Haiti and Conservatives' Compassion Problem

05/25/2011 03:15 pm ET
  • Rupert Russell PhD Candidate, Harvard University -

Why do conservative's claim the mantel of "compassionate conservatism" but liberals never a "more caring liberalism"? The very need to emphasize compassion reveals the very lack of it in their natural disposition. This is why we have "low-fat cheese" but never "low-calorie celery." Conservative reactions to the catastrophic earthquake in Haiti have fallen back to blaming the victims for their own plight in the face of a natural disaster.

This is quite separate from the deranged rantings of Pat Robertson or the grotesque partisanship of Rush Limbaugh. It is rooted in the intellectual project of the first generation of neoconservatives and The Public Interest, later popularized by Charles Murray, embraced by insurgent Republicans and the New Democrats of the 1990s, and even an occasional refrain in Obama's own rhetoric. So-called "moderate" conservative voice for the New York Times, David Brooks explains:

On Oct. 17, 1989, a major earthquake with a magnitude of 7.0 struck the Bay Area in Northern California. Sixty-three people were killed. This week, a major earthquake, also measuring a magnitude of 7.0, struck near Port-au-Prince, Haiti. The Red Cross estimates that between 45,000 and 50,000 people have died.

This is not a natural disaster story. This is a poverty story. It's a story about poorly constructed buildings, bad infrastructure and terrible public services.

So far, so good: there is nothing remotely controversial, although one may dispute other geological factors that characterize earthquakes than their magnitude in explaining their impact, but never mind. But then we come to the meat:

The first of those truths is that we don't know how to use aid to reduce poverty.

Brooks then goes onto quote from an anthology he found that states: "It is not clear to us that the best way to get growth is to do growth policy of any form. Perhaps making growth happen is ultimately beyond our control." But then he shifts, from a 'we don't know' stance to a directly opposing stance to purporting to know exactly what to do:

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.

And what we should do, according to Brooks, is exactly what we've done in the US:

In this country, we first tried to tackle poverty by throwing money at it, just as we did abroad. Then we tried microcommunity efforts, just as we did abroad. But the programs that really work involve intrusive paternalism.

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.

The first statement repeats a piece of mythology seemingly embraced by conservatives and many mainstream liberals: that America, once upon time, threw money at the poor, and it only made things worse. Not only is this historically inaccurate, that funding for services to the poor directly only last from the Great Society to the Reagan administration, and were mitigated by the impact of the malaise and stagflation of the 1970s, but also the comparative perspective. That the US has by the far the highest rates of poverty compared to it's developed peers, and those that spend the most on social services, such as France or Germany or Britain or Sweden, have far lower poverty rates.

This is the premise for setting up the "it's culture not money" thesis. And by using the vague term "culture" they cover up what they really mean, which is the supposed "actions" taken by poor communities, and by actions they mean "personal decisions," which only they can be responsible for.

Then we move to the evidence. He begins by repeating an earlier contradiction: claiming the practitioners at the Harlem Children's Zone or the No Excuses schools "don't understand all the factors that contribute to poverty," Brooks approvingly, in the very next sentence, cites "local culture" as the target. Yet, the problem here is not the logic of the argument, but the fact that these programs have not been proven to work. Although the Harlem Children's Zone is the cause cèlèbre of the intellectual New York dinner party scene, there is scant evidence the incredibly expensive programs (approaching $20k for each student) have any impact on test scores at all. I recently sat through a presentation by Harvard economists who had gone through the (only recently made available) data who only found the black-white achievement gap closed in one single year in one single subject.

You may be wondering, what does this have to do with Haiti? Indeed, that would be a good question to pose to Brooks, because I'm not sure what resemblances the black urban poor in one of the richest cities in the world has to do with a devastated population one of the world's poorest in a natural disaster. This stretched analogy is drawn to imply that Port-au-Prince was hit so much harder than the Bay Area is because "responsibility is often not internalized."

The frayed elastic of this odd comparison reveals conservative's cruel and grotesque understanding of poverty, plight and tragedy. That regardless of the place or the people, the history or the circumstances, one can always conformably lay blame at the victims feet. This is exposed when they so easily can turn to a country devastated by a natural disaster and claim that the inability of the dead and wounded to lead "responsible lives" or look after their children properly is what has led to such mass and indiscriminate suffering. Perhaps this is why they feel they have to tell everyone how "compassionate" they are, because it's so self-evidently the furthest point from the truth.