I’m not sure what Andy is disagreeing with me about; while the good news from Chiaromonte is nice to hear, it isn’t overwhelming (60% of families with cars and telephones, in the early 90s?).Â But the important thing is that the crushing poverty, stasis, and fatalism that bound the community until so recently was only dispersed by breaking its isolation from a world with more constructive norms and conventions (TV, roads, travel, emigration and return), just as Calabrian/Sicilian medievalism broke apart when Italian immigrants moved into enclaves surrounded by New York and Boston, rather than more villages like theirs as far as the eye could see.
Haiti has emigration going for it (see below for some caveats even on this score), as Andy points out, and “doomed” was hyperbolic on my part. But it doesn’t have much else, and there will be plenty of sabotage to overcome.Â Rich elites in places like Haiti tend to despise their peasantry and proletariat (why all his friends thought Tolstoy was nuts).Â I was in Iran before the revolution hanging out with very comfortable profs at the University of Tehran, working on a curriculum development project for a sort of Tehran State (if you think of U of T as the Stanford of the place and time).Â These guys had lunch at the Hilton, ordered pork chops and BLT’s from the English menu, lived up on the hill (Tehran is sort of a great tilted plane), and had dogs as pets. More than one of them informed me, helpfully trying to knock the corners off my naÃ¯vetÃ©, that “it doesn’t matter what you teach these people; they’re ignorant peasants and will learn nothing.”Â It felt a little like being in the court of Catherine the Great, with everyone speaking French and being as un-Russian as possible.
More important, I think, is that these guys have it very good now, and have no reason to believe that in a more competitive meritocratic society, even if its average income increased greatly, they could be as comfortable as they are now.Â They certainly couldn’t be as relatively advantaged, and Bob Frank has explained and explained that relative status trumps absolute amount of stuff every time.And of course, they have the guns.
What worries me most about Haiti’s future is the unintended lesson of cargo comfort (delivering stuff, no matter how essential and useful water, food and shelter obviously are now) and remittances both: when people get stuff they didn’t make (or buy with what they make) it’s terribly easy to subconsciouslyÂ infer that they can’t do for themselves, and easier when stuff is delivered by white people to blacks in a world with precious little evidence of blacks delivering to whites from prosperity rather than extortion.Â This (not the race part)Â is the curse of a resource-extraction-based economy (one Haiti doesn’t have to worry about, having nothing to dig up and sell).Â Remittances from emigrants are a little different, but villages like the ones in Mexico with no men and everyone living on money from people working in the US are at the least in a very fragile sociological state, and I’m not aware that their local economies are creating much value where the kids can see it happen.
“White man’s burden” movies like the Indiana Jones series play this message out: the cookie-cutter plot is that a bunch of brown people are having a terrible time and can’t do anything about it until a white guy comes into town and saves them (I haven’t seen it, but have the impression Avatar follows this template).Â Not too different from the parfait gentil knight saving the helpless peasants from the dragon up the valley; since David and Jeanne d’Arc, I don’t remember a lot of stories about the farm boy (or the Puerto Rican on the loading dock) saving a roomful of bankers and generals from something; it was Robert Gould Shaw who made it possible for the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts to get their licks in. Toussaint L’Ouverture is a glorious Haitian exception to this meme, but it was a long time ago and the docs running the rural medical centers, and the guys handing out the water and biscuits at the airport, seem to be all white now.
One implication of emigration and remittances for Haiti is that Haitians can do it (and indeed, Haitians as a group have been very successful in the US), but the other is that they can’t do it in Haiti. I don’t know which lesson is the more salient in fact.Â Of course cultures can change, and do.Â But my impression is that they change by interchange with other cultures, very rarely by some sort of bootstrap autonomous evolution, and Haiti has very little of this kind of interchange, especially until (if) the emigrants start to repatriate.Â No, Canadians sunning on the beach don’t count.Â DÃ¼rer had to go to Italy to learn to draw; Bach had to study Vivaldi to make the best possible German music (yes, and the Italians learned art from the Greeks and pasta from China). After all, social capital formation is a market failure, just like a prisoners’ dilemma.Â A village full of smart, competent individualsÂ are hard put to start cooperating and trusting each other without something besides money and technology falling out of the sky on them, especially with local plutocrats sowing fear and suspicion.