"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

Happy Indifference–The Irrelevance Of Purpose, Mission, And Meaning

International Development is a serious business for its mission is to reduce poverty, alleviate suffering, improve health, and increase well-being.  This moral imperative adds an additional level of responsibility to work.  Improving the lot of the less fortunate millions is qualitatively different from selling tires, advertising clothes, or trading shares on Wall Street.  While these occupations may have indirect benefits to the public good – safety, comfort and appeal, and financial investment all contribute to the economy and those who prosper from it – none has the direct, person-to-person, affective act of meaningful charity.  Those who choose to work in development must have compassion and empathy as well as management or technical skills.  No moment should be a wasted moment, rest not a pleasure but a recuperative necessity. 

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Development through participatory, community-based, collaborative effort with local beneficiaries has a value-added that no other profession can match – a sense of personal endeavor, an intimate engagement with clients unmatched in any other field, and moral and emotional laurels that contribute to self-esteem and give the development worker an image if not a cachet of making a difference.

Of course not everyone sees it that way.  Critics of foreign assistance cite this very personal attachment and feeling of higher-order service among development workers as part of the problem.  They are so blindered by a sense of mission and goodness that they have lost any objective sense of quality, result, and impact. The improvement of the lot of the poor has nothing whatsoever to do with compassion, community, and service but with trade, market liberalization, and economic opportunity.  Adam Smith, writing in The Invisible Hand of the Market – The Theory of Moral Sentiments, said:

The statesman who should attempt to direct private people in what manner they ought to employ their capitals, would not only load himself with a most unnecessary attention, but assume an authority which could safely be trusted, not only to no single person, but to no council or senate whatever, and which would nowhere be so dangerous as in the hands of a man who had folly and presumption enough to fancy himself fit to exercise it.

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This notion of individual responsibility and the morally indifferent but successful operation of the marketplace where thousands of individual enterprises compete for personal gain and ultimately general benefit is either unknown or ignored by passionate development workers who have chosen their profession as much for their own personal satisfaction as for the intelligence of their enterprise.  

In other words true belief, passion, and a priori belief get in the way of progress for they stop leagues short of objective analysis and proceed on the basis of faith and principle alone.

A well-known private, voluntary development agency in Washington received a number of years ago a generous grant from a major foundation to reduce neonatal mortality.  No strings attached, no preconditions, and no assumptions.  Only results would tell the tale.  Yet despite the evidence that major investments in malaria and tetanus control would substantially reduce both infant and maternal mortality; and that with the funds made available by the foundation a large swath of East Africa could see drastic reductions in disease, the agency demurred.  Such ‘top-down’, ‘mechanistic’ approaches were counter to its philosophy of community engagement and personal interaction.  The means are as important as the ends, said the agency’s spokespersons, and by working with and and through local communities to strengthen more traditional and culturally appropriate means of child care, one could both achieve numerical targets and assure the longevity of age-old practices.

The project was a failure.  The millions granted by the foundation were dribbled away in community efforts facilitated by international workers committed more to the process of saving and promoting traditional cultural values than they were in saving lives.  Yet the disappointing outcome could have been predicted by even a casual observer.  It is the ends that count, especially when lives and valuable resources are at stake, not questionable means and more questionable commitment to questionable first principles.

Adam Smith knew that commitment simply gets in the way of market mechanisms.  Purpose, mission, and meaning foul the works.  Yet 250 years later, these idealistic notions still persist.

International development is by no means the only discipline where idealism consistently trumps rationalism.  Environmentalism and social justice are but two of the current movements towards a better world.  Compassion and identification with the poor and marginalized;  a spiritual sense of identity with all living things and a responsibility to protect and preserve them; and a passionate sense of justice and civil rights are all given to irrational aspirations.  Appeals to historical determinism – the endless and repetitive cycles of creation and destruction, expansion and contraction – mean nothing; nor does the record of involuntary servitude; nor do the chronicles of empire, caste, social hierarchy, unequal distribution of wealth and influence.  A better world means personal, direct, committed engagement.  The amoral universe of Adam Smith’s market has no place in social evolution.

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Harry Phelps was an International Development Consultant who understood all this – his profession’s idealism, Adam Smith, and history’s concurrence – but who paid all no mind.  Even the most desperate parts of the Third World – despite their unfortunate public image - offered adventure, romance, and pleasure.  After three decades of working in the likes of Haiti, Bangladesh, Chad, Angola, the Congo, Romania, post-Soviet Eastern Europe, and other pitiful socio-political and economic wrecks, he never looked back.  He would do it all over again without a doubt and without question.

How could he ever forget four course civilized lunches on the lawns of a Belgian estate turned restaurant on the shores of Lake Tanganyika? The coquilles St Jacques at the market restaurant in Dakar, the pate de fruits de mer and lobster a la crème poolside in Abidjan?

For Harry development was a delight, an excursion, a guilt- and responsibility-free happenstance of a profession.  He knew that what he did made no difference whatsoever, but he did it well; not to cover his tracks but because he was properly brought up.  One had the duty to carry out the expectations of an employer once employed regardless of personal commitment.  He had an obligation to return success on his company’s investment regardless of how temporary or insignificant its results might be.

Most of the women he met in his travels shared his indifference – otherwise they would not have been looking for romance, pleasure, and avoidance of home-bound responsibility.  The bars of Bujumbura, Kigali, and Bamako were filled with young women just as indifferent to principle as Harry was, although they could never take off their cloaks of belonging.  Sex in the Third World always takes on an additional, especially illicit and attractive character for all comers, the great philosophical equalizer.

Dark-eyed beauty

A colleague of Harry’s, one who believed in progressivism and social change, once asked him how he could be so indifferent and unresponsive to the needs of his Third World clients, so dismissive of the purpose and principles of ‘development’ but still happily and gainfully employed in its service.  Was this not hypocrisy at its worst?

No, replied Harry, for why should motive and principle count more than results?  Between civilized lunches, cinq-a-septs, and rendezvous he executed the terms and conditions of his contract with excellence.  What did it matter whether or not he believed in his work, its importance, or its value?  Why should anyone care that his work was a means to an end – an entrée to romance and ragged adventure – as long as he performed his duties?

Of course his colleague cared and so did the thousands of development workers in the ranks.  Without believing in the cause of their employment – the rightness of good works and personal sacrifice – they would be selling tires or advertising clothes and Bahaman resorts.  Principle, belief, and commitment did make a difference.

Harry retired with nothing but good memories.  Yes, there was the unpleasantness in Luanda and the disappointment in Lahore, but all in all a very good ride indeed.

It all goes to show that purpose, mission, and meaning simply get in the way of the good life; and the true human survivor is the one who can navigate through moral straits and cultural demands skillfully and without incident.

Colonialism, Ethos, And Cultural Purpose–The Importance Of Universal Values

The great hotels of the world – the Raffles, the Grand, the Taj Mahal, and the Oriental – were all built in colonial times; and, like the English clubs throughout the Empire, were cultural safe havens, islands of civility amidst the heat and dust, squalor, and crowds of Asia.  The British had a mission to govern, but no rule written or otherwise suggested that they live like the ruled.  Not only would that be unpleasant but such familiarity would unnecessarily complicate their mission.  There was simply no room for the messiness of love or anything more than casual friendship.  Better gin pahits, polo, and cricket at the Tollygunge Club than anything more immediate and local. 

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Of course there were many cracks in the armor.  Forster who understood India far better than Kipling who wrote of boys and tigers and the romance of the subcontinent, understood that relationships between English and Indians would always complicate matters.  Indian women were, after all, quite beautiful; and young men sent out to India for years at a time were far less interested in the pale lot of English women who followed them and much more in the fair beauties of Kashmir and Bengal.  Yet there was more to British cultural distinctiveness than clubs, snooker, and grand hotels.  There was an ethos – a code of behavior, purpose, and mission that prevailed; that kept men and women in line and within bounds; and that assured allegiance to something more than rule itself – the greatness and rightness of Empire.

Graham Greene wrote of Empire in Africa, a far cry from the sumptuousness and elegance of the Raj; little more than outposts in the White Man’s Grave, an administrator, a few policemen, unhappy women, and an inevitable mix of cultures. In The Heart of the Matter Greene wrote of Scobie, a policeman caught in this dangerous mix, who compromises himself to the Syrians for the chance to do right by his wife and arrange passage for her to England, freeing himself to live with his lover.  Scobie broke all the rules of culture, morality, and religion but could never be free from the guilt of such disregard.  There was no good, easy, and safe way to become less English.

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Joseph Conrad wrote as compellingly about British expatriates who could never square the allure of the jungle and the desire to be free from England with its unknowability and primitivism.  Kurtz, the Englishman who ran an interior outpost far up the Congo River thought he could manage both – the civilizing missionary he was set out to Africa to be; the primitive ruler of his own jungle tribe; and a Nietzschean man of universal, dark principles.  His last words were ‘The horror…..The horror’, a final recognition that he was never the master either of others nor his own fate, that savagery was universal, and that no attempts to accommodate or tame it would every be successful.  Conrad’s other expatriates are less driven and willful and are trapped by their Englishness.  Kayerts and Carlier, characters in An Outpost of Progress, are fearful, weak, and cowardly – afraid of the jungle but inept at dealing with it, they turn on each other.

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All these stories take place in an earlier time when such cultural ethos meant something more than civil service or allegiance to the King.  While many expatriates bridled at the imposition of a morality that seemed far removed from India or Africa, most understood that it was an element of rule and sanity.  If one believed in the purpose of rule, then one should abide by its authority.

In fact the colonial era was a time of British greatness.  The British Empire with its solidly Western, Christian, and English values covered much of the world.  There was much to be proud of and much to be sacrificed in its name.  It was an age of exploration and courage in the name of Empire.  Adventurers from Mungo Park to Burton risked their lives to map the world and to stake it out for England.

Such Victorian certainty seems quaint today not so much because colonialism has been discredited and ethnic identity and national sovereignty revalued; but because the whole idea of ethos has become outmoded.  International capitalism, as responsible as it has been for the remarkable economic progress of hundreds of millions of people, has been an equalizer, threatening the idea of cultural integrity.  Economic progress and liberal democracy – procedural not cultural signifiers – assure that stubborn cultural values do not get in the way.  The free flow of goods and services requires parity and level ground. 

Yet ethos is not dead.  Traditional Hinduism, its highly disciplined and organized social system, and sophisticated religious realism remains in place  Chinese Confucianism still assures the internal stability and mutual respect that foster collaborative enterprise; but the West has given up on any pretense of a priori foundational values. Russia, in its attempt to revive the values of its own Empire and the principles of empire itself is turning from the West and to the East.    Muslim fundamentalism while still only a relatively small proportion of Islam, still expresses the idea of ethos.  Territorialism, expansionism, and hegemony are both political issues and religious ones.

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Western multiculturalism is a far cry from Empire and serves to erode the universal moral principles of Europe rather than refresh its cultural values. There can be no universal values or principles in a nation of ethnic and racial enclaves.  Multiculturalism – the abandonment of cultural ethos – is at its worst in America.  Europe, despite the revolutionary changes in national configuration and open borders, still remembers a much more stable and recognizable cultural past.  France was not only a beacon of intellectual liberalism but la fille aînée de l'Eglise.  Roland and Charlemagne saved Europe from the Saracen hordes.  The victory was not just one of armies but of civilization.  France protected, defended, and preserved the Christian cultural, religion, and moral values of Europe.  America has no such historical brakes.  We have always been a frontier, individualist, entrepreneurial, capitalist country.  While religion and the philosophy of the Enlightenment provided the foundation for our nation, these inter-related and essential organizing principles have weakened over time.  We have become entirely procedural.

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No great civilization has been without ethos – core cultural, philosophical, and moral principles to which everyone subscribes.  While every lasting society has had its dissidents and its revolutions, its cultural values have remained in place.  The French Revolution did away with the monarchy and the court but the  aristocracy showed itself to be resilient and defiant.  The Revolution changed only the political order not the historical class divisions common throughout Europe.  More importantly, the Revolution did not affect France’s fundamental culture – a respect for a canon of art, literature, beauty, and ideas.  Only now has the canon been displaced.   The Russian Revolution had the same profound political and social changes; but after 70 years the culture of the Tsars, Orthodoxy, and Russian civilization has begun to return.

Where does this leave America, a nation with military and economic might but unsure how to use it.  There is no real purpose for America’s might – no desire for Empire or a civilizing mission but only a desultory wish to promote ‘democracy’ in the name of economic stability and partnership.  Democracy alone means nothing.  Popular representation and expression must have a purpose.  In the mind of our Founding Fathers, there was such a purpose.  Only in a free, democratic society was one able to fulfill one’s spiritual promise.  The Enlightenment after all was rational but in the name of discovering God.  Economic and social well-being would necessarily follow grace and good works.   Jefferson understood that individual and community were two necessary and inextricable parts of the same whole; and only if everyone subscribed to the same universal principles could the country prosper.  He had no idea how modern capitalism would erode this core ethos.

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The days of – or even thoughts of – a new American empire are long gone.  We  have transferred our religious and philosophical principles to one idea – progress.  Progress has such an inherent value that everything is done in its name without reflection, disaggregation, or consideration of consequences.  Socialism – an idealistic concept of universal progress – failed completely because of its indifference and antagonism to individual enterprise and spirituality.  Capitalism – an equally idealistic notion of equality based on market forces – ignores the cultural havoc it has wrought.  A truly equal socio-economic society without ethos – cultural or spiritual values which transcend or supersede procedural ones – is no society at all.

Such political momentum has gained tremendous inertia; and it is unlikely that even the most grandiose schemes of the Russian autocracy or the Islamic jihad can possibly reverse it.  The authoritarianism required to re-establish centrality is a thing of the past.  No more British kings, European emperors, popes, Russian tsars, or Chinese mandarins.  Only wars – even more inevitable in an unstable world – and reconstruction after them will sort things out. 

In other words, it was perhaps better to have a clash of civilizations than a conflict between secular, indifferent, socio-political regimes. At least in former days there was such a thing as civilization to promote, defend, and expand.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Keeping Others Out–The Normality Of Fences And Walls From Neighborhoods To National Borders

Many foreign visitors to America remark on the openness of residential neighborhoods.  The spacious lawns, absence of locked grated doors, and the sense of accommodation and welcome are striking.  On the contrary, homes in San Salvador, Bamako, or Bujumbura are walled, grated, and hidden.  Razor wire or glass shards are placed on the tops of garden walls, and in the wealthier areas guard towers, stanchions, and surveillance cameras are common.   The older, colonial homes of South American cities like their European counterparts are completely walled off; but inside the flowered courtyards, balconies, fountains, tiled arches, walkways, and gardens show off Andalusian and North African Islamic design. 

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Those who are invited are welcome, all others keep out. Admittedly the residences of wealthy Europeans were built in a more lawless age and the dirt and squalor of unpaved roads, the odors of poor sewage and drainage were best kept at a distance; but there was always a historical element to the seclusion – Europe unlike America knew nothing but war, civil strife, and social unrest since its first settlements.  The Hundred Years War, The Polish-Teutonic War, The Georgian-Turkoman War, and the Hussite Wars were just a few of the long battles fought in the 14th century alone.  The combination of war, crime, social unrest, poverty, poor infrastructure, and vast differences in wealth, status, and income made defensive perimeters necessary.

Fortresses from the Atlantic to the Black Sea were built on the highest ground surrounded by high, impenetrable, and unscalable walls.

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In Europe and the Middle East entire portions of cities were walled off to keep out invaders, assassins, and outsiders.

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On closer inspection, American neighborhoods are indeed fenced off and fenced in.   While never as imposing as the closed perimeters in Europe and often disguised with shrubbery or vine-covered wood fences, they are still protected – not from invasion or assault but from prying eyes, and the distraction of other people’s children and animals.  Perhaps most importantly such fencing is the physical expression of the familiar American adage, ‘A man’s home is his castle’.  He has a right to his privacy, his particular individualism, and his right to property, land, and tenure.

Robert Frost in his poem Mending Wall wrote:

There where it is we do not need the wall: He is all pine and I am apple orchard. My apple trees will never get across And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him. He only says, ‘Good fences make good neighbors.' Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder If I could put a notion in his head: 'Why do they make good neighbors? Isn’t it Where there are cows? But here there are no cows. Before I built a wall I’d ask to know What I was walling in or walling out, And to whom I was like to give offense. Something there is that doesn’t love a wall, That wants it down.'

Yet Frost’s idea of a common humanity, one without walls is no more than a pipe dream.  History if nothing else has shown that human nature is aggressive, self-interested, defensive, and territorial.  There have always been walls, perimeters, fortresses, and barriers.  The instinct to throw up a physical defense is natural and normal even though even the strongest ramparts can be breached and the highest walls scaled.  False security though it may give, the construction of a wall, a fence, or a defended perimeter is satisfying – an expression if nothing else of right.

Fences do not always make good neighbors.  In fact spite fences are so common, that many jurisdictions have passed laws against them.  Wikipedia defines a spite fence this way:

Spite fence is a term used in American property law to refer to an overly tall fence , structure in the nature of a fence, or a row of trees, bushes, or hedges, constructed or planted between adjacent lots by a property owner (with no legitimate purpose), who is annoyed with or wishes to annoy a neighbor, or who wishes to completely obstruct the view between lots. Several U.S. states and local governments have regulations to prohibit spite fences, or related regulations such as those establishing a maximum allowed height for fences.

Even if spite fences are outlawed, the animosity between neighbors, both of whom feel that their home is indeed their castle to be defended at all costs, is unrelenting. 

An older man who lived in a leafy residential neighborhood of a large American city parked his car right up to the property line of his neighbor, forcing the neighbor to parallel park and block his own walkway.  There was plenty of room in front of the man’s house, but he felt he had to align his vehicle exactly on the northwest boundary line.  When the neighbor politely asked the man to please move his car up five feet to give him more room, the man refused, saying that he would then have to park in the fall line of the old tree on his front yard.  The tree had been pruned down to half its original size, and the remaining trunk was thick and solid and far too short to come down anywhere near the curb.

The neighbor’s blood began to boil and began to think up a spiteful response.  When the man was not at home, the neighbor parked his car two feet into the inviolate space.  In return, when the man returned, he jammed the back bumper of his car tight against the neighbor’s front grille.  Each day this spiteful pas de deux continued, and the neighbor found new and ingenious ways to irritate the man.  He blocked his path, parked backwards under the suspect tree, piled leaves under the man’s front wheels so that in the heavy rain the water would back up and puddle by the driver’s door.

These spiteful episodes were the rule and not the exception.

Natalie Angier has written about spite in an article in the New York Times in which she summarizes the latest academic research.  Spite has been given less attention than it should because it flies under the moral radar.   God did not chisel spite into Moses’ tablets along with apostasy, adultery, and disrespect, nor did the early Church include it, along with wrath, greed, sloth, pride, lust, envy, and gluttony in The Seven Deadly Sins. In fact spite seems petty and silly when compared with covetousness, betrayal, and murder.

What is spite, exactly?  Researchers at Washington State University devised a study to determine how important spite was to college students and came up with a series of illustrative questions:

A total of 946 college students and 297 adults were asked to rate how firmly they agreed with sentiments like “If my neighbor complained about the appearance of my front yard, I would be tempted to make it look worse just to annoy him or her” or “If I opposed the election of an official, I would happily see the person fail even if that failure hurt my community” or “I would be willing to take a punch if it meant someone I did not like would receive two punches.”

In short, there is little to be gained by spite – as opposed to adultery with a beautiful, available, and passionate neighbor – and its only reward is to make someone pay for a real or imagined slight and then to gloat over it, even if you yourself are harmed.  Here is the best example of spite from an Eastern European folk tale: “A genie offers to grant a man’s wish as long as his hated neighbor gets double the prize; the man says, ‘Put out one of my eyes’.”

Yet spite and spiteful behavior continue.  It is not, as Angier suggests, one of the cardinal sins, but a subsidiary of at least one of them, so must be taken seriously.  Since there seems to be no hope for conciliation, compromise, or harmony, then more serious, structural moves are logical.   Fences serve a purpose.  Had their been a wall between the two neighbors, the incident of the cars might never have happened.

The lyrics of A Boy Like That from West Side Story are telling:

A boy like that
Who'd kill your brother
Forget that boy
And find another
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind
A boy like that
Will give you sorrow
You'll meet another boy tomorrow
One of your own kind
Stick to your own kind…

We may preach love, harmony, social integrity, and compassion; but we are at heart as territorial, possessive, and defensive as our Paleolithic ancestors.  Human society has survived and thrived because of this innate hostility – the need to expand and defend territorial perimeters; and the need to push back against aggressive neighbors.

There are better ways than a border wall to keep illegal immigrants out of the United States.  In a sophisticated modern economy legal, financial, and economic means are readily available.  Some have argued that if the minimum wage were raised to even higher levels and more closely approximated the real value of work, Americans would take jobs currently filled by undocumented workers.  Others have said that employers who higher illegal workers should be assessed punitive fines with the threat of shutdown possible.  Others have proposed a national identity card and the ability of law enforcement to ask for it on demand.  All of these proposals have major flaws and are unlikely; but the point is that a wall is the least promising and certainly the least effective means of dealing with the problem.

Yet it feels good to build a wall.  It is a sign of national integrity, or national purpose and strength.  It says ‘This land is our land’.  Woody Guthrie did not have border walls or national perimeters in mind when he wrote his famous song; but there is an ironic sense to it.  This land belongs to you and me….not to him.

This land is your land, this land is my land
From the California to the New York island
From the Redwood Forest, to the gulf stream waters
This land was made for you and me
As I went walking that ribbon of highway
I saw above me that endless skyway
And saw below me that golden valley
This land was made for you and me…

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                   New York Times

So, let the wall be built.  No walls last forever.  ‘Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall’ was prophetic not only regarding the Berlin Wall but for a unified Europe.  There are no longer borders, walls, and fences between countries; but there are likely to be again soon.

Walls and fences are as much a part of the human experience as any; and if they are only symbolic they are no less important.  Mr. Trump, ‘Go ahead and build that wall.’