The central conservative truth is that it is culture, not politics, that determines the success of a society. The central liberal truth is that politics can change a culture and save it from itself.—Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
I have used this quote before, but it has never been more appropriate than in the context of the recent earthquake disaster in Haiti. It is also the underlying theme of a very good book, The Central Liberal Truth, by Lawrence E. Harrison. It was given to me several months ago, but I had not read it before the disaster in Haiti. As it happens, the book features the island of Hispaniola, comprising Haiti and the Dominican Republic, as a case study of how much culture really does matter and the concept of the necessity of cultural change in order to save certain societies. Why is this island such an ideal place in which to study this concept? Because, as the book describes, it is the best location in the world to analyze two adjoining nations under conditions in which a number of the usual variables—geography, climate, history, etc.—can be controlled so that cultural influences can be isolated. And the result is striking.
Here are two nations that share an island discovered and claimed for Spain by Columbus in 1492, both of which were exploited by European powers through plunder and slavery over three centuries that today display a remarkable divergence in human development indicators. A few samples from the United Nations Human Development Report of 2003: an 18-year gap in life expectancy at birth; a 33% gap in adult literacy; a 20% gap in school enrollment among school-age children; a 4 to 1 ratio in per capita GDP based on purchasing power parity; and a gap in the overall human development index ranking among nations, combining health, education, and prosperity factors, of 56, where 1 is best and 173 is worst. If you guessed that the Dominican Republic is on the higher end of these indicators in every case, you are correct. Why is this so?
In a word, it’s the culture. After controlling for all the other factors to which I previously alluded, there is no other explanation. In fact, in research conducted over the years by Harrison and his colleagues, the result is that Haiti is much closer culturally to Africa than to its neighbor on the island they share. What are the critical cultural factors that produce this remarkable result? Based on research conducted over the years and detailed in the book, there have been identified 25 key cultural factors that determine whether a society is driven by a “progress-prone culture” or a “progress-resistant culture”. These factors have been validated by subsequent studies of cultural values in countries comprising 85% of the world’s population. The upshot is that human progress or lack thereof is primarily determined by these cultural factors that fit into four categories—worldview, values and virtues, economic behavior, and social behavior—the most important of which seems to be worldview, which is in turn informed and shaped over the years by religion.
In brief, religions that nurture rationality, achievement, material pursuits, optimism, and pursuit of scientific truth are progress-prone; those that nurture irrationality, inhibit material pursuits, focus on the “other” world, emphasize fatalism, discourage punctuality, and emphasize abstract truth are progress-resistant. From these basic differences in religious worldview, otherwise seemingly compatible cultures take on widely divergent ideas about their destiny, values, and economic and social behavior.
Much has been made of Pat Robertson’s unfortunate remark in the wake of the earthquake that the disaster was a judgment of God on the Haitian people because of their “pact with the devil” over 200 years ago. This refers to a speech made by the leader of the Haitian slave revolt that ultimately led to independence in the early 19th century, the actual words of which have been a subject of controversy since then. This strain of conversation is a distraction at best. But what is incontrovertible is that the practice of the animist religion of Voodoo has been widespread in Haiti for centuries, mainly among the poor who comprise the vast majority of the population, but not without its significant influence among the upper classes.
Voodoo has many features that fit the worldview of the progress-resistant cultural factors discussed above. It is not a religion that concerns itself with ethical issues. It is a fatalistic religion; the destinies of its followers are believed to be controlled by hundreds of human-like spirits who require constant nurturing. It is a species of the sorcery and witchcraft that are prevalent in Africa. And it discourages initiative, rationality, achievement, education, and other progress-prone factors. All of these factors are antithetical to the worldview propagated by the Judeo-Christian tradition and, although Catholicism has had its problems with assimilation with democracy and capitalism over the centuries, the embrace of its essential teachings in the heritage of the Dominican Republic have clearly produced a much more progress-prone culture.
So, to return to Moynihan and Harrison, what should be done in Haiti? Well, first, we are doing about all we can do in response to the current disaster, as only America is capable. Second, after the physical rebuilding, Haiti needs to be rebuilt socially from the ground up—more of the same of the past couple of generations will lead to more of the same human tragedy. Someone suggested a “Marshall Plan” for Haiti. That would be a total waste. Europe could accommodate one because Europe was not in need (then, at least) of a cultural transformation. Haiti is in such need, but so it has been for many decades. Harrison makes some suggestions as to how to put Moynihan’s truths to work, probably the two most important of which are the premise that the fix cannot be imposed from the outside and that the ideology of cultural relativism so firmly embedded in the institutions of social change must be confronted and refuted. I won’t belabor the rest of them here, but suffice to repeat, it’s all about the culture, and add that there is a real opportunity here to change the paradigm.