"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.

Monday, December 10, 2018

True Love–Happy Indifference And Courtship Among Dictatorships

The Oloffson was the place to meet the love of one’s life, even more so because of its romance, the place for European glitterati and American artists, and the precariousness of Haiti itself.  One did not casually visit Haiti or stay at the Oloffson unless by specific design and determination.  No travel agent would have suggested it during any of the post-Duvalier regimes even for the adventurous few who wanted to see Victorian gingerbread Haiti before it became Americanized. Not everyone felt comfortable at the Oloffson, but those who did were made for each other.

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Of course there was no chance whatsoever of Americanization happening.  Haiti seemed to be doomed to be one of the world’s worst - deforested, denuded, pillaged by one corrupt regime after another, desperately poor, and dangerous. 

Even the worst of evils has a positive side, and under the long reigns of Papa and Baby Doc , one could dance in Carrefour, walk the port and the old downtown waterfront, shop at the iron market, and eat at the French and Italian restaurants up the hill in Petionville and Kenscoff without a second thought.  Public safety was a by-product of the Tontons Macoutes for whom any civil disturbance, particularly crime against foreigners was a threat to national order and as importantly national image.

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So the Oloffson was the place to visit, to see and be seen, throughout the Duvalier years.  The tontons macoute, shades, porkpie hats, and Lugers added to the romance of the hotel; and Petit Pierre, featured in Greene’s The Comedians was the actual dwarfish dandy who still drank rum punches at the bar, trim and elegant with cane, boutonniere, and gold jewelry.  Haiti’s Bobby Short played piano at the Oloffson, the same Cole Porter tunes, the same phrasing, style, and easy patter, a Bobby Short clone except for his blackness, Papa Doc’s proud low black bourgeoisie far darker than the monied mulattoes of Kenskoff who never came down the mountain to hear him play.

The two lovers in question – he an American recruited by his government to help Haiti’s foundering economy; she a European musicologist taken with the African roots of meringue – had no more in common than Haiti, a country for those who loved it either a lover, a doppelganger, or the perfect cultural angel; never just a place, one more entry in a musical archive or case study for business school.  The tom-toms in the hills above Petionville, the voodoo, Baron Samedi, and even Papa Doc himself were never just accidental, fictional props to their personal dramas. 

They had both been warned against Haiti.  Nothing in Angola, Chad, or East Timor was like the particular lawlessness of this place.  Every other place of civil disorder, autocracy, and oppression could be understood.  The rise to power of Stalin, Hitler, and Pol Pot were understandable, even predictable; but nothing could be compared to this cannibalistic ritualized, pagan regime.  The lovers, despite their years in black holes and civil wars, were ingenues when it came to Haiti.

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Yet both were accustomed to ‘skating’ – pirouettes on glass above Idi Amin, Edris Debry, Bokassa, Mugabe, and Botha – untouched by the vandalism and murder below.  Privileged travelers with pukka passports, international recognition and home office support.  If the nastiness of pogroms and death squads came too close, they would be withdrawn, secure.

Skating was one of the perks of the business for those who chose their profession for the adventure not the money or the recognition.  Why would anyone choose to be  a clinician in Springfield when the most unpredictable, entirely free, and limitless experience was there for the asking? A life of hazards with lifelines; falaises with Medevac and helicopter rescue.

The criticisms of their attitude and approach were many, consistent, and predictable.  How could they live with their consciences, eating foie gras at Cote Cour, Cote Jardin in Petionville; Nile perch from Lake Tanganyika in Burundi; coquilles St. Jacques in Dakar; or fresh lobster on the Luandan peninsula when millions were being tortured, imprisoned, and disappeared?  Yet the Hutu-Tutsi civil wars, the vicious oppression of the anti-democratic forces in Chad, the derogation of civil rights in Madagascar were of little import to the lovers.

It was no surprise, then, that they found each other on the veranda of the Oloffson, each drinking one of Petit Pierre’s rum punches, looking out over the swimming pool where the fictional Doctor Philipot’s body was found, listening to the voodoo drums in the hills above the hotel, and wondering whether the Norwegian Line cruise ship would stay or leave.

They, like the characters in Greene’s novel were comedians – actors for whom the real Port-au-Prince did not exist.  They, each on their own stage, were playing, inventing, and creating new scenarios about Haiti.  The ‘real world’ of the Duvaliers did not exist and never existed.  It was a backdrop, fitting for their own personal performances.

To charges of complicity – the more foie gras eaten in Petionville, the more dances danced in Carrefour, the more nights spent at the Oloffson, the more support given to the murderous Duvalier regime, the worse things would become – they turned a deaf ear.  Life was to be lived, tasted, enjoyed, and ingested without concerns for provenance.  In the world of international development, there was no such thing as ‘responsible sourcing’.

When one of the lovers had been travelling in the English-speaking provinces of Cameroon and had stopped to eat at a rest house far from the border, he had asked his Cameroonian host what was on the menu.  He was told not to ask, a code for bush meat, whatever one can catch– monkeys, field rats, lizards, and grubs.   

Whether in Haiti, Tanzania, Chad, Angola, or East Timor, one should never asked what one was eating, what was cooking, what was behind the curtain.

She had friends who had criticized her for her travels in the Deep South which could only be considered traitorous and complicit.  The slave-owning, racist, backward society of the Mississippi was still alive and well and travel there was tantamount to treason.  Forget the reconciled civil conflict, the cultural unity of a United States, the predictable trajectory of a human history propelled by self-interest and territorialism.  The South was evil and no one should offer it succor, support, or recognition.

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There are many reasons for successful pairings – family, breeding, looks, intelligence, spirit – but philosophy is never one, or at least never mentioned.  The two lovers found each other because of indifference.  They cared only for what they saw. 
I am an observer, a reader of signs
A decipherer of origins
An eye-painter
Neither cared for implications.  Haiti was the Oloffson, Petit Pierre, rum punches, and Carrefour.  Burundi was Capitaine au Fenouille.  Senegal was Le Dagorne and the corniche.  Angola was giant grilled shrimp.  Antananarivo foie gras.  Bamako was ‘la France profonde’, the Deep South hoop skirts, pilgrimage, and plantation homes. 

The Oloffson was not the only place they could have met – there were hundreds of other places with similar cachet – but the Oloffson had to be the place if serendipity had any place at all.  Haiti was the most corrupt, the most venal, the most oppressive, and the most consequently poor and desperate place not only in the Western Hemisphere, but everywhere.  It had to be there, on the breezy veranda overlooking the pool, the palm-lined driveway, and the city beyond that the lovers were to meet.  They only saw the palm trees and the bougainvillea, smelled the scents of the hills above Kenscoff, listened to the noises of the Victorian gingerbread houses.  The poverty, mud and disrepair, the malaria, dysentery, and police did not exist.

What better, what more romantic, what more idyllic than to exist in a such an invented real world – the rum bar, the veranda, Petit Pierre, and the bougainvillea were certainly real – while being able to ignore the more real world beyond?  it was a marriage of consonant souls – neither cared for anything beyond the palms and bougainvillea, Lake Tanganyika, the corniche, or the old pre-Soviet European neighborhoods of Bucharest.   Devaluations of currency, trade agreements, compromises with Europe and the Unites States, cooperation with China meant nothing to each of the lovers and even less when they were partners. 

Lovers are always said to live in their own worlds, and in the cases of these two, no world was more unique, better, and apart.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

What Goes Around Comes Around–Deja Vu All Over Again And The Endless Repetition Of History

Determinism is a scary prospect.  It is much harder to gin up enthusiasm for a new day when it will be pretty much the same as the one before, all the rest, and all those to come.  Forget Christian determinism – God’s has planned your life out for you and he will elect you as one of the saved regardless of what you do – natural determinism is far more unsettling.  Human nature – innate, permanent, and absolute – has not changed for millennia and for good reason.  The survival of the species depends on aggressiveness, territorialism, perimeters, self-interest, and limitless ambition; and some unfortunate consequences necessarily result.  Wars of territorial expansion and political hegemony while consolidating power, enriching the kingdom, and enabling the growth of high culture, kill tens of thousands of unwilling conscripts and peasants.  Economic growth – a pacific expression of national power and influence – is not a neutral enterprise.  There have always been haves and have-nots.  For every benefit of human enterprise, there are always consequences expected or not. 

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This natural calculus is obvious; but its predictability is often overlooked.  Human activity, generated by the same, unchanged, natural engine that has never lost speed, direction, or inertia, will always produce the same results.  Of course the expressions of human nature are infinite.  Shakespeare, a confirmed determinist, understood that history would always repeat itself.  Jan Kott, a Shakespeare critic noted that if one were to lay all of Shakespeare’s Histories down in chronological order, the characters, scenario, setting, staging, and lighting would be different but the drama would be the same.  The Bard saw no contradiction whatsoever in writing about superficially unique individuals marching to the same drummer.  In fact, that is the nature of drama.  We know exactly what’s going to happen, but are fascinated to learn how.   We know that Daphne Du Maurier’s Gothic romances cannot possibly end well, but we can’t put them down for wondering just what particular twists of fate will doom the lovers.  Turkish soap operas show unvarnished human nature as well as any serious drama.  Greed, ambition, and deceit are their staples.  There will be winners and losers but who, how, and why?

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All of which is why no one should be surprised at the news.  Why should presidents, politicians, Wall Street bankers, evangelical preachers, generals, and university presidents behave any differently than kings, popes, tribal warriors, and shoguns? The capacity for ambition, greed, venality, and self-service is limitless.  Competition is hardwired and absolute.  No one in power takes defeat lying down; no one on the way to power is careful not to trample on the flowers; and no one up and down the social phylogenetic scale will take insult, dismissal, or disregard with a smile.

Yet idealism is hard to dampen.  Life simply cannot be so predictable.  Human beings can harness the power of human nature for the best.  Why not an aggrandizement of good? A juggernaut of progress? A demanding, insistent, aggressive movement for peace, harmony, and a better world? Because people bicker, movements fracture, and competing interests destroy whatever unity there might have been.  Not only do religions disagree on salvation, but the many sects, branches, and affiliates of each religion disagree.  The pie is only so big.

Environmentalism is the biggest tent around, and in principle there should be room for those who want to protect the spotted owl, the snail darter, the air over the Mojave., the water in the Chesapeake, the small farmer, and organic agriculture.  All are welcome, but resources are never infinite and every dollar that goes to cleaning up the Bay is a dollar not invested in solar power. While the overarching principles of protecting the Earth may be universally respected, the fight for territory, resources, and political support is as internecine and bloody as any.

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As in all events, there will be environmental winners and losers.  Evangelical, mediated religions will get more adherents while Catholics, discouraged at their church’s dereliction of moral responsibility and leadership turn away.  Women who have benefitted from feminism and the civil rights movements will move from the kitchen to the boardroom and contribute to capitalism’s amoral acquisitiveness.  The virtues of motherhood, homemaking, and tradition will be diluted and finally forgotten.  Something has to give.  Human nature is unforgiving; and history keeps a well-kept balance sheet.

Why do so many people, then, persist in their idealism? Isn’t an even casual glance at history enough to conclude that there are no absolutes, that horrific things are done in the name of good, and that there is no such thing as progress? The Twentieth Century saw dramatic improvements in life expectancy, material wealth, and well-being; but it was also one of the bloodiest in history.  Not only were there as many wars as in previous years, but the nature of the wars took on a more sinister character.  Hitler did not only want to conquer Europe and Russia – that would be very understandable – but he wanted to exterminate an entire race.     Stalin and Mao were strong and powerful leaders but were responsible for the death of millions because of their policies.  It was not enough for Pol Pot to follow the example of Mao in his desire to create a perfect socialist state.  He had to murder millions to do so.

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This ‘ignorant’ idealism may have its roots in religion.  God cannot simply let the world fall apart.  He cannot let us destroy ourselves through war, environmental neglect, greed, and divisiveness.  He will have to intervene, perhaps with another Flood, a new start, and a new vision.  Jesus Christ’s words of compassion, love, and inclusivity must have metaphysical importance.  If we follow his example, the world will indeed be a better place.

Of course this may all be hokum, religion only a fancy myth, and the Catholic Church built on mythical false promises of Christ in the desert, may have taken advantage of man’s simple desire for miracle, mystery, and authority to build a powerful political institution. 

It is even more likely that idealism is an ironic by-product of human nature.  One must be convinced that the political struggle for individual rights is a noble one, of a higher order than mundane affairs.  Belief in a cause makes that cause more valid and energizes those in the struggle.

Or perhaps idealism is simply a happier version of life than doom-and-gloom determinism.  A Disney, Hollywood version.  Life may be sordid affair, but why look that closely?

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Besides, who wants to dwell on the fact that we are random, valueless bits in an equally random and valueless but infinite universe? We are better off at the movies.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

‘Affordable Housing’–The Myth Of Public Subsidy And Social Engineering

The DC government, like many others, has passed laws to ‘encourage’ developers to provide a certain number of ‘affordable’ housing units in any new high-rise building they construct.  The arguments for such ‘affordability’ are many.  It is important for firemen, police, and teachers, advocates say, to live near their work.  They are the backbone of middle class society, perhaps its most important members because of the charge they carry, the responsibility of safeguarding our communities, teaching our children, and saving our homes, and they need public assistance.  Theirs is a higher good, say proponents of affordable housing laws, rent control, and rent stabilization.

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‘Diversity’ is perhaps the most relevant principle underlying public support of housing.  There is something inherently good about a mix of cultures, ethnicities, race, and incomes.  A city will be a better, more tolerant, and more civil place if such social mixing occurs.  It is only right and proper for government to accelerate the trend and to engineer a more welcoming and accepting society.

Neither policy stands up to scrutiny.  There is no reason why public servants cannot live where they can afford and commute to work like employees in the private sector.  Young workers in Washington routinely live in the suburbs, in small, shared apartments in Rockville and Gaithersburg, and accept the opportunity cost and Metro fare as a worthwhile expense given the attractive salaries paid downtown.  Firemen can also live out of town, come in for their shifts, and be as ready as any colleague who lives near the station to fight fires.  The same goes for police and educators.  A teacher in a Northwest DC school who lives in Falls Church performs no less well than one who lives within city limits.

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Proponents of affordable housing say that public laws and subsidies enabling these public servants to live close to work has an ancillary public good – fewer commuters, less pollution, and less congestion.  Yet the number of public workers in one of the nation’s booming high-tech regions is infinitesimal compared to the number of private employees.   Washington’s congestion is due to the economic boom which has brought it out of the one-horse, one-employer, government town, to the place to live. 

If one were for a moment to consider affordable housing proponents’ argument, how might government assure fair and equitable distribution of public resources?  It might be all well and good for the City Council to vote in favor of its firemen, teachers, and police; but no law could be that exclusive.  Anyone falling under an income threshold  would and should be eligible for such housing.  Such a law is a boon to young private sector workers happy to be able to live in high-rent, exclusive neighborhoods of the city paying low rent.  Why should government support them?

As importantly, what would be the threshold?  One cannot fix rent limits without considering income; and how indeed could that be determined? Prevailing firemen’s salaries? And how to fix the rent?  One could match base (fireman’s) income with rents paid, and fix ‘affordable’ rates accordingly. However, this would tend to keep rents lower than they should be given ‘aspirational valuation’.  Families with modest income may be willing to pay a higher proportion of their disposable income for housing in a desirable neighborhood, and any rent below this aspirational level would be uneconomic.

There are two forms of government support for affordable housing.  The first is by law which requires developers of new buildings to reserve a certain percentage of units for lower-income families.  The second is to enforce rent control, a program whereby landlords can only raise rents minimally and gradually for existing tenants. 

The argument for the first option is that taxpayers pay nothing for the program.  Landlords simply will charge more rent for their market-based units in order to cross-subsidize the low-rent ones.  This however will result in two undesirable  consequences.  First, the higher rents will discourage those families of modest means who, as above, assess a high aspirational value to apartments in desirable neighborhoods.  In other words, the market could, left alone, serve the same purpose as government mandates.  Perhaps bottom-rung middle class renters would be excluded, but why should government make that choice or distinction?

Second is that developers under an affordable housing mandate will build units inferior to those at market rates.  They will be smaller, lower, with less light and access while the higher-than-market rents will assure luxury accommodations for those renters on higher floors.  The buildings will be de facto segregated.  Such physical segregation will ensure normal, predictable social segregation.  The young lawyers and lobbyists on the higher floors will be even more unlikely to mix with the police and fire fighters on the lower.

Rent control is an even worse option, for, as in the case of San Francisco and other cities with strict rent control laws, landlords simply hold properties off the market, benefitting from increases in land values while avoiding the losses incurred because of insufficient rents. Not only that, the city benefits from high rent districts.  Former NYC Mayor Bloomberg understood that the development of the High Line, a rails-to-trails pedestrian walkway through lower Midtown Manhattan, would generate economic development nearby.  He was right, and the property taxes from the new desirable high-rent buildings have helped fill the city’s coffers and permitted it to invest in better infrastructure, parks, and public services.  Lower income residents and small business owners were indeed displaced, but such displacement is part of a dynamic economy.

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Finally, ‘diversity’.  Despite the clamor and the insistence on its higher good, there is no evidence that it in fact contribute to civil harmony, tolerance, and good governance.  In fact, as this era of identity politics has amply shown, diversity has contributed to divisiveness and disunion. Engineered diversity – like any other public distortion of the economic or social marketplace – is more likely to set back social, racial, and ethnic integration than to encourage it.

Likes have always attracted likes.  Well-paid, well-educated professionals want to interact with people like them – not policemen, firefighters, and utility workers.  They want their children to grow up and be educated in a homogeneous environment and do not want them to be held back by students from less-motivated if not dysfunctional families.  For all the public expressions of support for diversity, ambitious families want none of it.  This conviction has nothing to do with, as many critics claim, racism – the desire to keep schools white.  It has only to do with keeping them upper middle class, high-performing, and socially homogeneous. One of the greatest advantages of Washington’s private schools is that students will be in a uniform community of highly intelligent, motivated, interested, and intellectually curious classmates.

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In other words, given fundamental social behavior, the market works quite well.  Despite insistence that social engineering works, human nature will always trump interventionism.  ‘Affordable’ housing is but one example of ill-considered social engineering and perhaps the most visible and obvious.  Yet such engineering occurs throughout the public system.  Schools have become experimental laboratories for social reformation.  Academic excellence is no longer the unique guiding principle of elementary education. Teachers are now responsible for ensuring tolerance of ‘difference’, promoting ‘multiple intelligences’ at the expense of high-performance, socially practical disciplined cognitive learning, and readjusting gender behavioral patterns – e.g. discouraging typical male behavior in favor of a more collaborative, cooperative female environment) .

It is no surprise that parents who can afford it, quickly move their children to private, parochial, or charter schools.  Not only are they in search of a higher quality education; they are fed up with prescriptive administrative policies and government interference.

Affordable housing, like all other public social engineering programs will wither and die, removed without notice by economic dynamism.  It will be revived in down times – the New Deal was never finished and buried – but in good times or even modest ones, it will remain marginal and insignificant.