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

Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Best Of All Possible Worlds–Leibniz, The Peace Corps, And Endless Optimism

Ricky Randall joined the Peace Corps to do good.  He was young, idealistic, and very American.  He believed strongly in American enterprise and especially in American values.  He went to Mali to teach Africans about democracy, community, and individualism.

It wasn’t long before Ricky became disillusioned.  The Malians in his village didn’t seem to care about American values at all, and only wanted to leave their fly-specked, dusty, and airless grass-huts and go to New York.  America meant money, Hollywood, white women, and big cars.  It was their dream.

As much as Ricky had tried to organize the community for collective service – neighborhood gardens, PTAs, adult literacy, or improved sanitation – he was ignored.  The villagers went about their business as they had for centuries, planting a few rows of millet, fetching water from the river, collecting firewood, praying five times a day, and plotting revenge against the next village for thievery and kidnapping.  A few women made it to his group meetings after he bargained for a few bags of corn meal from the local CARE office and prepared a hot meal; but they paid no attention to him whatsoever.  They did wonder what his cock looked like, for they had heard that all white men had tiny ones.  They called Ricky ‘straw pizzle’ in Bambara and while he banged on about improved seeds and smokeless cooking stoves, they yakked among themselves about what it would be like to suck his reedy member.

Eventually he gave up, and like many Peace Corps Volunteers who went to The Third World with good intentions and a respect for diversity ended up more prejudiced than they ever had been. In Ricky’s defense, it was a bit much to ask a white boy from Four Corners, Ohio to appreciate the economics of poverty, risk, opportunity cost, and cash flow; or the influence of hundreds of years of marginal farming, repressive religious laws, hidebound cultural traditions, and the usual sniping and backbiting of small communities. Besides, the Peace Corps recruitment policy was simple and straightforward.  A clean police record, no political activism, and a warm American heart were the only criteria that mattered. Political philosophy was optional.

So by the end of the first year Ricky was referring to his village clients as ‘Bleats’ after the rancid, bony goats they herded.  He took more and more trip to Bamako, stayed at a three-star hotel, and drank himself silly on local beer.

Memory is a funny thing, and we all have a way of erasing the bad and filling in the gaps with good.  After he left Mali Ricky missed the simple village life, the creak of the well pulley as beautiful women pulled the rope.  He longed to see their elegant, sexy walk as they carried water in head-loads back to their huts.  He loved the silence of the Sahelien nights, the low chatter of families eating their meals, the morning routines of stretching and ablutions.

As a result of these distorted memories, he joined an internship program at USAID which after a year led to full-time employment at the Agency. For Ricky it was a heady experience.  He was able to make policy, develop programs, and devise budgets and conditionalities which would make a difference and beggar his petty attempts ‘on the ground’.  There was an esprit de corps among the young, ex-Peace Corps staff.  They were enthusiastic, committed, and purposeful.  They now had the power, thanks to the might and wealth of the United States government, to bring long-awaited change to the developing world.

As time went along, and as Ricky dutifully made his way up the corporate ladder, his politics matured and he became, like virtually every one of his colleagues, a ‘progressive’.  He believed that those in positions of responsibility could make a difference in the lives of others.  There was no such thing as ineluctable, self-interested, aggressive human nature.  Despite the wars, massacres, concentrations of wealth and power, exploitation of the poor, and perennial conquests of territory and populations that characterized history, the future would be different.

I have never understood the Ricky Randalls of the world – nor in fact Gottfried Leibniz, the philosopher who gave us the idea of ‘The best of all possible worlds’.  God, who is all-good, omnipotent, omnipresent, all-knowing, and supreme, he said, could never have created evil without a reason; and that was to challenge us, incite and urge us to goodness.

Voltaire satired Leibniz and his idealistic optimism in Candide where Dr. Pangloss speaks glowingly of ‘the best of all possible worlds’.  Here Candide explains Pangloss’ philosophy:

Pangloss gave instruction in metaphysico-theologico-cosmolo-nigology. He proved admirably that there cannot possibly be an effect without a cause and that in this best of all possible worlds the baron’s castle was the most beautiful of all castles and his wife the best of all possible baronesses. —It is clear, said he, that things cannot be otherwise than they are, for since everything is made to serve an end, everything necessarily serves the best end. Observe: noses were made to support spectacles, hence we have spectacles. Legs, as anyone can plainly see, were made to be breeched, and so we have breeches. . . . Consequently, those who say everything is well are uttering mere stupidities; they should say everything is for the best.

In a well-known exchange between Vershinin and Tuzenbach in Chekhov’s Three Sisters, the two aristocratic intellectuals debate the nature of history.  Either human society improves gradually over time with a concerted effort of the enlightened; or no matter how many superficial changes might occur, life is and always will be, exactly the same.

TUZENBACH (To Vershinin) Not only in two or three hundred years but in a million years life will be just the same; it doesn't change, it remains stationary, following its own laws which we have nothing to do with or which, anyway, we'll never find out. Migratory birds, cranes for instance, fly backwards and forwards, and whatever ideas, great or small, stray through their minds, they'll still go on flying just the same without knowing where or why. They fly and will continue to fly, however philosophic they may become; and it doesn't matter how philosophical they are so long as they go on flying. . . .

Shakespeare, influenced in part by Machiavelli, concluded that there was no such thing as progress, and that the wheels of the grand mechanism of history keep turning perpetually, but around and around to no purpose.  If one laid out all of Shakespeare’s Histories end to end, suggested the critic Jan Kott, the same pattern of palace intrigues, plots, murders, wars, and marauding in the name of power, accession, and security would persist. Nietzsche centuries later echoed the same sentiment – nothing changes in the world, all men are slavish followers of endlessly familiar routines, and the only validation of life is to act beyond good and evil.

Vershinin was a spokesman for Chekhov who anticipated the coming 1917 revolution, was conversant with the writings of Marx and Engels, and believed like them that through work the world could indeed become a better place.  Thousand of European intellectuals stubbornly adhered to that philosophy despite the totalitarian abuses in the Soviet Union which they conveniently ignored.  Progressivism was born, and it dies hard. It is not a question of partisan politics – liberals vs.conservatives or even Republicans vs. Democrats. Disagreements persist because of a fundamentally different approach to life. Progressives insist that the world can be a better place, especially with the guiding hand of government; while conservatives believe just as strongly that the wheels that power human events keep turning in predictable circles.  If there is validation of or purpose to human life it is through individual enterprise and spirit. Conservatives are the rightful descendants of Voltaire, Rousseau, and Nietzsche.

I met Ricky Randall last year after a very long time.  I was curious to see if time had tempered his optimism, and whether what he had seen in his 70-odd years had changed his mind.  It had not.  If anything he was even more progressively idealistic.  In fact there was not a liberal cause that he did not espouse.  He proudly wore the emblem of the Environmental Movement, waved the multi-colored flag of Gay Pride, fought tirelessly to help women break through the glass ceiling.  He was relentless in his Facebook postings on Global Warming, the danger of pesticides, the dangerously predatory greed of The One Percent, the immorality of large corporations, and the plight of the African American.

On one hand I was not surprised.  Ricky, I had to recall, had been in the Peace Corps, and the inadvertent education he had acquired while being in Mali and at USAID had simply and easily taken root.  I was going to ask him how he squared the lessons of history and the uncanny similarity of today’s events and those of the past with his eternal optimism, but didn’t bother. For Ricky and thousands like him, belief always trumped logic. If everyone thought like me, he said, we would burn up in a fiery Armageddon, die gasping in clouds of acrid pollutants, revert to a dog-eat-dog world of avarice and individualistic brutality. We would be doomed.

There are tens of thousands of Rickys steaming all over the world in the vain hope of saving poor Africans, offering enlightenment to the Middle East, bringing Islam out of the Dark Ages, or saving the planet.

At the same time there are tens of thousands of people who are followers of Voltaire, Rousseau, Nietzsche, Shakespeare, and a raft of other thinkers and artists, and who are diametrically opposed to Ricky and his legions of idealists.  You don’t hear about them, because they fly no banners and wear no emblems.  They are individualists, philosophical purists for whom the purpose of life is not complicated by causes.

I heard from a friend that Ricky Randall had retired to Florida and was the president of his Venice co-op association.  He successfully organized his condo to press for improvements in the outdoor lighting and in the maintenance of the grounds.  I see him on Facebook, of course.  Every day he reposts something from Upworthy or the Daily Kos, articles that champion Bill DeBlasio and Elizabeth Warren, or Chicken Little warnings about coal and nuclear energy.

I always liked Ricky Randall, and have not hidden his posts.  I still want to see if, as he approaches his eighth decade, the overpowering weight of history and current events will force him to change his mind, but I am not holding my breath.  The Peace Corps did a number on him.

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