Wednesday, January 27, 2010

A Self-Serving Explanation And Solution For Haiti's Woe

In a previous post about Pat Robertson, I mentioned that I'd show some other reactions from American "conservatives" to the devastation in Haiti. The point here is not to compile a list of cold and heartless people, because I think Robertson and today's featured conservative probably mean well, on some level at least. The point is to build a case that modern American conservative philosophy (to which many good people subscribe) is cold and heartless.

Exhibit B is David Brooks' January 14th op-ed in the New York Times, titled, "The Underlying Tragedy."

Brooks rightly identifies Haiti's poverty as the main factor compounding the death toll from the earthquake. Ok, check. The piece then attempts to explain why Haiti is so poor and what should be done about it. Ok, check and check. We're all on board. He explains that Haiti is poor because of 1) a lack of personal responsibility, 2) neglectful "child-rearing practices," and 3) "the influence of the voodoo religion." Whaaa?

It's the same old "blame the victim" mentality dressed up in new clothes. First, is it not wrong to lecture Haitian parents while they're literally still pulling their children from the rubble? It's almost like Brooks is in a hurry to prevent other reactions to the crisis, like huge outpourings of sympathy and money. I'll admit that I don't know anything about Haitian child-rearing, but I doubt David Brooks does either. Even if Brooks is right about these cultural attributes, and even ignoring the crude timing of his comments, it's disingenuous of him to act like these cultural traits are entirely causes and not effects of poverty. He just brushes aside Haiti's history of oppression, slavery, and colonialism with a few sentences. Brooks' piece is full of the same themes you hear when conservatives pundits talk about Black urban poverty in America. It's like throwing someone to the ground, kicking them in the head, and then stepping back to scold them for clearly lacking a go-getter attitude. David Brooks' column says, "Hey look, they're just lying on around on the ground!" I can almost hear the voices in response, saying, "Yes, comfortable White man writing in your big newspaper, tell me why my struggles are all my fault."

So what should American do about Haiti's poverty? First, here's what Brooks says we shouldn't do: send aid or help with development projects. How convenient! Nothing much required from us! Brooks calls for a policy of "intrusive paternalism" to promote "a highly demanding, highly intensive culture of achievement." Just to be sure I got the nuance here, I looked it up. My dictionary defines paternalism as,
"the policy or practice on the part of people in position of authority of restricting the freedom and responsibility of those subordinate to them in the subordinates' supposed best interest."
I'd like to just close here by saying that David Brooks is literally making the old argument of colonialism. The problem is that the savages are intrinsically backwards. The solution is that we rule them, for their own good. It's strange how that works. You'd think that helping Haiti would require a sacrifice on our part. But according to the logic of David Brooks, a self-described moderate-conservative, we can only help Haiti by making ourselves more powerful and subordinating them to us. You can see now why blaming the victim is so important for thinkers like Brooks and why we see that tactic in a hundred different variations. It's meant to remove our own sense of responsibility and replace it with a sense of pride and entitlement.


Camp Papa said...

So...maybe Jesus got it wrong. The Samaritan should have walked by on the other side, just like the priest and the Levite?

Here's an alternative theory that also let's us off the hook. The problem is the French. Take a look at a map of the French colonial empire. Every country colonized by the French, except those that were subsequently ruled by the British, is poor. So, there's nothing we can do.

Becky said...

He is ABSOLUTELY making the colonialism argument. It's the white man's burden all over again.

Solid said...

First of all, thanks for your gentle correction on FB the other day. My wife corrected me on that misunderstanding as well.

I've been thinking about this today, and I appreciate your distinction between philosophy and people. But when I was a Democrat, my dad used to always say, "Anyone that's young and not liberal has no heart. Anyone that's older and not conservative has no brain."

I believe my dad is wrong about that, on both counts. I prefer a quote by a theology teacher I had some years ago. "If you get millions of any group, they can't all be idiots." I think that despite the foolish comments that are easily aggrandized, there is an intelligent, beneficent, conservative position.

Dave said...

Solid, thanks for noticing my effort to distinguish between people and philosophy. This is something I'm trying to do more often.

I suppose I do agree with your theology teacher's quote. So I want to start doing a better job of parsing conservative philosophy to show which parts of it I think are right or wrong.

I'm still learning how to write about all this in a way that doesn't throw my conservative friends and family under the bus. But I also want to be clear as day about where I think conservative philosophy simply miscalculates and where I think there are ulterior motives of some on the right.

It can be hard to package all of this into each zinger of a post. But I appreciate your reading and commenting on this blog, because I think it makes me consider these things when I might otherwise ignore them.

Sara said...

It seems to me that there are mostly 2 types of conservative folks that would buy into Mr. Brooks' philosophy: the folks that know exactly the selfish, greedy reasons he's saying the things he's saying & the folks that hear what 'their side' is saying and try to find a way to rationalize it to fit their belief system. The second bunch is basically a faithful and good bunch & therefore expect that the leaders of 'their side' are just like them and would only preach the truth, so though it goes against their better judgement, they find a way to make it fit. (I guess there are also just some genuinely mean, racist, intolerant, selfish people, too.)
Plus both sides get so inflamed, so opposite (obviously that serves that bigger, badder purpose of keeping divisions wide) that it just gets stranger and stranger the ways they perpetuate the divisions. I think it's an unnatural state for us to be, so polarized, in a way. I think it's a lot of work to keep us this split. Dirty, nasty work.

Hmmm, has me thinking that it will be the opposite to bring everyone together: gentle, humble, quiet, steady, long-suffering, honest work on both sides.

Sorry, kind of thinking 'aloud' here in my comment. But that's why I keep coming here! :) Thinking!

Dave said...

Sara, great points. I especially like your description of the two types of conservatives who would agree with Brooks. I think the first type (the few who agree because it benefits them at others' expense) have to be exposed and beaten politically. The second type (good people who are just trying to rationalize "their side's" argument) need to be convinced and won over.

Accomplishing that second task is basically the Holy Grail of progressive politics. Because if you win over the good-hearted conservatives, you then have such a huge majority of people on your side that you can stop the nasty things that greedy conservatives are doing. That old (but always current) idea has been called different things at different times. You could call it working class solidarity. You could call it the super majority of people coming together to do what benefits us all and wrest power from the few exploiters.

Or, the way you put it is probably better.

You're absolutely right that some people do mean, hard work to keep us divided. I think uniting us will take two things. First, we've got to do the long hard work of getting all good willed people to act in one another's best interest. And second, we have to boldly confront the people who will simply never play nice. But even that we've got to do with love.

Sara said...

:) thanks. I figured those weren't exactly new ideas. I always feel like Encino Man on here, just coming unfrozen into this strange new world, lol! But that's ok!

Dave said...

Or you could think of it as... you're saying things it took the progressive movement generations to articulate. :)