Saturday, October 21, 2017

American culture and international development: a primer by J.

This is a series of four articles written a few years ago by J., the leading author/blogger/bard of international development workers.  The first article alleges that something in US culture makes it difficult for us not to focus on the donor but rather on the needs of poor aid beneficiaries.  The second article expands on this idea, claiming that we are inclined to see as paramount the right or even destiny of Americans to offer aid to others, even if that aid is ineffective or harmful.  We are more concerned about this right to give (and to feel good about giving) than the right of the recipient to dignity and effective help.  The third article looks specifically at donation of gifts-in-kind by regular people, from giving your old clothes to Goodwill for someone else to buy, to packing up nasty old socks or shoes or whatever to send to hurricane victims that don't really need them.  I am embellishing a bit on J.'s thesis here, but the problem is basically that this type of aid is usually more about my need to get rid of stuff (and not feel wasteful about it) than about meeting the real needs or desires of anyone else.  The last article is a bit of a departure from the thread of the prior three, but I think it's the most important for those of us who are serious about doing good development aid (or really good policy-making or governance or anything).  In it, J. discusses the American penchant for seeking simple explanations, and regarding with suspicion any explanation that seems too nuanced, or even the acknowledgement that something is complex.  We seek easy answers, and love to flock to the seeming straight-shooter with a quick, confident answer, even to the point of going for snake oil salesmen over scientists (witness our political preference for people who are totally unqualified, immoral, and corrupt, as long as they seem to shun complex thought and the ever-dreaded political correctness).  But this is not the way to get good results in any field.  The world is complex, increasingly so as we become more socially and technologically advanced.  Would you want someone inexperienced to offer a "simple" fix to your computer bugs?  Or a qualified, thoughtful technician who can recognize complexity and work with it?  Why would we answer any differently when the issue at hand isn't our computer but rather the wellbeing of the poor or the social ills of our society?

Anyway, I would highly recommend these four quick pieces as a great primer for anyone interested in how international development should work, and why it often falls short of this ideal.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Virtue signaling

I have written in past posts about the perverse tendency in much public discourse to label as bad things that are in fact honorable, like honesty, inclusion, and the pursuit of the common good.  While I knew this existed, and had an inkling that it was due to an odd mix of cynicism and contrarianism and antipathy, I have only recently discovered a term that encapsulates this twisting of the honorable into something reprehensible:  "virtue signaling".  I had never heard this before, but it perfectly captures the charge of those who would ridicule any advocacy for good things.  Anyway, here is an article that I agree with, which argues that the problem with our modern discourse is not in fact virtue signaling but rather the cynicism that insists that any sincerely held position is merely "virtue signaling" (while lauding as honorably forthright any advocacy of the basest, most incoherent instincts like racism and oppression).

Sunday, October 15, 2017

A book by Sherman Alexie

Another book I read recently is Sherman Alexie's Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  It's a young adult novel with a fair dose of funny drawings.  It is a really great coming of age story, and a portrait of life on a modern impoverished Indian reservation.  A challenging thing for me was that the essential thesis of the book is that reservations are such toxic places that the only way for Indian people to live a dignified, decent life is to get off the reservation and away from their people.  This is a theme also present in a lot of writing and talking and thinking about the black American ghetto--the debate around whether it is more desireable (or possible) for low-income black Americans to improve their lot by removing themselves from the ghetto, or rather to develop and improve the ghetto itself, in situ.

I don't know exactly where I stand on this latter debate--given my professional and personal proclivities towards community development, I would like to think the best solution for any impoverished place is to make the place better, such that the community remains intact but now more healthy and prosperous.  At the same time, ghettos (like reservations) are by definition a forced concentration of desperate people into a place separate from the rest of society, and certainly from society's prosperity.  So it makes sense when you see studies that indicate that the only way for poor children of any color to truly prosper is to integrate them with more economically prosperous people, thus opening up similar opportunities (cultural, economic, professional, etc.) to the poor kids as their better-off counterparts.  For instance, there is a pretty robust body of evidence that indicates that the only successful innovation in US public education was desegregation.  None of the innovations of the past twenty years (small schools, charter schools, Classical schools, more tests, fewer tests, etc.) that maintain our resegregated status quo have been consistently successful at closing the gap between rich and poor students.  There just isn't a good way to enable people to prosper if they are only around other poor people and the pathologies of poor communities.  (All this said, a recent study seems to call into question the importance of elementary school quality at all in terms of improving economic wellbeing in poor students).

In any case, the dichotomy that Alexie presents, between remaining with your people and your culture (while remaining mired in poverty, violence, and substance abuse) or leaving them in order to prosper, to me seems less pronounced for other ethnic communities with high poverty rates, because due to their sheer size, there exist large communities that are predominantly Latino or black and thoroughly middle or upper-class.  So you can get out of the impoverished ghetto but still be around people of your ethnic group.  But I don't know of many places in the US where an Indian can be around mainly Indians and yet not be surrounded by poverty.  At the very least, the context Alexie presents doesn't offer this option. So his book challenges all of us to think about those lines and tradeoffs between individual success and ties to family and community.

Friday, October 13, 2017

I'm back with a book recommendation

I've been gone from this blog for a while, I know.  Sorry about that.  Among other things I was busy reading a lot.

One trashy thing I devoured during a week when my wife was out of town and I had no one to talk to after tucking in the boys is a thriller novel (what I refer to as airport books since they always sell them in airport bookstores) called "The Third Secret", by Steve Berry.  It is a tale of murder and mystery and action, centered on the Vatican and the secrets revealed at Fatima by the Virgin Mary.  It's like a thinking man's DaVinci Code, with a lot more actual history, better character development, and a lot less New Age Gnostic speculation (though its essential message is sort of New Age Gnostic).

Friday, September 15, 2017

Cosmos and watching the world burn

I wrote some time ago about mychildren's developing sense of empathy. I wanted to add a postscript. Recently we started watching Neil DeGrasse Tyson'sremake of the Cosmos television miniseries. At some points though my eldest son has to avert his gaze, because the vastness and magnitude of time and space is overwhelming to him. I feel this is a natural consequence of possessing a healthy portion of empathy and curiosity, which in turn leads to humility—if you observe the world enough, you will be confronted occasionally with the knowledge of how small you are and how little you know. This awe and humility are in my eyes a major source of wisdom, Socrates's old adage of knowing how ignorant you in fact are. It is in direct contraposition to a lot of people on the national political scene today, who seem arrogant, resolute, even proud of their ignorance.

It made me think of an article I readabout the current US campaign to undermine European and globalinstitutions. The article made a number of references to the importance of understanding historical context, such as this GK Chesterton quote that "one should never tear something down until one knows why it was built in the first place". But the article also sagely pointed out that many people simply seem to take joy in watching the world burn (I would go so far as to say that some people even want to hasten its burning). I have often observed this tendency in other contexts. The guy in a traffic jam that knows honking won't help the matter, but is nevertheless the first to lean on his horn and set off a chaotic cacophony of honking and ill will. The internet troll who just wants to offend and piss people off because it makes him feel powerful. The maladjusted kid on your block that always wants to cause trouble and suffering. These are all a certain character type that I guess is always going to be present at a low level in any society. But it seems like there are certain moments in history when these base instincts to destroy and drive chaos, which are normally kept at bay by the natural tendency of civilization to preserve itself, gain an upper hand. In such moments the acts that would normally earn someone criticism and censure, become accepted and even celebrated. The maladjusted, violent kid in your Sarajevo neighborhood that everyone used to ignore or even ostracize, becomes a dominant player, even a role model, and whole mobs of people join the cause of destroying, oppressing, and ethnic cleansing. The backwoods wacko who advocated race war and sovereign citizenship becomes more and more mainstream as people entertain extreme ideas that they used to reject out of hand. 

I'll defer to Yeats on this one:
    Turning and turning in the widening gyre
    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
    The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.

    Surely some revelation is at hand;
    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;
    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.

    The darkness drops again but now I know
    That twenty centuries of stony sleep
    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

Friday, September 8, 2017

Unreason in the USA

This is a long-form article that traces the trajectory of anti-rational, magical thinking in the US.  It confirms a lot of my observations of the state of our thought and discourse in the States.

One point that occurs to me after reading the article, and that the article itself doesn't really touch on, is that the rise of magical thinking is perhaps in part due to an increasing disempowerment of many people in many aspects of life.  In a hyper-industrialized and hyper-globalized context like the modern US, most of us don't have a direct connection to or control over the different components of our material reality.  Not just the food we eat and the clothes we wear, but even the houses we inhabit, the cars and other machines we use, the very landscaping surrounding us, are very rarely the result of our own doing.  Our food or clothes have long come from other producers, but in the past most of us knew at least something of gardening, sewing, knitting.  Nowadays I feel like fewer people know how to fix things in their house, repair or maintain their car, prune and care for their yard.  Even those of us who do know are limited in our agency by the industrialized nature of things--being handy these days often just consists in buying a replacement part for something, not necessarily being able to manipulate the faulty part yourself.

I haven't done any exhaustive, rigorous study on this, but I know that a great deal of my own feelings of empowerment in life have come from being able to directly affect things around me.  My yard looks the way it does because I make it that way.  I'm able to identify and pick fruits from trees I cross.  I can fix a toilet or an electrical appliance when needed.  In short, I feel that I understand something about how the world works, and this extends to higher-level, abstract things like policy-making, economics, social organizing.  This is probably in large part because my job requires me to participate with communities and businesses trying to effect economic, political, or social change.  Because I understand the complexities of how this change comes about (or fails to come about), I don't ascribe the workings of the world to mysterious unseen forces and conspiracies.

But I think a lot of people in the US don't enjoy the privileges, autonomy, and empowerment that I do.  If you didn't understand or have any say in how your community and your nation is run, you'd probably be likely to think it's run by an opaque cabal.  If you don't even know how your food gets to your plate, or don't have the knowhow or the agency to fix household items, the world probably looks pretty bewildering.  I think that ultimately magical thinking and conspiracies are a sign of helplessness.

This disempowerment that is prevalent in an industrialized, globalized society like ours, where most of the material reality around us comes to us as if by magic, is further exacerbated by the rising inequality in the US, both economic inequality and inequality in access to political power. Even in my privileged case, I have to admit that I often feel powerless.  This doesn't lead me personally to resort to magical thinking, but the resignation I feel at times when I see entrenched socioeconomic and power structures perpetuating a problem, does bear some of the same traits as the magical thinking of conspiracy theorists.

I don't have a solution to all this, but I do think that perhaps if people (starting with youth?) became more involved in issues of local governance in their communities, they may start to better understand the complexities of government, of the economy, and of social structures, which would at once empower them and illustrate that the real world is a complex but comprehensible place with no need of magical thinking to explain it.  Granted, there are plenty of delusional people that get involved in local politics in order to push Creationist textbooks or perverse policies like segregation.  But I have to believe that if more people got involved in the running of their own communities, it would bring them a bit more down to earth.