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

Friday, December 14, 2018

Please Forgive Me - The Sorry State Of Absolution

The Old Testament gave no ground to sinners.  Jehovah was a judgmental, punitive, retributive God.  Sodom and Gomorrah were to be destroyed despite Abraham’s intercession.  The Flood was unequivocally necessary because of universal human failing.  Better to start over.. 

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The New Testament is much more forgiving.  In fact, Christ’s central message was one of divine generosity.  Of course men sin.  Eve, the temptress, seduced herself by the Devil, corrupted Adam and condemned the entire human race to a life of penury and pain  Jesus offered hope to even the least hopeful.  If one were only to believe in him and accept the offer of his grace, the kingdom of heaven would be open.

The choice is clear.  Who would rather face a censorious, unforgiving judge than one who understands man’s foibles and moral weakness?  Jehovah was right in sending his Son to correct the very imperfect world he created.  The Flood didn’t work.  The human race came back and renewed itself; but unrepentant and ignorant, went on to repeat the same mistakes it had made before Noah.  The human race that God had created was irremediable, and the only hope was that at least some of his creations would finally respect, love, and admire him – a tall order, but one surely in competent hands. 

Milton wrote about this divine mission in Paradise Lost but Jesus’s work was not a foregone conclusion.  The forces of evil, especially when arrayed so ingeniously by Satan, were daunting even for the Son of God; but defeat was necessary and foregone.  The world was not created to be evil.

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From any point of view God could never have envisaged the sorry, facile state of forgiveness today.  Public apologies after breaches of public trust are accepted without question.  No sin is beyond forgiveness, and most are considered only aberrations from a moral norm.  American political and religious leaders who have betrayed their wives, their congregations, and their followers can be restored to status and position if they prostrate themselves in abject apology before their constituents.  Even given the likelihood that such serial sinners will sin again, they must be forgiven.  Christ’s message gone horribly awry. 

Jews are quite cynical about the Catholic sacrament of Confession.  It is all well and good, they say, to sin, be forgiven with only a few desultory prayers, and be free to sin again; but the true import of sin – a hurtful, spiteful rejection of the Lord, Jehovah or Christ – is overlooked in such an easy round of forgiveness.  We take sin seriously, say observant Jews on The Day of Atonement, take our moral responsibility to heart, accept the very mortal offense of repeating it; while Catholics spin the bottle and go on with their lives.

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Of course Jews misunderstand the principles of Catholic forgiveness.  One can be only truly forgiven if the sinner understands the immoral nature of the sin and promises never to commit it again.  All well and good, Jews say; but promises are worth little more than the breath it takes to utter them especially if there is no penalty for failure.  Repeat offenders – repentant adulterers, liars, and cheats who ignore the meaning of the confessional and continue to sin – go Scot free in the permissive, exceedingly tolerant Christian society.  Better to condemn once and for all, to mete out just punishment, and to expect humble acceptance of it. 
O my God, I am heartily sorry for having offended Thee, and I detest all my sins, because I dread the loss of Heaven, and the pains of Hell; but most of all because I love Thee, my God, Who art all good and deserving of all my love. I firmly resolve, with the help of Thy grace, to confess my sins, to do penance, and to amend my life. Amen (Catholic Good Act of Contrition)
Jesus surely never meant a universal, unquestioned forgiveness of sin.  He must have learned something about unrepentant human behavior from his Father; yet after his death, he was not responsible because the Holy Ghost, the enforcer of the Holy Trinity, who was charged with keeping the faith as The Son had envisaged, was derelict in his duty.  He – the Holy Spirit – allowed for the emergence and preeminence of the Church, the Vatican and the Pope, all with vested interests in forgiveness.  After all, what would be the future of a church which could be swept away and destroyed by a vengeful Old Testament God?

Christianity has had such longevity because of its temperate, forgiving nature.  Judaism provides needed moral brakes to Christianity’s excesses, but it can only admonish and hector from the sidelines.  Protestant fundamentalism has taken sin and forgiveness to another level.  One can be saved through Christ’s divine grace and redemption, so never mind temporal, earthly Jewish harping about right behavior.

In a crucial scene in the movie, The Gift, an unrepentant sinner – an ugly-spirited, arrogant, but attractive ignoramus – asks forgiveness from a man whom he has offended, hurt, and seriously damaged years before.  The man refuses to accept the offender’s apology and says, ‘You might be done with the past, but the past is not done with you’.  He prefers vengeance to forgiveness and destroys his offender.  Old Testament justice, and we sympathize. Why even consider an insincere apology from someone who will sin again?  Why not destroy him?

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We have forgiven weeping politicians for their indiscretions, no matter how serious.  if they have realized – or at least publicly acknowledged their moral dereliction – then shouldn’t they be forgiven, especially if their opus – the goodness of their collective works – outweighs any one-off error of ways?

Did Jesus ever think of forgiveness in context? Parsing the seriousness of sin was not in his litany.  Sin itself and the willing admission of it was; but there was no questioning Christian morality.  All faithful knew quite well what was expected of them.  The likes of betraying politicians and preachers would be condemned no matter how humble their contrition; and only after the most abject apology and profound commitment to reform would their apologies be considered.

“I’m sorry” has lost all meaning, all salience, and all relevance to moral judgement. It has become facile, expected, and totally meaningless.  Worse, it has become part of the sinner’s forgivable trajectory.  “I’ll never stray again” says the straying husband, buying time and space before his next affair.  “I will always be faithful to your interests”, says the politician who has only his own interests and longevity in mind.  “Please forgive me”, asks the Catholic priest for his abusive behavior.

Granting forgiveness is one thing, admitting wrongdoing is another.  Admission of guilt, sin, or error is the last resort.  If one can get away with a crime, never have to admit it, nor ever do penance or beg for forgiveness, so much the better.  “It’s not what you know”, says Alonzo, the corrupt police detective in Antoine Fuqua’s Training Day, “but what you can prove”.   Committing the crime is not the problem, leaving a traceable trail is.

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‘Transparency’, today’s buzzword for political reform does not mean honesty, forthrightness, or admission of guilt; but the image of innocence.  If it looks good, smells good, and feels good, then it must be good.  Truth is secondary if not irrelevant.

We have gotten so far from the Act of Contrition – the heartfelt, deeply apologetic admission of having offended God himself – that apologies of any sort are meaningless, so subject are they to image, presentation, and self-serving explanation.  Better to take an Old Testament view of sin – wipe it and its offenders out in another Flood.   Bring back unapologetic, vengeful, and retributive justice.  There is no reason to shy away from the death penalty, the one, absolute act of justice that remains in a relativistic, self-justifying society.

International Development–When Mission And Moral Exceptionalism Get In The Way Of Geopolitical Interests

Progress International was an international development agency contracted by the US Government to carry out projects in health, social welfare, and education.  While its ostensible purpose was to improve the lot of the poor living in Africa, Asia, and Latin America, the real reason behind such investment was geopolitical positioning.   It was always hoped that such socially valuable projects would add moral luster to the United States and would be appreciated both for laudable human goals and generous political incentives to assure support of American political interests. 

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Although these projects were gifts to host countries, American planners counted on  a certain degree of  government support and interest.  Unless public officials were committed to reform, more efficient delivery of services, and public welfare, they would never succeed. Of course the governments with which the United States contracted bi-lateral agreements were more often than not autocracies whose only interest was political longevity and large offshore bank accounts.   There was no way to select countries for development assistance on the basis of geopolitical interests and assume that they would be willing and energetic partners in social reform. 

The World Bank in its early days when it functioned as a lender of last resort, countries borrowed for the investments that were critical to their development, and were willing to take on the risk of default knowing that if they did, their credit would be further denied.   During those days, major infrastructure projects were designed and implemented; and countries in the developing world had the roads, ports, water, and sewage systems they were denied under colonial rule.  After the days of Robert McNamara, the last President to fund such infrastructure projects, the Bank felt that it had to turn more directly to the needs of the poor.  ‘Poverty alleviation’ became the operational philosophy at the Bank.  No more would the Bank finance bridges, roads, and ports – all of which would benefit the poor only years if not decades in the future – but would turn its attention to ‘soft’ projects, those which were intended to raise socio-economic indicators quickly.

The Bank did no better on soft loan (gift) performance than the US government, for as part of the new policy, so-called ‘conditionalities’ were written into each agreement.  For these no-money-down, low interest rate, easily forgivable loans, countries would have to promise to reform their governance and become more accountable, transparent, and democratic.  

Of course, the autocrats with whom the Bank dealt, had no interest in making good on their promises, took the money, invested some for appearances sake, and diverted the rest.  The Bank, unchastened and still hopeful, forgave the loans, rewrote them to correct the ‘inconsistencies and inefficiencies’ experienced in the first round, and poured in good money after bad.

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To make matters worse, the United States development assistance program was built on a system of subcontractors which would execute Government-designed projects according to a strategy submitted during a competitive bidding process.  These contractors had no interest in innovation or creative solutions; only in responding to what government planners had envisaged.  There was no questioning the logic of government plans, the advisability or feasibility of the projects bid, or their design; so projects which never should have seen the light of day, were funded, implemented, and eventually discarded.

To make matters even worse, many of these successful contractors followed the precept, ‘The Means Are Just As Important As The Ends’, if not more so.  It was not enough for Progress International to  lower infant morality rates but had to do so appropriately, with cultural sensitivity, local participation, and collaborative methodologies.   Massive, widespread programs of vaccination, spraying, distribution of malaria prophylactics, or well-drilling were considered inappropriate even though they might be the quickest and most efficient ways of reducing such mortality.  At the beginning of the project, communities had to be ‘invested in’ the project.  They had to ‘buy into it’, and be active collaborative partners.  At the end of the project, they would have ‘ownership’ which would result in efficient management and follow-on capital investments. 

Of course, these projects, complicated by so many ‘conditionalities’, conditions, and impossible promises, failed.  The means impeded the efficient and expeditious achievement of ends.  The philosophy of the implementing agencies – their mission and moral purpose – was more important than simple results.

After decades of failure, agencies like the US Agency for International Development still exist, still do business in the same, inefficient, morally-bound way; and billions of dollars of taxpayer money is wasted on projects that countries don’t want . If anything, such unwanted, inaccessible projects turn autocrats away from the very American allegiance the United States seeks.  Along with social conditionalities, the books are kept so tightly that even occasional ‘diversion’ of project resources is difficult.  In short, no one gains.  The US Congress feels good about their investment in human welfare, and voters are assured that their government does the right thing; but that’s all.

In the past few decades, a new player has entered the development game – China, whose leaders have wanted nothing to do with moral exceptionalism, mission, or conditionalities.  Theirs would be on a strictly quid-pro-quo basis.  Chinese companies would build African roads, bridges, railways, and ports; and in return China would get long-term, guaranteed access to energy and mineral resources at favorable, unchanging, low rates.  Or, as in the case of the Horn of Africa, the Chinese would farm arable but unused and undeveloped agricultural land, export its products back to China, and return a small portion of the profits to the host country.  There was never a question about governance or civil rights.  Those were internal issues, of interest only to the partner country, not China,

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As a result, Chinese public and private investment now far surpasses American.  By offering these practical agreements, China has both benefited host countries, enriched itself, and perhaps most importantly, gained an unshakable political foothold in Africa. 

The United States is just now waking up to the problem.  It suddenly, although surprisingly given China’s resurgence to international power, finally realizes China’s global geopolitical influence; and realizes that it cannot possibly compete through soft loans, soft projects, workshops, and mission-driven contractors.  Conditionalities must be things of the past, the ends must justify the means, and moral exceptionalism forgotten.  The Trump administration has just gone very public about its clear and unmistakable intentions in Africa to counter the Chinese.  Yet it still backs off from the Kissinger-esque, Machiavellian principles of realpolitik.  Even for a very conservative government, rooted in private sector initiative, reduced government involvement, and a hard-line, practical approach to international relations, it is still hard to back away completely from American goodness and righteousness. As the New York Times recently reported:
National Security Adviser Bolton announced a new program, “Prosper Africa,” to support American investment across Africa. Without attaching a dollar figure, he said the United States would facilitate alternatives to the large, state-directed public works projects pushed by the Chinese.
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Bolton and the Administration have clearly not learned from the past.  No government in Africa is interested in ‘alternative’ investment – a thinly disguised code word for smaller-scale projects, private investment, and contractor-implemented programs.  In other words, the same ‘hands-on’, means-and-ends approach that has failed in the past.

To counteract the Chinese the US will have to offer the same kind of major infrastructure projects but more competitively than the Chinese.  It should apply the same competitive principles used in the private sector to the public.  No considerations other than cost, and clearly enunciated economic and geopolitical benefit.

Thursday, December 13, 2018

African Dreams–Looking For Love In All The Wrong Places

While the slave trade had operated from both coasts since the 1500s, Europeans never ventured into the interior, relying on African middlemen to buy directly from tribal chiefs who had already enslaved their enemies.  Tribal warfare was common in Africa, and the capture, sale, and barter of captives was common.  The Atlantic trade was directly by Europeans through African wholesalers, but the Indian Ocean market was operated by the English but also by Arabs who had a lucrative market in the Middle East.

Mungo Park was one of the first European travelers to explore central Africa and his adventures were recorded in a series of books chronicling his journeys in the late 1700s.  In The Life and Travels of Mungo Park in Central Africa he provides a firsthand account of life in heretofore unexplored regions of the continent.  The story was not pretty.  In fact, it was savage, brutal, and primitive.  He himself had been captured many times, bartered as a slave, and only escaped death because of his value as a European and for the clothes he wore.

The eunuch and his four followers were here butchered, after a very slight resistance, and stripped within a few yards of me: their cries were dreadful; and even now, the feelings of that moment are fresh in my memory. My hopes of life were too faint to deserve the name. I was almost instantly surrounded, and incapable of making the least resistance, as I was unarmed, was as speedily stript; and whilst attempting first to save my shirt and then my trowsers, I was thrown on the ground. My pursuers made several thrusts at me with their spears, that badly wounded my hands in two places, and slightly my body, just under my ribs, on the right side. Indeed, I saw nothing before me but the same cruel death I had seen unmercifully inflicted on the few who had fallen into the power of those who now had possession of me; and they were only prevented from murdering me, in the first instance, I am persuaded, by the fear of injuring the value of my clothes, which appeared to them a rich booty,--but it was otherwise ordained.

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René Caillié travelled to Timbuktu in the early 1800s and was the first European to explore the Sahelian interior.  Sir Richard Francis Burton, perhaps the most famous of African explorers, travelled extensively in the interior of East Africa in the early 1800s, searching, with Speke, for the source of the Nile.   Both Caillié and Burton relied on disguise and language to make their way to the holiest places of African Islam, while Park – a very innocent and naïve traveler – made no attempt to hide his European background nor the reason for his travels – to find the source of the Niger River.

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As a result, Park’s accounts are particularly compelling.  While Burton, always a careful intellectual (his books on his travels to Mecca, complete with meticulous descriptions of culture, tradition, society, and religion were academic staples in the early days of exploration), Park travelled headlong and in so doing became an unwitting and unwilling part of tribal conflict, slavery, and the trade in human cargo.

Park’s images of African savagery confirmed whatever impressions Europeans had of the continent and certainly contributed to the more exaggerated cannibalistic images of the interior spread about, but there was no doubting his accounts.  Later travelers like Paul du Chaillu – a zoologist/explorer who intended to study gorillas, but whose accounts of the tribal culture of Central Africa were as troubling as those of Park – confirmed the internal warfare, slave trade, and primitivism of the region. 

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Joseph Conrad writing much later in the 19th century drew indirectly on these accounts when he wrote Heart of Darkness, a story of an English ivory trader at an outpost far up the Congo River in the interior who discovers the primitive and the savage within himself.  ‘The horror….the horror’, he says at the moment of his death when he finally understands human nature.  The African interior – largely unknown, mythical, rumored, but far removed from civilized Europe – was Conrad’s metaphor for this human primitivism.

D.H. Lawrence throughout his central works, especially Women in Love, explores human sexuality as a struggle between European rationality and cold logic and African sensuality and passion.  Only when the two were in perfect equilibrium could final sexual partnership and an emotional/sexual union be achieved. An African mask features in his story – it is a frequent and unsettling reminder of that part of human sexual nature which is essential but dangerous and destructive if not tempered or balanced by its polar opposite.

It was with this baggage that Arnie Frank left for Africa.  It was not a neutral place, nor a benign one, nor a predictable one; and he had managed to mix myth, metaphor, and chronicle to produce great expectations.  There could be no more romantic place.  If, as he expected, it would have the passionate primitivism of Conrad and Lawrence, the excitement of risk, and a cultural exploration that few of his colleagues would ever think of taking.  It would also be the third leg of his cultural adventures.  If India and the East were places of philosophy, cosmology, and ancient history; and if Latin America was environmental beauty; then Africa would be intensely personal, demanding, and unremittingly challenging.  India would always be for the eye-painter, impossible to take in all at once, demanding only in a sensuous and intellectual way; Latin America the Andes and the Amazon; but Africa would take a different measure.  There was no telling how Europeanized Africa’s tribalism had become, nor in what forms it might reappear.  Frank knew of Africa’s lawlessness and civil disorder, and had his qualms because of that; but he was no American naïf, assuming that the world was as sanitized and policed as his own.  He would be able to navigate or better circumnavigate problems if and when they arose.

There are still only two types of travelers to Africa.  First, American progressives who want, finally, to visit the ports of the slave trade and the apartheid-era South African townships, to do visible penance for the crimes of their ancestors, and to confirm their belief in the validity of African culture and civilization at least equal to that of Europe.  Second are safari and game park visitors who have always thought of Africa as a place first of animals, savannahs, veldts, and forests.  Other tourists are incidental – returning Peace Corps volunteers, academics completing their basic research on the African diaspora, musicologists, and linguists.  Most, since their objectives are clear, narrow, and achievable, come away satisfied.  They never expect to figure out the persistence of African under-development, Big Man tyranny, endemic disease and poverty – why Africa remains far behind every other continent in social, economic, and political development.

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Anyone who knew Africa at all knew that the fanciful, romantic ideas of Arnie Frank would never be realized.   The days of 19th century European adventurism, a by-product of empire, expansionism, and colonialization were long gone.  Africa had been mapped, surveyed, and chronicles – a continent to be dealt with and done with.  Tribalism – that potent, primitive, sensual, undeniable force of human nature – was, as Kurtz understood would never disappear; but would be tamed or at best sublimated.  More accurately, it was a persistent vestige of prehistory – isolated, animist, subsistence societies that had little chance of economic and social development.  It was that very primitivism romanticized by Conrad and Lawrence that would always hold them back.

Most importantly, those who had travelled to Africa with few expectations and out of professional duty, knew that decades of international ‘development’ had done little to encourage progress.  Most countries in sub-Saharan Africa were still overwhelmingly poor, corruptly ruled, inefficiently administered, grossly inequitable in terms of wealth and well-being – despite the billions of American and European assistance.   The donor’s geopolitical agendas had always taken precedence over development and governance.  They tolerated the likes of Idi Amin, Bokassa, Debry, and Mobutu because of oil, rare earth minerals, or strategic geographical positioning.

“Where”, Frank wondered, “should I start?”

He considered Mungo Park who started at the Atlantic and worked his way inland; so perhaps a soft landing in Dakar, and then trips through Mali, Burkina, and Niger might be a way to ‘penetrate’ Africa but not through the malarial swamps and forests of the Congo.  Until the very recent incursions of Islamic militants in the Sahel, the region was always safe and accommodating.  Religion was a matter of faith and some mysticism but never radical or threatening.  The arid climate limited disease, cities were small and manageable, and crime nonexistent or low.

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Southern Africa, depending how it was considered, was not really Africa.  Hottentots, Boers, and Zulus in a semi-industrialized, wine-producing state was not what he envisaged, too far from any of his mythical ideas.  He had no interest in visiting Angola or Mozambique, relatively recently emerged from civil wars and still badly governed, and too influenced by Cuba, Brazil, and Portugal to have rediscovered their traditional past,.

Needless to say, Arnie Frank ran into the same unpleasantness experienced by other African travelers.  Paul Theroux wrote Dark Star Safari and Last Train to Zona Verde, memoirs of trips down the African coast of the Indian Ocean and back up the Atlantic.  Theroux had been a teacher in West Africa as a young man and was charmed by its open sexual culture, generosity, and a society uncomplicated by Freud and Christian guilt.  At the end of his voyages of rediscovery up and down the coasts, he was disappointed, tired, disillusioned, and beaten.  Africa had become a different place.  Whatever tribal positioning had kept it cohesive and even remarkable had come apart.  Poverty, venality, corruption, and inefficiency were everywhere.

In Lower River, a novel, Theroux wrote about a Peace Corps Volunteer who had had a transformative experience in a small African village and who went back to visit many decades later.  The village had completely changed.  The formerly cooperative culture had become antagonistic, self-serving, and hostile.  He was at first welcomed as a familiar figure, but soon taken advantage of and threatened.  Soon he was seen for only what he could give. The story does not end well. 

The major cities that Arnie visited were crime-ridden, lawless, and malarial.  Nairobi, Kinshasa, Lagos, Abidjan, and Johannesburg were as violent as any American inner city.  If one had money or diplomatic support, one travelled in convoy with armed protection. If not, travel was discouraged.

The smaller cities like Bamako and Niamey had become threatened by Islamic terrorists, had garrisons of French troops stationed nearby, and were nervous, unpleasant places.  The rural areas were, as Theroux described, unhappy places of persistent poverty and little opportunity.

Africa had been left to founder, plundered by the autocrats who governed, supported by politically driven donor interests who had little interest in serious ‘poverty alleviation’ or social progress and more in domestic political priorities, and ignored by everyone else.  Only if Africans crammed into country craft to make their way from Libya to Italy or rioted in the northern suburbs of Paris did anyone pay attention.

Arnie Frank travelled to Africa a number of times, refusing to give up; but upon more serious reflection, give up what, exactly? Myth can only be sustained by mythical expression.  Religions founded on myth but responding to emotional, social, and political needs have prospered.  More fanciful folk myths have disappeared.  The once-current idea that myth is essential to human society proposed by Joseph Campbell has long faded as social currency.  A more practical, no-nonsense reality has taken its place.

Myth plus romance has no chance whatsoever; and Arnie should have known better, product as he was of relativism and a good education. So he, like most, had given Africa his best shot but concluded like those before him that if there was ever a uniquely important, potentially significant, and powerful culture in Africa, it had gotten distorted out of recognition.  For the time being at least, it was a place to be avoided.  How he had been infected with such romantic idealism, no one knows; but at least he returned to earth only disillusioned, not disheartened.