Note To Readers: My apologies for the length of this column. The response to my Africa column last week was so huge — and there were so many demands for me to write a follow-up — that I felt I needed to give the topic a full airing. This is the last one for a while, as it has taken me all day — costing me incalculable quality time with my couch and TV.
In the meantime, I’m writing an article, “In Defense of McDonald’s,” for the magazine. If anybody wants to send me their ideas, please feel free. Normally, I would put this notice at the end of the column, but by then I’d be done with the article.
On December 8, 1978, two Zairean air force jets approached Kinshasa, the capital. The tower radioed the pilots, telling them they couldn’t land because of low visibility. The pilots, presented with this problem, ejected from their planes and parachuted to safety. The perfectly good — and very expensive–Mirage jets crashed into the Atlantic Ocean. Problem solved.
I’ve always thought this story was hilarious. It’s from David Lamb’s The Africans, a wonderful if somewhat depressing account of Africa’s plight. He recounts the story as one in a litany of examples of how Africans do not have the same concept of cause and effect as people in the West do. Take driving, for instance. Africa has comparatively few cars but incredibly high traffic-accident rates. Many Africans think nothing of driving at blistering speeds around hairpin turns.
My friend Tucker Carlson writes in the current issue of The Weekly Standard that such driving is a fact of life in Vietnam and Nicaragua. But while Tucker speculates that it’s a product of Communist dictatorships, I’m told this is a problem throughout the Third World, regardless of the political system. One reason offered by Lamb is that the typical uneducated African learns the wrong lessons from such things as near-misses. “If an oncoming car has to swerve off the road to avoid his vehicle, and there are no collisions or injuries,” Lamb writes, “the African does not say, Next time I’d better not do that.” Instead he will do it again because it worked for him the last time (I have a very similar attitude toward beer and DiGiorno rising-crust pizzas).
I bring this up because a lot of people have been asking me what I mean by Civilization. Last week, I wrote that America should in effect launch a crusade to save Africa from itself. The response was overwhelmingly positive, with most hard-bitten conservatives and even most military people — active-duty and veterans — saying “Where do I sign up?” But in the deluge of e-mail there was certainly no shortage of dissenters. And while their first question was not, what do you mean by civilization? I think it is the most pertinent.
When most people hear “Civilization” they think of big beautiful buildings or great books. Or, they think racism and all that know-nothing stuff a bunch of latte-drinking rich kids chant about on the quads of Berkeley and Harvard. I think all of these things — the books, the buildings, and the bozos — are products (epiphenomena, if you want to get fancy about it) of Civilization. But the real thing, the software of Civilization is a way of looking at the world. Civilization isn’t material; it’s an approach to material. Few people are aware that they are thinking in terms of “cause and effect”; they merely think in terms of cause and effect, and no quotation marks are necessary. If they come within a hair’s breath of hitting another car on the highway, they think “damn, that was close.”
There are, of course, ingredients to civilization other than the rudimentary scientific assumptions of the Enlightenment. There are moral calculations too. In a way, those should be easier. Torturing people for pleasure, starving children for profit, mutilating people for politics, or murdering millions for no discernable reason whatsoever, are not debatably wrong, they are simply wrong.
I’m as romantic as the next guy about preserving traditional cultures and communities. But just as you’d have to be a tenured English professor at Duke to believe that the laws of cause and effect are culturally biased, you’d have to be a similar fool to believe that the most basic moral rules about right and wrong evaporate at the water’s edge.
To say that all views are equal, or to ask, “Who are we to judge what is civilized?” is not clever, it’s cowardly. Whether or not the horrors of Africa are “cultural expressions” is irrelevant, they are still horrors. I wonder whether some of my correspondents — liberal and conservative — have even the meager intellectual and moral confidence to say that wholesale atrocities, starvation, and murder are wrong. Are they so passively or actively racist as to believe that these Africans want to or deserve to live this way? Conservatives are supposed to be opposed to notions of collective and intergenerational guilt. Why then are they so willing to say, in effect, that millions of starving children deserve their fate?
Those who say violence and imperialism have never led to civilization, must have never read a book. The history of human progress is often a tale of conquest, invasions and counter-invasions, immigration, and the forced exchange and acceptance of new ideas. Indeed, one explanation, offered by Tom Sowell, for why Africa is so far behind is that even though Africa is twice the size of Europe it actually has less coastline. Look at any map and you will see that Africa’s coast is a smooth straight line with few harbors, while Europe’s curves like a jigsaw-puzzle piece. Moreover, Africa has almost no navigable rivers from the interior of the continent to the seas. Such geographically imposed isolation led to some vibrant, but static, cultures. The chaos in Africa today may be the result of the continent’s encounter with modernity, but the answer to its problems lies only with more exposure to it. Much of colonialism was evil, but conquests almost always are. Still, it can’t be denied that in many respects the average African was better off under British (though perhaps not Belgian) rule.
SO, HOW DO WE DO IT?
Well, this was the most common question from advocates and dissenters alike. The short, humble answer is, “How the hell should I know?” I’m not enough of a strategist, armchair or otherwise, to pretend I have a master plan. But before all the knee-jerkers flip over their high chairs with kicking spasms of I-told-you-so’s and declarations of “Well, shut up then,” give me a second.
I never meant to suggest that the United States Army should “simply” occupy every hamlet and village and impose order on an unwilling and hostile populace. Order is not civilization. The whole point is to enlighten, not just dominate. That means building schools and churches and markets (with enforceable contracts!). The U.S. military would be necessary for carving out a zone of sanity and safety where such things could be done. It might also be necessary to erase a lot of the pernicious boundaries created by the colonialists, borders that were designed to pit tribe against tribe.
I have received a lot of proposals from military types and Africanists (I never cease to be proud and flattered by the depth of knowledge and experience of my readers). I still haven’t gone through them all. But any feasible plan would involve picking a place and working outward (Liberia makes sense for a lot of reasons). Success breeds success and the power of stabilizing force should not be underestimated. US-imposed stability led to the success of the Asian Tigers who only a generation ago were thoroughly Third World.
Also, any remotely realistic plan would require implementing ambitious inoculation, agricultural, and pesticide programs. Many of Africa’s problems are largely managerial and easily fixed. For example, under the British, several Africa-veterans tell me, homeowners were required to dispose of standing pools of water which breed mosquitoes and, hence, malaria. Many current African health programs spread diseases by recycling hypodermics, occasionally cleaning them with cold water.
Some prescriptions for Africa are simply wrong. A few wrote me with classically Marxist theories about how corporations need to keep Africa poor and in thrall. If left to manage its own resources, Africa would grow prosperous overnight. Sadly, that’s false. Sub-Saharan Africa could pretty much vanish from the world economy tomorrow and it would have virtually no effect on the global economy. Others say the opposite: Africa’s population has outstripped its resources. This is simply Malthusian nonsense. When the age of independence began in 1960, Africa produced 95% of its own food. Now almost every country must import food. Sure, population has increased since then, but agricultural productivity and technology have vastly outpaced population growth.
Personally, I like a lot of the libertarian ideas, such as giving certain corporations quasi-governmental powers in certain regions with some strings — call them codes of conduct — attached about their responsibilities for the education and development of the local population. My own idea is to have rich liberal Americans buy or lease all the game preserves. Why shouldn’t Ted Turner save the Rhino?
But yeah, any reasonable plan would also result in some number of dead Africans and dead Americans. However naïve my plan might be, it would be infinitely more so to suggest that bloodshed would not be inevitable. Which brings me to….
WHO THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
Finally there is the angriest question. A sizable number of people got very angry about my proposal. “Who are you to say that Americans should die imposing your ideas?”
Well, I’m me. Take it or leave it. I make a living writing things that I think. If you disagree, so be it.
But clearly this doesn’t satisfy everyone. Indeed, there is a disturbingly obnoxious attitude among many isolationists which tries to close off all debate by saying “unless you are willing to fight yourself, you have no right to suggest other people should.” Sure, sometimes this is a perfectly legitimate, though hardly sufficient, argument. But it is hardly the trump card many isolationists think it is.
Leaving aside what I myself am or am not willing to do, I always thought the merits of an idea should be weighed at least somewhat independently of its author. If I were in uniform, would my idea suddenly become great? Perhaps the fact that so many military folks agree with me makes this point moot. In case it doesn’t, let me ask: Does this mean that people in wheelchairs must be pure pacifists? After all, they can’t fight, so what right do they have to advocate sending off the able-bodied? I do not want to be a police officer; does that mean I shouldn’t open my trap about my view that cops should do dangerous things?
We do have a volunteer army, by the way, and I see nothing wrong with asking for volunteers for this mission. I hope that makes everyone happy.
But what confuses me is why so many of these people feel the need to be such jerks when they make this point. There seems to be a serious wellspring of bitterness among the belligerent pacifists of the Right. A good example is an attack on me and my article from some guy named Justin Raimondo. Honestly, I had never heard of the guy before (and, after reading his columns, I can see why).
Writing for the cranky, often nasty, and thankfully irrelevant anti-everything website antiwar.com, Raimondo simply makes up a lot of stuff about me that isn’t true. His mistakes (I hope they’re mistakes) are probably the product of some internal rage — a phenomenon I am hardly one to throw stones at, to be sure. Still, his gassy ravings against the hegemony of Upper West Side conservatives — sort of like whining about the Imperium of Jewish athletes — and his condescension toward people who disagree with him (he refers to me as “young Jonah” and asks if I think civilization in Africa means “A Zabar’s in Uganda”) are the kind of thing I’d expect from someone muttering to himself at the bus station.
Anyway, even if it’s pretty hard to take Old Raimondo seriously, the sentiment that America has no role in making the world a better place is of course a serious and legitimate one. After all, most of the founders would probably be horrified by my proposal, and that should make any conservative pause. But I’m not sure all the great conservative thinkers would be, and there are certainly some conservative religious thinkers — John Paul II, to name an obvious one — who would be very sympathetic. Still, I doubt that the Founders or any conservative worth his salt would be as cowardly as those people who simply hide behind the skirts of moral relativism or try to dismiss an idea by attacking its author (an old Communist trick, by the way).
I have no problem with people who say Africa can’t be saved (they may be right). Or with people who say we shouldn’t try — if they are saying so because they think it can’t be done. But people who say they don’t want to do it simply because it offends their sensibilities or because they think Africans aren’t worth saving, well, shame on them.
Regardless, conservatism is not supposed to be against change or progress (I can quote you chapter and verse if you like). It is supposed to be skeptical of grandiose or reckless schemes which throw out the good in pursuit of the perfect. I have no illusions that Africa can be perfect; no place can be. But it would be nice if we tried to make it good.