Haiti : Why Voodoo Won’t Do

Above, the National Palace in Puerto Principe. Photo from EPA / Zumapress.com. Below, destroyed housing in Port-au-Prince. Photo by Logan Abassi / Getty Images.

Why Voodoo won’t do:
Haiti and the superstructure of failure

By Sid Eschenbach / The Rag Blog / January 18, 2010

One of the most unfortunate but seemingly inevitable footnotes to virtually any global tragedy is the rapid appearance of analysts laying the blame at the feet of the United States.

After 9/11, it was common to see articles arguing that the reason certain portions of the Muslim community hate us is because we’ve been mistreating them for years. Now, since the earthquake in Haiti, it’s equally common to read essays whose conclusion is that Haiti’s failure is the inevitable outcome of American misbehavior and abuse over the past centuries.

While it makes an emotionally appealing argument and there are always historical facts that seem to show causality through a trail of crimes that lead straight to Washington, an understanding of culture and its role in human societies tells a tale far different, far more complicated… and much closer to the truth.

There’s a popular folk saying that “success has a thousand fathers while failure is an orphan.” Both as individuals and groups, when we are successful we tend to claim credit, yet when we fail we tend to blame others. We all acknowledge in our hearts the fallacy of this behavior, so why is it so hard to do so on a societal level?

Unlike many successful societies, Haiti did not suffer atomic blasts on its cities (Japan) nor lie in complete ruins and devastation just decades ago (England, Germany, France, Italy); it did not suffer apartheid (South Africa), mass murder (Russia, China, Armenia, Cambodia), or devastating religious wars (Ireland, India, Pakistan). Indeed, by the standards of horrendous historical deeds and misdeeds, Haiti cannot be said to have suffered a particularly difficult history.

By this comparison, I don’t mean to make light of the historical truths of Haiti’s history, not absolve other nations or individuals of their misdeeds. However, to consider their case fairly and understand the problem before us, it must be acknowledged that by global standards, Haiti cannot really claim any particularly grievous or unique trauma other than its very birth… and therein lays the problem; it is congenital. Haiti’s problems are not the result of the way they were treated by others, but by the way they treated themselves.

Haiti is very simply and tragically the nation/state version of William Golding’s masterpiece of cultural analysis, The Lord of the Flies. The planet didn’t need a tragedy to prove his thesis, but here we have it. It is a real life portrayal of his fictional island, demonstrating to any with the courage to look and the eyes to see that what determines a society’s success or failure are its own cultural values.

Like Golding’s unschooled, undisciplined children on their island, the future failure of the Haitian nation was writ large at its birth. Thereafter, given the realities of human nature and their own utter lack of cultural values that would sustain and protect them, they were virtually doomed to fail.

Culture is widely misunderstood as simply describing “the way we are” or “the things we do.” However, culture has a purpose and a job, and that is to organize a group of humans in such a way that the chances of survival and success of that group is enhanced. In short, cultural values are the superstructure of success or failure.

At the time of their rebellion and liberation, the Haitian people, like Golding’s characters, quite simply had no system that could guide them to success, as through no fault of their own they were a broken people. Therefore, the birth of the Haitian nation could not have been more inauspicious; a desperate, culturally misbegotten people who among them knew only one thing; that freedom was better than slavery. In the end, while that knowledge brought them freedom, it was not nearly enough to bring them out of the grip of voodoo values and into the modern world.

This historical and congenital crime and its natural result is not their fault, but it is the cause of their failure. Therefore, their failure is just as surely not the fault of their neighbors the Dominicans, or of the regional powers with whom they interacted over the centuries.

Just as we all as individuals have been occasionally treated abusively or taken advantage of, in the end our success or failure is up to us, and a mature assessment shows that blaming others is not only counterproductive but well off the mark. As go individuals, so go groups and nations.

While Haiti certainly could have been treated better, their treatment is not the cause of their failure: it was a demonstrably failed society long before this most recent disaster. In short, if the issue of Haitian cultural disfunctionality is not understood and addressed, then the immense job of rebuilding Haiti moves from the very difficult to the patently impossible, and blaming others for their failure is quite simply not going to advance the mending of the cultural values that cause Haiti’s historic and ongoing failure.

The Rag Blog

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38 Responses to Haiti : Why Voodoo Won’t Do

  1. Anonymous says:

    A bracing counterpoint to the current culture of blame. I’m weary of 24/7 analysis and criticism. For those so-inclined ;with regard to Haiti, there will be plenty of time for that later. Now is the time for generosity, compassion and effective assistance.

  2. b.f. says:

    The book “Inhuman Bondage: The Rise and Fall of Slavery in the New World” by David Davis notes that after the Haitian Revolution of 1791 -1804, “beginning with Jefferson’s presidency, the United States quarantined Haiti” and “in 1825 Haiti’s President Jean-Pierre Boyer finally won French recognition only by agreeing to a staggering indemnity of 150 million francs and to reduced customs charges for French ships, concessions that made the republic fatally dependent on foreign credit and foreign economic control.”

    And the 1994 book “Cruising The Caribbean: U.S. Influence and Intervention in the Twentieth Century” by Ronald Fernandez recalls that in October 1937 troops of Dominican Republic Dictator Trujillo, in remote border areas, “herded the Haitians into large groups” and “killed 17,000 Haitians.” This same book also concluded in 1994 that:

    “…The United States bears a significant responsibility for the displacement of Caribbean peoples. The terrible consequences of the sugar quotas imposed in 1982, the long standing support for Duvalier, the continued Haitian officers by U.S. soldiers on U.S. soil in such areas as Fort Benning, Georgia–all these practices have helped lead directly to the present horror in Haiti.

    “…The United States has been training Haitian and Dominican soldiers since 1915 and the results are still the same. Whether it’s 2,000 Haitians slaughtered in 1919, 17,000 chopped to pieces in 1937, or an estimated 4,000 since 1991 [as of 1994], innocent people continue to die and presidents from Wilson to Clinton provide the guns…”

  3. Anonymous says:

    Your title “Voodoo won’t do” is unfortunate. Vodou is an Afro-American religion resulting from the great African diaspora as African slaves and their descendants were captured and taken to the Caribbean Islands, Latin America, and parts of the southern United States.(largely by Europeans, America is not solely to blame) It was a tragedy that in my opinion was greater than those you list.
    These folks have been fighting an uphill battle with nothing but sticks and drums.Show some compassion!

  4. Sid says:

    Anonymous and B.F.
    I have tremendous compassion for suffering, particularly unnessary suffering, wherever it may be… and this is certainly no exception. However, getting the correct treatment depends upon an accurate diagnosis being made, not upon how much compassion the doctor has for the patient.

    I will simply repeat what I believe is a patent truth; the quality of societal outcome depends on the quality of the cultural values held by the decision makers in the society: it is no accident of history. Therefore, the fact that the Haitian nation is a manifest failure by virtually any measurement stands in testimony to those poor cultural values. If a fix is to be found, it is there, not in some historical series of wrongs.

    As to some inherent respect that should be due to Voodoo because of it’s origins, I hold no inherent respect for flat earthers or creationists based upon the same argument, so why should I start now with the Haitians?

  5. Sid has no substantive thesis. He says Haitians are poor because they have poor cultural values. But he doesn’t say what those values are and how a wiser group (or person, like Sid) would act and what the likely consequences of those actions would be. So we’re left with an anti-thesis: that Americans are not responsible for the poverty in Haiti or anywhere else (something else he doesn’t provide evidence for).

    I feel more comfortable assessing Sid’s anti-thesis with Palestine as a model than Haiti. Do you, reader, believe Gaza is a hellhole because of its decision makers’ cultural values? Gaza is a hellhole b/c Israelis and Americans make it that way. Surely the Gazan leadership has failed, but they have failed under circumstances few people have to face–bombs, poverty, and an inhuman blockade. And their goal isn’t to get dinner on the table on time. It’s to shake off the world’s 4th most powerful military. Only a fool or a narcissist could conclude that Gazans have been the master of their own destinies.

    A more striking example is Vietnam. Are its dictatorship and poverty in the last 50 years due to poor cultural values? No. It would be foolish to blame the south Vietnamese because they resisted American and French aggression while often instituting a kind of direct democracy. Those are really fantastic cultural values. A better culprit for Vietnam’s misery are my parents and the society of their youth which did not stop the U.S. military from murdering millions of Vietnamese.

    Basically, Sid, you’re blaming the victim. I wish this kind of responsibility-denying piece wasn’t posted on the Rag Blog. We deserve better analysis.

  6. b.f. says:

    A one-sided cultural-determinist approach to explaining Haitian history (even if it was, in fact, based on an accurate understanding of Haitian culture),would not really adequately explain what has led, historically, to the catastrophic economic/political situation in Haiti. But as physician-anthropoligist Paul Farmer noted in book “The Uses of Haiti”:

    “Many Americans resist the idea that U.S. administrations have hastened the decline of this beleaguered little nation. This resistance is due to many factors, not the least of which is the discomfort born of facing ugly realities about the role of our government in the Third World. It is far more comforting to attribute the ongoing violence in Haiti…to factors native to that setting. Among the most popular explanatory models are those invoking `cultural’ factors; voodoo, in particular, is often evoked to `explain’ Haiti (in previous generations, the concept of race was used with similar intent)…

    “…How else might we explain the influence of such theoretically shaky and historically inaccurate accounts as that offered by Lawrence Harrison in the Atlantic Monthly?

    “Mr. Harrison’s central question is this: `If Haiti is not a victim of imperialism, how can its tragic history be explained?’…Lawrence Harrison’s answer to his question is that Haitian culture is to blame for all the country’s woes: `I believe that culture is the only possisble explanation for Haiti’s unending tragedy.’…

    “To shore up his position, Harrison refers to a number of `authorities’ on Haitian culture…For Harrison, `the stultifying peasant world view’ predominant in Haiti is the product of `Africanisms’ such as voodoo. Voodoo, he writes, `is not a religion that concerns itself with ethical issues.’ In fact, most serious students of Haitian religion–from Alfred Metraux to Karen McCarthy Brown–conclude that it is primarily with ethical and moral issues that voodoo is concerned. But Harrison does not cite these studies. His source is a Baptist missionary–which might have given watchful editors pause even if they were unaware that this particular missionary is well knwon in Haiti for his virulent hatred of voodoo….”

  7. Anonymous says:

    Not glad to see this article here. Not demanding ideological purity. Just wishing to read something that took more than half a brain to write it.

    Question: Is author suffering from compassion fatigue or something worse?

  8. Sid says:

    Thanks for your various comments.

    By way of responding to those who appear to think that cultural values play a small or non-existent role in determining societal success compared to historical opportunity or discrimination, I would suggest that you don’t understand the role of culture in human societies. To elaborate on what I wrote in the original essay, “culture” is not social window dressing, just the inconsequential ways human societies have created to relate to one another and to the world at large… but that it plays a fundamental role in evolution, because culture is a survival mechanism. While it’s manifestations are seen in religion, music, architecture, family structure and political systems, it’s actual “job” is to improve and guarantee the survival and well-being of it’s adherents. Cultural values are not the various decorations of life, they are life itself.

    This understanding stems from the work of evolutionary biologists like Richard Dawkins who wrote extensively years ago about ‘memes’, the social equivalent of ‘genes’… and how the mutations within both contribute to and improve the chances of, in this case, human *as opposed to other species) survival. Specifically, the ‘memes’ to which Dawkins referred are the values at the heart of every culture that shape the visible manifestations… their political systems, their economic systems, their family structures, their music, art, architecture, urban planning… everything. All of those outward expressions stem from cultural ‘memes’. The point of my original essay was to point out the dearth of those values (like the kids on William Golding’s island) in early Haitian ‘society’ explains to a great degree the outcome. In the absence of good memes, failure is the likely outcome. It was certainly not their ‘fault’, but it was, unquestionably, their cultural reality.

    When societies are viewed from this vantage point, it becomes far easier to explain why certain societies flourish while others fail; why certain cultures produce Nobel prize winners and vaccine discoverers, while others require external aid generation after generation.

    On a wider point, I suffer no compassion deficit, nor am I ignorant of, in this case, Haitian history. However, I do not believe the debate about how to go forwards, how best to address the problems Haiti poses, how best to actually stand up a culture, a system and a society that serves it’s people well to be helped when prefacing that search for solutions the usual ‘bad guys’ are marched out for their ritual beating.

  9. Sid, what are the cultural values Haiti holds? You haven’t pointed those out so it’s hard to believe your argument. How do these values, which I hope you’ll name, contribute to Haiti’s poverty? So far your essay is just assertion. If you had some evidence I might be able to consider your argument. Right now it’s as good as “I think”, which isn’t very good.

  10. JoJo says:

    a gaza analogy is undoubtedly lost on this xenophobe. his superior culture needs no sourcing or even a coherent context. veiled racism is still racism. dawkins uber alles!

  11. Larry Piltz says:

    Sid, when the actual “bad guys” are marched out of power in Haiti for good, and without additional U.S., et al, intervention to re-prop them up again ad infinitum, then you will finally begin to see the true Haitian culture arise.

    Until now, we’ve seen only the sad downside of the Lord of the Flies culture you castigate. It’s not the “flies” that determine the culture. It’s the “Lord”, and you know very well who that is.

    To pretend otherwise, for whatever your personal reason, is to ignore the huge logic-hole in the middle of your microscopic and misanthropic argument.

    I suspect that the reason you blame the victim is that you, yourself, are part of a Lord of the Flies culture (big-time!), and that you are acting out a crucial “fly” role, that of official self-appointed scapegoater. Seen a mirror lately?

    – Larry Piltz

  12. Nick Cooper says:

    I have little choice but to conclude that Sid didn’t do his homework, as demonstrated in this paragraph:

    “Unlike many successful societies, Haiti did not suffer atomic blasts on its cities (Japan) nor lie in complete ruins and devastation just decades ago (England, Germany, France, Italy); it did not suffer apartheid (South Africa), mass murder (Russia, China, Armenia, Cambodia), or devastating religious wars (Ireland, India, Pakistan). Indeed, by the standards of horrendous historical deeds and misdeeds, Haiti cannot be said to have suffered a particularly difficult history.”

    If Sid doesn’t count Haiti’s history of slavery, brutal dictators, debt, US meddling, IMF meddling, AIDS, hurricanes, etc. then why should we take him at all seriously? From what he has written, he seems to know a lot more about Lord of the Flies than Haiti. The ONLY substantive things he mentions about Haiti is that it 1) overcame slavery and 2) has voodoo.

    This is not to say that the elements of this article couldn’t possibly be put together to create an interesting thesis by someone who knew more, was less presumptuous, or had an interesting angle, it’s just that Sid isn’t up to the task.

    Nick Cooper
    nickcooper at indymedia dot org

  13. Bernard says:

    Sad to see The Rag running such chauvinistic crap in Haiti’s hour of need.

  14. Larry Piltz says:

    I think the biggest sin of omission (and therefore commission as well) in Sid’s thesis is that he did not actually take into consideration whatsoever the actual astute and organically democratic culture of community (and communities) within Haiti that its people have developed throughout especially its modern history, a next-to-impossible feat of optimism and indefatigable rebellion that one must at least acknowledge and certainly understand before even beginning to comment on Haiti’s people and what they “need” to do.

    Haitians have competed brilliantly and effectively, with inventiveness, compassion, and courage, against the U.S.-backed oligarchical lord-of-the-flies top-down, dog-eat-dog culture imposed on them, by creating a shared sense of community and while building casual social structures that independently have made life not only more tolerable but have also provided for themselves, through great adversity and despite officially mandated deprivation, the necessities of life and more than not a spirit of camaraderie, sisterhood, and brotherhood.

    To dwell on the exceptions, as Sid and others have done (see the counter-David Brooks article linked below), is to simply be colonially myopic. Perhaps their arguments could be better made about and within the culture from which they lob their rhetorical “assistance”. Certainly the U.S. could use the improvement. What did someone say about removing the mote from one’s own eye? Hmm?


  15. Mike Hanks says:

    As Dickens said in “A Christmas Carol”:

    `Oh, Man. look here. Look, look, down here.’ exclaimed the Ghost.

    They were a boy and a girl. Yellow, meagre, ragged, scowling, wolfish; but prostrate, too, in their humility. Where graceful youth should have filled their features out, and touched them with its freshest tints, a stale and shriveled hand, like that of age, had pinched, and twisted them, and pulled them into shreds. Where angels might have sat enthroned, devils lurked, and glared out menacing. No change, no degradation, no perversion of humanity, in any grade, through all the mysteries of wonderful creation, has monsters half so horrible and dread.

    Scrooge started back, appalled. Having them shown to him in this way, he tried to say they were fine children, but the words choked themselves, rather than be parties to a lie of such enormous magnitude.

    `Spirit. are they yours.’ Scrooge could say no more.

    `They are Man’s,’ said the Spirit, looking down upon them. `And they cling to me, appealing from their fathers. This boy is Ignorance. This girl is Want. Beware them both, and all of their degree, but most of all beware this boy, for on his brow I see that written which is Doom, unless the writing be erased. Deny it.’ cried the Spirit, stretching out its hand towards the city. `Slander those who tell it ye. Admit it for your factious purposes, and make it worse. And abide the end.’

    `Have they no refuge or resource.’ cried Scrooge.

    `Are there no prisons.’ said the Spirit, turning on him for the last time with his own words. `Are there no workhouses.’ The bell struck twelve.

    There is blame enough for us all.

    Mike Hanks

  16. Mike Hanks says:

    Judging by the response, this is clearly a topic of importance. Some of the comments could be expanded to article length. The conditions experienced by Haitians in general and specifically in regard to the current crises could be enlightening as we try to understand and connect with our brothers and sisters in impoverished countries. Thanks to Sid for stepping out when there was nothing on paper.

  17. Sid says:

    I’m totally buried in work right now and simply don’t have the time to answer your posts. Hopefully tomorrow night we can continue this discussion. As Mike Hanks points out, it appears to be worth it and people feel strongly about the question of why certain areas prosper while other fail. Besides, it’ll give me the time to not take some insults personally (lol).

  18. Henry S III says:

    The culture of the English language, its construction of simple one-note answers, leads to misunderstanding and breakdown in communication, here as in so many cases.
    Sid doesn’t know “it’s” from “its,” how can we expect him to talk in the correct level of specificity, especially when he so obviously doesn’t understand what he “knows,” that is, what he thinks he knows he’s talking about.
    I don’t know nearly enough about Haiti, its history, or its cultural values to make any judgments.
    I do know that there are no simple answers. I can guess the effects of so many actions over so many years in Haiti against the welfare of the Haitian people by the overlords of a Euro-American culture of domination and exploitation have played a large part in worsening conditions there for quite a long time, but are not completely to blame, just as the “voodoo” culture of Haiti is not completely to blame. Sid, look at this word: “It’s” an African worldview of trance and possession and magical reality unavoidably misunderstood by the pragmatic colonizing natural resource thievery of the desperate Viking raiding imperative of the Euro-American conquest culture, and by you.

  19. Anonymous says:

    Vodou, or not it seems that there is now US occupation. Why? A reason might be “oil”. Why not? See

  20. Sid says:

    part 1
    In developmental economics, the answer to the question of why some countries prosper while others fail is at the heart of any strategy to alleviate suffering and replicate success. It is my belief, through study and experience, that the answer to that question is more often found in the cultural values that lie behind the decisions taken by the opinion makers and political leaders of society, and less often due to external forces that create outcomes out of the control of those leaders.
    For expressing that thought in the context of the disaster that is Haiti, I’m called a xenophobe, ignorant, without compassion, thoughtless, a racist, a scape-goater for the great powers, a misanthropic and a myopic excuser for historical abuses which allows me to blame the victim… none of which address the original question of why Haiti is Haiti. Henry S III even went so far afield as to suggest that the appearance of a mistaken apostrophe constituted proof of my inability to understand ‘trance and magical reality’, and that I represented “…the pragmatic colonizing natural resource thievery of the desperate Viking raiding imperative of the Euro-American conquest culture.” Go Henry!
    However, this isn’t about me, much as it seems that it makes others feel better to make it so. Like Taibbi’s insult filled rant against David Brooks’s article about development, the question after the insults remains the same: “From whence failure?’ If others prefer to look to external forces generally, or in Haiti’s case particularly, fair enough. Make your case. If others conclude that culture played no role, that Haiti is simply an unwilling or unwitting victim of more powerful forces, and the culture is itself blameless of responsibility for creating its current condition, fine. That conclusion does not make you ignorant, small-minded, racist, left or right, uninformed, intolerant of others… or as Taibbi labeled Brooks, a poorly hung, threatened and insecure racist.
    So to the question. As I stated in my original essay, I believe that a fair, comparative review of the history of the 19th and 20th centuries shows that the treatment Haiti received to be remarkably unremarkable. By the ‘normal’ standards of the times and in comparison to the ‘normal’ standards of mans incredible brutality towards his fellow man, Haiti’s plight is unexceptionable. For example, b.f. raises the murder of 17,000 Haitians in 1937 as proof of the savagery of their history and reason for their failure… conveniently forgetting that in that same year the entire world was on the brink of a war that would leave some 50,000,000 dead and entire continents in ruins… yet those same nations today lead the world in nearly every measure of success and the people of their nations are generally far better off in every way than the average Haitian. In the same period, the Jewish people lost 6,000,000 killed, a number that represented nearly 65% of their total European population, yet since that time have won 27% of the physics Nobels, and 31% in medicine. By Jewish standards, the Haitians don’t even represent a footnote in the list of atrocities, yet the outcomes are very different.

  21. Sid says:

    part II
    I could continue to list the atrocities of man committed against his fellow man around the world since recorded time, but to what end? Those who look for excuses for failure will always find them. These statements are not arguments of, as Henry S III so eloquently put it, the triumphalism of a person mired in the “desperate Viking raiding imperative of the Euro-American conquest culture”, but simple fact. And before I’m accused of further defects by you who don’t know me but are nonetheless perfectly willing to insult me, I’m neither Jewish nor religious at all. I raise Jewish success against unimaginable historical persecution only to point out one thing: the Jews clearly are not looking for excuses for failure, but rather are busy building success.
    Nor are the defeated Kuomintang Chinese, who after colonizing a bare rock in the South China Sea in the throes of a war that cost them millions of their people, created a nation that is a prosperous and stable world power. Nor is the Mexican nation that saw itself divided in a brutal civil war that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands and its economy and social policies manipulated since it’s creation by foreign powers seeking their own gain… yet today is a vibrant, growing, stable and prospering nation. This list too could go on and on, but again to what end? For those who refuse to see the links between culture and outcome, anything and everything is an excuse for failure. While we all, as individuals, know those who have had great advantage and failed just as we know those who suffered great adversity yet who prospered, many are loath to take the lessons that can be drawn on the individual level and apply them to a larger scale.
    Haiti has, like many other nations, suffered mightily at the hands of others. However, in the search for a road to success, the finding and the implementing of policies and practices that will bring to the Haitian people the prosperity that all people desire and deserve, I find no answers in blaming others. Haiti should, as one poster suggested to me, remove the mote from its own eye and take a good look in the mirror, for that is, from my experience and learning, usually where the causes for failure lie.

  22. Sid, I agree with you that the name calling is outrageous. Those more interested in building movements than in having the right answer know not to purposefully alienate others.

    I still have the same question for you. If it is Haiti’s cultural values which have led to their poverty, what are those values? Can you demonstrate that if Haiti had other values, that they would be more prosperous? I have no spite toward you. I am sincerely interested in hearing your answer to these questions.


  23. Sid says:

    I'll attempt three answers to your question, as it's certainly legitimate. I must add, however, that you may not be satisfied by any of them.

    The first is that even the very best answer to your question can only be a well informed opinion, as it’s very difficult to link conclusively or ‘scientifically’, if you will, condition ‘A’ to outcome ‘B’ in human groups.

  24. Sid says:

    David (II)
    As to the American case that someone mentioned that I should also look to for the same poor cultural values leading to poor outcomes, I agree. Frank’s book “What’s Wrong With Kansas” speaks generally to the question of why groups make decisions that are not in their interests. De Tocqueville rhapsodized about the values of 19th century United States, who like most other cultural

  25. Thanks for responding,Sid. It was good to get the most fleshed out vision of what you think happened to Haiti as possible. I don't feel the need to give a rejoinder, but I will if you'd like me to.


  26. Sylvia says:

    I think it’s disgusting that you have compared the people of Haiti to the children of Lord of the Flies, basically saying that they have deserved all this tragedy due to their lack of education and morality, and that this is inherent in their culture. You sound like a white colonist/missionary. Besides being completely racist, this article is utterly uninsightful.

  27. Sid says:

    It’s good that William Golding was a white Englishman commenting about white English schoolchildren, because otherwise the small-minded and politically correct of his time would have accused him of being a racist too.

    Sayings like ‘If you don’t want to get wet, don’t play in the rain’ are simple statements of folk truth that describe causality, not punishment. It is not a question of, as you mis-characterize my views, that I think they ‘deserve’ to suffer. Only the very criminal few among us ‘deserve’ to suffer. However, you are correct that it’s my view that their suffering was the inevitable outcome of their status at the birth of their nation.

    Is it your view that capacity, knowledge, capability and education play no role in, for example, starting a successful business (something far simpler than starting a successful country)? Would you advise high-school sophomores to take the family savings and open a restaurant, a construction business or a dentistry? How, please tell me, could they possibly be successful? And when they fail, as they inevitably must, would it be your position that the reason they failed is because all the other restaurants were mean to them, or just possibly that they simply weren’t up to the task?

    You can look away, if you choose, from the state of the Haitian people in 1800: their level of education, their cultural homo or heterogeneity, their background, their preparedness for the task before them. I choose not to. The question of their race is completely irrelevant. Was Scott’s failure at the South Pole due to the fact he was Caucasian, or that he was completely unprepared for the task before him, and nothing else. If a black essayist were to discuss that failure and attribute it to Scott’s manifest unpreparedness, would he then be a racist?

  28. Sid, what is their level of education ,their cultural homo or heterogeneity, their background, or their preparedness for the task before them? You’ve never addressed any of this. You keep saying these are the most relevant factors but you haven’t explained any of it in any detail. It sounds like you’re throwing out catchphrases.

  29. Sid says:

    If you think that education, preparedness, capacity, cultural state and background are just meaningless “catchphrases”, then I’m assuming you’d have no problem turning your life’s savings over to a 15 year old to take to Wall Street and invest.

    From my point of view, it’s simply factual to point out that success at virtually anything, especially starting a nation, requires all of those very real things; education, preparedness, capacity and cultural homogeneity…. and even more so when you’ve got adversaries that are doing all in their power to destroy you.

    In comparison, it was very very difficult for the United States to pull off the same trick just a few years earlier, and they too had to win more than one war, survive economic blockades and great international intrigues to do it. However, they enjoyed a series of critical advantages that Haiti did not: the thematic memes of the Enlightenment that were broadly understood and culturally unifying; a group of educated, experienced giants of their time (or any other, the collective and well known ‘founding fathers’) to lead a relatively self-supporting and cohesive group against the English empire, broad individual and collective experience in government and governance… and even with all those advantages, none of which Haiti enjoyed, it was touch and go.

    These facts have, once again, nothing to do with race. Were I to propose, before employment, to compare c.v.’s of two individuals being considered for the CEO position of any company, I’m sure that no one would accuse me of being a racist or a cultural chauvinist. However, if I ask to compare the bio’s of Thomas Jefferson and Toussaint Louverture, to compare the cultures and the leadership of the two nations at the same nation building time… I’m accused of being a racist. In fact, all I am asking is that the reader look past that irrelevant point of race to who these individuals are, what they stood for, who they represented, what were their values, what they know how to do and how prepared they are to assume the position for which they are fighting. Great soldiers do not necessarily make great nation builders. Louverture named himself ‘Governor for Life’ with virtually unlimited powers in his own constitution, while his ally General Jean-Jacques Desallines murdered 10,000 black men, women and children to maintain power… not a particularly auspicious start for a difficult task… and the die was cast.

    Again, if you think that preparedness, education, general understanding of the world and a positive and unifying cultural identity are meaningless catchphrases, then I’m not sure what else I can offer to ‘explain in detail’ as you say.

  30. You’re telling me to look at what their cultural values are. I’ve been asking you what those values are since we started this and I haven’t gotten a straight answer.

    As to what it takes to set up a society, I don’t think anyone knows, and anyone who thinks they know is deceiving themselves.

    Not only do I think you can’t be an expert on setting up a nation, I don’t think one can be an expert on how nation-building relates to the consciousness of people who lived decades ago. It’s too complicated, and human action is unpredictable.

    I think this is why you can’t explain what you’re talking about in any detail. I ask what you what Haitian’s cultural values were and you couldn’t say. It’s hard enough for me to understand myself and what makes me tick. Understanding a group of people from 200 years ago and why they did what they did is impossible.

  31. Sid says:

    Forgive me for not being clear and assuming too much… so let’s take it one last time from the top.

    Let’s say you and I are going to start a business, and we sit down to lay out the basic terms of the operation:

    You say that you would like a board of directors, while I prefer being named president for life.

    You say that you would like the workers to share in the profits, while I say that we should pay them as little as possible in order to make more ourselves.

    You say that we should have company health insurance to protect all our workers, while I say that they can fend for themselves.

    You say that the women should be paid the same as the men, while I say that because women will be leaving periodically to have children they should be paid less.

    You say that we should support adult education so that our workers can get ahead, while I say that all we’ll be doing is increasing worker turnover and costs to ourselves.

    Where are these positions coming from? From the different values that (rhetorically) you and I hold. You (in the examples), believe in the values of equality, education, sharing, egalitarianism and consensus rule, while I (again, rhetorically) believe in the values of power, inequality, advantage, competition and self-reliance.

    Not only would we be unable to work together (that’s where sharing cultural values comes in handy, an advantage that Haiti didn’t have), but the businesses we would start separately would be totally different in fundamental ways. To wrap it up, in the above example, you were Thomas Jefferson and I was Toussaint Louverture. I was uneducated and saw no virtue in it, while you were highly educated and immediately established the University of Virginia. I set myself up as dictator for life, while you fought for democracy and a pluralist government. Different values, different outcomes.

    In short, as I’ve said many times over these exchanges, behind every decision there is a value. Your children go to school because you (your culture) value(s) knowledge. Your parents receive social security because you(r) culture believes that the aged and the weak should be helped by the strong. Etc. These are examples of some of the good American values and their outcomes. Needless to say, America has plenty of bad values too… the subject for another time. In any event, the thesis of my essay and all my posts is simply that values produce outcomes. Institutionalizing ignorance (due to not believing that education and knowledge are virtues) solves nothing and makes nothing better. Haitians, through no fault of their own (rather to the historical tragedy of their history), tried to build a nation without the values that produce good or better outcomes, and their subsequent history should surprise no student of human societies.

    Think about the totally different ‘corporate cultures’ our two companies would have had given ‘our’ different cultural values…

    That’s it for me on this subject, as I don’t believe myself capable of greater clarity. If you still disagree, god bless. If not, the same.

  32. I get what you’re saying. It’s just truism. It’s right in line with, the cultural values of the United States made Haiti what it was because our values have been to conquer and enslave other people. And Haitians can be as peaceful and productive as they want, but if you saddle them with debt and disrupt their democratic regimes, they won’t stand a chance. That’s my position.

  33. Sid says:

    Yes David, outcomes are truisms. When you fail that mid-term, that is indicative of a lack of knowledge. Why you have that lack is up for question, but that you failed and lack the knowledge is beyond doubt.

    If you prefer to blame Haiti’s problems on all but Haitians, that’s your choice. I see it very differently.

  34. Mike Hanks says:

    For further reading on culture and it’s effects in the human community. This includes a “culture map” of the world’s populations. An interesting approach.


    The WVS questionnaire consists of about 250 questions resulting in some 400 to 800 measurable variables. A few examples are as follows:

    * Happiness. Perceptions of happiness were measured and this part of the WVS is that most widely quoted by the press.[4] The popular statistics website Nationmaster publishes a simplified world happiness scale derived from the WVS data. The WVS website allows a more sophisticated level of analysis than Nationmaster, such as comparison of happiness over time or across socio-economic groups. One of the most striking shifts in happiness measured by the WVS was the substantial drop in happiness of Russians and some other Eastern European countries during the 1990s.

    * The Inglehart-Welzel Map[5] is another of the most well-known results of the WVS survey. A number of variables were condensed into two dimensions of cultural variation (known as “traditional v. secular-rational” and “survival v. self-expression”), and on this basis the world’s countries could be mapped into specific cultural regions. The WVS claims: “These two dimensions explain more than 70 percent of the cross-national variance in a factor analysis of ten indicators”.[6]

    * The survey found that trust and democracy were values that crossed most cultural boundaries. The survey also showed that sex equality was one of the most significant differences between Western and other cultures.

  35. Sid says:

    Mike Hanks:
    Thanks for your comment and links. The WVS is a great place to start to understand how values are the ‘superstructure’ of society.

    Also just out on this topic, a new book about the relationship between cultural values and the Great Recession in the States.


  36. Richard says:

    Thanks for these comments, I feel like I owe a semesters tuition.

  37. Ridwan says:

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  38. alexsteeve says:

    It’s not time to think about voodoo because voodoo doesn’t do anything better than pushing us backward.We need to be better than this and leave all those stupid things, I guess it’s time to show people that we can be different, for once.

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