics.

Finally, I want to thoughtfully contrast Brooks’ article and advocacy with another striking piece that appeared in the NYT, called”The Americanization of Mental Illness” by Ethan Watters ( ). Although Watters’ article is about the detrimental effects of the globalization of American mental health discourse on local populations and their strategies of coping with disease, the stance espoused by Watters brings out the naked militancy of Brooks’ supposedly benign aims by comparison. Watters would seem to agree with Brooks’s theory that Haitians take responsibility for their own future when he says that the beliefs and expectations of the sufferer “shape their suffering.” But Watters warns against insisting that “the rest of the world think like us [the U.S.]” because the export of American ideas and technology is inseparable from American “particular cultural beliefs” and, what’s more, from “inchoate Western assumption[s]” that are “core components of Western culture, including a theory of human nature, …and a source of moral authority.” Watters says “none of this is universal” :

“The problem is the overall thrust that comes from being at the heart of the one globalizing culture. It is as if one version of human nature is being presented as definitive, and one set of ideas about pain and suffering.”

How true this is of Brooks and some of his readers! How different from Brooks’ cultural project when he speaks thumpingly of–“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.”

Chicago and Haiti are not comparable merely by their degree of poverty, IQ or blackness. There seems to be no place for the incommensurable (natural disasters, vastly different peoples) in Brooks’ grand narrative. Besides, he preaches to the choir. I would wager that the rest of the world would like to see Americans practice a “No Excuses” form of just social development before they try flawed social engineering on anyone else.

I wish Haiti, like many of the world’s poor nations, could have said ‘thanks, but no thanks’ to foreign aid. But they can’t, and because they are weaker, they get angry when foreign aid doesn’t come in time. It is a fault on our part to expect help, but for Brooks to demand a conversion in exchange for help at the moment of tragedy is unconscionable.