"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is going down the tubes, he preaches to anyone who will listen, corrupted by fast food, cheap clothes, appliances out-of-date as soon as they are delivered, rooms full of plastic, disposable toys, and a total dependency on a market economy which seduces, captures, and imprisons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. 

Image result for image 19th century plowing a furrow with mule

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.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Man's Responsibility For The Environment - As Much Sinned Against As Sinning

A young boy in a well-known private school in Washington, known for its liberal philosophy and premier education of Washington’s leaders, when asked about the role of man in the destruction of the environment replied that whatever damage man might have done to the environment, the environment took its toll on him.  We are all part of the ecosystem, he went on, and both influence it and are influenced by it. 

A very Buddhist thought, surprising for such a young student.  There is no change but change, he related; or in other words there is nothing but change.  Blame, guilt, attribution, moral consequences are meaningless in a world which is constantly changing and of which we are an integral part.  We may cut down forests, dam rivers, emit pollutants, and kill endangered species; but we may not only die from virulent diseases that emerge from African rain forests – ecology’s revenge – but unknowingly but irrevocably sow the seeds of own destruction.  Who can possibly predict the outcome of genetic engineering, man’s boldest attempt to remake the human organism in his own image?

The implications are far reaching.  As we edit out Great Great Grandfather Hiram’s bad genes, add those of Michael Jordan and Marilyn Monroe, and assure protection against the diseases and deformities we know, but we also expose the genome to other unknown, pernicious viruses.   Can’t the genome, once made public, be hacked?  If we are concerned about GMO foods and their lack of resistance to disease, then why not worry about our genetic structure, made more and more vulnerable by human intervention?

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The point is not whether genetic engineering is a good or bad thing.  The genie is already out of the bottle, tinkering with the human genome inevitable, and the search for a more perfect human organism underway and unstoppable.  It is the consequences of these radical and revolutionary events which are unknown.  It is just as likely that we contribute to our own doom and destruction as it is that we find the key to longevity, permanent good health, and a race of superior, highly-evolved individuals.

If man is as much a part of a changing physical, social, economic, and genetic ecology, as responsible for changes to it, instrumental in making others, and subject to exogenous forces which can never be predicted, then why is there a rending of garments over the spotted owl, the snail darter, or the warming of the climate?  If circumstances are such that man becomes extinct, it will not be because he has ruined the physical environment around him – rivers, oceans, streams, and forests – but because the human race has either become so large, and so environmentally influential that a whole host of swine flus, bat brain viruses, antibiotic- and immunology-resistant bacteria, and other unknown mortal pathogens emerge and destroy us; or because man himself, by manipulating a more existential genetic environment, causes his own extinction.

In other words, man is not the destroyer, the predator, and the cause of another Flood or a premature Armageddon, but nothing more than a player in the game of existential baccarat.  It is nothing more than vanity which condemns man for his ignorance, arrogance, and stupidity.  We are acting as we were created – intelligent, creative, entrepreneurial, visionary, and logical.  Creation is destiny, and we can only play out our ambitions, desires, and territorial claims as they are expressed.  We were not created to make right decisions, only decisions which seem to favor our longevity and dominance.  ‘Seem’ is the operative word, for no amount of intelligence can possibly decipher the imponderables of randomness.

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The young man at the Washington private school in question soon left the institution.  He felt put upon, unfairly criticized, and ostracized for his conclusions; and enrolled in another school which if less intellectually challenging was certainly less dominated by political creed.

His only sin was to suggest that the decline in the oyster population in the Chesapeake Bay might not be due to environmental pollution and overfishing , but to an insidious, dormant, and suddenly and unexpectedly virulent virus.  Even if this were not the cause, he went on, fewer Bay oysters was not the end of the world; and only part of the inevitable cycle of the life and death of organisms.

The boys and girls at _____ were by no means interested in carrying the argument further, reflecting, as the disaffected student had, on Asian philosophies which were  eloquent on the subject of change, influence, and the role of man.  The Hindu God Siva was The Destroyer and The Enabler; and he danced the cycle of creation, destruction, and re-creation, none of which had particular meaning or relevance (i.e.,  no era was any more moral, principled, or better than any other) but was simply the way God had designed things to be.  Any individual at any point in this cycle was irrelevant as were his actions.  Whatever man does and regardless of the temporal influence his actions might have, in the larger scope of things, his actions are insignificant and meaningless.  The only hope for anyone born into this random drama is to understand it.

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The _____School had been established on what it considered to be superior moral principles.  Its original patrons had supported abolition, refused entry into both world wars, and valued pacifism, social reform, and a moral-based system of governance since the 18th century.  While these progressive principles were historically valued and respected, they had come under serious scrutiny in the modern era.  The school and its foundational philosophical supporters refused to budge off a 19th century political platform and had been co-opted by 21st century progressivism., the canon of which – environmentalism, gender-race-ethnic inclusivity, and anti-capitalist hostility – was incorporated into all aspects of its education and social environment.

It was taken for granted that Americans were the world’s villains - environmental predators, military adventurers, territorialists, misogynists, and racists – and far from existing within a universal philosophical context, were outliers, destroyers with no thought of Siva –esque regeneration or renewal, cultural Nazis, and complete moral reprobates.

There could have been no farther straying from essential philosophical principles than that of the _____School and its supporters.

Western philosophers were never in the dark on such existential principles. Metaphysicians like Kant and Descartes, and moral philosophers like Heidegger, Schopenhauer, Kierkegaard, and Sartre all reflected on being and existence.  Only latter-day princelings like Lacan and Derrida weighed in and took an unequivocal stand.  The academic philosophy of Plato, Aristotle, and their followers as wrong and irrelevant.  Only social, cultural, and historical context mattered, and one was quite right to judge white, male privileged opinions suspect in a multicultural world.  Of course man is responsible for social and environmental dislocation.

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The young student who resigned from the ____Schtool went on to academic excellence, and was later noted for his reasoned and philosophically-grounded arguments against the received wisdom of philosophical environmentalists.  While those he left behind preferred to focus on the here-and-now, he shifted he discussion, broadened it, and demanded more academic responsibility and integrity.  The common wisdom and popular belief is that temperature rises are fact; icebergs are melting; summers and winters are nothing like what they were; and if nothing is done, climate Armageddon is close upon us.  He never denied all this, but only insisted on a broader, more inclusive, and far more intellectually sound analysis.

A priori conclusions, based on and influenced by a contemporary zeitgeist, are never right and valid.  Philosophical reflections are not only pertinent but necessary


Sunday, January 13, 2019

Memories Of Underdevelopment–The Delights Of Poor Countries

It is too much to expect that those helping the poor should live like the poor, and that comforting philosophy has given thousands of aid workers license to lead the good life in the developing world.
In order to do good, one must feel good; and feeling good means being well-rested after a comfortable flight, a good night’s sleep in a five-star hotel, and a meal at the best restaurant in town.

None of the expenditures for such sumptuous travel, went the thinking of administrators and senior staff, was excessive.  Project managers of international development banks were responsible for millions of dollars in loans and credits, and a clear mind was absolutely necessary when negotiating complex agreements.   The US Government was far less generous than these institutions, but the hotel allowances and per diems were more than sufficient for stays at starred hotels and fine meals.

Grand Hotel Calcutta

Anyone who has traveled to Africa knows that good accommodations go a long way to alleviating the trauma of crime, disease, civil unrest, and uncertain, dangerous travel.  They are oases and refuges.  They are places of resuscitation and renewal,  redoubts into which the outside world cannot enter.  They are not suggested, but required.

Even the most ethically-minded traveler soon forgets his qualms about income disparities and the irony of impossibly wealthy Americans – even one on an American civil servant’s modest salary is, seen from a development perspective, to be more wealthy than the richest emperor of Wagadu or Songhai – ministering to the desperately poor.  It is all taken as a matter of course.  His wealth, education, privilege, and good fortune all enable him to give more freely and concernedly; and the causes of local misery, perennial economic immobility, and lack of  of enterprise and independence which ensure perennial poverty are not his affair.  He is there to alleviate suffering, regardless of the cause.  The ethos underlying American foreign aid is unquestionably Christian, and helping the poor for no other reason than their suffering, is to follow in the path of Christ.

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It is this very missionary philosophy that makes five-star hotels and sumptuous meals ethically and morally justified.  Doing the Lord’s work in and of itself is good, and nothing can take that away.
The life of American expatriates is even more trying.  Not only do they have to suffer the heat and dust of their host countries for the two or three weeks of a short mission; they have to live it day in and day out.  It would be impossible to survive under such conditions without a comfortable home, spacious garden, swimming pool, servants, air conditioning,and  long paid local and European vacations (R&R).

Even at that, life for these American development workers is not all easy.  Servants steal, malarial mosquitoes bite, break-ins are common, and pumps, compressors, and toilets rarely work properly if at all.   All the more reason to live in the most American- designed, -built and –equipped quarters where plumbing and electrical wiring is new, security is high-tech, and furniture and appointments are no different from home.

Especially when expatriate families relocate to Africa with small children, such comfortable, secure, and generous housing is even more necessary.  Cars must be new, reliable, and unbreakable.  In other words, the good life is justified. 

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Perhaps most importantly, the sponsoring agency or its contractors would never be able to recruit aid workers without the guarantee of such commodious and accommodating living.  That, plus the tax-free income and generous allowances, are necessary incentives to get even the most ambitiously caring to leave home.

There are some foreign aid workers, however, who have never had qualms or any hesitation about working in the so-called Third World.  Even the most benighted places have something to recommend them in the way of the good life.  Luanda, not long after the end of Angola’s long and bloody civil war, was a nasty place – few hotel rooms, scarce restaurants, high crime rates, corruption, and civil disorder.  Yet, the seasoned traveler familiar with the city, knew exactly where to look for respite and pleasure – the Peninsula, a narrow strip between the Atlantic Ocean and the Bay, with excellent restaurants on the sea.  At one, the Delmar, the giant grilled shrimp and fresh lobsters were first rate, the selection of Portuguese and French wines outstanding, the service impeccable, and the view through the palm trees to the ocean delightful.  The costs of dinners at Delmar would be considered exorbitant anywhere but in Luanda, where limited supply and high demand resulted in $500 meals, they were considered acceptable.   Once again, there was cost to doing good – sponsoring agencies had to pay well and in accordance with local conditions.

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Bamako before ISIS, al-Qaeda, and restive Tuaregs was a relatively peaceful, simple country; but amenities were at a premium.  There was one good hotel of international quality, but outside of its restaurant, there were few choices of where to eat – except the Oasis, an outdoor restaurant overlooking the Niger River.   The scenery was picturesque, the cadre excellent – linen tablecloths, silver, Baccarat glassware – and the food, especially the Nile Perch from the river and the unusually good selection of French burgundies, excellent.  Three hour, four-course Sunday luncheons were de rigeur.  Price was no object, although never that much and affordable given generous living allowances.

The hotels of Asia are legendary to frequent travelers.  Their five-star ranking is not high enough, for the polished marble lobbies, great brass planters of tropical flowers, spacious rooms, excellent restaurants, impeccable service and irreproachable quality make them the best part of any foreign assistance mission.  Hotels in Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Colombo, Delhi, Bombay, Calcutta, and Dhaka set the standard of excellence for the rest of the world.  Most aid workers would never see such hotels without development assistance money.

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For the most savvy travelers, developing countries not only provide excellent accommodations, food and drink; but are welcome adventures from the humdrum of home, family, and office.  More importantly, no one is looking.  Without the blinders, tethers, and traces of home, they have fun.
There are few professions which combine moral purpose and simple pleasure like international development.  Since development consultants and expatriates are working towards a higher good – the alleviation of poverty, disease, and suffering – they can enjoy the benefits of travel without a trace of guilt or second thoughts.  They can eat well, sleep well, and have brown lovers to their hearts’ content – all on someone else’s nickel.

It would be an added benefit if such accommodations resulted in some positive outcome – that the health, welfare, or economic well-being of the populations served benefitted from the foreign assistance provided to them.  Unfortunately, the history of development assistance is a sorry one indeed.  If countries have progressed, it is thanks to the macro-economic policies put into place by reform-minded governments (liberalized currency exchanges, free trade, limited government regulation) rather than any Western-sponsored public assistance.   Yet ‘doing good’ is part and parcel of the American Christian ethos – we cannot do otherwise.  To suspend assistance programs because they don’t work but where people are suffering is an unthinkable option.

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Even though no more justification for the good life overseas is needed, the ‘giving one’s all’ rationale, is often added.    If one works hard, follows the rules, is appropriately sensitive to cross-cultural differences but sufficiently bottom-line in approach, then success or failure is irrelevant.  One has done one’s best under difficult conditions; and can enjoy life without hesitation or self-doubt.

President after president has vowed to reduce foreign aid, turn over development activities to the private sector or to countries themselves, and to withdraw support from anti-democratic, autocratic regimes.  None have done so whether Republican or Democrat.  As small as the foreign assistance program may be, it has ardent supporters.  American simply cannot be seen to be abandoning the poor.

So those in the international development industry keep on travelling, settling in as expatriates, and enjoying the good life.