David Brooks, bringing you “development and modernization” as he gets them
The reason there are such wide variations in ticket rates is that human beings are not merely products of economics. The diplomats paid no cost for parking illegally, thanks to diplomatic immunity. But human beings are also shaped by cultural and moral norms. If you’re Swedish and you have a chance to pull up in front of a fire hydrant, you still don’t do it. You’re Swedish. That’s who you are. ~David Brooks, The New York Times
The Swedes may be grateful that an American columnist on the right has finally made a reference to them that does not involves references either to socialism or selling weapons to Germany during WWII, but you still get the sense that if Brooks understands that human beings are not simply products of economics they are not a lot more than that. The item he chose to illustrate cultural difference was parking habits by nationality, which might tell us something about certain national habits when it comes to obeying ordinances and signs and respecting the relative orderliness of urban space, but even so to call this observation superficial would be to give superficiality an even worse reputation. It’s almost as if Brooks doesn’t quite want to accept the existence of virtually ineradicable cultural difference, so he tries to demonstrate it in the least disturbing way possible: Chadians and Sudanese thumb their noses at parking restrictions, but Scandinavians and Israelis are very puncitilious in parking legally. Perhaps it is an irenic attempt to say that the differences aren’t really that great; cultural difference, at the end of the day, is really just a small disagreement about parking etiquette. Perhaps this has a far more powerful meaning for people in a parking-strapped city awash in foreign diplomats, but does an attitude towards parking really reveal the significant obstacles to “development and modernization” in these cultures? Probably not, but let’s move on.
In some ways, a conservative should like the idea of development. He might even be expected to like development when the term is applied to the social, political, and economic spheres in certain ways. It is an organic, psychological and physiological metaphor based on the idea of natural (physical, spiritual and emotional) development of human beings. Like a person, the idea goes, a society has stages of development: infancy, adolescence, adulthood, old age and, of course, finally death. It lends itself to a cyclical theory of history, though it can be fairly easily hijacked and used for progressive narratives of history as well, and this is what Brooks does with the term. But, in many ways, development is a worthwhile concept for thinking about society and political order as things that have grown and come into being over time rather than having been ”founded,” which no sane social or political order ever has been.
Nowadays development is also a rather troublesome term. Today it is associated with the Reconstruction of small towns to suit the interests of business, developers, “growth” and local government revenues in the post-Kelo world. (To paraphrase Prof. Lukacs, growth is not necessarily progress–cancer is also growth.) There is definitely a sense that increased uniformity, drabness, ugliness and dependency on distant economic masters are the things that are being developed and these are the things towards which talk of “development” leads here at home. Overseas it is typically associated with the latest dispensers of “economic development,” and this has crept into every part of our language when we talk about the rest of the world and ourselves: there is no more First or Third World but developed and developing nations, as if we were the flowers in full bloom and they were the bulbs still waiting to spring forth, and we are ready to dump copious amounts of fertiliser via the WTO and the Doha round on those bulbs to help them “grow.”
The thrust of the article is that cultural difference accounts for different rates of development, but then this presupposes that Brooks’ idea of development is some innate, obvious or otherwise self-evident standard of development to which everyone would objectively agree were it not for their cultural hang-ups. There is a general standard for determining the sanity and well-being of a society, and this is human nature. It is commonplace to assume that Brooks’ kind of “development and modernization” (and it is important to note that the pairing here is really more of a redundancy–for Brooks, the two are one and the same) are basically well-suited for human nature, bring out more of the full potential in man than would otherwise be the case and do not fundamentally contradict that nature. But I would submit that the sort of development that corporations are foisting on “developing” nations and the towns and countryside of America alike has little relationship to man’s proper nature and works insidiously against that nature to try to reduce man to the level of an economic functionary.