January 24, 2010

Barbara Miller to David Brooks: It's time for Anthropology 101*

A little more than a week ago, New York Times columnist David Brooks wrote an op-ed about Haiti. In it, he explains why he thinks Haiti is so plagued by poverty and corruption:

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.

You see, it all comes down to culture (not really). Sure, there are some historical and political factors, but the real problem is the "culture" of the Haitian people--and of course voodoo (be sure not to miss my sarcasm here). One thing I love is when people start making claims about large groups of people like this. The fundamental issue is that culture is not something that is as bounded and static as Brooks seems to think. Characterizing all Haitians based upon overly simplistic and monolithic traits is, well, not conforming to reality--and definitely not conforming to the ways in which the concept of culture is understood by contemporary anthropologists. In short, Brooks is long on supposition and short on understanding. There is just a little more to the story than what Brooks is attempting to sell.

Of course, a lot of anthropologists reacted pretty quickly to what Mr. Brooks had to say. Savage Minds has one example, and here is another (at anthropologyworks). And today Barbara Miller, who runs the blog anthropologyworks, has issued a challenge to Mr. Brooks:

So here’s my challenge to David Brooks: take an introductory cultural anthropology course now. Open your eyes and your heart to “other” cultures that may look like losers according to H&H [this refers to Samuel Huntington and former USAID administrator Lawrence Harrison] but in fact hold the clues to a better future for all of us. If we would only give them a chance. I teach a six-week, distance ed version of my intro class every summer: Anth 002.10 at George Washington University. Mr. Brooks is most welcome to enroll.

I would like to see more of this kind of public debate. Either that or anthropologists continue to sit back and allow economists, political scientists, and journalists to define our public political discourse.

*Actually, the course at George Washington University is really called Anth 002.10. Just to keep things fair and balanced, etc.


Anonymous said...

I´m writing from Argentina. My name is Franco and nowadays i´m student of Anthropology in the Universidad Nacional de La Plata. The opinion of Mr Brooks have been very expansive for all the world. Here, in Argentina, this type of opinion have arrived with lot of power in the media. I agree the position that we have to intervene in lot of forms of comunication giving we point of view.
very good blog!
sorry for my poor english

Ryan Anderson said...

Hey Franco,

Thanks for you comment. I completely agree with you that it is definitely necessary to disrupt this kind of media rhetoric. It surprises me that anyone finds Brooks' argument convincing.

Saludos y nos vemos!