Let the Backlash Begin

There are probably more annoying things than being hectored about African development by a wealthy Irish rock star in a cowboy hat, but I can’t think of one at the moment.

And so begins Paul Theroux‘s refutation of Bono’s loud and ultimately misguided bid to become Africa’s savior, which has since gotten him named, with Bill Gates and his wife, Time‘s “Person of the Year.” As I’ve mentioned elsewhere, I think Theroux has a very clear understanding of what’s wrong with Africa and why efforts like Bono’s (and the Gateses’) can only make the situation worse. This latest piece is probably about the clearest distillation of that argument, and unlike so much other criticism of efforts to improve the world, it actually offers useful suggestions of what might be done instead. It’s well worth the five minutes it takes to read, and I think it would be great if this is what most people were vaguely aware of, rather than of Bono’s and the Gateses’ efforts.

As I read this piece, I returned to a thought I’ve had about what the difference between liberal and conservative or right and left has become. Based on the classical definitions of liberal and conservative, it’s difficult to phrase a definition of, say, the political right that encompasses both what are now called economic conservatives and what are now called social or moral conservatives. Assuming philisophical consistency, those groups shouldn’t be able to find any common ground on the issue of the government’s role in its citizens’ lives. And there are similar philosophical inconsistencies to be found within the political left. It seems to me that the issue that serve to clearly distinguish right from left, as those terms are currently used, is responsibility. The right believes that people suffer only as a result of their own choices and that they should, while the left believes that people suffer only as a result of what others have done to them and that they shouldn’t. Those two views have profound implications for the way that their holders see the world and how they seek to solve what they see as problems. Those on the left will see any suffering as something that the government must seek to redress, while those on the right will see any suffering as something that the government must prevent from being redressed.

For example, if you really listen to so-called pro-life advocates, it becomes clear that what they really want with respect to abortion, birth control, and the spread of sexually transmitted diseases is that people not be able to have sex without being subject to all of the consequences that might entail. This may be based on the religious belief that sex should only be for procreation, but it’s more sweeping than that. Similarly, it’s important to so-called free market advocates that the poor are poor only because they haven’t done what it was within their power to do not to be poor. These two positions couldn’t be reconciled if the pro-life stance were motivated by concern for the unborn child, but they’re perfectly compatible if it’s motivated by a desire that no one be spared the consequences of their actions, regardless of the influence, direct or indirect, that others may have had on those actions. To provide or allow birth control, abortions, or welfare would be to upset the natural order of things, to distort the proper functioning of decision and consequence.

Along these same lines, many have pointed out the apparent inconsistency between the political right’s stance on birth control and abortion on the one hand and its stance on the death penalty on the other. But, again, viewed from the perspective of decisions and their consequences, these stances are perfectly consistent. Given any more than a cursory glance, the death penalty has no deterrent effect, and it certainly can’t lead to rehabilitation or redemption. And if the advocates of the death penalty are honest, they’ll admit that execution isn’t especially satisfactory as vengeance. Yet crucially, the rote, grim enforcement of the death penalty in the case of capital offenses, however pointless in practical terms, ensures that the perpetrators bear the full consequences of their actions, just as unwanted pregnancies, the children born of them, and sexually transmitted diseases ensure that those engaging in casual sex bear the full consequences of their actions. I don’t claim that adherents of the political right are conscious of this stance. Rather, I imagine that this is a subconscious basis of their worldview that finds expression across the range of the issues upon which they take a stance.

Opposed to this belief in the moral necessity of personal consequences is the political left’s apparent belief that suffering in any form is itself evil and must be prevented or redressed regardless of its cause and regardless of the implications of intervention. This, I believe, is the essential difference in view between the otherwise incoherent collections of ideas and followers known as the right and left in our current political discourse. This basis of the left’s thinking is nowhere better illustrated than by the position on African development that Theroux critiques:

When Malawi’s minister of education was accused of stealing millions of dollars from the education budget in 2000, and the Zambian president was charged with stealing from the treasury, and Nigeria squandered its oil wealth, what happened? The simplifiers of Africa’s problems kept calling for debt relief and more aid. I got a dusty reception lecturing at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation when I pointed out the successes of responsible policies in Botswana, compared with the kleptomania of its neighbors. Donors enable embezzlement by turning a blind eye to bad governance, rigged elections and the deeper reasons these countries are failing.

…Mr. Gates wants to send computers to Africa–an unproductive not to say insane idea. I would offer pencils and paper, mops and brooms: the schools I have seen in Malawi need them badly. I would not send more teachers. I would expect Malawians themselves to stay and teach. There ought to be an insistence in the form of a bond, or a solemn promise, for Africans trained in medicine and education at the state’s expense to work in their own countries.

That Bill Gates–a bumbling software engineer and a rapacious and clumsy businessman–is an inept philanthropist should come as no surprise. And I can’t imagine that there’s anything about being a pop star that would give one any special insight into the issues of poverty and economic development. I only hope that their vanity doesn’t do too much more damage to a continent that has already endured centuries of devastation at the hands of ignorant and self-interested outsiders. My fervent wish would be that both and Bill Gates and Bono read Theroux’s Dark Star Safari (or, better, that they take the whole of the journey that it describes), and that they and Africa profit enormously from the effort.

My own understanding is that cause and effect, choice and consequence, or karma, in Buddhist terms, is of primary importance. However, the causes of a particular situation and the effects arising from a particular choice are far more vast and more complicated than is generally appreciated. We have no hope of clearly seeing the host of causes and effects of a situation if we view that situation through our prejudices and self-interest. It’s here that Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche’s admonition that “before we cultivate compassion, we first need to understand how to be properly” is applicable. Charity motivated by ego rather than wisdom (called “idiot compassion” by Buddhists), like any effort motivated by ego rather than wisdom, will be ineffective. No action (or inaction) is purely or abstractly good or bad. The virtue of a particular choice depends entirely on the situation in which it’s made. Just doing something, no matter how dire the circumstances, isn’t inherently preferable to doing nothing.

4 Replies to “Let the Backlash Begin”

  1. I appreciate your sincere grappling with the terms “liberal” and “conservative,” as they’re understood today. I think the topic merits longer examination, perhaps in the form of histories of our contemporary concepts of “liberal” and “conservative.”

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