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

Tuesday, January 22, 2019

Arrogance In The Jungle–’Mosquito Coast’ And The Inevitable Failure Of International Development

Paul Theroux’s book Mosquito Coast is the story of an obsessed man who wants to bring his inventions to primitive tribes, exposing them to rationalism and enterprise and by so doing, civilizing them and bringing them quickly into the modern world.

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Allie Fox is an inventor, a genius, an engineer, and an evangelist.  America is going down the tubes, he preaches to anyone who will listen, corrupted by fast food, cheap clothes, appliances out-of-date as soon as they are delivered, rooms full of plastic, disposable toys, and a total dependency on a market economy which seduces, captures, and imprisons otherwise self-sufficient, practical people, leads them to believe they cannot do without a supplier.  As a result Americans have become fat, complaisant, indifferent, and neutered. 

He and his family must leave this cultural nightmare and live simply and independently.  Only the most remote, uncivilized, unexplored place will do.  They will live among primitive tribespeople who have never been corrupted by consumerism and live in a state of nature.

Yet although Allie wants to live among people who survive on very little, and expresses an admiration for them, he believes nothing of the kind.  For him the Miskito Indians , unconscious of anything but the jungle, primitive beings with no vision, no understanding, and no chance for evolution, are as trapped as the Americans he left behind.  Only he can bring them out of their ignorant, prehistoric life.  Whereas the great American capitalist machine was too big to destroy, its influences too extensive, and consumers too mindlessly accepting of its offerings; the Miskito Indians were at Year Zero.  Everything he brought would be an evolutionary step forward; but like the religious missionaries who preceded him, Ally was convinced that what he was bringing was as revolutionary as Jesus Christ.  Fat Boy, Allie’s invention to ‘make ice out of fire’ would be an immediate revelation – like the Word of God – to the Indians.  As soon as they saw Fat Boy produce an unimaginable, unthinkable, magical thing, they would be converted to progress, development, enterprise, and evolution.  He would oversee this development, help the Indians see the benefits of ice; how it can preserve fish, alleviate pain and reduce swelling, cool living spaces, and provide refreshment.  Ice would be the first, most important element of the epiphany. 

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Ally builds Fat Boy, but while he explains its simplicity (ice out of fire), he overlooks its complexity.  Ice cannot be made without ammonia and nitrogen, brought from the outside world.  A mere irritating detail, the thinks.  The concept itself – that the most primitive and common natural element familiar to the Indians – fire – could be harnessed and transformed, would be the point. Ice would not simply be a by-produce of fire but a metaphor for development. The Indians after seeing what engineering, enterprise, and intelligence could do would be on their way to a better life and a better world.

The story ends badly.  Taking a page out of Conrad’s Victory, Theroux introduces evil, slavers and profiteers, who will destroy Allie’s community, evolutionary plan, and even Fat Boy.  Their intent is immediately clear to Ally, and he feels he must kill them, traps them in the works of Fat Boy, and intends to freeze them to death.  The slavers, however try to shoot their way out, puncture the pipes containing the highly flammable nitrogen and ammonia, and Fat Boy and every hut, Indian, and animal in the village are destroyed.

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In his arrogance and mad obsessive evangelism, Allie is contemptuous of the Indians he meets.  They live in the muck, squalor, swamps, and malarial mosquitos without doing anything to improve their lives.  Within months Ally and his family have built a rain-proofed house with clean running water, kitchen, and lavatory.  Although he says that his intent is to show the Indians how it can be done, encourage their own initiative and activity, he is dismissive of them.  They will never be more than ignorant throwbacks to the Pleistocene.  All his efforts – the house, the gardens, and Fat Boy are really monuments to himself.  The more he builds, and the more he keeps the jungle and its pestilence out, the more convinced he becomes of his own powers.  The fact that the Indians may or many not benefit from his genius is irrelevant.  He has built The Hanging Gardens of Babylon in the Honduran jungle.

International Development – the effort of Western governments to raise the poor of the Third World out of poverty and bring them into the modern world of health, wealth, and education – has been an unfortunate but predictable failure.  Foreign aid workers have been no different than Allie Fox, with a missionary zeal, a sense of moral and cultural superiority, and a dismissiveness of the ‘beneficiaries’ they have intended to help.

It is no surprise that many of the early American Peace Corps Volunteers, assigned to rural villages in Asia, Latin America, and Africa, would come to the same conclusions as Allie Fox.  In their eyes, the natives were as ignorant, unwilling to change their ways, and unable to appreciate the enlightenment brought to them from outside.  No matter what the Volunteers did – build chicken coops, pig sties, kitchen gardens, or plant new improved seeds – the natives were reluctant to change at best.  These Volunteers returned home to jobs in the government’s agency for international development; but rather than the culturally-aware, field-tested, seasoned professionals that senior officers hoped they would employ, the returnees were now more convinced than ever that their work would always be missionary rather than economic.  ‘These people’ would never help themselves.

No one ever admitted this deep-seated prejudice.  In fact many development projects were designed precisely to mask it.  ‘Self-reliance’, ‘cooperative planning’, ‘inclusivity’, ‘community needs first’ were totems of development.  These means to progress were more important than the end results themselves.  A culture of patronizing investment grew and was accepted as policy.  Directors of US foreign aid projects deliberately refused to consider the Chinese model of development – a quid pro quo contract where Chinese engineers and imported workers would build African roads, ports, and railways in return for concessional prices and guaranteed delivery of natural resources.  There were no ‘conditionalities’ in these deals, no promises of transparency or reform.

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Yet, despite the fast, universal inroads the Chinese made in Africa; and despite their growing geopolitical influence, it has still been hard to move US foreign aid policy out of moral exceptionalism.   Doing good dies hard.

There is a bit of Allie Fox in every development worker.  It is hard for a young woman from the most developed, advanced, civilized nation faced with the seemingly intractable problems of underdevelopment and still isolated and marginalized socio-economically backward rural communities, to believe wholeheartedly in the possibility of rapid development.   A culture of aid dependency is only natural.  The optimism of the bright young things going to Africa is still fueled by a Christian ethos – the Word of God is enough for miraculous transformation – and by a very American commitment to doing good, even if good is never the result.  Helping others is more often than not a selfish enterprise – not unlike that of Allie Fox.

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It is easy enough for conservative economists to say ‘Pull the plug’, finally and abruptly wean developing countries off what has become an inefficient, futile, and idealistic enterprise.  If African countries want financial assistance, say these economists, let them appeal to the international capital markets.  Within that international system, loans must be repaid, never forgiven.  World Bank soft loans would be things of the past and American-style grants totally forgotten.  The reality is quite different.  The real question is how do you wean Americans off their compulsion for doing good?  As many attempts as there have been made to dismantle foreign assistance no president, Republican or Democrat, has succeeded.  It has a life of its own – a special, anointed life. 

Friday, January 18, 2019

Fat Boy–Dealing With Ugliness In A Beautiful Culture

America is not a beautiful culture by any means.  Its casual, off-the-rack, comfortable line of clothes is the standard not the exception.  Of course the runways of New York rival those of Milan and Paris, but haute couture never makes it way very far down the ladder.  ‘Who cares?’ is more the byword than ‘everyone cares’, the essence of French culture, Italian bella figura , and even classic Edwardian style.  No one really cares about fashion in hyper-democratic America  where ‘anything goes’ is a proud statement of democratic inclusivity.

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Clothes, style, and fashion may be items dismissed in modern America – a frivolity, a throwback to elitist days of wigs, lace, and bustles – but beauty is an industry.  Every man, woman, and child in America wants to be as beautiful or handsome as the Hollywood ideal – sexy and alluring or masculine, commanding, and strong as the best of Hollywood.

Unfortunately,  given such a culture of beauty, most Americans must deal with second, third, or fourth best.  We are not a culture of natural beauty like Ukraine where every other woman on the streets of Kiev could pass a screen test.  We are a race of mongrels where only genetic chance produces classic beauty; and where most often the mix of white and black, black and Asian, Indian and Pacific Islander somehow never turns out right.  White-on-white mixing also goes awry.  Darwin and Mendel warned against too much genetic proximity; and the ugly genes of Uncle Bosworth and Great Grandfather Hiram somehow seem to show up at the most unexpected and inopportune times.

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he culture of inclusivity is aimed at these misfits – the lantern-jawed, high-forehead, tulip-nosed, parsons’ lipped boys and girls who, through no fault of their own, were born in a country which prizes classic beauty.  Despite claims to the contrary, there has always been one standard of beauty – symmetrical features, height, musculature, physical grace and allure.  The standard has not changed since the ancient Greece and Rome, and has been expressed in Pompeii, Persia, India, America, and modern Europe.  Anyone born outside these classical limits will have a harder row to hoe than those within it.  Beauty has always meant status, wealth, and well-being.

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As much as modern progressive culture wishes to ignore the physical anomalies which leave most people on the cultural periphery; and which prefers to dismiss the very concept of beauty, no one is buying it.  One look in the mirror is enough to confirm the obvious truth. Few women have even the faintest resemblance to Vivien Leigh, Hedy Lamar, Ava Gardner, or Marilyn Monroe, and few men can ever match up to the classic lines of Gregory Peck, Burt Lancaster, or Farley Granger.

So what to do next? Accommodation.  Women who fall far from the classic ideal of feminine beauty may prefer to challenge any such notions – work shirts, overalls, shit-kickers, and butch do’s are not only for the tough girls of Bernal Heights, but the heterosexual, feminist avant-garde women of Milwaukee and Sioux Falls.  Ugly is the new beautiful – rough, unclaimed, deliberate, in-your-face, take-it-or-leave it neo-femininity.  Or not, and choose to by the latest skin creams, eye-liners, blush, and lip gloss to accentuate whatever bits of beauty one might have, and to at least gesture towards the ideal.

Herschel Benoit was  a fat boy and had been ever since he was a child.  Roly-poly, happy-go-lucky, easygoing and easy to be with, but left on the sidelines at recess, picked last, impossible to fit except by New York Big Man tailors, Herschel was uncomfortable in his skin.  Every morning he looked at his dewlaps, love-handles, skin folds, and buttocks with dismay.  He was given a body that no one wanted – fat, uncoordinated, and undesirable.  There was nothing that could compensate for the bad genetic hand he was dealt, no possible makeover, no hoped-for reconfiguration of oversized belly, ham hock thighs, and Porky Pig jowls. 

The ‘inclusivity’ phenomenon had just taken root, too late to affect Herschel.  In his generation the slow, the unattractive, the inept, and the one-step-behind would have to deal with a world which wants nothing of them.  Herschel grew up in an era of bullying, aggressive honesty, and realism.  He would simply have to face facts, and maneuver however he might in a world whose values did not include him. 

At times he wished he could ‘display’ his corpulence – wear three-piece suits with tight vests and key chains; show off his neck rolls with shaved baldness; and duck-walk with confidence into the office.  A man to be reckoned with, a man of weight, posture, and presence.  Yet he had been born too early for any of this to have any salience.  He could no more strut down the corridors of his international bank, past the sexy young things in cubicles, head held high, proud, and handsome than he could run a Mayan gantlet.  He was fat, encumbered, and unattractive, and that was the beginning and end of the story.

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Plato was right – without higher-level, unattainable ideals, the human race would remain mired in mediocrity.  No man could ever be Apollo, nor any woman Aphrodite, but the un-achieved attainment was the whole point of human being – striving, aspiring, and desiring were the most essential aspects of human nature and responsible for progress, improvement, and enlightenment.

Suspension of disbelief is another way of putting it.  If Herschel could look in the mirror in the morning and suspend any rational, practical, objective assessment of his undesirable body and prefer to see its potential, its good points, and its hidden allure, so much the better.  There is no point whatsoever in accepting an unattractive reality.

The cosmetic industry is a multi-billion dollar business, and medical enhancement therapy is not far behind.  Why not cover up unsightly blemishes, highlight one’s few Hollywood features, and nip and tuck to accentuate or preserve them?  Looking good is not only for bella figura Italians and fashionista French but for everyone.  There is no doubt that when genetic selection becomes a reality, the DNA of Marilyn Monroe, Ava Gardner, Hedy Lamar, and Vivien Leigh will get top dollar.  Who, if given the chance, would buy the feminist cant of ‘beauty is only skin deep’? Who would not opt for sexual appeal, allure, and attractiveness?

Meanwhile, what was Herschel Benoit to do other than accept second class citizenship?  He was too old, too fat, too misshapen for even the most radical cosmetic surgery to be any good.  He neither had the personality nor the desire to be a Jackie Gleason caricature, imposing as a big man, giving no ground to svelte; nor the desire to show off an ‘I am what I am’ dignity.  He was purely and simply unhappy that he had been born fat, grew up fat, and continued to be fat.  Marry a fat girl? Have fat children? Hang out with fat friends?

Few people can match up to Hollywood beauty.  Our noses are too long, our lips too fat, our cheekbones too low, our foreheads too simian, our ears too low-hanging and elephantine to give us even an even chance in the world of beauty.  And yet, there are few fallbacks.  Short of Bernal Heights flannels, Joan Rivers multiple surgical makeovers, or layers of Rodeo Drive makeup, we are stuck with what we were born with.  Some manage, others never give up, and some seem to gin up enough personality, theatricality, and drama to fool most people.  ‘Ugly is as ugly does’ is an aphorism never quoted but is as salient as its opposite.  Born ugly in a beautiful-desiring world defines a person even more than than one born beautiful.

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Wednesday, January 16, 2019

The Need To Renovate, Expand, Refurbish, And Redo–An American Obsession

The neighbors are cutting down trees in their back yard – lebensraum they told the people next door - space for the children to play unencumbered and free; and the sunlight which had never reached past the tops of the maples and cherries, never filtered down to the ground, would now allow grass to grow.

All well and good for new residents of this upscale Washington neighborhood always seemed unwilling to let what they bought be– to let the branches of the trees grow and let their children climb or swing on their limbs,; to let the backyard stay unimproved for  one-a-cat, volleyball, and short-field soccer just like the homeowners before them did; but who, it must be said, did their own reconfiguring of fence, garden, wall, and hedges to suit their own tastes after living on Dupont Circle without any green, trees, or light and air.

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it isn’t so much that the recasting of the neighbors’ backyard was illogical, a waste of money and time; but that the backyard was fine as it was, and that three generations of children at least had played there without complaining.  They adjusted and accommodated just as all children do.  Time out if the ball goes into the bushes, extra points for climbing to the top limb, tree-as-defenseman immobile in pickup soccer.  What was the point of a new, trimmed, treeless, and rootless backyard?

After a death in the family, survivors, rather than give all the old man’s belongings to the Salvation Army and send the rest to the dump, use his old Victorian furnishings to finally fix up a family room which had become over the years an overflow basement, useful, forgotten, and damp.  There were no relatives in sight who would stay there.  It was only the point that mattered.

Middle aged couples, finally childless after many reproductive years which had produced no offspring, feel it is time to bump out the kitchen, double the cooking space, add track lighting and butcherblock tables, and finally replace the refrigerators and stoves which had served them well enough, but compared to the new, energy efficient, easy-access, ergonomic newer versions, were antiques.  And while they were at it, why not replace the tiles, the ceiling, the cabinets, woodwork, fans, and windows?  The fact that they had managed quite well for decades, managing small, low spaces, sticky drawers, and small cabinets with ingenuity and patience meant nothing now that they had time, liberty, and a good disposable income.

This need for change extends well beyond kitchens and family rooms, and in fact has nothing to do with wainscoting, grouting, and table tops.  It was ridiculous, Marge Hastings told her husband, to stay at home when they, thanks to two generous inheritances, could travel anywhere.  Enough of their quiet, predictable neighborhood,  the nearby college where her husband took and taught courses, the many trails along the river which were easy to walk in the Spring and Fall, and the local delis, coffee shops, and bakeries. It was time to refurbish their lives, Mrs. Hastings said, to renovate, renew, and reconfigure them; and to make even more out of the few years remaining to them than they ever done.

Of course there was nothing at all wrong, tedious, or bothersome about their lives.  Both were happy enough, engaged enough, and best of all uncluttered by new neighbors, a changing demographic, and out-of-state investment.   Where would they go? asked Mr. Hastings.  To Cancun, Turkey, Italy, California, what did it matter?  The point was scrubbing off the barnacles of an old boat that had sat in the water for far too long.  It mattered little where the boat would head, only that it would up anchor and move.

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The first year of this new course set by Mrs. Hastings was challenging to say the least.  A trip to the Far West to stay with distant cousins and hike the Absarokas, to Northern California for the vineyards, San Francisco, and the hip start-up restaurants in Napa and Sonoma.  A few weeks on Cape Cod to visit her old summer haunts; a side trip to Greece to rediscover memories of an illicit romance of her twenties. 

It was tiring just to think about these trips, let alone consider the tickets, the visas, the airports, and marginal, sidebar children they would entail.  There was no payoff in any of them.  How, in these final years of his life, would a trip to the Rockies, the New England Atlantic, or Europe possibly add anything he did not already have at home?  Would Cousin Bernice, a first year graduate student in ecology at Idaho State, add anything but enthusiasm to the well-worn issue of climate change ?  Would Great Uncle Hiram, a genius with tools, re-orient his existential trajectory?  Would all the bars of downtown Livingston, Idaho Falls, Wellfleet, Calistoga, or the Mission help him sort out life’s conundrums?

It wasn’t that Marge Hastings had gotten a bee in her bonnet; and everybody seemed to have gotten antsy about staying in one place.  America was a country where nobody was happy with what is, but with only what could be.  Excluding the marginal poor who never has never have the luxury of moving;  let alone a personal makeovers.

The rest of America, however, is on a roll.  The Hastings’ neighborhood was changing weekly.  The entire block of 48th Street was being redone – the Porters were adding a sunporch; the Pinkertons a third floor; the Lovellis a rose garden; and the Levins a new, three-car garage.  Old 100 year-old sycamores were coming down, privet hedges cut and replaced by all-weather fences, front doorways protected by Venetian cupolas, and front lawns reseeded and replanted with faux-tropical reeds and evergreens.

The block had been around for 75 years with no one giving a second thought to change.  There was something important about permanence, even though it meant some measure of inconvenience.  The older residents of the block knew quite well that higher-up cabinets would eliminate awkward stoop; that bigger, more ergonomically designed refrigerators would make reaching for the milk in the back a lot easier; and that cutting down the oak tree would let in more light and give the bulbs a better chance of flourishing.  Yet they resisted change, not because they were ignorant, stubborn, or simply old; but because it simply wasn’t worth it.  What did one ever really gain from changing anything?

“If it weren’t for me”, Marge Hastings said to her husband, “you would die in your traces”, plowing the same furrow he had for decades, never looking up or around.  Only she, with her outward personality, positivism, and can-do practicality, could make their life together sustainable if not exactly happy. 

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Her husband had heard this before, and the older he became, the more deaf he became to her entreaties.  There is one thing the settled have going for them – inertia – and it was simply too difficult for Marge Hastings to get her husband to the National Gallery let alone Greece or Turkey for her to persist.  He had to do nothing - lie on the couch with a book, prepare his lecture notes, take a nap, or watch a movie – and the battle was won.

His wife never got the picture, and there was always something going on in the house – retiling the patio, trimming the boxwoods, repointing the chimney, new lamps for the den – but he accepted these inconveniences as points in the marriage contract; never contested, just ignored.

Italians had the right idea, Mr. Hastings often thought.  Modern Italians live in old 16th century townhouses, negotiate streets blocked with Roman ruins, and never once think of bulldozing anything.   Change is suspect not embraced a priori.  Prove, demonstrate beyond a reasonable doubt that X has to go, then maybe.

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Both Hastings lived to a ripe old age, and despite his obstinacy and insistence on immobility as a way to enlightenment, he found that he wasn’t schmart and he was very, very old.   She, despite her insistent and lifelong dissatisfaction with what is and her perennial desire to make things over, realized that this too made no real difference to anything in the end.

A happy couple?  Not exactly; but compared to what and to whom?  Longevity counts for something; and if two people so remarkably and dramatically different in outlook could stay together, marriage might have something to say for it.