here & there:

David Brooks outdoes Pat Robertson

posted by Daniel Vaca

A number of blogs recently have criticized David Brooks for his response to the earthquake in Haiti. In his January 14 column, Brooks noted that Haiti’s extreme poverty has turned an unexceptional earthquake into a catastrophe of staggering scale. Most critics would agree with this first point, but they’ve objected to Brooks’s explanation for Haiti’s poverty: “Haiti,” Brooks explained, “like most of the world’s poorest nations, suffers from a complex web of progress-resistant cultural influences.” Among other “cultural influences,” Brooks identified “the influence of the voodoo religion, which spreads the message that life is capricious and planning futile.”

While Brooks largely blames Haitians themselves for their poverty, his critics look more to such structural and historical inequities as Haiti’s history of slavery, colonialism, racial oppression, and especially the crushing debt that France made it repay between 1804 and 1947. Over at Savage Minds, Kerim Friedman remarks that Brooks’s response is “much more insidious” and altogether worse than Robertson’s much-lampooned suggestion that Haiti made a “pact with the devil.” After all, Friedman notes, people generally take David Brooks seriously:

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.

Over at Foreign Policy’s Passport blog, Joshua Keating looks more closely at Brooks’s dismissive handling of Haiti’s political history:

Brooks’ analysis also seems to assume that all dictators are created equal. While the Dominican Republic’s late 20th century dictators Rafael Trujillo (who played a not insignificant role in Haiti’s tragic history) and Joaquín Balaguer were certainly brutal, they did at least demonstrate some interest in building that coutry’s infrastructure, unlike the Duvaliers whose most lasting contribution to Haiti’s infrastructure was probably the  98 percent deforestation that makes Haiti’s hurricanes so deadly.

Read the rest of Friedman’s piece here. Read Keating’s piece here. For a more polemical take, read Matt Taibbi’s remarks at Taibblog.

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2 Responses to “David Brooks outdoes Pat Robertson”

  1. Max Weber’s turning in his grave. Brooks’s lazy and misunderstood extension of the Protestant ethic ignores the specificity of the situation.

  2. Like most academic complaints about Brooks, these ones amount to an unfair—and ironically simplistic—objection that he writes 800-word biweekly columns rather than dissertations or monographs.

    Keating, first, complains that Brooks skipped over political turmoil and offered a simplistic cultural diagnosis. Brooks doesn’t think political turmoil irrelevant, only that culture is the deepest part of an explanation that must include many factors (political, economic, geographic, etc.). He stresses culture because it has for too long been downplayed by academics and the NGOs staffed by them. Too often, and sometimes despite their own protestations to the contrary, academics still credit the Marxist reduction of culture to material conditions.

    Friedman, secondly, seems to reject Brooks’s specific cultural diagnosis—that Vodou’s fatalism is partially to blame. I have no idea whether or not that diagnosis is true, but Friedman offers no direct objection against it, instead adducing claims about Brooks’s mishandling of social science about Asians in another column. To be precise, Friedman offers evidence that Brooks misconstrued some details of Nisbett’s work on comparative Asian-American psychology, but Friedman also argues that Nisbett himself misread his own data. Brooks—again, as a journalist—can’t be blamed for relying on reputable academics and their work.

    Rather, academics should applaud him for taking their work seriously and trying to synthesize it in a mass daily such as the New York Times. This is not to say they should agree with him. By no means: they should contest his theses and arguments vigorously, as always when such important matters are at stake. But they should not assimilate his position to a lunatic’s, let alone claim that he “outdoes” him.

    It was surprising to see this headline on The Immanent Frame. In my judgment, this is the best academic blog on the web. Like any good academic forum, it’s a place where reasonable positions can be articulated, defended, and communally assessed. But more specifically, it’s a blog that began as a discussion of a project somewhat similar to Brooks’s, a project of massive importance, namely Taylor’s. This is the project of showing the role of cultural history in the rise of secularism, thus implicitly rejecting the Marxist thesis that secularism is the inevitable product of our changing material conditions.

    It’s ironic, then, to have Brooks put in the stocks here for his small contribution to this project. That’s an insidious way of excluding his position—whether true or false, it’s reasonable—from the debate. *This* is irresponsible journalism.

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