26 April 2012

If you know what's good for you...

But first: Today was an extraordinary day in Oslo. Just a couple of days ago, in open court, Anders Behring Breivik denigrated the beloved song "Barn av Regnbuen" ("Children of the Rainbow"), Lillebjørn Nilsen's Norwegian adaptation of Pete Seeger's "My Rainbow Race." Breivik is on trial for the July 22 massacre of 77 young people and others, in Oslo and at the Labor Party youth camp; he asserted that Nilsen's song is an example of the Marxist-inspired multicultural poison that is endangering Norway and that justified his violent intervention.

Two Oslo women, Christine Bar and Lili Hjønnevåg, decided that Breivik's charges could not go unanswered, and in just two days they managed to catalyze an event that drew over 40,000 people into downtown Oslo, in the rain, to sing this song within the hearing of the courthouse. Just yesterday, Lillebjørn Nilsen himself agreed to lead the singing. And there he was as I sat in front of my computer screen here in Elektrostal and watched the crowds singing, sometimes wiping away tears, and waving roses.

Similar sing-alongs took place in several other cities and towns of Norway. As one participant in Oslo said, "This song represents the opposite of everything he [Breivik] stands for...." It represents the determination of millions not to let implacable violence have the last word. Love is kind, patient, longsuffering ... and sometimes assertive, too.

"Thousands gather in Oslo to sing song Anders Breivik hates."
"Thousands sing song of peace to protest Norway killer Breivik."
"Norwegians sing out against Breivik" (with lyrics).

Years ago, I read about Garrett Hardin's concept of the "tragedy of the commons," the choice between apparent individual benefit and the good of the community. Hardin's context was demographic growth and "the freedom to breed," but the context I remember from college economics class was commodity prices. The individual farmer needs income, but putting his or her crops on the market lowers the prices for all.

I was reminded again of the dilemmas of individual choice and common good (though not necessarily the math of Hardin's  "tragedy") when I read this fascinating interview with Abhijit Banerjee, co-author of the intriguingly-titled Poor Economics: Barefoot Hedge-fund Managers, DIY Doctors and the Surprising Truth about Life on less than $1 a Day.

To the constant frustration of idealistic donors and activists, people just don't do what it seems starkly obvious (to us) they should do for their own good. Banerjee points out that most of us, poor and wealthy alike, often don't do what seems sensible, for all sorts of reasons, including the fascinating concept of "time inconsistency," as Banerjee explains:
It means there are lots of decisions that you think today you'd like to implement and stick to, but which – once you get to the sticking-to part – you don't want to stick to any more. I think most of your readers, and certainly including me, have the problem with candy. I'm very convinced that I should not have as many sweet things as I do, but then when it comes down to when I see one, I really feel like having one. There's an inconsistency in time between your self in repose and your self in action, and that's a permanent tension we live in all the time.
The interview touches on the fruitlessness of the conventional debate about development aid (progressives aiming at the "poverty trap" and conservatives aiming at "dependency"). Once we've established that we actually care enough about people trapped in poverty to want to take action, whatever our politics and theology and acknowledged or unacknowledged vested interests, then the practical data gathered by Banerjee and his coworkers provide very important lessons. There is no magic formula, but "when aid is carefully designed to navigate the specific socio-cultural landscape of its recipients' lives, it begins to deliver the sort of results [interventionist Jeffrey] Sachs claims."

I'm definitely going to get hold of this book. In the meantime, I am thinking about one criticism of the book as mentioned by interviewer Decca Aitkenhead, namely that Banerjee and co-author Esther Duflo take insufficient account of politics and power as factors. Part of the Poor Economics message seems to be that repression and corruption do not need to be 100% solved before economic progress can be made (except in those cases where there's truly outrageous tyranny). In fact, by the logic of this interview, politics are in fact part of the "socio-cultural landscape" that must be patiently examined and incorporated into development design, as frustrating and sometimes distasteful as that might be to the Western expert. This reminded me of Lawrence Rosen's article, "Understanding Corruption"--the part where his friend Hussein says to him, "You know, bribery is our form of democracy." No, no, no, I want to say--if you only knew what's good for you!--but if I actually care about solving problems, I have to keep tracking with the conversation as it really is.

My mind also went back to another book, one that influenced me a lot when I worked for Right Sharing of World Resources: Charles Elliott's Comfortable Compassion? Poverty, Power and the Church. Among other touchy subjects, Elliott writes about the power imbalance between donors and recipients--and the resulting distortions in aid. I remember one moving example--the Ugandan church that wanted the aid organization to provide them hymnbooks. What a ridiculous request; honestly, don't they know what they really need? First things first: it may feel more righteous to point fingers at corrupt governments, but we might get some good practice in combating corruption, racism, insensitivity, and so on, if we start with our own organizations.

One of the tragic splits in church history mentioned in Charles Elliott's book is the split within various Christian confessions between mission and service bodies. Particularly in the post-colonialist era, it seemed expedient to divide those functions, but when they stopped informing each other, each function arguably became weaker. (Can we imagine a more dramatic example than the differences between the American Friends Service Committee and Evangelical Friends Mission?) Maybe we could draw from Banerjee's argument to say that, after this split, both sides had fewer resources to navigate the full political and spiritual and cultural realities of people's lives, to find out how they experienced "time inconsistency" and other factors that tended to defeat change.

We Friends used to hold "Mission and Service" consultations. Maybe they're needed again for a new generation of Friends evangelists and activists. After all, from a "Lamb's war" perspective, political and economic bondages are always linked to spiritual bondages.

Another case of "if you only knew..."? "Why educated Republicans are in denial about climate change." (Thanks to Marshall Massey for the link.) I stumbled a little at these sentences early in the article: "It is not surprising that the uneducated core of the Right's supporters are readily swayed by this campaign. Lacking scientific literacy, they do not have the tools to resist manipulation by media masters, and they hold a set of political and religious beliefs that is challenged by climate disorder." To my mind, a bigger stumbling block for less educated people than their beliefs is the way they're sometimes treated by educated people, which provides fertile soil for the anti-intellectualism of unscrupulous politicians. But the article itself is helpful and I'm looking forward to the next installment.

From Nancy Thomas: "Some simple thoughts on grace." (Judy has just sent in her own essay on grace for the Northwest Quaker Women's Theology Conference.)

John Wilson interviews Jonathan Wilson-Hartgrove on Jim Douglass's book Gandhi and the Unspeakable. "What if Gandhi lived his whole life knowing that he would face an assassin and that the truth of his entire philosophy would be tested by his response? What if when he prayed to die with the name of God on his lips he meant that to be a prayer of grace for his assassin?"

More on Breivik in Foreign Policy: "He's Not Alone. The trial of Norway's alleged mass murderer Anders Behring Breivik is only the tip of the iceberg in a rising sea of radical Islamophobia in Europe."

On a more cheerful (Norwegian) note: "99 Minutes. Listen to Norway" podcasts.

In this week's Linux department: "Linus Thorvalds wins the tech equivalent of a Nobel Prize" and "Ubuntu 12.04 arrives and it's great." (I agree.)

Oscar's first jam! Admire ...

No comments: