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

Monday, December 31, 2012

Recipes - Curried Coconut Rice

Most of the time I like my rice plain with a little butter.  I have changed from Jasmine or Basmati long grain rice to sushi short grain.  I love the flavor and the texture.  When I do something else with rice, such as make paella or fried rice, I use the long grain.

I recently posted a recipe for biryani – a wonderful rice dish with lots of spices, especially garam masala.  It should have a slightly sweet taste and added cloves, cardamoms, and cinnamon result in a well-balanced dish.

This recipe for Curried Coconut Rice gives a lot of the same flavor as biryani, but takes far less time.  The flavors are less intense, but the result is a fragrant, delicious dish.

Curried Coconut Rice

* 1 cup basmati or jasmine rice

* 1 cup coconut milk

* 1 cup water

* 1 Tbsp. garam masala

* 1 Tbsp. Madras curry powder

* 5-6 whole cloves

* 7-8 whole cardamoms, pounded

* 2 tsp. unsalted European style butter (my favorite, but regular butter OK)

* salt to taste

- Bring the water and the coconut milk to a boil

- Add the spices and butter and stir well, returning the liquid to boil

- Add the rice, stir with a fork once or twice, lower the heat to a low simmer and cook  for  25 minutes.  If the rice still looks wet, then add five more minutes.

- Let sit for 1 hour (to dry any excess liquid)

- Serve

Child-Rearing In New Guinea–Lessons For Us?

I have travelled in more than 50 countries in the world, many of them in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean, and I have been a professional observer of child-rearing practices.  My job was to identify those traditional but unhealthy practices which should be changed in improve mortality and morbidity.  Many women give up breastfeeding very soon after birth, thus depriving their infants of  valuable nutritional and immunological protection.  Perhaps most importantly, exclusive breastfeeding keeps the child from becoming exposed to the virulent pathogens found in most developing country environments – bad water and unhygienic bottles and vessels.  Child nutrition was often poor, resulting in wasting and stunting. 

Vaccinations were requested indifferently, mothers sought the treatment of traditional healers and/or witch doctors, and every possible theory of hot and cold foods, drafts, ill winds, spells and possessions, evil eyes, and the influence of dwarves circulated throughout the community.  Families continued to have more children than they could afford to raise properly, thus contributing to infant and child mortality.

Traditional practices usually have a basis in economics.  African or Asian women, just like their European counterparts, were very happy to remove the albatross of a baby from around their necks, and the bottle represented both economic and social freedom.  In one respect, it was the first small step in liberating women from their imprisoning duties as village wives and mothers.  Vaccinations, especially the second and third in a series, were not carried out because of the distance and expense of travelling to a health clinic; and/or a lack of education which would allow a better understanding of immunization. 

Jared Diamond in his book The World Until Yesterday – What We Can Learn From Traditional Societies:disagrees and sees some higher, more intrinsic value in the practices of traditional societies. As Noah Berlatsky notes in his review (Atlantic, 12.28.12):

Among the !Kung of Southern Africa and other hunter-gatherer groups,  nursing typically continues for three years or longer. Part of what makes this type of nursing possible is almost constant contact between mother and child, or at least between some adult and the child.

Nonsense. Breastfeeding is done exclusively in the poorest communities for economic reasons by those women who had no access to formula.  Women tightly strapped their infants to their backs so that they could work in the fields, not because they valued mother-child bonding. 

Mothers pick up their children when they start crying because it is easier to give them the breast (or, common in India not many years ago, to give a goli, a little ball of opium) to shut them up; and shutting them up meant that they could go on with their productive work.

Treatments by herbalists, homeopaths, and quacks were sought out because neither the causative links to disease nor the effectiveness of modern medicine could easily be seen.  It takes years and a large population pool, for example, for uneducated people to visibly see the benefits of vaccinations.

Large families in economically marginal societies made economic sense because there were more arms and hands to do field work and collect fuel and water.  The benefits of a small family, like those of vaccinations, could not easily been seen.  In a poor village, those families with one or two children were worse off than those with more.

Therefore, the lionizing of traditional practices by Noah Berlatsky is as out of touch as are the observations of Diamond:

My nine-year-old has been begging me for a while to let him walk alone to his friend's house, half a block and two not-very-busy-street-crossings away. I finally let him do it, inspired in part by an anecdote from Jared Diamond's book:

The anecdote told by Diamond was this:

When I arrived at one particular village [says Diamond], most of the porters from the previous village who had brought me there left, and I sought help from people of any age capable of carrying a pack and wanting to earn money. The youngest person who volunteered was a boy about 10 years old, named Yuro. He joined me expecting to be away from his village for a couple of days. But...Yuro remained with me for a month...It was evidently considered normal that a 10-year-old boy would decide by himself to go away for an indeterminate length of time.

Berlatsky’s conclusion that he should not worry so much about his young son’s independence when traditional New Guinean families let their young children go off for months at a time is disingenuous. Berlatsky should worry if he lives in a city anything like Washington, DC where I make my home.  There are a lot of wackos out there, schools are not safe havens; pedophiles and rapists prowl the streets, hang around playground, and ply children with candy; drunk drivers routinely mow down pedestrians and especially children, road rage takes victims daily.  Maybe there are still tigers in the forests of New Guinea, but other than that, they must be pretty safe.

“If a New Guinean kid could go wandering away from home for weeks at a time”, says Berlatsky, “ I figured my son could probably go up the block.”

Berlatsky goes on to limn the praises of families who let their infants and young children sleep with them. Over 90 percent of traditional families respect this practice, he says.  Of course they do since most live in one-room huts with adults, infants, and children sharing beds let alone rooms.  Most of these traditional families would happily opt for some more space.  Lebensraum is not just a Western idea.

As much as Americans might not want to admit it), we believe that separating infants from their parents at an early age is a good thing, for it teaches emotional independence and self-reliance - ‘traditional’ aspects of our culture just as sleeping in crowded but intimate rooms is for Third World villagers.

Sharing is another idea that Berlatsky and Diamond long for in American society and see so lacking here. 

Diamond expresses admiration for the way in which New Guinea children from some traditional cultures are encouraged to share. He describes one game in which children are each given a banana, which they cut in half; they eat one half and then pass the other on. This happens numerous times, so that each child is dependent on the fairness of the others. Such activities contrast strongly with American games, which emphasize winning and individual victory.

All I can say is that New Guineans, for all their sharing, are still picking bananas, while the rest of the world has gone on to strive for and reach more ambitious goals.  Western history is a legacy of not sharing.  Kingdoms, empires, civilizations were created and achieved greatness because of powerful ambition, insatiable desire for wealth, territory, and influence.   Of course we parents try to get our children to share; but we know they do it reluctantly, and will quickly learn the American lesson that it doesn’t pay dividends.

I have traipsed through villages for 40 years, picked my way through urban slums, trekked into the interior bush to bring American ‘aid’ to the poor and helpless; and emerged unchanged – Marx was right.  Man is an economic animal, and human societies develop in function of their economic conditions and opportunities. Traditional societies are poor societies, and most people living in them want to come to the United States if they have heard of the United States.

I once asked an Indian villager back in the late 60s if he knew where America was.  “Yes”, he replied. “Just north of Delhi”.  Not too far to travel, he reckoned, to get out of his traditional, fly-specked, and incestuous village.

Why Is There Art?

Most of us take art for granted – it is around us and before us everywhere.  While there may be a difference of opinion on what is art – i.e., are crafts art?  Is popular music art? etc. – there is no doubt that if all creative expression were to cease, the world would be a bare, mechanical, and indifferent place.

Art has existed for millennia and is found in all cultures.  From the cave paintings to Lascaux, to primitive tribes in Borneo, to Western contemporary art, artistic expression is an integral part of human existence. Much art has been religious – or art least a way of explaining the unknowable.  In a remarkable exhibit, The Roads of Arabia at the Sackler Gallery in Washington, DC, stone carvings of almost 10,000 years ago are displayed:
Roads of Arabia
They are haunting, powerful, and emblematic of an art which was far more evolved than that of Lascaux:

Image result for images cave paintings lascaux

Human beings were expressing abstract thoughts through abstract design. The history of art, of course, is one which moves from the abstract to the symbolic to the representational and back to the abstract with fluidity.  Art has illuminated religious history, glorified kings and emperors, represented courtly and pastoral life; and is as varied and surprising as any human enterprise.

What purpose does art serve? asks Adam Kirsch in The New Republic (7.12.12), reviewing the works of well-known artists, philosophers, and evolutionary biologists.  Does it have an evolutionary purpose?

He starts by quoting Thomas Mann from an early story, Tonio Kroger in which the author expresses his feeling that the artist will always observe human society from the outside, from a perch of loneliness and isolation:
At the end of the story, Tonio has a vision of these two paired off in happy, fruitful partnership—a destiny he can never share: “To be like you! To begin again, to grow up like you, regular like you, simple and normal and cheerful, in conformity and understanding with God and man, beloved of the innocent and happy.” Love and marriage and parenthood are barred to Tonio, because he has an artist’s soul: “For some go of necessity astray, because for them there is no such thing as a right path.”
This vision of the lone and lonely artist on the fringes of society is not new, says Kirsch, but is particularly relevant within the context of Darwinism which Mann near the end of his life began to appreciate.  Does the artist play any important role, Mann wondered, if the course of humanity is determined by such a mechanistic and indifferent process?
In associating art with loneliness, sorrow, and death, Mann was not presenting a new idea but perfecting an old tradition. Everywhere you look in the art and literature and music of the nineteenth century, you find examples of this same figure, the artist banished from life: in Leopardi, the stunted, ugly, miserable poet; in Flaubert, the novelist too fastidious for bourgeois existence; in Nietzsche, the wanderer upon the earth.
What is different in Mann is that, writing in 1903, he has fully assimilated the Darwinian revolution, which taught him to think about life in terms of survival and fitness. In his great novel Buddenbrooks, Mann tells the story of a family whose fitness to thrive in modern society declines in tandem with the growth of its interest in ideas and art.
If art has nothing to do with evolutionary progress, then why does it exist at all? and as importantly, why has it existed since the dawn of time?

Nietzsche went further and stated that the artist is anti-heroic, and artistic enterprise stunts the expression of the will, which in turn is the force that forges historical endeavor:
When art seizes an individual powerfully [says Nietzsche], it draws him back to the views of those times when art flowered most vigorously.... The artist comes more and more to revere sudden excitements, believes in gods and demons, imbues nature with a soul, hates science, becomes unchangeable in his moods like the men of antiquity, and desires the overthrow of all conditions that are not favorable to art…
 Image result for images nietzsche

Darwin himself was at some pains to explain art in evolutionary terms.  On a superficial level he saw human artistic expression as little different from the strutting of male peacock; but on a more profound level found the human ‘excesses’ of art as accidental distractions and incidental to human development; and the implausible amount of energy devoted to such an avian display perplexing:
The problem plagued Darwin: “The sight of a feather in the peacock’s tail, whenever I gaze at it, makes me sick.”
In other words, human and animal nature are continually producing ‘beauty’ for no apparent or at least discernible reason.
“Many of the faculties, which have been of inestimable service to man for his progressive advancement, such as the powers of the imagination, wonder, curiosity, an undefined sense of beauty, a tendency to imitation, and the love of excitement or novelty, could hardly fail to lead to capricious changes of customs and fashions.” Such changes are “capricious” in the sense that they are unpredictable from first principles.
Dennis Dutton in The Art Instinct offered another view of art, and sounds much like Noam Chomsky when he says that our linguistic ability is innate and hardwired. Since art is everywhere, in every culture, and in every period of history, the ability to produce it must be innate:
As Dutton put it: “The universality of art and artistic behaviors, their spontaneous appearance everywhere across the globe ... and the fact that in most cases they can be easily recognized as artistic across cultures suggest that they derive from a natural, innate source: a universal human psychology.”
This may be true, but it still only describes what is, not why it is.  His supposition is that because art is universal, it must be innate; and if it is innate, then it must have an evolutionary purpose even though that purpose is not completely clear. Dutton does evoke Chomsky, however, when he suggests that art is a further expression of language – it is a non-verbal means of communication, as valuable for conveying essential elements of human progress and survival as language.  This conclusion is highly debated.

Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Pinker weighed in on the debate with the contention that art was a by-product of direct evolutionary human traits.  In other words, art wasn’t necessary; it just came as part of the package of big-brain operations:
Stephen Jay Gould suggested that art was not an evolutionary adaptation but what he called a “spandrel”—that is, a showy but accidental by-product of other adaptations that were truly functional. Gould, Dutton writes, “came to regard the whole realm of human cultural conduct and experience as a by-product of a single adaptation: the oversized human brain.”
Having a large brain was useful to our ancestors, allowing them to plan and to forecast and to cooperate and to invent; and it just so happens that a large brain also allowed them to make art. Stephen Pinker suggested something similar, if more disparagingly, when he described the brain as a “toolbox” which, in addition to promoting survival and reproduction, “can be used to assemble Sunday afternoon projects of dubious adaptive significance.”
Brian Boyd, a biographer of Vladimir Nabokov, suggested that art served as a kind of mental calisthenics – not exactly related to evolution, but helpful:
Art, then, can be defined as the calisthenics of pattern-finding. “Just as animal physical play refines performance, flexibility, and efficiency in key behaviors,” Boyd writes, “so human art refines our performance in our key perceptual and cognitive modes, in sight (the visual arts), sound (music), and social cognition (story). These three modes of art, I propose, are adaptations ... they show evidence of special design in humans, design that offers survival and especially reproductive advantages.”
Boyd and I.A. Richards before him, thought that creating and appreciating art was a process of recognizing patterns.  Deciphering Shakespeare’s Sonnets, for example, was a valuable exercise:
If pattern is good for us, and if Shakespeare’s sonnets contain many patterns, then Shakespeare’s sonnets are good for us. Boyd’s concern in his book is to prove the minor premise, which is easy to do, and which he does intelligently and well. Like Helen Vendler in her commentaries on Shakespeare’s sonnets, Boyd emphasizes the verbal texture of the poems, the play with sounds and images, the parallels and the oppositions between different sonnets
Mark Pagel in Wired For Culture, suggests another theory – that art is part of a culture which defines societies, gives them a visible and recognizable emblem.  Art is, therefore, evolutionary because without art and culture nationalism would not be possible.
Culture in the first sense—works of art, music, and literature—is therefore able to justify itself as part of culture in the second sense, the sum total of practices and beliefs that define the particular way of being of a group of people. The first kind of culture gives us paintings, the second gives us patriotism; and while paintings are not obviously adaptive, patriotism is.
Finally Kirsch discusses – and dismisses – the work of Eric R. Kandel (The Art of Insight), a neurobiologist who describes how the brain functions to perceive art, but who offers nothing in the way of explanation why art is important.

In summary, all of these theories seem reasonable but in the end unconvincing; and perhaps looking for meaning only in evolutionary terms is not the only way to understanding.  Many religious philosophers have suggested that art is the highest expression of a God-given soul – it is the spiritual voice rising above the practical, mundane, but necessary noise of survival.

It is easier to accept either one or the other – that is, that art is an important tool for human evolution, or that it is an expression of God within us – than to accept that it is only a ‘spandrel’, in the words of Gould, or the result of Pinker’s Sunday afternoon pastime, accidental and irrelevant human trifles.

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Diwali, Rosh Hashanah, FY 13, January 1st–My New Years

One of my most lasting memories is that of Benares (Varanasi) during Diwali, an important Hindu festival celebrating many things, one of which is the new year – a time to reflect on the old but look forward to the coming prosperity of the new. The festival starts with Dhanteras on which most Indian business communities begin their financial year; and the third day of Diwali, marks the worship of Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth.

It is also the Festival of Lights, and each year pilgrims to the holy city float thousands of small clay lamps onto the Ganges.  The city receives pilgrims all year ‘round, for Varanasi is one of the seven holiest sites in Hinduism, but during Diwali it is transformed.  The devotion is even more visible, perhaps because of all the lights floating on the river, or on balconies, ledges, and walls, but because of the rituals, ablutions, prayers, and ceremonies taking place along the ghats from early morning till evening.  I would rent a country dugout at first light and travel slowly up the river watching the pilgrims make their way down the steps to bathe in the river. 

 

There are nearly 100 ghats along the Ganges in Varanasi – Ganga Mahal, Scindia, Tulsi, Raj, Mana Mandir to name just a few.  Some are small and modest, others temples to wealth and influence. 

I always think first of Diwali when I think of New Year’s.  The often forced revelry of an American New Year’s has never appealed to me, and our celebrations have always been quiet ones with especially good food and friends.  American New Year’s is more a retrospective of the past year’s most notable events – killings, elections, storms, political upheavals, economic cliffs and downfalls – than a time for serious reflection.  Resolutions are made as easily as popping a party favor, and as quickly discarded.  New Year’s day is the only real quiet day of the year – nothing is open, few people want to go pub crawling or drinking, and most are just plain tuckered out after too late hours and too much to drink.

Diwali on the other hand always gave me pause.  I went there every year during my five year residence in India, and each year I happily and willingly became part of the crowds, the alms-givers, the pilgrims, and the lights.  It was a time for spiritual reflection and possibly renewal.  I have never been a religious person, but Varanasi, imbued with devotion and spiritual expression, was as close as I have ever come to letting myself slip into belief.  I even toyed with the idea of studying philosophy at Benares University.

Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, is close to this idea of reflection and resolve:

In Jewish tradition, Rosh Hashanah marks the anniversary of the creation of the world as described in the Torah. It is also the day on which God inscribes the fate of each person in the "Book of Life" or the "Book of Death," determining both if they will have a good or bad year and whether we will live or die.  Rosh Hashanah also marks the beginning of a ten-day period on the Jewish calendar that focuses on repentance or teshuvah (About.com).

My wife always half-jokingly says that her new year begins on October 1st, the beginning of the new fiscal year.  That marker has, she says, practical meaning – a time to put the affairs of the old year in order and to start the new one with a clean slate.  I was never sure why the chronological and fiscal years did not coincide; but perhaps it is better to keep personal and financial issues separate.  For years as a government contractor, I dealt more in FY’s than January 1sts, and was very aware of project fiscal cliffs.  It was very important in my incessantly bottom-line business to meet spending targets and to come out even.  Fiscal years were a part of business, however, and I never attached any more importance to them as did my wife.

Most people of a certain age don’t even bother to make New Year’s Resolutions – too great a chance that they won’t live till the end of the year.  Young people, still happily in the ‘whatever’ or ‘fuck it’ period don’t bother either – they just look forward to another year of exploration, adventure, and romance.  Everybody in between makes some kind of resolution.  It is never to late to start dieting again, or to quit smoking, or to get more exercise.  “I will spend more time with my family” is not only the classic Washington excuse for resigning from one job to take a better one; but also the perennial sop to unhappy spouses and children.  There is never even a scintilla of conviction when a Type A workaholic lobbyist says or thinks these words.  Yet, the vast middle – middle-class, middle-age, middle-brow – will continue to feel that life has not yet excluded them totally from the American dream; that anything is possible in this great country of ours; that hope springs eternal; and that the grass is definitely green wherever you look.

I am an amalgamation of all of this.  I still have a ‘fuck it’ attitude, come what may, let life bring it on; but it is looking a bit shopworn these days compared to what it was a few years ago when every new year meant new countries, new adventures, new loves, new and unexpected happenings.  I still have that middle-level optimism, and have taken on new challenges – modest to be sure, but challenges nonetheless.  I hope to finally be able to speak intelligently about all of Shakespeare’s works, direct a Tennessee Williams play in his birthplace, continue to learn and write, teach new and difficult courses.  I also have that alter kocker resignation that this year might be my last, so might as well check the date off the calendar and try not to be “Too soon old and too late schmart” .

One thing of which I am particularly aware in my Golden Years is how time has accelerated. How could that be possible?  How could one day run into another without my noticing it? New Year’s.  What, another already?

I have the usual parent’s modest hopes for my children – that they may be happy, productive, healthy, and fulfilled.  I pay no attention to their still-youthful hopes (“2013 will be my best year yet”).  I am too much a seasoned realist to think that any year will be much different from the one preceding it.  All ups and downs, satisfaction and disappointment, obstacles and free running.

And I am too much of a Stoic to wish anyone a Happy New Year, so Good New Year to all!

Saturday, December 29, 2012

In Praise Of Colonialism

The City Museum in Amsterdam has just opened a new exhibit called ‘The Golden Age’, celebrating the Dutch colonial era of the late 16th and early 17th Century.  In an article in The Guardian (12.28.12) Martin Kettle reflects on this history and considers that of Great Britain:
In a few short years at the end of the 16th and the start of the 17th century, the Dutch republic made itself the hub of the world. State of the art shipping, weapons and science enabled them to capture and dominate the lucrative spice trade with the East Indies. Back in the Netherlands, the wealth and freedom fuelled by this trade brought a glittering age of writing, painting and technological invention. Their freedom of press and religion was a magnet to the rest of Europe. Its primary monument remains Amsterdam itself, so it is easy to feel the connection to this day.
In his modern classic, Vermeer's Hat, Timothy Brook says simply that 17th-century Netherlands raised the curtain on the global world – which is our world. The Dutch bought and sold wherever they could find anything to trade. They wrote the fundamentals of international law to suit their needs. They mapped the globe and the heavens. Their way of life became multicultural. When Vermeer painted a geographer in 1669, he dressed him in a Japanese kimono and gave him a globe depicting the Indian Ocean.
The Dutch opened the world to goods and ideas; and while they certainly took much in return, they are right to celebrate the enlightenment that their trade and investments made possible:
The Amsterdam exhibition tracks all these aspects of globalization's first wave. The Dutch established colonies in modern-day Brazil, South Africa, Sri Lanka and Java – and on Manhattan, too. Theirs was a connected world. In a 1656 picture of the center of Amsterdam, Ottoman merchants are shown negotiating a deal just round the corner from where the picture itself now hangs. A Dutch translation of the Qur'an was printed there in 1696.
 Image result for images 17th century dutch in new world

The Dutch – like all other European nations of the time – participated in practices that today would be considered wrong and distinctly unenlightened. 
But this was a time of slavery and war too. Slavery was illegal in the Netherlands, but Dutch ships carried and sold slaves in Africa and Surinam, and Dutch fortunes waxed rich from the profits of the trade. The Dutch were renowned in China for their violence, and their arms industry – still the sixth-largest in the world today – was formidable. By modern standards, Dutch justice was anything but enlightened. Two ghoulish Rembrandt drawings of the public strangulation of a female murderer depict one of the many dark sides of the golden age.
There are many ‘progressive’ historians and political scientists who continue to blame colonization for a host of the world’s ills.  The Spanish brought diseases to the New World which decimated indigenous Indian tribes.  They raped and plundered the Americas in their search for silver and gold to finance their European wars.  The British exploited their Empire for its wealth and subjugated local populations to maintain control over restive populations.  The consignment of colonized populations to an inferior and powerless status enabled corrupt and brutal dictatorships to emerge from the European period, and Cold War political alliances and competition thwarted nationalist movements in Southeast Asia and Africa.

Yet most colonization brought benefits to the world.  India’s development into a modern democracy was at least partly due to the infrastructure, administration, and bureaucracy built and established by the British.  The French brought European ideas, values, art and culture to Africa.  Centuries before, the Romans brought sophisticated concepts of governance, administration, laws, literature and discourse to the lands of their Empire.  The early Persians spread a culture of science, writing, literature, mathematics and architecture throughout the known world.  The Arabs under Mohammed spread monotheism and, like Persia and Rome, ideas, science, and culture.

Image result for images medieval islamic science

If one were to create a balance sheet with colonial pluses and minuses, the advantages would far outweigh the disadvantages.  The value of this early colonial globalization cannot be underestimated for it opened the doors to areas of the world which had been closed and isolated.

Perhaps more importantly, colonialism – or expansionism – is as human an enterprise as any.  From the earliest glimmers of human society, men were driven to protect and expand their perimeters.  The more land and natural resources one controlled, the greater chance for survival.  As societies developed and became more complex and powerful, this expansion took on a whole new dimension and kingdoms and empires emerged.

Those who argue that the Spanish were only after New World riches to fund unnecessary wars at home; and that colonialism’s benefits were only marginal and peripheral to the real, venal reasons for outward expansion, are misguided.  All civilizations act in the same, predictable way.  No sooner did the Puritans and the Cavaliers establish colonies in America did they look to expand their territories.  Within the short space of 250 years, we had driven from east to west, north to south, letting little stand in our way.

The author wonders why the British have not celebrated their colonial history as the Dutch have:
Eventually, however, Britain became richer and more powerful, while the Netherlands dwindled in influence. London became the global city that Amsterdam had once been. The British empire was larger and lasted longer. The English language created a network of soft power that nowadays extends even into every corner of Anglophone Amsterdam itself.
Perhaps the explanation is only that Dutch prowess began to dwindle so long ago compared with Britain's more recent decline. Certainly, modern-day Netherlands is extremely conscious that it is now a small country, dependent on European alliances in a way that is manifestly not mirrored in increasingly Eurosceptic Britain. Perhaps a small country feels permitted to dwell on a distant golden age in a way that a bigger one does not.
In this modern world that ‘celebrates diversity’ but at the same time fears it, praising a colonial past might seem inappropriate or untoward.  Britain is reluctant to talk of the Indian Raj when so many South Asians reside in the UK.  The Musée du Quai Branly in Paris celebrates the indigenous cultures of former French colonies, not the ‘mission civilatrice’ of French colonialism.  America treads lightly over its period of Manifest Destiny and the opening of the West.  Despite the fact that The Louisiana Purchase was one of the most important events of the early American period, it is not touted as the seminal historical event that it was. 
Image result for images of louisiana purchase

We live in an age of ‘victims’ who are always on the right side of moral opinion.  Whether the predators are colonialists or multi-national corporations, their achievements in spreading or creating wealth, disseminating new ideas and technology, their contributions to culture and society are overlooked or underestimated compared to the havoc they are said to have wrought on innocent victims.

History is and always has been an ebb and flow of power.  Since time immemorial human societies have aggregated wealth and sought to expand territory, power, and influence.  In most cases this expansion has brought enlightenment.  In others, such as the violent depredations of the Mongols who spread more mayhem than civilization, there was very little.  There is no guarantee that satisfying the imperatives of human nature will always turn out well, but there is no stopping the fundamental, hard-wired, human desire for wealth, conquest, and power.








Latrines, Those Smelly Things

For four years I worked for the United Nations Water and Sanitation Decade of the 80s  promoting low-cost sanitation in India.  At the time hundreds of millions of Indians either had primitive sanitation facilities or none at all.  Most rural Indians simply used the fields.  From my early morning train window, I could see them popping up like rabbits or meerkats, carrying ‘ablution tins’ – rusted Dalda cans used for anal cleansing. The scene always had a pastoral, even peaceful feel to it.  The cycle of nature was being repeated, dust to dust, food to waste to fertilizer to renewal.  There was nothing offensive or repulsive about it. All business was done discretely and demurely.

Urban areas were different.  In the poorest areas, residents simply went in the gutters or in the narrow sluices that collected runoff during the rains.  Children, not yet having learned proper hygiene, defecated everywhere.  In the early days of the monsoon before the heavy rains washed the streets clean, the streets were fetid, gummy, foul pathways of excrement and slime.

People who had a little more money and who lived in apartment blocks used what was euphemistically called a ‘dry latrine’ – a corner of the courtyard designated for defecation. It was a step up from the sluice and the street – more exclusive and private, reserved for tenants of the building – but not much.  The flies, stench, and nastiness of piles of excrement that accumulated for months was impressive.

If you had more money, you used what was called a ‘wet latrine’, an ingenious affair which consisted of a hole in the floor of your flat.  Your excrement dropped down a chute and splatted on a concrete slab at sidewalk level.  A ‘sweeper’ – a low-caste sanitation worker – came by daily to scoop up the mess into a loosely-woven palm thatch basket, and carry it by head load to a dumping ground – another nasty, intolerably fetid mess somewhere on the outskirts of the city.

For countries like India which practiced ablution, the Pour-Flush (PF) latrine was introduced. In all others, the Ventilated Improved Pit latrine (VIP) was promoted.  The VIP was designed to take advantages of heat differentials and to create convection currents which drew smell and flies up from the fecal pit up through an external pipe to the open air. 

The PF was comprised of a fiberglass pan and trap, concrete plinth, and two pits which were alternated.  When one filled up, the consumer switched to the second, allowing the first to become non-pathogenic compost which could be sold.  The PF was ideal for urban settings and designed to replace ‘wet’ latrines; and the VIP better suited for rural areas.

I was responsible for looking at the marketing aspects of promoting these latrines – how to convince those people using traditional sanitation methods to adopt new, more hygienic ones.  However, the ‘elegant solutions’ of the PF and the VIP were appreciated only to the engineers who designed them.  They could go on for hours about thermal currents, static heads, decomposition times, and waste efficiency. 

Consumers, however, saw things differently.  Installing a PF in an urban residence in India meant that the waste pits would have to be built directly under the verandah, which meant that higher-caste Hindus would have to live in what would be considered the most religiously polluting environment on earth.  There was a point to all this public excretion – it was an economic necessity and it was part of a ritual purification process.  Under this philosophy, one was far less concerned with the consequences of one’s cleansing than with the process of purification itself.  In other words, cleaning up the excrement was definitely someone else’s business – and in particular the outcaste sweepers who had been left out of the cycle of becoming and spiritual renewal.

The VIP was an even harder sell.  When you have acres of open fields surrounding your village, why would you ever want the bother of a latrine?  In principle it had to be cleaned and the building maintained, while the open-air defecation had no costs whatsoever.  More importantly, field defecation was part of a a daily social routine.  You did your ablutions with your friends and neighbors, while in a latrine you were alone in a dark, cramped, and solitary cell.

This was only part of the public opposition.  Many focus group respondents told us that they were afraid that their little children would fall down into the pit.   They would have to find some sweeper to pull them out and since there was no provision in the social caste hierarchy for cleaning befouled children. So then what?  Other respondents told us that it was so dark in the VIP latrine and the drop down into the pit so far that they couldn’t see their excrement which was a country-folk means to diagnose illness.  None of the respondents gave the fly- and odor-less environment of the latrine a second thought.  They lived in an environment that was putrid and fly-infested with cow, goat, chicken, dog, and bat guano as well as human waste, so the VIP was an aberration not an ideal. 

The model PF latrines that we built were dismantled and the ceramic and fiberglass pans – worth more than an entire household’s belongings – were used as flower pots.  The PF latrines and their elegant convection sheds were left to mold, rot, and degrade in the punishing rains and heat of Deccan India.

Rose George, writing in the New York Times (12.29.12) about latrines  notes that the situation is not much improved forty years later:

Many students in India, where around 650 million people still lack toilets, can’t say the same. Most schools I visited had filthy latrines, used only because there was no alternative. Some had none at all. Students and teachers made do with fields and back alleys.

One of our field staff working in Africa came up with an alternative –  a traditional pit latrine with a cover.  To my mind this was indeed an elegant solution.  Dig a hole, defecate in it, cover it up, and when it is full, dig another.  The engineers in my office – the ones who came up with the ‘elegant solutions’ of the VIP and PF – strenuously objected.  They could not deny that the African latrine would achieve the results intended – proper human waste disposal – and would also limit flies and smell; but it was just too damn simple.  It didn’t matter, for in the end just as few people used it as the VIP or PF.  Within days of our trial runs, the covers were discarded as too much trouble, the pit quickly filled up, and no new ones were built.  The dogs and birds returned, hunting for bits of undigested corn or wheat to eat, and flies once again covered the whole mess.

In my career in international development I had worked in the fields of nutrition and family planning (food and sex) and the work was fascinating.  Dietary behavior is a function of a myriad of socio-economic and cultural factors and devising even modest changes in traditional practices was a challenge.  Introducing contraception was equally difficult and stimulating.  These disciplines were dominated by women, and it was extremely pleasant to work and socialize with them.  Entering the world of water and sanitation was a shock.  Toilets, sewer systems, and latrines were not sexy at all.  Sanitation engineering was a male bastion and for some reason these men took it all very seriously.  Whereas my nutrition and family planning field trips were to schools, dairies, and experimental kitchen gardens; and to private clinics for women, my forays for my new employer were to survey the realities of a befouled environment.  I lasted only a few years and went back to my previous life.

During that latrine stage of my professional career my once firmly-held believe in cultural relativism had been sorely tested.  While I could easily accept diverse dietary and reproductive behavior, listen attentively to the most far-fetched theories of disease, and sit patiently through discourses on ill winds, hot and cold foods, spells, bewitching, and astrology, I could never get past the fact that Indians violated the old adage “Don’t shit where you eat.”  How could a whole culture traipse through piles of excrement, walk past bubbling black sludge, smell the overpowering stench of diarrhea without at least covering it up? I tried every possible explanation – people were too poor, too caste-ridden, too uneducated, too politically powerless to address the problem.  None did the trick.  I reviewed culture after culture and later travelled through one urban slum after another; and I kept coming back to India.  I finally dropped my insistence on cultural relativity.  It was simply wrong to defecate so indifferently and so indiscriminately. 

According to the Times article over half the Indian population has no proper sanitation, so things in the rural areas and in urban slums would probably look no different to me now than they did decades ago.  The other half have moved on and up to modern Western living.  The vibrant, exciting, and dynamic Indian economy, finally unrestrained after years of Soviet-style socialism, has enabled middle class families to live well and at or above international standards.  Consumerism is the tide that raises all boats.  If you have money, a new kitchen and a great-looking bathroom are de rigeur in your new flat.  So in a sense my ditching cultural relativity was wrong. The grandparents of these young people manning the phones in call centers in India did their bit to add to the bubbling fecal sludge; but that bygone era is not only distant but remote and insignificant for these bright young things. I simply was impatient.