The Possession Fallacy

 | 

One of America’s most enduring, and at least faintly humorous, historical images is that of Europeans landing someplace on the continent and claiming everything from there to the next ocean as the property of the high and mighty prince, King Such and Such of Somewhere.

On June 14, 1671, Francois Daumont, Sieur de St. Lusson, an agent of that most puissant monarch Louis XIV, stood at “the Soo,” the rapids of the St. Mary’s River, and took possession of the Great Lakes, Manitoulin Island, and “all other countries, rivers, lakes, and tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereunto, as well discovered as to be discovered, which are bounden on the one side by the northern and Western seas and on the other side by the South Sea including all its length and breadth.” “This formula,” says F. Clever Bald, the historian of Michigan, “he repeated three times.”

The ruling assumption is that, so long as you have enough faith in your own righteousness, you can own something by just sticking some words on it.

There is a verbal equivalent. It is the act of seizing on some word or concept and using it to impose your standards of morality, history, or logic on everything that could possibly be related to it. Let’s call this the Possession Fallacy. It might also be called, colloquially, Blab It and Grab It, after an idea current in American Christianity. Some evangelical Christians have the notion that if you pray for something in the right way, if you name it in your prayers, then you are also making a legitimate claim to it, and God must give it to you. The idea is known by Christians who espouse it as Name It and Claim It; by Christians who are skeptical about it as Blab It and Grab It. In either case, the ruling assumption is that, so long as you have enough faith in your own righteousness, you can own something by just sticking some words on it.

Ours is the great age of self-righteousness, and therefore of the Possession Fallacy. It’s always absurd, but one of its most absurd manifestations is the attempt of Republican publicists to claim for their party all the virtues of American history, simply by pretending that “Republican” and “Democrat” mean today what they meant, say, 150 years ago. Sean Hannity, who knows less about history than anyone but the inhabitants of the House of Representatives, has been doing this for years. Rather than quoting Hannity, who never says anything in less than 1,000 words, I’ll quote an essay published this month in the Aspen Times. Attacking the “hypocrisy” of present-day Democrats, it says:

It was the Dems who defended slavery against the Republican party of Abraham Lincoln; it was the Dems who were behind racial segregation in the South; it was the Dems who opposed civil rights laws; and it was the Dems who bombed government buildings and attacked policemen during civil unrest in the ’60.

It was the Dems of the Ku Klux Klan who lynched blacks and occasionally Jews, and persecuted Catholics.

Et cetera. Some of this is pure nonsense: it was communists, not Democrats, who bombed government buildings. But the deep nonsense is the idea that because some Democrats did X, Y, or Z, this means something about all Democrats — or Republicans — who have ever lived. Anyone who read a book could write endless numbers of sentences in the same form: “It was the national Republicans who advocated Prohibition, while the national Democrats resisted it. It was the Republicans who victimized working people with high tariffs and a national bank, while the Democrats insisted on low taxes, hard money, and decentralized banking. It was Republicans who represented white Southerners in opposition to Northern Democrats during the conflicts over civil rights.” Et cetera.

Slipping into my perpetual role as Mammy lecturing Miz Scarlett: I done tole you an tole you, the two American political parties are organizations designed to get votes. (See, for instance, Liberty, February 2005, pp. 19–24.) Seeking this prey, they wander across the ideological and historical landscape, vacuuming up ballots wherever they can reach them. There is no political idea or program that one or the other party did not, does not, or would not advocate, if votes might be acquired in that way.

One of its most absurd manifestations is the attempt of Republican publicists to claim for their party all the virtues of American history.

How preposterous it is to act as if, by saying the name of a political organization spanning generations of history, you can score points either for or against it. This is almost as preposterous as the Left’s current attempt to get its way by labeling people of the distant past as “racists,” “sexists,” “imperialists,” and what not. In today’s terms, Jefferson was a racist, as was virtually the entire population of the world. What are we to deduce from this? That he should be treated as racists are justifiably treated today? Here the assumption is that some leftist agitator, who like Hannity has never read a real book, has the right to name and claim Jefferson’s reputation, on the basis of his own moral superiority — which is quite an assumption in itself. Or is it the idea that not only Jefferson’s memory but also his principles should be treated as those of a racist? “All other countries, rivers, lakes, and tributaries contiguous and adjacent thereunto . . .”

There’s never been a moment in my lifetime when someone wasn’t discovering that the Declaration of Independence is, in the present vocabulary, racist and sexist: racist, because Jefferson was a slaveholder, and sexist, because the document says that “all men are created equal.” If the Declaration were a cow, this would be a constant attempt to rebrand her. But words have meanings, no matter who wrote them, and these particular words, correctly understood in their obvious meaning, provided the intellectual foundation of the abolition movement. When, 81 years after the Declaration, in the Dred Scott decision, Chief Justice Taney tried to explain that they didn’t apply to anyone but white people, he shocked almost everyone — including slaveholders, who were happy to hear this new interpretation. As for women — if Jefferson had wanted to say “males” he would have said “males.” The default meaning of “men” in almost every period and region of the English language has been “human beings, people.” Those who assert that “men” equals “males,” unless proven innocent, are trying to snatch the common language and claim it as their own.

There is no political idea or program that one or the other party did not, does not, or would not advocate, if votes might be acquired in that way.

There has lately been a competition to see who can use the Possession Fallacy in the most egregious way. The game is very aggressively played, but right now, Robert Francis (“Beto”) O’Rourke, candidate for president, appears to be ahead. O’Rourke kindly interrupted his demanding campaign schedule for some informational “speaking with immigrants and refugees,” and told them:

Here we are in Nashville, I know this from my home state of Texas, those places that formed the Confederacy, that this country was founded on white supremacy and every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects the legacy of the slavery and segregation and Jim Crow and suppression, even in our democracy.

O’Rourke’s syntax was characteristically muddled, but there’s general agreement that by “this country” he meant the United States of America, not the Confederate States of America — although the latter actually was founded on white supremacy, and the former was not, unless you agree with Chief Justice Taney. So he was talking about the United States when he said that “every single institution and structure that we have in our country still reflects” racist practices, up to and including slavery.

When people use the Possession Fallacy, they’re ordinarily making a claim to the whole ranch and every cow on it, whether or not they know how many cows there are, or, indeed, have ever seen a cow. If they went the other way and tried to gather all the cows that bore their brand, they might not come up with any. To put this in a different manner: Possession can usually be identified as a fallacy when you ask the possessor to name the specifics, and he can’t come up with any. In most cases, asking that question is a waste of time; the most he’ll do is point at Ol’ Bossy and some theoretical cow on the other side of the hill, and that will be enough for him to keep claiming that he owns the whole county.

When, 81 years after the Declaration, Chief Justice Taney tried to explain that its words didn’t apply to anyone but white people, he shocked almost everyone.

But you can ask yourself some questions. What do you suppose would be on O’Rourke’s list of “every single institution and structure”? Does the Presbyterian Church still reek of racism? How about “Sesame Street”? The NAACP? Planned Parenthood? The Democratic Party, USA? Is that what elected O’Rourke to Congress — a racist system? These are just the first questions that came to my own mind. I could expand the list. So could you. I think it would be fun to include all the big-government programs that Beto voted to fund. Since, by his own declaration, these are all racist, he must be a racist too, and an especially sneaky one, since most of those “institutions and structures” are purported to be anti-racist.

Sorry; I’m just taking his words seriously. And that’s the problem for users of the Possession Fallacy. If they want to possess everything, they’re making themselves responsible for everything.

Jeffrey Epstein certainly has a lot to be responsible for, but former President Clinton once tried to take on even more responsibility: he made a strenuous attempt to possess Jeffrey Epstein. Clinton stepped up to the plate, shouldered the burden, bit the bullet, and went whole hog. In 2002, on one of the four trips that Clinton says he took on Epstein’s private plane, he and some (other) people from the world of entertainment journeyed to Africa to “tour HIV/AIDS project sites.” It’s appalling to imagine what people dying of AIDS must have thought when these White Gods showed up to stare at them. How was it possible to explain this lavish expenditure of wealth on the egos of Epstein’s junketing celebrities? The answer seemed easy: just appropriate every concept of technocratic goodness you can think of, and deed the whole thing to Mr. Epstein, who would, by association, deed it back to Mr. Clinton and the other gawkers, making it their lawful property. “Through a spokesman” Clinton described the enormous intellectual ranch on which Epstein’s charitable cows were nurtured:

Jeffrey is both a highly successful financier and a committed philanthropist with a keen sense of global markets and an in-depth knowledge of twenty-first-century science. I especially appreciated his insights and generosity during the recent trip to Africa to work on democratization, empowering the poor, citizen service, and combating HIV/AIDS.

Clinton left out the part about raising the dead. He didn’t want to go too far.

It would have been interesting if anyone had asked Clinton to discuss some specific features of the vast mental property notionally possessed by Jeffrey Epstein, college dropout, high school math teacher, options trader, and consultant for a Ponzi scheme. He might have been asked to say what he meant by the large term citizen service. I don’t have a clue. Neither can I guess what he meant by in-depth, democratization, empowering the poor, or work on (when used of people taking a jaunt on a billionaire’s plane). Clinton, presumably, could have said what he meant, because he had made himself the owner and possessor of these phrases. But he didn’t, and I suspect he never will. He is now at pains to indicate that he barely knew Jeffrey Epstein — although he is not at pains to distance himself from the wonderful work that Epstein once helped to finance. He still wants contributions for that.

It’s appalling to imagine what people dying of AIDS must have thought when these White Gods showed up to stare at them.

This is one of the ways in which conceptual mortgages come due. There are others. Let’s return to O’Rourke’s our democracy, a sappy phrase if ever there was one. I remember it from my ninth-grade civics text. Even then, it seemed childish. Like so many other uses of our, it was an obvious attempt to make kids think that they owned something they could not possibly own: our history, our families, our ideals, our cities, our highways, and so forth. The idea seemed to be that it wasn’t enough to praise motherhood and apple pie; one had to speak of our motherhood and our apple pie.

This tactic has now been sickeningly revived by Democrats maddened by the election of Trump. For them, nearly everything in political life involves Trump’s attacks on our democracy. The popularity of our democracy now eclipses that of the equally icky in this country, which the Democrats always used to tack onto the end of their sentences: “We must fix healthcare in this country”; “We must enable everyone to vote in this country”; “We must build more affordable housing in this country.” As you can see, in this country was the kind of phrase that nags use. It was a bitchy reminder that America is not exceptional; it is a country like every other country, no better, no worse, except that it’s worse. The phrase went nicely with only country in the world: “America is the only country in the world that lacks universal healthcare.” Such statements were never likelier to be true than the pious our country phrases, but they had a critical edge. Progressives would die rather than say in our country, but in this country came readily to their lips. Eventually, even the Republicans took it up, reciting it with the zombie-like expression of people who don’t know what they’re saying — which they didn’t.

Motherhood, bah! Trump had a mother.

Now our democracy is the obsessive phrase. Inevitably, Republicans have started using this one too, but in any statement made by a Democratic politician you can depend on hearing it four or five times. If you can believe US Representative Elijah Cummings (D, MD), it has spread to the general public. Cummings told ABC: “No matter where I go, what I'm hearing over and over again from my constituents is, ‘Please save our democracy.’"

This is a clear example of the Possession Fallacy. Here is a phrase with no literal meaning, a succession of sounds with as much connection to reality as the incantations of the Sieur de St. Lusson, but intended to lay claim to a continent full of ideas and attitudes. No one says what kind of “democracy” is implied, or what kind of ownership is denoted by “our.” It is merely assumed that the speaker knows the meaning, even as a carpenter knows his tools, and that he is eminently qualified, even as a master carpenter is qualified, to determine this tool’s proper use in shaping the otherwise recalcitrant materials of life. In the present crisis in our democracy, the recalcitrant material is the monster Trump. If there is one thing that is clear about our democracy, it’s that our democracy is anything other than what Trump is about. Motherhood, bah! Trump had a mother. To talk of motherhood is to deny the existence of Americans who are not mothers. Let us talk instead of our democracy.

The distasteful thing — well, there are a lot of distasteful things, but one distasteful thing — about our democracy is that it’s a double trick of possession. The first is the implicit but dogmatic assertion that the speaker knows what it means and, without any pretense of defining it, can make it the basis of argument. The second is that while pointedly excluding some people from membership in the mystical social union (Trump, or whomever) it suggests that you, whoever you are, actually own the thing. “Our” means “mine and yours."

From "my" to "our" to "your," the check goes around the table, until it winds up in front of your plate.

Perhaps you think that Robert Francis O’Rourke isn’t smart enough to play tricks on anybody, but you must remember that he didn’t invent this little act; he’s just copying others’ performance. But there’s a third trick going on — did you notice it? It’s the owning-not owning trick. “Our” is first a way of appropriating a concept for private use; then it’s a way of coopting the audience into feeling as if it owned the thing too; and then (the third trick) it’s a way of leaving the audience holding the bag. Beto isn’t saying that he is responsible for the racism of our democracy. How could he be?

He wants you to vote for him. He’s saying that you are responsible. From my to our to your, the check goes around the table, until it winds up in front of your plate.

And that’s how the Possession Fallacy works. It’s a means of forcing responsibility on other people for one’s own acts of ownership. I make something up, and you’re supposed to believe it. If you do, you’ll be the one who pays.




Share This


Muzungus in the Mist, Part II

 | 

The first part of Robert H. Miller’s personal account of Rwanda appeared in Liberty on May 5. Here is the second and final part.

Part II: The Lone Cyclists

Our last day with Slow Cyclist began with a ride on a moto-taxi, something I’d been dreading. It was an innovative way to return us to the point on our route — a junction with an unmarked dirt road — from which we’d detoured for the gorilla trekking. For me it was a novel experience; I’d never been on a motorcycle before, considering them a needless risk. The Slow Cyclist support vehicle delivered our bicycles to the turn-off. Our destination was Gisenyi, 82 kilometers away, on the shores of Lake Kivu — and the border with the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC).

I’d sooner walk naked through the South Side of Chicago with a toy gun than go anywhere near the Congo. Even worse, next door to Gisenyi, across the border, lay Goma, a hotbed of rebel activity and Ebola outbreaks — a combination that has caused many international relief and health agencies to leave. Yet it’s seen worse.

The horror of the refugee camps and the safety of the four million Hutus who’d remained in Rwanda inspired a number of refugees to consider returning.

Back in 1994, when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) captured Kigali and Butare on the 4th of July, putting an end to the war and genocide, a million Hutus fled for Goma. The human wave was composed of Hutu Power extremists, remnants of the Rwandan army (FAR), and the Interahamwe — all in full retreat — herding ordinary Hutus whom they’d either coerced or convinced that the RPF would kill them. The génocidaires escaped fully armed, yet they were able to convince the international community that they were the victims, refugees from the Rwandan genocide. The génocidaires quickly established firm control of the nascent refugee camps that sprang up on the inhospitable lava fields of the Nyaragongo volcano on the outskirts of Goma.

By July 20 the FAR and Interahamwe in the camps, now — unwittingly or mistakenly — classified as refugees, were raiding emergency shipments of food relief meant for the real refugees: the Hutu civilians they’d forced out of Rwanda. That same day cholera broke out. More than 30,000 died in the three to four weeks before the epidemic was contained.

Nearly a third of Rwanda’s Hutu population had escaped into Congo (then Zaire), Tanzania, and Burundi and was camped close to Rwanda’s border, in contravention of UN guidelines. The horror of the refugee camps and the safety of the four million Hutus who’d remained in Rwanda inspired a number of refugees to consider returning. The Hutu Power hierarchy denounced them as RPF accomplices; some had their Achilles’ tendons cut so they couldn’t walk, and some were even killed by the militias. As Philip Gourevitch, in his book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families concludes, “After all, if all the innocent refugees left, only the guilty would remain, and Hutu Power’s monopoly on international pity might be shaken.”

More ominously, occasional black luxury SUVs, sinister with tinted windows and DRC license plates passed by — rich and powerful corrupt Congolese, according to our guides.

Raids by Hutu militants into Rwanda and retaliatory counter-raids by the RPF, by then become the Rwandan army, continued at least until 2012. In the interim, Kagame forced the closing of the camps, repatriated most of the real refugees, and eliminated many of the Hutu extremists. Today, President Kagame has extended an olive branch and invitation to the remaining expatriate Hutus to return to Rwanda. He avers that only the organizers of the genocide will be tried.

Yet the troubles persist. The March 9, 2019 Economist reports that the previous collaborative relationship between Presidents Museveni of Uganda and Kagame of Rwanda has soured. Rwanda has taken retaliatory action against Uganda for supporting Hutu rebel forces in eastern Congo that are intent on overthrowing President Kagame.

* * *

We enjoyed a beautiful and varied bike ride to Paradis Kivu Lodge overlooking Lake Kivu. Along the way throngs of colorfully dressed women carrying impossible loads of tomatoes, potatoes, cassava, bananas, and other goods on their heads — some with small children tucked into shawls slung across their backs — headed for markets in Rubavu and Gisenyi, where many Goma residents often came to shop. More ominously, occasional black luxury SUVs, sinister with tinted windows and DRC license plates passed by — rich and powerful corrupt Congolese, according to our guides.

Adding to the brooding specter of Goma, the hyperactive Nyaragongo volcano sits just 20 kilometers north of the city. It erupted in 2002, destroying two-thirds of Goma. Its superfluid lava can reach speeds of up to 60 miles per hour, so it’s a miracle only 45 died. There was enough warning that 400,000 residents were evacuated to Gisenyi in Rwanda. The last eruption occurred in 2016.

The Congo-Nile Trail is one of the world’s premier mountain bike trails, with long stretches of single- and double-track that are, at times, confusing to follow.

That evening while we were supping on beef, chicken, and fish brochettes at lakeside, the overcast skies glowed pink in one distant spot due north. It was the reflection of Nyaragongo’s molten crater on the cloud ceiling: Mordor on the equator — a sight I’ll never forget.

November 24 broke under heavy rain coming in from the Congo. Today we’d bidden farewell to our Slow Cyclist team and come under the guidance of Rwandan Adventures, an almost totally Rwandan enterprise. When the rain stopped, Roger, our Rwandan Adventures guide, showed up at Paradis Kivu Lodge to lead us to their headquarters in Rubavu and the lodging they’d arranged for us.

We’d hired Rwandan Adventures to book our lodging and provide a trail guide and translator. From the Gisenyi-Rubavu area, our route would follow the Congo-Nile Trail along the length of Lake Kivu down to Nyungwe National Park, after which we’d be on our own. The Congo-Nile Trail is one of the world’s premier mountain bike trails, with long stretches of single- and double-track that are, at times, confusing to follow. With lodging options few and far between, and varying considerably in price and quality, Rwandan Adventures’ services were indispensable. The trail is very rural and takes about five days to traverse.

The route follows the precipitous divide that separates the Nile and Congo Rivers — in some ways the very center of Africa — hence the name. Steep, lakeside jungle and terraced land with banana trees, coffee plots, truck gardens, and small fishing communities line the route. Countless islets and peninsulas with dwellings and small-holdings give the shore a look-twice jigsaw puzzle appearance.

The lake itself was devoid of motorized traffic, except for the occasional African Queen-style utility steamer. We saw only dugouts and elegant, clinker-built paddle boats with upturned ends and long net poles for fishing. Lake Kivu is one of those not-so-rare lakes with dissolved gas at its bottom, about 1,000 feet down. It contains an estimated 256 cubic kilometers of carbon dioxide (CO2) and 65 cubic kilometers of methane. Much of the CO2 enters the lake from the volcanic rock beneath it. Bacteria in the lake then convert some of the CO2 into methane. If a seismic or other event were to upturn the lake layers, the methane could poison lakeside inhabitants or even ignite and explode. To mitigate the danger, the Rwandan government is piping the gas up and using it for power generation.

The Congo-Nile Trail started off with a bang — literally. Backcountry bridges in Rwanda are built from logs, with the logs constituting the road surface and placed parallel to the direction of travel. Sometimes the log surfaces are planed with an adze, sometimes rounded. Just before lunch, after logging in a difficult and challenging 25 kilometers — with lots of uphill bike-pushing — we encountered one of these bridges. My skill abandoned me: my front wheel plunged between the logs, stopped only when the handlebars hit the adjoining logs. My face hit the road hard. I dented my helmet and glasses; rasped my forehead and nose; scraped a large area of skin on the inside of my thigh. My right shoulder pounded the ground so hard, three months later I still have yet to fully recover. Subsequent X-rays back in the US indicated no fractures. Roger and Tina ran up, helped me to my feet, and pulled the bike out of its slot. The bike was fine — only a broken rear-view mirror. My shoulder hurt like hell, but it was OK when extended in a riding position. Anyway, there was only one option out here: ride on. For the remainder of the ride I popped Ibuprofen like they were M&Ms (with the occasional painkiller to allow for sleep).

If a seismic or other event were to upturn the lake layers, the methane could poison lakeside inhabitants or even ignite and explode.

It was a Sunday. The road thronged with women in strikingly colorful dresses with matching turban headdresses; men in white shirts, ties, and slacks, and kids in their Sunday finery, all headed for churches. For such a rural area the mass of worshipers was astounding — all walking. Passing by the churches, we heard entire congregations with voices in perfect unison pealing out of chests bursting with vigor, raising high the rafters with glorious a capella singing reminiscent of the old Missa Luba — sacred music sung in Congolese style. I wanted to forget my discomfort, and that helped.

Contrary to the perception (especially on the sidewalks of New York) that in crowded places people mind their own business and avoid eye or physical contact, in Rwanda everyone greets everyone, makes contact, talks, shakes hands, smiles — and we were included. Women don’t mind being looked at, stared at; they usually smile back.

Everyone in Rwanda, no matter how poor, seems to have a cellphone. Roger had called ahead for our lunch, a break I desperately needed. We stopped at a small mud-walled building in a tiny, nondescript hamlet. This was Mama Nelly’s, our sign-free lunch stop. There was no door, but laid out on a rough bench in the narrow foyer was a typical Rwandan meal: rice, beans, spinach, chips (French fries), fried plantains, stewed potatoes, and fried fingerling fish — heads and all — with Akabanga: Rwandan chili oil. All we could eat.

We soon realized that while the trail along Lake Kivu traverses commanding heights, lodging favored lakeside settings. The Kivu Rushel Lodge, a fancy tent establishment, was located three kilometers off-route down a hellish four-wheel drive “road” that sorely shook my shoulders. The welcoming attendant greeted us, helped carry our panniers to our “tent,” and showed us where to stow our bikes. He then asked where we were from. USA, I answered.

His eyes sparkled and he asked, “What do you think of Donald Trump?”

I caught his half-mischievous drift and responded, “I’ll trade you Trump for Kagame.”

He thought about it for a minute and, with a now fully mischievous glint in his eye said “No”. We all laughed.

My skill abandoned me: my front wheel plunged between the logs. My face hit the road hard.

Paul Kagame grew up in Uganda. His family fled to Uganda — with a Hutu mob right on their tail — during one of the periodic pogroms against the Tutsi. Paul was four years old. He would later become a military man through and through. A top student in high school, he opposed the Idi Amin dictatorship, while his best friend Fred Rwigyema joined the Ugandan rebels under Yoweri Museveni to overthrow Amin. When Amin fled into exile, Kagame joined the Museveni faction in the Ugandan army. In 1981, when former dictator Milton Obote again seized power, Museveni returned to the bush to fight some more. At the time, his army consisted of 27 men, including Rwigyema and Kagame. But it would soon grow.

Museveni overthrew Obote in 1986 with the help of Uganda’s Rwandan refugees. By then, his army consisted of 20% Rwandans, with Rwigyema as commanding general and Kagame as director of military intelligence. He went on to receive formal training at the Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The Rwandans had joined Museveni with the tacit understanding that once Museveni was in power, he’d help the Rwandans free Rwanda of the Hutu dictatorship.

Kagame is a caricature Tutsi: over six-feet tall, with a long face, and so skinny that his bodily features are completely hidden by his clothes, which are always spotless and well-pressed. He’s been described as an intensely private public man, but a man of action with an acute human and political intelligence. Married, with four children, he likes dinner parties, dancing, shooting pool, and tennis. One informant told me that Kagame is known to appear unannounced at public events such as soccer games and join in, without security or with minimal security. He likes to mingle with Rwandans as just another citizen. Though he lacks any sign of haughtiness, his mere presence is commanding. He is very intense and focused, seemingly lacking in any sense of humor. His men adored him and composed many chants and songs honoring him. Today, Rwandans don’t just respect him, they revere him.

* * *

The following morning we awoke to solitary male plainsong accompanied by much birdsong — an enchanting combination and unique wakeup call. We were slated for a 60-kilometer day all the way to Kibuye — an actual city — where the tarmac road joins the Congo-Nile Trail. But it didn’t start well and only got worse.

By now I was showing plenty of wear and tear; kids were referring to me as "mzee," old man.

The first three kilometers back to the main trail consisted of uphill loaded-bike pushing with a throbbing shoulder. Roger was indispensable. Then came 20 kilometers of very tough single trail, and then five kilometers of 20% uphill grade on a dirt road strewn with gravel marbles. There was no way we were going to make it to Kibuye by sundown. Roger called a rescue taxi, which was able to get to us — for the trail was no longer a four-wheel drive track — and drive us into Kibuye.

Over dinner at the Rwiza Village Hotel, A-frame chalets overlooking Lake Kivu, we watched the fishermen’s trimarans paddle out to fish as they sang paddling chanties to keep time.

The next day, another 3-kilometer uphill push into Kibuye proper followed by 27 kilometers of roller coaster tarmac with reasonable grades, on a road so perfect, it would shame many of our roads. By now I was showing plenty of wear and tear; kids were referring to me as mzee, old man, as often as muzungu.

The day ended in by now typical fashion: an eight-kilometer downhill detour on an infernal four-wheel drive track to a luxury hotel on an island on Lake Kivu accessed by a causeway that may or may not have been manmade. We were the only guests.

At the airport, we overheard a Ugandan entrepreneur talking on his phone to a colleague, saying that Rwanda was open for business and the opportunities were boundless.

Kivu Lodge is emblematic of Rwanda. Like many hotels in the country, it grows its own produce. Unconnected to the electricity grid, its generator runs at set hours or upon request by the guests. The lawns surrounding its helicopter pad were being mowed by a man squatting and clipping with hedge shears. I asked our host if the helicopter pad was for President Kagame. He smiled and declined to answer.

Rwanda is a third-world country with a first-world perspective. On our month-long, 700-kilometer ride we were never assaulted by any foul odors, hordes of flies, roadside dead animals, traffic accidents, or unsettling sights (other than frequent, local genocide memorials). President Kagame has concentrated the country’s development, Vision 2020, on infrastructure: potable water, sewage disposal, roads, 5G connectivity, electrification, the rule of law, an effective and honest police force and judiciary, health and education, agricultural production, and private sector development fostering a favorable business environment. The plan, developed in the late 1990s, has achieved phenomenal results. At one restaurant in Kigali we met a Taiwanese executive representing a consortium of companies exploring investment opportunities in the country. His enthusiasm was so infectious that both our dinners got cold while we discussed free market philosophy. Later on, at the airport, we overheard a Ugandan entrepreneur talking on his phone to a colleague, saying that Rwanda was open for business and the opportunities were boundless. On the last day of our ride, going into Kigali, one informant pointed to an industrial park up on a hill and said that Volkswagen would break ground there for a factory in 2019.

But Kagame’s greatest success has been his insistence on eradicating the Hutu-Tutsi distinction, while at the same time bringing back — sometimes forcibly — disaffected Hutu expatriates who feared repression; and then successfully integrating them into the national bosom. Article 54 of the new Rwandan constitution states that "political organizations are prohibited from basing themselves on race, ethnic group, tribe, clan, region, sex, religion or any other division which may give rise to discrimination.”

To add a veneer of objectivity to the classifications, the Belgians resorted to measuring nose widths with calipers.

Not that the Hutu-Tutsi thing is any of those specified above. The two groups shared the same national — not tribal — identity since before colonization, spoke the same language, shared the same faiths, lived intermingled throughout the country, intermarried, and in general look so much alike that the Belgian colonial administration issued identity cards so they could tell them apart. To add a veneer of objectivity to the classifications, they resorted to measuring nose widths with calipers: a long, narrow nose indicated a Tutsi; a wide, pug nose . . . a Hutu. The Belgians were partial to the Tutsi, for their supposed aquiline features and traditional positions of power. Before the issuance of ID cards, people were able to switch identities by acquiring wealth or becoming poor, making a unilateral declaration (subject to acceptance by their neighbors), or any number of other expediencies. Traditionally, clan affiliations overrode the Hutu-Tutsi divide; by the time of the genocide, economic class and entrenched political power were the greatest defining factors between the two.

In one of the strangest ironies ever (one that illustrates the flexibility of Rwandan identities), Jerry Robert Kajuga, national president and leader of the genocidal Interahamwe, came from a Tutsi family. While Jerry was still young, his father obtained Hutu identity papers for the family. During the genocide, while the Interahamwe were out decapitating Tutsis, Kajuga hid his brother (who presumably was still a Tutsi) in a hotel to prevent the family from being targeted as Tutsis.

The origins of the distinction are lost in the mists of prehistory, but the inference goes something like this: the aboriginal inhabitants of the densely forested Rwandan mountains were the Twa, or forest pygmies. Later Bantu agriculturalists moved in from the south and west, followed by — or coming at the same time as — cattle herders from the north and east. The herders were generally tall and lanky; the farmers, of normal girth and stature. With time they became one people, but the more warlike herders organized the land into a kingdom and came to rule over the farmers. Oddly enough, the Tutsi herders favored Twa (only 1% of the population) officers in their armies. By the time of German colonization, the Rwandan king ruled over not only today’s Rwanda, but also parts of Uganda and Congo. As the population densed up, conflicts for land between the farmers and herders intensified, creating the frictions that led to the troubles. These reached a boiling point when, first, the ruling Tutsis imposed onerous taxes on the farmers; second, the German and Belgian colonial governments promoted and favored Tutsis in administration; and finally, status was frozen by the imposition of identity cards.

* * *

Another Sisyphean push eight kilometers back up out of Kivu Lodge to rejoin pavement, followed by 52 pleasant kilometers that landed us at a $40-a-night motel in Kibogura. It was not our ideal choice — it was our only choice. Still, there was cold beer and the mattress was firm.

Until 1999, Nyungwe was home to a subspecies of smallish elephant, the mountain elephant. Poachers killed the last one.

On the day after, the 25 kilometers — all uphill (on tarmac) — to Gisakura and the entrance to Nyungwe National Park, went by fast and sweaty. We arrived at the $200-a-day Top View Hotel pushing our bikes up an extreme incline. It was over the top — individual bungalows with living rooms and porches overlooking the mountains of the park. Roger, our guide, left us here. We no longer needed him: all the way back to Kigali we’d be on main highways, with little chance of getting lost. That afternoon we were scheduled to do a canopy walk in the park and, the following day, chimpanzee tracking. Roger ensured that our permits and fees for both activities, the ranger escorts, four-wheel drive vehicle, and driver for the chimp tracking were organized, and rode off into the mists bearing a generous tip.

On the ride into the park, we spotted many Oyster and Blue monkeys — and one royal Colobus. Until 1999, Nyungwe was home to a subspecies of smallish elephant, the mountain elephant. Poachers killed the last one. Its strange-looking skull sits in the doorway of the visitor center. The 90-meter sky walk allowed us to rise out of the rainforest track and emerge over the canopy for a birds’ eye view down into the treetops and across to the distant mountains, thick with impenetrable green. It was good to be off the bikes.

Unlike many third-world or tropical countries where punctuality is not a value, Rwandans are promptly punctual — in appointments, opening times, and event schedules. Our 3 AM wakeup call (accurate to the second on satellite time) for the chimp excursion was barely effective. We dragged our reluctant bodies to the hotel lobby. There, a group of agitated Chinese mainlanders were loudly assaulting the concierge, who meekly tried to correct whatever wrongs the Chinese had perceived. They’d been our only companions at dinner — loud, uncouth, and with an assortment of Chinese comestibles they’d brought with them. It never occurred to us that they’d go chimp tracking. Some were past any prime they might have ever have had; others were comfortably overweight. Luckily, we weren’t sharing a ride with them. Outside, an old rattle-trap Toyota four-door pickup awaited us. Shadrack, our guide and ranger, and the driver told us we were about to enjoy the unique experience of “African massage”: a two-hour ride in a shock-deficient truck on rutted and rocky four-wheel drive roads that would bring us to a distant corner of the park where a troop of chimps lived.

The driver told us we were about to enjoy the unique experience of “African massage”: a two-hour ride in a shock-deficient truck on rutted and rocky four-wheel drive roads.

At the park’s far, subsidiary entrance, Shadrack set out the ground rules, and we set off hiking, at 6 AM — with the Chinese and two UAE tourists in tow. Shadrack set a good pace. Within 15 minutes half the Chinese, cigarette stubs hanging out of their mouths, dropped behind and returned to the secondary park headquarters. A mile or so later Shadrack warned of a dense column of fire ants crossing the trail, saying that their sting was intense and their ability to climb up shoes and inside pants cuffs impressive. While the rest of us ran over the column, one Chinese walked. After doing a spirited two-step, with his comrades swatting at his calves, he, too, turned back. By the time we spotted our first chimp, only two mainlanders remained in the group.

Chimps congregate in large, dispersed groups, on the ground and up in the trees. They react to the presence of humans by putting a respectable distance between themselves and us, mostly by disappearing into the canopy. The big males can be aggressive and mostly stay on the ground. Their hoots and hollers are endearing. We had to keep moving in order to prolong the encounters (which the chimps disdained). After a few middle-distance sightings, the remaining Chinese left. Shadrack appointed a tracker to escort them back.

Tina asked Shadrack how he dealt with the arrogance of his mainland Chinese visitors. He smiled and said, “We have our ways,” referring to his passive, polite strategies that day. But he said that a few days previously, a man from China had jumped on his back and demanded to be carried the rest of the way. That was too much for Shadrack. He unloaded the man at a fire ant crossing.

A few days later on the ride we ran into our Slow Cyclist driver, Emi, escorting two Americans to the canopy walk. We told him about our chimp tracking experience and the Chinese. Emi, who always sees a half-full glass as three-quarters full, responded that there are good and bad people in all countries. True! But I advised him that a lasting casualty of the Cultural Revolution was manners. Courtesy and politeness were declared bourgeois values in conflict with proletarian egalitarianism. We were reaping what Mao had sown.

Back at the park entry after the tracking we were greeted by a display of traditional Intore dancing and drumming by a group of about 20 local residents. They pulled us in to participate. Tina, the Arabs, and the one youngish Chinese female interpreter joined in. Not much of a dancer, I took photos and kept rhythm with a foot. The rest of the Chinese couldn’t wait to get back to the hotel and proffered no tips. Our — and the locals’ — enthusiasm, on the other hand, was so contagious that the revelry continued for half an hour.

Gisakura, where the Top View is located, is at the western end of Nyungwe Park. Between Gisakura and Kitabi, at the far eastern border — and our next destination on the bikes — only the main park headquarters, about halfway through, has any services: a campground, toilets, permit issuance, and a snack bar. The 61-kilometer distance across the park was devoid of traffic, people, or downhill stretches — except at the very end.

On the outskirts of Kitabi we experienced a “lumber mill.” Multiple sets of individual scaffold frameworks — each about nine feet tall — built out of skinny branches and topped with gapped planks stood off the road about 50 feet away. Atop each one, a shirtless man held the upper end of a giant rip saw. Below, another man held the opposite end. On the scaffold, between the planks, a big log extended all the way across the top. The men were ripping logs to create dimensional lumber by hand, with an up-and-down sawing motion. The finished boards, not varying in depth or width by more than half an inch, were stacked right next to the road, in bundles separated by lath for drying — boards we might label 2x4s, 2x6s and 2x8s.

Our Kitabi lodging, at $30 the cheapest yet, was delightful. The KCCEM Guesthouse is an outlying university research center specializing in nature and biological studies. It consisted of small, semi-detached brick bungalows interspersed by lawns. A resident troop of baboons, attractive but for their ischial callosities — and indifferent to humans — roamed the grounds.

The section of road between Kitabi and Butare, our next destination, was the only part of Rwanda’s main arterial highways that hadn’t yet been paved. Giant Komatsu and Caterpillar excavators and graders, along with asphalt pavers, were hard at work. Fortunately, the 60 kilometers to Butare trended generally down. By noon, we’d arrived at the Bonnie Consile Convent, our evening’s lodging.

Butare, home to Rwanda’s National University and many other institutions of higher learning, is Rwanda’s intellectual center. Many thought that at independence it would become Rwanda’s capital, but Kigali’s central location and its role as the colonial administrative capital won out. At the beginning of the genocide, Butare was the only province with a Tutsi governor. During the first two weeks of the genocide Butare became a haven for fleeing Tutsis from other parts of the country. But on April 18, 1994 the government dismissed the governor, later arresting and shooting him. On the 19th he was replaced by a Hutu Power loyalist, and the killings immediately began: 220,000 people were massacred, most within three to four weeks.

Our — and the locals’ — enthusiasm, on the other hand, was so contagious that the revelry continued for half an hour.

We were now in the heart of historic Rwanda. Butare’s cobbled streets were made no softer by the shocks on our bikes. The National Ethnographic Museum, a few blocks away, conserved many precolonial artifacts and offered insights into traditional Rwandan culture — without getting too controversial: no colonial history or Hutu-Tutsi history. Oddly, it showcased Rwanda’s presidents but not its kings. That night was Tina’s birthday. We overcelebrated and slept in the following morning . . . without consequences. An easy 47 kilometers brought us to Nyanza, the seat of Rwanda’s kings. We checked in at a bustling hotel full of business people, families, and school groups, and then headed out to the Royal Palace Museum complex.

Before it became Rwanda the country was known as the Nyiginya Kingdom. Oral tradition traces Nyiginya kings back to the 14th century, but it isn’t until the 15th century, with the accession of Bwimba, Ruganzu I, of the first dynasty, that the dynasties, chronologies, and historical narratives become more reliable. Sixteen kings later, Rwabugiri, Kigeri IV, succeeded to the throne in 1867 (some sources say 1853).

Rwabugiri was the first king in Rwanda's history to come into contact with Europeans. He established an army equipped with guns he obtained from Germans and prohibited most foreigners, especially Arabs, from entering his kingdom.

The kingdom’s armies were composed of special warriors who’d taken an oath of celibacy while in service. Homosexual liaisons among the troops were not uncommon and if not widely accepted, at least widely tolerated. In contrast to Ugandan homophobia today — the legal consequences for being caught in flagrante delicto with a member of the same sex are stiff — being gay (or polygamous, for that matter) in Rwanda is no crime. Sex is considered a private matter — a view consistent with the conservative deportment and liberal attitude characteristic of the country.

By the end of Rwabugiri’s rule, Rwanda was a unified state with a centralized military structure divided into provinces, districts, hills, and neighborhoods administered by a hierarchy of chiefs, predominantly Tutsi at the higher levels, but with a substantial degree of participation by Hutus. But as population density increased, a Tutsi elite besotted with its unique Inyambo cattle faced a shortage of pastureland. Rwabugiri imposed more taxes and more corvee labor — both already onerous — on the mostly Hutu farmers. Additionally, Rwabugiri’s wars of conquest exacted a terrible price on the farming communities wherever his armies billeted. By the time of his death in 1895, the Hutu-Tutsi polarization had become entrenched.

In contrast to Ugandan homophobia today, being gay (or polygamous, for that matter) in Rwanda is no crime.

Rutarindwa, Mibambwe IV, Rwabugiri’s son, succeeded to the throne but was assassinated by his stepmother, who in 1896 put her own son, Musinga, on the throne as Yuhi V. Three months later the first German colonial officer arrived. The German administration was mostly content to let the kingdom’s hierarchy continue ruling. After World War I, the League of Nations turned Rwanda over to the Belgians. In 1931 Musinga was deposed by the Belgian administration for his resistance to conversion to Catholicism. He was succeeded by Rudahigwa, Mutara III, who converted in 1943 and dedicated the country to Christ.

After a visit to Europe, Rudahigwa decided to move out of his thatched-roof royal residence and build himself more European digs, buy a Volkswagen, and learn to drive. But he was so tall that he had to remove the driver’s seat and become a literal back-seat driver. In the late 1950s, Rudahigwa, wanting to keep up with the times, began construction on a real palace, which by the time of his death in 1959 — in Bujumbura, Burundi under mysterious circumstances — was still not completed.

Rudahigwa was followed by his brother, Ndahindurwa, Kigeri V, who only lasted until 1961, when Rwanda declared independence and abolished the monarchy. Ndahindurwa moved to Washington DC and died in 2016 at the age of 83.

* * *

The royal compound, atop the highest point in Nyanza, is a poignant evocation of an aspect of Rwandan culture and history that for most is not even a memory. The thatched-roof royal dwelling, with its satellite structures and subquarters for queen mother, high priest, and other officials (including a beer and a milk minister) is a careful and perfect reconstruction open to the public only with a tour guide. The best part is the remnants of the surviving Inyambo royal cattle herd and their quintessential Tutsi herder armed with a fly whisk for their comfort. Their horns are huge (forget Texas Longhorns), exquisitely and slightly oddly shaped. All are a rich brown hue with doe eyes. In Rwanda one of the sweetest compliments a man can give a woman is, “You’ve got Inyambo eyes.” They are tame — we didn’t tire of petting them — and pampered: one previous king forced a Hutu vassal to spread honey on their pasture.

Next door is the 1930s royal residence — in meticulous upkeep. One employee was busy on her haunches cleaning the brick grout joints of its semi-enclosed patio. Across the valley, the 1959 palace dominated the view. Not yet open to the public, it is slated to become an art museum.

We left Nyanza for Gitarama, only 47 paved kilometers away, late in the morning. Our destination was Jangwe Lodge, an off-the-beaten-path (by seven kilometers) guest house located just before one reaches the city and run by Georges Kamanayo-Gengoux, a Rwandan-Belgian documentary film maker and his Belgian wife.

Much later Bill Clinton admitted that his lack of response to the Rwandan genocide had been a “personal failure.”

As we neared Gitarama we expected to see a sign for the lodge at one of two right-hand branching dirt roads, but at both likely prospects there was no indication of a lodge anywhere down the side roads. However, the usual troupe of moto- and bicycle taxis hawked fares at the intersections. At the last turnoff before Gitarama we stopped and looked lost. Everyone offered us rides, but without the ability to communicate — “Jangwe” didn’t ring any bells — we felt truly lost. But one taxi biker whose English was structurally sound but nearly unintelligible, said he lived next door to Jangwe. Emmanuel offered to guide us the seven kilometers for 300 Rf, about 25 cents.

Again — tiresomely — Jangwe was “in the middle of nowhere,” off the grid and at the end of a spur track linked to a dirt road that braided and split unpredictably. Georges and his wife welcomed us warmly. The handsome, open brick compound with manicured lawns and an Olympic-size pool was completely isolated. I asked why the absence of signs. Georges shrugged his shoulders and said they didn’t want any “drop-ins,” that guests came by invitation only (they only wanted interesting people, not boring ones). Jangwes only had five guest rooms; today there were no other guests.

Over cold Virunga beers we discussed Georges’ projects. He’d met Bill Clinton and wanted to interview him further about America’s reluctant response during the genocide, but was given the cold shoulder when he followed up on Clinton’s initial invitation. A Belgian VTM channel colleague later asked Clinton why the US was missing in action during the genocide. The former president responded that “Rwanda wasn’t on my radar and CNN wasn’t there” — this in the context of American intelligence having advance knowledge of the genocide plans. Much later Clinton admitted that his lack of response had been a “personal failure.”

But the hale 70-year-old Georges had a more ambitious project in the works: a documentary of the RPF’s advance and liberation of Rwanda during the genocide. He’s already gotten a commitment from Paul Kagame to be interviewed.

Not only did the 600 RPF men, facing daunting odds and multiple assaults, hold their positions, they created a safe zone around the parliament grounds for refugees, and even rescued many more.

The RPF, numbering about 18,000 men at the time of the genocide, faced a well-armed Rwandan army twice its size, backed by militias and a great mass of civilians mobilized for “self-defense” — over 45,000 combatants. The “stopping the genocide” invasion (as it’s been dubbed) is an amazing enough story, but the real cliffhanger was the siege of parliament during the 100-day RPF offensive. The Rwandan Civil War, which had been simmering since 1990, was supposedly “settled” with the signing of the Arusha Peace Accords in August 1993. The Accords called for a power sharing structure between the extremist Hutu government and the moderate Hutu and Tutsi RPF. As a confidence-building measure — and to protect RPF politicians — a 600-man RPF contingent was to be based in the capital until the Accords’ implementation, along with a 2,500 UN “peacekeeping” mission.

But as soon as President Habyarimana’s plane went down and the genocide began on April 6, 1994, Kagame ordered the Kigali contingent to muster at the defensive positions they’d established at parliament atop the highest hill in Kigali. At 8:30 pm that night, FAR forces stormed the parliament. But by then the RPF was ready and soon drove off the attackers, holding their positions until relieved three months later. On April 8, the main RPF forces began their pincer advances into central Rwanda from bases in Uganda and northern Rwanda.

Not only did the 600 RPF men, facing daunting odds and multiple assaults, hold their positions, they created a safe zone around the parliament grounds for refugees, and even rescued many more — all the while allowing access for both RPF and moderate Hutu parliamentarians to continue their jobs.

Passing by the parliament, Olivier pointed out the shell holes on the side of the building, left there as a stark memorial.

A few blocks away, the UN peacekeepers billeted at the Amahoro sports stadium complex had been instructed not to interfere in the killing, but to engage only if attacked. Thousands of Tutsis and fearful Hutus, figuring they’d be protected by the UN, had sought refuge there. When the Rwandan Army forces and Interahamwe began forcibly extracting refugees from the stadium occupied by the unresponsive UN forces, the 600-man RPF battalion began, on April 7, a series of counterattacks to protect the Amahoro refugees. They conducted even more daring raids, in the dead of night, to more distant hideouts, saving many more people. By the fall of Kigali on July 4, nearly the entire battalion had survived.

* * *

Our last day’s ride into Kigali, a mostly flat and downhill coast of 62 kilometers, ended in a long, uphill, traffic-avoiding struggle into the capital under a heavy rain. We were accompanied by Olivier, our Slow Cyclist guide, now under contract to Rwandan Adventures, to ensure successful navigation through Kigali and arrival at our hotel without getting lost. Passing by the parliament, Olivier pointed out the shell holes on the side of the building, left there as a stark memorial to the war against genocide.

After showering and introducing Tina — now that she was an “old Africa hand” — to gin-and-tonics, that favorite colonial tipple, we headed out to a nearby restaurant. Oddly, there was no traffic. At the corner, armed soldiers had stopped all vehicles at the intersections in both directions. And then, coming from the direction of the Hotel des Mille Collines — site of the real Hotel Rwanda, where many had sought refuge during the genocide — a phalanx of black SUVs with red and blue flashing lights turned the corner and headed our way. As they turned into the presidential residence’s driveway, I realized that Paul Kagame was coming home after a day’s work. I focused my eyes and tried to spot him through the tinted windows.

Envoi

It was a fitting end to a phenomenal adventure, but one that was constantly overshadowed by a nagging question: how could an atrocity such as the Rwandan genocide have occurred in a country with such wonderful people? I am no Hannah Arendt (no banality of evil in Rwanda, just full-on evil); much less am I Rwandan. But here is my attempt to identify the factors that led to this holocaust.

1. History. The historical trajectory already mentioned played a prominent part: German and Belgian favoritism towards the Tutsis, culminating in the issuance of identity cards. The Belgians came to Rwanda with an a priori premise, based on their own experience with Walloons and Flemings, that this was a multiethnic country. What ambiguous differences existed were exacerbated by colonial policies.

2. Obedience. The Rwandan people were accustomed to following government orders, having always lived under authoritarian — though not particularly oppressive — regimes, both colonial and post-independence. This obedient tendency was taken advantage of by the Hutu Power clique when it took control and ordered everyone to kill the “snakes” and “cockroaches,” as they called the Tutsis.

There was no banality of evil in Rwanda, just full-on evil.

3. Propaganda. Rwandans — mostly illiterate — lived by radio. Both the government radio station, Radio Rwanda, and the immensely popular RTLM, privately owned by President Habyarimana and his wife (as a lively alternative to staid government radio), spewed hatred of Tutsis through talk, pop music, and harangues long before the genocide and, later, to incite the population to the killings.

4. Terror. Using threats and intimidation, the Interahamwe, army, and Hutu Power extremists forced the population to kill friends, neighbors, strangers, and family — both Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The killers themselves were always drunk, and they often made unwilling potential accomplices get drunk too. If they didn’t kill their assigned victims — identified by identity cards at roadblocks and by lists previously drawn up — they or their loved ones would be tortured and killed as accomplices of the RPF.

5. France. In a misguided attempt to salvage what was left of Francophone Africa, France provided military and diplomatic support to the Habyarimana regime before and during the genocide, and continued to provide aid and succor to its remnants in defeat. On the other hand, the Tutsi and moderate Hutu expats — numbering about 350,000 — who had lived in Uganda for so long, spoke English. If the RPF won the Rwandan Civil War, English would become Rwanda’s second official language. (In fact, French and English both now enjoy official status. Still, Rwanda joined the British Commonwealth of Nations in 2009, one of only two countries to have done so that were never British colonies. Queen Elizabeth II is due to visit in 2019.)

The killers themselves were always drunk, and they often made unwilling potential accomplices get drunk too.

As early as 1990, when the RPF began the Rwandan Civil War — provoked by a variety of reasons — France intervened on the side of the Hutu government. Not only did the French supply the Rwandan army with weapons throughout the ensuing four years, they provided asylum to Agathe Habyarimana just a few days after the beginning of the genocide. Agathe was the wife of the murdered president and considered not only the power behind the throne but also, after the death of her husband, the head of le clan de madame, a powerful clique of northern Hutu extremists who were instrumental in organizing and carrying out the genocide. The French also gave asylum to 30 other members of le clan. (Madame was finally arrested in France, by French authorities, on March 2, 2010, but in September 2011, a French court denied her extradition to Rwanda.)

After the RPF’s victory in Kigali on July 4, the French — ever helpful — established Opération Turquoise, a safe zone in southwest Rwanda for the fleeing génocidaires and their wards, delaying the RPF’s total victory and helping to set the stage for the post-genocide East African wars.

6. The United Nations. The UN’s 2,500-man peacekeeping mission was undermanned, underfunded, undersupplied, underequipped, and constrained by rules of engagement that allowed lethal force only if fired upon — no intervention to save lives. In his book Shake Hands with the Devil, Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, commander of the mission, characterized the UN as, “an organization swamped and sinking under the dead weight of useless political sinecures, indifference and procrastination.”

Worse yet — in its role as mediator between the genocidal Hutu government and the RPF — the UN had to be neutral and treat both sides equally, inadvertently providing a fig leaf of respectability to the génocidaires.

The UN’s peacekeeping mission was undermanned, underfunded, undersupplied, underequipped, and constrained by rules of engagement that allowed no intervention to save lives.

But the worst abomination in the UN’s operation was its structure. By the unluckiest of coincidences, one of the rotating seats in the Security Council fell to Rwanda. Its Hutu Power sympathizer passed every communique Dallaire sent to the UN on to Theonéste Bagosora — the head of the Crisis Committee, Rwanda’s interim government during the genocide, who was sentenced to life imprisonment in 2008 by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda for his key role in the genocide — impeding any effective action by Dallaire through continuous foot-dragging and objections.

Today, Rwanda agrees to send troops on UN peacekeeping missions only if they can intervene to save lives.




Share This


Cowboys and Other Ones

 | 




Share This


The Return of Malthusian Equilibrium

 | 

After the departure of Europeans from their colonies following the end of World War II, the Third World rapidly became tyrannical, and their economies began a long decline. The institutional collapse of the Third World has continued over all these years, except that in the past two decades, from an extremely low base, its economies have improved. This economic growth did not happen because the Third World liberalized its economies or adopted any fundamental cultural change in its societies. What enabled synchronous economic progress over the past two decades in the Third World was the internet and the emergence of China.

Cheap telephony and the internet came into existence in the late ’80s. The internet provided pipelines for the transfer of technology and enabled wage-arbitrage to be exploited. Also, many countries — particularly in Latin America and sub-Saharan Arica — benefited from the export of resources to gluttonous-for-resources China, the only emerging market I know of, and to the developed world, which contrary to propaganda is economically still by far the fastest growing part of the world.

Cherry-picking countries of subsistence farmers and cattle-herders for propaganda purposes tells you nothing about the sustainability of their growth.

It is hard to believe, but many countries in the Middle East and North Africa peaked economically in the 1970s. Their competitive advantage was oil, not human resources. The per capita real GDPs of Saudi Arabia and the UAE, despite the fact that they have had a relatively peaceful existence, are about half as large as they were in the ’70s. The situation is similar in Venezuela and to a large extent in Nigeria. Except for the personal use of cellphones, the information technology revolution has simply bypassed these and many other countries.

According to the propaganda — steeped in political correctness — of the international organizations, all the fastest growing economies are in the Third World. But simple primary school mathematics helps cut through this propaganda. Ethiopia is claimed to be among the fastest growing large economies. This is quite a lie. An 8.5% growth rate of Ethiopia on GDP per capita of US$846 translates into growth of a mere US$72 per capita per year. The US economy, with GDP per capita of US$62,152, is 73 times larger, and despite its growth at a seemingly low rate of 2.2%, it currently adds US$1,367 to its per capita GDP — 19 times more than Ethiopia. The situation looks even more unfavorable for Ethiopia if its population explosion of 2.5% per year is considered.

Cherry-picking countries of subsistence farmers and cattle-herders for propaganda purposes tells you nothing about the sustainability of their growth, and certainly does not in any way enable comparison with the developed world.

The developed world is growing much, much faster than the Third World. The only exception is China.

Over the past two decades, the low hanging fruit of economic growth has been plucked in the Third World. South Asia, Southeast Asia, West Asia, Africa, and Latin America are now starting to stagnate. As the tide of the economic growth rate recedes, institutional collapse will become more visible. It will be seen on the streets as civic strife. What is happening in Venezuela, Syria, Turkey, Nicaragua, Honduras, Pakistan, Congo, and South Africa — where institutions are collapsing, social fabric is falling apart, and tyranny is raising its ugly head — are not isolated events but part of the evolving Third World pattern. Once its institutions have been destroyed, there will be no going back. They simply cannot be rebuilt.

When one looks at the world map, one realizes that all colonized countries were created in European boardrooms.

On a simplistic organizational chart, institutions in the Third World may look the same as they looked when European colonizers departed, but without reliance on the rule of law, respect for individual rights, and a rational approach to problem solving — all foundational concepts propagated by the West. They have been swamped by tribalism, magical thinking, and arbitrary dogmas and rituals.

Without the foundation of rational, critical thinking, formal education merely burdens the mind. The result is that stress among the so-called educated people in the Third World is growing, and no wonder: formal education, unassimilated, can work only in narrow areas, where all you want is cogs that can do repetitive jobs in corner cubicles, without encouragement or reward for creativity. This is not a future-oriented environment; it is a merely pleasure-centric one, in which people become easy victims of cultural Marxism. Democratic politics devolved into the politics of anti-meritocratic mass rule, destroying any institutions of true self-government.

During my recent visit to Port Moresby in Papua New Guinea, a young Western girl working for a Western embassy told me that she once went out without her security force. The police stopped her car, and she was fortunate that her security arrived before the police could take her away. The negotiation between police and security was about how much it would take not to rape her. Rape is common in Papua New Guinea, as it is in the rest of the Third World; but because this was a girl working for the embassy, rapists would have had their bones broken the day after. But their bones would have been broken the day after, “too far in the future” to be of much concern.

Without institutions of liberty and protection of private property, financial and intellectual capital does not accumulate.

When one looks at the world map, one realizes that all colonized countries were created in European boardrooms. There was no country of South Africa, Zimbabwe, Congo, or even India before the arrival of Europeans. The people who now run these countries simply do not have the ability or impetus to manage such large societies. They have tribal mentalities, unable to process information outside the visible space. The rulers of modern tribes continuously increase the size of their bureaucracies, but this merely creates overcentralization, the ossification of institutions, and massive, though unseen, systemic risks. Of course, tribalism is irrational, and internecine rivalry a fact of existence that is experienced only on a moment-to-moment basis.

Before the arrival of the Europeans, most of sub-Saharan Africa had no written language and few tools, contrary to popular perception of a pre-colonial utopia. Warfare was the order of the day. Eating flesh and brains of an enemy killed in conflict was practiced from Papua New Guinea, to Africa, to the Americas. Cannibalism is not unknown even today. Contrary to politically correct versions of history, 19th-century colonization was a massive, sudden improvement for many colonized peoples, and a paradigm shifting event for the Third World.

Europeans of the 1940s clearly knew that if they left the Third World, entropy would rapidly ensue, the locals would fail to run their countries, and those countries would implode into tribal units. These wouldn’t be self-managed societies that libertarians dream of, but tribal ones afflicted with internecine warfare. That is indeed where the Third World is heading, and much of it has arrived.

Africa’s population is growing at a faster rate now than it was in 1950.

Without institutions of liberty and protection of private property, financial and intellectual capital does not accumulate. Indeed, the Third World actively destroys or dissipates any material benefit that accrue to it. This happens through war, overconsumption, expansion of the exploiting (ordinarily the governing) class, and the active destruction of capital that one sees in the crime, vandalism, riot, and other means of destroying property that characterize the Third World. Despite their extreme possessiveness, people who destroy the capital of other people fail to maintain their own. In many Third World cities, when there is a day of celebration it is easy to assume that it is the day when employees got their salaries — which disappear by the next morning, drunk away. Capital fails to be protected or accumulated; the rational structure of a productive, thrifty, and prudent culture is not there.

While people in the West are blamed for being materialistic, Third World people are often much more focused on their possessions. The great fleet of servants in India, who are destined to forever remain servants, may earn a mere $100 dollars or less a month, but must have the latest smartphone. For me it is impossible to comprehend how they pay their rent, buy food, and still have some money left to buy a phone; but I remind myself that actually they take loans to buy smartphones and are forever in debt.

And now — the population problem is becoming worse.

Consider Africa alone. Africa’s population in 1950 represented a mere 10% of the world population. By the end of this century Africa, the poorest continent, is predicted to have at least 40% of the world’s people. Africa’s population is growing at a faster rate now than it was in 1950. Given that this rate begins from a much higher base, Africa adds six times more people today than it did in 1950.

More important: in the Third World countries, population control has mostly happened within the relatively more educated, intellectually sophisticated part of society. In Northern India, to cite another example, the unstable, uneducated, chaotic, and backward part of the population is exploding in size. Southern India, which is relatively stable and better off, is falling in population.

With ease of mobility, segregation is picking up its pace. The economically best people of the Third World find it much easier to emigrate than to stay home and fight to make society better, or maintain it in its current state. In 2017 alone, 12% of Turkish millionaires and 16% of Venezuelan millionaires emigrated. So great has been the emigration from India that it is virtually impossible to find a decent plumber or electrician. Forget about finding a good doctor. In a survey, only 30% of Indian doctors could diagnose a simple ailment. Everywhere educated people move to cities, while the rest stay on in rural places. Segregation is real, leaving the underclass with a huge deficit in leaders.

There is also segregation by sector of the economy. As the private sector has evolved in the Third World, government institutions have increasingly become brain-dead, for the best brains now want to work for high salaries in the private sector, leaving state power in the hands of the worst brains. Naturally, people have become very stressed and unsure. As an emotional escape, superstitious rituals and religious-nationalism are increasing exponentially, contributing to the elevation of exploitive, sociopathic elements to positions of power.

Perhaps, payments made to people for having children must stop; instead people should get money not to have children.

It is possible that some parts of the Third World simply cannot be “governed.” A couple of years back I undertook what I consider the most dangerous trip of my life. I went to Goma in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) on my own. Even for DRC, Goma is a lawless part. The Swedish police I was staying with told me one day that a pregnant woman had been raped, her fetus removed, cooked, and fed to other women of the tribe, who had all been raped. Listening to the stories of celebration of such brutalities in the Congo and elsewhere in Africa, I couldn’t but imagine what I would do if I were forced to run the DRC. I couldn’t imagine ever being able to bring it back to relative sanity without imposing the tyranny — for fear is the only restraint available in the absence of reason — for which Leopold II of Belgium is infamous.

This brings us to the terrible predicament of the Third World. Except for China, the countries of the Third World have failed to develop inner competencies and hence internal reasons to accumulate financial and intellectual capital. They have failed to maintain their institutions, which have continued to decay after the departure of European colonizers. The crumbs of economic benefits — the gifts of western technology — have been dissipated. What can be done? How would you deal with the predicament?

There is no hope unless the vast size of the underclass, who are statistically unable to participate economically, particularly in the age of AI, is reduced. Perhaps, payments made to people for having children must stop; instead people should get money not to have children. Even this first step can only happen if the Third World institutions are changed and rational leaders are imposed. But who will impose them?

The end result is obvious. With time — slowly and then rapidly — the Third World will continue to fall apart institutionally. The Third World will implode. This two-thirds of the world population will fall into tribes that, being irrational, will have no way to resolve disputes. They will enter a phase of neverending warfare, with other tribes and within their own tribes. If there is any surplus left, it will be dissipated through population growth and overconsumption. Ahead there is only entropy and a Malthusian future, mimicking the sad Malthusian equilibrium that existed before the colonizers came.




Share This


No Cheers for Democracy

 | 

Democracy, the most celebrated religion of both the Left and Right, has spread like wildfire. Zimbabwe has recently fallen for more democracy. Social movements in the Middle East — with the most recent one known as the Arab Spring — are inching the area toward more democracy. Even in reclusive Saudi Arabia democracy is slowly gaining an upper hand. Bangladesh, Myanmar, Pakistan, and Nepal are solidifying their democracies; their military or traditional-religious heads have found it increasingly difficult to assert their will. Many political leaders in Africa now vacate their seats in response to the verdict of their citizens.

Democracy is winning. It is a religion, a faith, which is seen as an objective, universal truth, a truth that cannot be challenged. It is the solution to all ills. It is perfect and cannot be damaged by evidence. When a society does well, the true believers attribute this to an improvement in democracy. When a democratic system does not work — as it doesn’t in Africa, Latin America, the Middle East, and South Asia — the blame must go elsewhere. The true believers always ask for more democracy.

South Africa has continued to become more democratic, with its institutions increasingly reflecting the wishes and the culture of the masses. The political leadership is now openly in support of expropriating farms from the minorities. The masses, quite fallaciously, believe that such acts will improve their lot.

The true believers always ask for more democracy.

In 1994, before the advent of democracy, South Africa had a first-world infrastructure. Today, there are random electrical outages, water supply is in deep crisis, roads are bad, and crime is off the charts. Hate-crime against the minorities, including vicious torture and sadistic rape, is on the rise. For more than two decades the canniest people of South Africa have been emigrating to Canada, Australia, or the US.

The end of apartheid — in 1994 — did not have to begin the rule of the masses, but it did. Democracy has slowly changed the nation’s institutions, adjusting them to the mass’s demands and whims. The minority are whites, so the media and the intellectuals pay little heed to their rights. According to the media’s definition of “racist,” only whites can be that way.

Was South African apartheid a bad policy? Is the Indian caste system regressive? It is easy to say “yes” — and move on. But all changes in social and political systems have their collateral damages. A culture of individualism, decentralization, and the rule of law emerged in Europe to reduce collateral damage. From this point of view, supremacist democracy has been a disastrous regression.

The end of apartheid did not have to begin the rule of the masses, but it did.

South Africa now has apartheid against the whites, one consequence of which has been the destruction of the lives of blacks as well. The white minority — even today — is the intellectual and business spine of South Africa. As the minority loses its grip or emigrates, South Africa is imploding. Can the masses, peasants, and politicians not see what is coming? Apparently they cannot — which is the reason why democracy puts a society in a vicious cycle. Not just South Africa but the emerging democracies of Egypt, Myanmar, Papua New Guinea, and Nepal have been on assured paths to disaster.

Instead of thinking through why democracy might be the reason for the failure of societies, Western intellectuals blame a made-up recession in the number of democracies. When things go wrong, they credit the situation to a lack of democracy, even if democracy has been in ascendancy. If their rationalizations are no longer tenable, through circular reasoning they define and redefine “democracy” to ensure that it stays on the pedestal.

Over the long haul, Turkey and Malaysia have been among the best examples of progress in the third world. Not only have they become increasingly democratic but their GDPs per capita have grown relentlessly, making them middle-class societies. Both also have Muslim majorities; there is likely no other country in which increasing democracy in a Muslim majority society coincided with rapidly rising GDP per capita and maintenance of stability.

Can the masses, peasants, and politicians not see what is coming? Apparently they cannot.

It was not too far in the past that Turkey was under strict secular control by the army. Then, in 1997, the military asked the then Prime Minister, Necmettin Erbakan, to resign. His fault was that he had mixed religion with politics. Pressure from the US and international organizations meant that Turkey had to become more democratic and distance itself from the rule of the military.

It might be claimed that Turkey improved economically and socially because of this strengthening of its democracy. But Turkey was merely one beneficiary of a general trend of economic growth affecting the third world. The economies of Turkey, Malaysia, Latin America, South Asia, Africa, in fact, every country and particularly non-democratic China grew rapidly during the past two decades. None of them grew because of democracy. They grew because of the electronic revolution. Ironically, the growth of non-democratic China changed the economic structure of the world and made it possible for the third world to benefit, as the crumbs fall into its lap. Because it suited their purpose, ideologues credited this all to “democracy.”

But now, as democracy has grown, politics in Turkey and Malaysia increasingly reflect the will of the masses. Masses in the West might care more about hedonism, but it is religion, magical thinking, and the afterlife that occupy the minds of the masses in the third world. Fanaticism — hence totalitarianism and diminishment of the individual — has been growing rapidly in Turkey and Malaysia.

Most people in top positions in the media, the IMF, the World Bank, etc., maintain the usual, regurgitated, and extremely favorable view of democracy and multiculturalism. This has to be the case, for they cannot say (and eventually even think) anything that might be (mis)interpreted as racist, or they will be thrown out of their jobs. The result is that political correctness has absolute control over the institutions of the West.

Fanaticism — hence totalitarianism and diminishment of the individual — has been growing rapidly in Turkey and Malaysia.

Of course, it requires little reflection to notice that democracy isn’t the panacea it is made out to be. Quite to the contrary, it has been an unmitigated disaster for the third world. The Khmer Rouge in Cambodia had massive public support when they took power. During their rule, the guards at the concentration camps soon became the inmates, while the earlier inmates were sent to the killing fields after grotesque torture and dismemberment. Even the topmost “leaders” got caught up in this cycle of brutality. In a period of just over three years, they managed to kill as much as 25% of the population.

What they did in Cambodia is something no sane person, using the lenses of Western culture and political correctness, can understand. But perhaps that is exactly what needs to be understood to see the underpinning problems of democracy. One must understand the psyche of the masses and the peasants.

A vast majority of even the world’s enlightened society is made up of people who have no interest in public policy. While in the West, this is often reflected in an expectation of free-stuff and resulting social welfare programs, the counterpart in the third world is usually tribal and superstitious. In the West, the desires of the masses result in a politics of redistribution and envy, a win-lose paradigm that, like a termite from within, slowly destroys the morals and the institutions of society. In poor countries, these desires result in a politics that is increasingly sociopathic and tyrannical, a lose-lose paradigm.

To see the underpinning problems of democracy, one must understand the psyche of the masses and the peasants.

I travel around the world to understand what is happening, without the lenses of political correctness distorting my understanding. One soundbite that I often hear from economic analysts is that if a country wants to keep growing it has to allow entrepreneurialism to take hold, reduce regulations and the size of the state, and do what is right. If that is the way the world worked, in this modern age of technology there would have been no reason for vast areas of the world to suffer from abject poverty. These economists are either politically correct (or else they would be thrown out of their jobs), living in gated communities (real or virtual), or simply naive. In any case, they are paid well to stay ignorant about the problems that democracy is afflicting on the third world, and increasingly in the first world.

Why can the masses not see the problems they are creating for themselves by voting to destroy their wealth-generating class, the backbone of their society? Why do they not see that they are creating tyranny for themselves by imposing through their vote fanaticism in their institutions, a contest in which there is no winner? Why cannot the wisdom of the crowds — democracy — provide improvement in governance? Why don’t their collective votes align their economic structures for growth?

For the third world, tribalism and magical thinking are the mental and cultural operating system. While they claim to seek peace and economic growth, there is a list of numerous other dominant considerations — superstitions, religious dogma, the afterlife, pride in the tribe, which makes the individual impotent, the everpresent fear of Satan, family entanglements, envy, ego, and a conspicuous lack of understanding of the concept of causality. Even if they are keen on economic growth, their irrationality assures that they do more of what created their poverty, in a vain attempt to remove their poverty.

Economists are paid well to stay ignorant about the problems that democracy is afflicting on the third world, and increasingly in the first world.

The situation gets rapidly worse as you go down the class hierarchies of these societies and arrive at the people who mathematically are the major voting bloc. The peasants are traditionally tribal, superstitious, and envious. In a democracy, the bottom 51% of a society decides the nature of its institutions. Institutions take a long time to change, but eventually the psychology of the masses, their irrationalities, and their tribalism permeates it.

Many people worry ad nauseam that the USA supports the totalitarian regime in Saudi Arabia. But people from that area know that were Saudi Arabia to become democratic, it would become much more fanatical. While isolated locals might ask for more liberties, and their voice be exaggerated by the Western press, making Saudi government look like the one remaining province of tyranny, the masses insist on an increase in totalitarianism. While a few isolated women might burn their hijabs, the majority of women insist on them.

And what about other countries?

Quite in contrast to video images of recent protests, and the Western narrative of Iranians asking for liberties, 83% of Iranians favor the use of sharia law. It is a no-brainer that more democracy isn’t going to change Iran in the way romantics in the West think it will.

A rule of, by, and for the peasantry is the maturing of democracy, and it never ends well for anyone, including the peasants.

Syria is nothing but an advanced stage of the Arab Spring, of the movement for democracy. So, mutatis mutandis, is Venezuela, where the culture of the masses and peasants has seeped into the government. With each gyration of democracy, Pakistan has become an increasingly Islamic state, where a word against the holy book results in a death penalty. India, the world’s biggest democracy, is rapidly taking the same course, as its deep-rooted superstitions, tribalism, and magical thinking continue to permeate its institutions.

We must again ask whether any democratic change would increase the rule of law and the culture of individualism — or whether it would be detrimental to both.

A rule of, by, and for the peasantry is the maturing of democracy, and it never ends well for anyone, including the peasants. The peasant revolutions of Mao’s China, Stalin’s Russia, Pol Pot’s Cambodia, and the innumerable civil wars of sub-Saharan Africa have virtually no competitors in causing misery and destruction. Peasants, except in New Age literature, have high time preference; they lack education, critical thinking, and rationality; and they are unskilled in planning. They focus at best on the immediate accumulation of resources. Allowed to feel victimized, allowed to pass responsibility onto others for their predicament, they happily do so.

But haven’t the elite, the intellectuals, the businessmen, the entrenched classes, the feudal lords not been exploitative?

In Brazil, India, and Venezuela the middle class is extremely corrupt. In the caste system of India, the lower caste does not even exist as human being in the minds of the upper caste. The elites are the exploiting class. But when the peasants get into power, there are no limits left for corruption and exploitation. They enable lose-lose tyranny and brutality — pure, unadulterated savagery.

All power structures are exploitative. The question is which one does the most for society.

The state is a totalitarian instrument. Apartheid was the same. The caste system is the same. Among all these systems, the rule of peasants — democracy — is the worst. Their inability to think of the future and understand public policy means that once in control, they rapidly destroy the institutions, enter a phase of hedonism, go into conflicts over resources, or simply destroy the country’s capital, eventually trending society toward Malthusian equilibrium. One has to spend time in backward societies to see how, as if by magic, the masses instinctively destroy any advantages they get from technology and economic growth.

Capital, civilization, and prosperity do not occur in nature. Increasing capital and even maintaining it is the job of the elite — not of masses or peasants. All power structures are exploitative. The question is which one does the most for society and what steps to take to move society toward more liberty. Democracy isn’t that next step forward.




Share This


Vibranium Victorious

 | 

Certain films create a cultural footprint that transcends the films themselves. Black Panther is one of them. As a piece of entertainment, it’s just one more in a growing list of superhero movies based on the comic-book world of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby. The story is fairly familiar — the superhero, T’Challa (Chadwick Boseman) must save the world by preventing a new weapon from falling into the hands of an arms dealer, Klaue (Andy Serkis), who is aided by the supervillain, Killmonger (Michael B. Jordan). Along the way there are ample badass battles to satisfy the superhero fans in the audience.

What makes this film significant is that T’Challa is the first black superhero who’s more than a sidekick to the real superhero. As such, Black Panther is having an impact across the nation. Finally — a film set in a black community that isn’t about the ’hood, drugs, gangsters, sidekicks, buffoons, or slavery. It isn’t even about racism or being black. No wonder it’s breaking box office records.

Finally — a film set in a black community that isn’t about the ’hood, drugs, gangsters, sidekicks, buffoons, or slavery.

Granted, the filmmakers had to go all the way to Africa to accomplish this task. Black Panther is set in a Shangri-La-like kingdom called Wakanda, located in the center of Africa and hidden from view in the way Harry Potter’s Hogwarts is — a shimmering, reflective barrier blocks the way, but it just takes a little faith and courage to enter the utopian kingdom. Wakanda flourishes because of a secret mineral deposit called vibranium that can be used to create everything from microchips to skyscrapers to weapons. It’s also responsible for a glowing medicinal flower, infused with vibranium, that has seeped into the soil. An elixir made from this vibranium plant gives Black Panther his powers and can also heal mortal wounds.

Five tribes occupy the kingdom of Wakanda, each with a distinct language and culture represented in the film by the color and design of their costumes and accessories. One of the five tribes, Jabari, has chosen not to join the federation of tribes, but the five coexist peacefully; the other four do not force the Jabari to join or succumb to majority rule. I like that.

The Wakandan culture is an odd yet beautiful mixture of technology and tradition. The architecture of the royal city is futuristic and grand, built of vibranium, powered by vibranium, and protected by an air force of wasplike jets that are guided by vibranium-charged computers. A Wakandan princess (Letitia Wright) also makes gadgets from the stuff for the hero to use in his battles against evildoers, reminiscent of the gadgets Q provides in the James Bond films. On the other hand, the Wakandans’ clothing is made of bright, colorful fabrics, their jewelry is large and gaudy, their feet are mostly bare, and their warriors’ weapon of choice is a spear with a shield, suggesting a traditional culture of long ago.

The cotumes, props, and sets help the film successfully navigate the fine line between tradition and stereotype, providing an authenticity that counters the “oonga-boonga” of the Tarzan era.

One scene of celebration, with tribespeople chanting and bouncing, feels riskily close to wide-eyed Tarzanesque stereotyping, and the elixir used to transform the king into Black Panther comes dangerously close to witchdoctor voodoo. However, director Ryan Coogler and production designer Hannah Beachler, who based the costumes, props, and sets on traditional African culture, successfully navigate the fine line between tradition and stereotype, providing the film with an authenticity that counters the “oonga-boonga” of the Tarzan era.

Also adding to the authenticity is the quality of the acting. Angela Bassett as the queen mother brings a quiet dignity to her role, while Danai Gurira is fierce as Okoye, the chief of the bald female warriors who serve as the king’s guard. Academy Award winner Lupito Nyong’o brings depth to the role of T’Challa’s partner and love interest, while Michael B. Jordan (Creed, Fruitvale Station) is simply superb as the villain who exudes magnetism and swaggering leadership rather than two-dimensional evil. Martin Freeman, the token white, amiably provides the comic heroism usually reserved for a token black actor in movies like this. The actors recognized that they were part of something important in this production, and it shows.

One of the things I especially liked about Black Panther is the fact that I could watch it without feeling that nagging collective white guilt. In poems such as “Negro” and “A Negro Speaks of Rivers” Langston Hughes marginalized the impact of the American experience by turning it into a blip on the vast African timeline. Coogler does something similar with Black Panther by setting it not in America but in Africa, where he is free to create a noble and heroic backstory that transcends the need to be factual. While I’ve outgrown superhero movies, I was able to enjoy this one for its cultural import and what it says (and doesn’t say) about modern politics. In essence, Coogler has appropriated Lee and Kirby’s story and used it to create a whole new myth of African society. (Incidentally, the Marvel character predates the Black Panther organization by two months and was temporarily changed to Black Leopard to distance the superhero from the political movement.)

Martin Freeman, the token white, amiably provides the comic heroism usually reserved for a token black actor in movies like this.

So what about the politics of the movie — does it have a message? As the new king, T’Challa receives political advice from several sources. His sister Shuri (Wright) runs the technological research of Wakanda and represents the brains of the kingdom. Her answer to the problem of global poverty is to provide aid and technology. Recognizing Wakandan exceptionalism, she feels a responsibility toward the poorer nations of Africa akin to noblesse oblige. Coogler portrays her as something of a Bill Gates — creating wealth through technology, and then using that wealth to provide for the needs of others globally. Of course, we’ve seen the disruption caused by the Gates Foundation’s global influence, but giving aid always has a nice ring to it.

W’Kabi (Daniel Kaluuya), T’Challa’s best friend and the leader of the border tribe, favors isolationism as the way to maintain peace. “Let refugees in, and they bring their problems with them,” he maintains, suggesting that it’s wiser to go out and clean things up where the refugees live, so they can stay where they are. Meanwhile Okoye, representing the military, is loyal to the throne, regardless of who sits there or what the new king represents ideologically. Killmonger favors the path his name would suggest. Eventually T’Challa decides that “the wise build bridges, the foolish build barriers.” And the peaceful coexistence of the five tribes? This enlightened civility is contradicted by the way they choose a new leader. When the king dies, a representative of any tribe can challenge his heir’s sovereignty through physical combat à la David and Goliath, and the king’s guard will immediately swear loyalty to the winner. So much for thoughtful discussion and peaceful transition; might evidently does make right — especially when it leads to an exciting battle at the top of a waterfall.

Ryan Coogler describes the film's central theme as “responsibility and identity.” He said in an interview, "What do the powerful owe those in need? It separates the good guys from the villains. What value is strength unless you're using it to help someone? Wakanda pretends to be just another struggling African country, but some of its neighbors are struggling for real. If Wakandans don't stand up for themselves, who will? But if they stand only for themselves, then who are they?" What I find troubling about this noble goal is the way it has played out in practice around the world, leading to imperial expansionism, victimhood, and an unintentional restraint against poorer nations becoming self-sustaining. Entrepreneurship, the only sure system for rising out of poverty, is never mentioned, and in fact, no one seems to work in this Wakanda where vibranium and the military take care of all needs. Still, the goal of sharing one’s good fortune is noble, and I like the fact that Wakandans plan to share, not just their wealth, but their knowledge and technology with the world.

Of course, we’ve seen the disruption caused by the Gates Foundation’s global influence, but giving aid always has a nice ring to it.

Black Panther has the potential to empower black families and black children in a whole new way. Instead of identifying with the victims, gangsters, and sidekicks they see on the screen, now they’re identifying with a leader. One of my black friends saw the movie five times on opening weekend. He is as energized by it as if he had taken a dose of vibranium. That makes me happy because, as I said in my review of last year’s Oscar nominated documentary I Am Not Your Negro, “Could the solution [to black victimhood] be as simple as mothers and fathers and teachers telling black children everywhere, ‘You can do anything. You can be anything’?” If seeing a black superhero as the leader of a strong, successful, smart kingdom can give black children that kind of boost, I’m all in favor of it.


Editor's Note: Review of "Black Panther," directed by Ryan Coogler. Marvel Studios/Walt Disney Pictures, 2018, 134 minutes.



Share This


Alas, Zimbabwe!

 | 

I had visited several African countries, but my 2009 flight to Harare turned out to be the most stomach churning. The ongoing expropriation of farms owned by people of European descent and the associated violence in Zimbabwe was international news in those days. On the plane, I watched two movies, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Aided by a couple of glasses of wine, the two movies and the news from Zimbabwe got mixed up in my mind. I was expecting to encounter a violent society, general chaos, and militants with AK-47s. I was craving for my plane to somehow turn around.

But Harare proved safer than many other places I had been to in Africa. When we arrived, the airport was in complete darkness because of a shortage of electricity. The officials looked bored and sleepy. Yet interesting events awaited me. I was to get arrested in Harare. I was to spend time with Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, who was at that time an international star, a hero of human-rights activists for his opposition to President Robert Mugabe, and soon to be prime minister (a position without much power) under him. I was to be befriended by a relative of Mugabe, with whom I spent two days. I was also soon to become, to use a word that is yet to find a place in the dictionary, a multitrillionaire.

When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free.

Zimbabwe had recently lost control of its currency. Inflation was so rapid — reaching as much as one million percent at one point — that the nation’s money was left with no value. A few months before I arrived, people had stopped using the local currency. The only medium of transactions was the US dollar, the South African rand, or the euro. When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free. By this time, you couldn’t even buy a local bus ticket with those notes.

Nothing was cheap. Even for simple food and fruit, the prices were much higher than I would have paid in Canada. A kilo of onions was US $1.60, sugar was $0.85, and potatoes were a dollar. I could have bought a cheap table fan for something between $50 and $110. A 300-gram packet of Kellogg’s cornflakes was $2.10. A 400 ml of Pantene shampoo was $7.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap — a couple of dollars or less a day — and land amply fertile. Development economists struggle to explain why even basic foodstuffs are so expensive in such countries. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into places like Zimbabwe?

The explanation is very easy, but very incorrect, politically. I will zero in on it at the end.

Despite the high price of goods that should have provided huge incentives for people to work, the roads of Harare were full of thousands and thousands of unemployed men. Those trying to do something were selling produce — exactly the same produce — from small roadside shops. Prepaid vouchers for cellular phones were being sold everywhere, partly as currency or a hedge against inflation.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into the country?

But what I was exploring was the economy that represented the higher tail-end of the national GDP, which was then $606 per capita. Harare, not the hinterland, was my principal location.

Despite extreme poverty and unemployment, Harare was a safe city. I tried striking up conversations in fast-food joints with those of European descent, and contrary to what I expected, they told me about the lack of ethnic conflicts in Zimbabwe. Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party. I got the impression that it wasn’t necessarily the violent aspects of Zimbabwean culture but its relative sheepishness that allowed violent people to rule the country’s institutions and not get challenged. If a significant minority doesn’t get fired up about liberty and proper institutions, the society must fall into political tyranny and chaos. I soon lost my fear and walked around freely, but bad things managed to happen, evidence of the tyranny beneath the calm.

At one point, a policeman came out of nowhere, started shouting at me, and held my wrist while I was midway crossing a road. He was shouting at me and pulling me in the other direction. I declined to go with him unless he let go of my wrist. We agreed that I would walk with him to his small post at the corner of the road. He had seen me photographing the parliament building, which is illegal. For him not knowing that law was the ultimate crime. He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation. My only other option was to look important and name-drop. So that’s what I did. In a tribal society, it is pecking-order and might-is-right that rule. The rule of law is not just unimportant, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on — it is incomprehensible to anyone, including the judges.

Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party.

One evening, Morgan Tsvangirai visited the hotel bar, where I managed to have a private conversation with him. Before becoming a politician, he was a trade union leader and had worked in a nickel mine. He told me bluntly that if he came to power he would be “fair” but would expropriate whatever he needed for the good of Zimbabwe. When I told him that international investors would not put money into Zimbabwe unless they saw profits and safety for their capital, the idea made no sense to him. He seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the concepts of private property and profit. Lack of ideas was in him so palpable that I doubt he could even be labeled a Marxist.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse. Ironically, that understanding had completely escaped the international media and other international organizations that were lobbying to have Mugabe replaced by Tsvangirai.

I had met a lot of well-educated Zimbabweans who were living in London and New York. They expressed their patriotism and their craving to return. But they made it amply clear that they weren’t going to do so except as expatriates with hardship allowances added to their Western salaries. In the economic structure of Zimbabwe this would simply not add up. So they did not return.

He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation.

For whatever reason, I had come to be seen in Harare as a man wielding huge money power. A relative of Mugabe befriended me and decided to show me around during the last two days of my visit. He showed me his fleet of cars and his several palatial houses. He also showed me expropriated properties and farms of ethnically European farmers. Genteel readers may find my happily “enjoying” a trip to such farms a bit repulsive. But revulsion would simply have meant that I wouldn’t have had the experience, or have been able to write about it. We drove around Harare and surrounding areas like royalty, with the police now extremely servile. Our vehicle always picked up pace when we drove closer to police blockades.

So what does the future hold for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans are extremely unskilled and have a very high time preference. The moderately skilled Zimbabweans have moved on to greener pastures. Brain-drain is real, in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the Third World. None of this augurs well.

I reflected on what the “liberation” movement of Zimbabwe must have been like. I had good laughs with a lot of Zimbabweans and found them very friendly, but I found no ingredient in them that would make them fight for liberty and freedom, if they had any concept of what those words meant. The nationalist movements of the colonized countries are too sugarcoated in history books. Those movements were mainly about local goons fighting for power when Europeans were getting tired and colonization had started to become less profitable.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse.

As I write this, Robert Mugabe has been removed in a coup. He had been in power since the foundation of the republic in 1980. He was, in effect, installed by a relatively rational entity: the British. No such entity exists in the extremely irrational and tribal Zimbabwe. The concepts of liberty, planning, reason, and the rule of law do not exist there. Zimbabwean democracy is incapable of finding another Mugabe. It will by definition find a significantly worse “leader.”

The world today is celebrating the end of Mugabe and the rise of new light in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans danced and celebrated the removal of Mugabe and the appearance of their new-found “freedoms.” But behind the facade they are happy for something completely different. When they use the word “freedom” they are expecting the end of Mugabe to produce an era of free-stuff, goodies that flow without having to put in any effort. In their worldview, free-stuff should come to them without obligation to plan, invest, or strive for something more than momentary pleasure, including the pleasure of political “liberation.”

Let us zero in.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. Gleaning out the key factors that made it a comparatively prosperous society is fairly easy, but hard to utter. In the old days its institutional spine was British rule and farmers of European heritage. Without their return in some form, Zimbabwe has no hope.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would.

Of course, the milieu of Western society and international organizations is such that anyone who holds a politically incorrect view is immediately thrown out. So these organizations simply do not have the capacity to prescribe corrective action for Zimbabwe. They recite “democracy” as a treatment for all ills. But a “democratic” society that lacks the concepts of practical reason, limited government, and the rule of law does not have the ability to find a good leader. It will merely feel attraction toward the person who offers the most goodies.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would. They will be expecting fresh elections to do the job. This demand for elections and democracy has been the never-ending, simplistic prescription of international organizations in the postcolonial world. But the prescription does not work. Zimbabwe will, unfortunately, get worse, much worse.




Share This


Alas, Zimbabwe!

 | 

I had visited several African countries, but my 2009 flight to Harare turned out to be the most stomach churning. The ongoing expropriation of farms owned by people of European descent and the associated violence in Zimbabwe was international news in those days. On the plane, I watched two movies, Blood Diamond and The Last King of Scotland. Aided by a couple of glasses of wine, the two movies and the news from Zimbabwe got mixed up in my mind. I was expecting to encounter a violent society, general chaos, and militants with AK-47s. I was craving for my plane to somehow turn around.

But Harare proved safer than many other places I had been to in Africa. When we arrived, the airport was in complete darkness because of a shortage of electricity. The officials looked bored and sleepy. Yet interesting events awaited me. I was to get arrested in Harare. I was to spend time with Morgan Richard Tsvangirai, who was at that time an international star, a hero of human-rights activists for his opposition to President Robert Mugabe, and soon to be prime minister (a position without much power) under him. I was to be befriended by a relative of Mugabe, with whom I spent two days. I was also soon to become, to use a word that is yet to find a place in the dictionary, a multitrillionaire.

When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free.

Zimbabwe had recently lost control of its currency. Inflation was so rapid — reaching as much as one million percent at one point — that the nation’s money was left with no value. A few months before I arrived, people had stopped using the local currency. The only medium of transactions was the US dollar, the South African rand, or the euro. When I asked for it, someone soon brought me a bundle of 100-trillion dollar bills, all for free. By this time, you couldn’t even buy a local bus ticket with those notes.

Nothing was cheap. Even for simple food and fruit, the prices were much higher than I would have paid in Canada. A kilo of onions was US $1.60, sugar was $0.85, and potatoes were a dollar. I could have bought a cheap table fan for something between $50 and $110. A 300-gram packet of Kellogg’s cornflakes was $2.10. A 400 ml of Pantene shampoo was $7.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap — a couple of dollars or less a day — and land amply fertile. Development economists struggle to explain why even basic foodstuffs are so expensive in such countries. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into places like Zimbabwe?

The explanation is very easy, but very incorrect, politically. I will zero in on it at the end.

Despite the high price of goods that should have provided huge incentives for people to work, the roads of Harare were full of thousands and thousands of unemployed men. Those trying to do something were selling produce — exactly the same produce — from small roadside shops. Prepaid vouchers for cellular phones were being sold everywhere, partly as currency or a hedge against inflation.

In Zimbabwe, labor is dirt cheap. Why does manufacturing from China or at least from Europe not flood into the country?

But what I was exploring was the economy that represented the higher tail-end of the national GDP, which was then $606 per capita. Harare, not the hinterland, was my principal location.

Despite extreme poverty and unemployment, Harare was a safe city. I tried striking up conversations in fast-food joints with those of European descent, and contrary to what I expected, they told me about the lack of ethnic conflicts in Zimbabwe. Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party. I got the impression that it wasn’t necessarily the violent aspects of Zimbabwean culture but its relative sheepishness that allowed violent people to rule the country’s institutions and not get challenged. If a significant minority doesn’t get fired up about liberty and proper institutions, the society must fall into political tyranny and chaos. I soon lost my fear and walked around freely, but bad things managed to happen, evidence of the tyranny beneath the calm.

At one point, a policeman came out of nowhere, started shouting at me, and held my wrist while I was midway crossing a road. He was shouting at me and pulling me in the other direction. I declined to go with him unless he let go of my wrist. We agreed that I would walk with him to his small post at the corner of the road. He had seen me photographing the parliament building, which is illegal. For him not knowing that law was the ultimate crime. He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation. My only other option was to look important and name-drop. So that’s what I did. In a tribal society, it is pecking-order and might-is-right that rule. The rule of law is not just unimportant, it isn’t worth the paper it is written on — it is incomprehensible to anyone, including the judges.

Most of the land expropriation and violence that had been happening was the responsibility of a minority of the populace, mostly connected with the ruling party.

One evening, Morgan Tsvangirai visited the hotel bar, where I managed to have a private conversation with him. Before becoming a politician, he was a trade union leader and had worked in a nickel mine. He told me bluntly that if he came to power he would be “fair” but would expropriate whatever he needed for the good of Zimbabwe. When I told him that international investors would not put money into Zimbabwe unless they saw profits and safety for their capital, the idea made no sense to him. He seemed to have absolutely no understanding of the concepts of private property and profit. Lack of ideas was in him so palpable that I doubt he could even be labeled a Marxist.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse. Ironically, that understanding had completely escaped the international media and other international organizations that were lobbying to have Mugabe replaced by Tsvangirai.

I had met a lot of well-educated Zimbabweans who were living in London and New York. They expressed their patriotism and their craving to return. But they made it amply clear that they weren’t going to do so except as expatriates with hardship allowances added to their Western salaries. In the economic structure of Zimbabwe this would simply not add up. So they did not return.

He was obviously looking for a bribe, but not knowing how much to give, I could have easily fallen into a never-ending negotiation.

For whatever reason, I had come to be seen in Harare as a man wielding huge money power. A relative of Mugabe befriended me and decided to show me around during the last two days of my visit. He showed me his fleet of cars and his several palatial houses. He also showed me expropriated properties and farms of ethnically European farmers. Genteel readers may find my happily “enjoying” a trip to such farms a bit repulsive. But revulsion would simply have meant that I wouldn’t have had the experience, or have been able to write about it. We drove around Harare and surrounding areas like royalty, with the police now extremely servile. Our vehicle always picked up pace when we drove closer to police blockades.

So what does the future hold for Zimbabwe?

Zimbabweans are extremely unskilled and have a very high time preference. The moderately skilled Zimbabweans have moved on to greener pastures. Brain-drain is real, in Zimbabwe as in the rest of the Third World. None of this augurs well.

I reflected on what the “liberation” movement of Zimbabwe must have been like. I had good laughs with a lot of Zimbabweans and found them very friendly, but I found no ingredient in them that would make them fight for liberty and freedom, if they had any concept of what those words meant. The nationalist movements of the colonized countries are too sugarcoated in history books. Those movements were mainly about local goons fighting for power when Europeans were getting tired and colonization had started to become less profitable.

The truth was staring nakedly at my face: Zimbabwe after Mugabe would be much worse.

As I write this, Robert Mugabe has been removed in a coup. He had been in power since the foundation of the republic in 1980. He was, in effect, installed by a relatively rational entity: the British. No such entity exists in the extremely irrational and tribal Zimbabwe. The concepts of liberty, planning, reason, and the rule of law do not exist there. Zimbabwean democracy is incapable of finding another Mugabe. It will by definition find a significantly worse “leader.”

The world today is celebrating the end of Mugabe and the rise of new light in Zimbabwe. Zimbabweans danced and celebrated the removal of Mugabe and the appearance of their new-found “freedoms.” But behind the facade they are happy for something completely different. When they use the word “freedom” they are expecting the end of Mugabe to produce an era of free-stuff, goodies that flow without having to put in any effort. In their worldview, free-stuff should come to them without obligation to plan, invest, or strive for something more than momentary pleasure, including the pleasure of political “liberation.”

Let us zero in.

Zimbabwe was once the breadbasket of Africa. Gleaning out the key factors that made it a comparatively prosperous society is fairly easy, but hard to utter. In the old days its institutional spine was British rule and farmers of European heritage. Without their return in some form, Zimbabwe has no hope.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would.

Of course, the milieu of Western society and international organizations is such that anyone who holds a politically incorrect view is immediately thrown out. So these organizations simply do not have the capacity to prescribe corrective action for Zimbabwe. They recite “democracy” as a treatment for all ills. But a “democratic” society that lacks the concepts of practical reason, limited government, and the rule of law does not have the ability to find a good leader. It will merely feel attraction toward the person who offers the most goodies.

A year or two from now, the World Bank, the UN, and the media will again be complaining about Zimbabwe not turning out to be what they thought it would. They will be expecting fresh elections to do the job. This demand for elections and democracy has been the never-ending, simplistic prescription of international organizations in the postcolonial world. But the prescription does not work. Zimbabwe will, unfortunately, get worse, much worse.




Share This


The Reality of “Emerging Markets”

 | 

The British Empire was the largest in history. At the end of World War II Britain had to start pulling out. A major part of the reason was, ironically, the economic prosperity that had come through industrialization, massive improvements in transportation, and the advent of telecommunications, ethnic and religious respect, freedom of speech, and other liberties offered by the empire.

After the departure of the British — as well as the French, German, Belgians, and other European colonizers — most of the newly “independent” countries suffered rapid decay in their institutions, stagnant economises, massive social strife, and a fall in standards of living. An age of anti-liberalism and tyranny descended on these ex-colonized countries. They rightly got to be known as third-world countries.

The blame — at least among those on the Right — went mostly to socialism and the rise of dictators. This is not incorrect, but it is a merely proximate cause.

An armchair economist would have assumed that these ex-colonized countries, still very backward and at a very low base compared to Europe, would grow economically at a faster rate. Quite to the contrary, as time passed by, their growth rate stayed lower than that of the West.

The blame — at least among those on the Right — went mostly to socialism and the rise of dictators. This is not incorrect, but it is a merely proximate cause. Clarity might have been reached if people had contemplated the reason why Marxism and socialism grew like weeds in the formerly colonial countries.

According to conventional wisdom, the situation changed after the fall of the socialist ringleader, the USSR, in the late ’80s. Ex-colonized countries started to liberalize their economies and widely accepted democracy, leading to peace, the spread of education and equality, the establishment of liberal, independent institutions, and a massive economic growth sustained during the past three decades. The “third-world” would soon be known as the “emerging markets.”

In some ways, government regulations and repression of businesses in the “emerging markets” have actually gotten much worse.

Alas, this is a faulty narrative. Economic growth did pick up in these poor countries, and the rate of growth did markedly exceed that of the West, but the conventional narrative confuses correlation with causality. It tries to fit events to ideological preferences, which assume that we are all the same, that if Europeans could progress, so should everyone else, and that all that matters is correct incentives and appropriate institutions.

The claimed liberalization in the “emerging markets” after the collapse of the USSR did not really happen. Progress was always one step forward and two steps back. In some ways, government regulations and repression of businesses in the “emerging markets” have actually gotten much worse. Financed by increased taxes, governments have grown by leaps and bounds — not for the benefit of society but for that of the ruling class — and are now addicted to their own growth.

The ultimate underpinnings of the so-called emerging markets haven’t changed. Their rapid economic progress during the past three decades — a one-off event — happened for reasons completely different from those assumed by most economists. The question is: once the effect of the one-off event has worn off, will the so-called emerging markets revert to the stagnation, institutional degradation, and tyranny that they had leaped into soon after the European colonizers left?

In the “emerging markets” (except for China) synchronized favorable economic changes were an anomaly. They resulted in large part from the new, extremely cheap telephony that came into existence (a result of massive cabling of the planet done in the ’80s) and the subsequent advent of the new technology of the internet. The internet enabled instantaneous transfer of technology from the West and, by consequence, an unprecedented economic growth in the “emerging markets.”

Those who hold China in contempt for copying Western technology don’t understand that if copying were so easy, the rest of the world would have done the same.

Meanwhile, a real cultural, political, and economic renaissance started in China. It was an event so momentous that it changed the economic structure not just of China but of the whole world. Because China is seen as a communist dictatorship, it fails to be fully appreciated and respected by intellectuals who are obsessed with the institution of democracy. But now that the low-hanging fruit from the emergence of the internet and of China (which continues to progress) have been plucked, the “emerging markets” (except, again, for China) are regressing to the normal: decay in their institutions, stagnant economies, and social strife. They should still be called the “third world.”

There are those who hold China in contempt for copying Western technology, but they don’t understand that if copying were so easy, Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, and South Asia would have done the same. They were, after all, prepared for progress by their colonial history. European colonizers brought in the rule of law and significantly reduced the tribal warfare that had been a daily routine in many of the colonies — in the Americas, Africa, the Middle East, and Asia. Britain and other European nations set up institutional structures that allowed for accumulation of intellectual and financial capital. Western-style education and democracy were initiated. But this was helpful in a very marginal way.

For those who have not travelled and immersed themselves in formerly colonized countries, it is hard to understand that although there was piping for water and sewage in Roman days, it still does not exist for a very large segment of the world’s population. The wheel has been in existence for more than 5,000 years, but a very large number of people still carry water pots on their heads.

It is not the absence of technology or money that is stopping these people from starting to use some basic forms of technology. It is something else.

A remark often attributed to Churchill, although unverified, has more than passed the test of time: “If Independence is granted to India, power will go to the hands of rascals, rogues, freebooters; all Indian leaders will be of low calibre and men of straw. They will have sweet tongues and silly hearts. They will fight amongst themselves for power and India will be lost in political squabbles. A day would come when even air and water would be taxed in India.”

The hope that once the correct incentives are in place and institutions have been organized, the third world on a path to perpetual growth, couldn’t be more wrong.

Europeans of that time clearly knew that there was something fundamentally different between the West and the Rest, and that the colonies would not survive without the pillars and cement that European management provided. With the rise of political correctness this wisdom was erased from our common understanding, but it is something that may well return to haunt us in the near future as expectations from the third-world fail and those who immigrate to Europe, Canada, Australia, and the US fail to assimilate.

For now, the hope among those in the World Bank, the IMF, and other armchair intellectuals has been that once the correct incentives are in place and institutions have been organized, imposed structures will put the third world on a path to perpetual growth. They couldn’t be more wrong.

The cart has been put in front of the horse. It is institutions that emerge from the underlying culture, not the other way around. And a cultural change is a millennia-long process, perhaps even longer. As soon as Europeans quitted their colonies, the institutional structures they left started to crumble. Alas, it takes a Ph.D. from an Ivy League college and a quarter of a million dollar salary at the World Bank or IMF not to understand what is the key issue with development economics and institutional failures: the missing ingredient in the third world was the concept of objective, impartial reason, the basis of laws and institutions that protect individual rights. This concept took 2,500 years to develop and get infused into the culture, memes, and genes of Europeans — a difficult process that, even in Europe, has never been completed.

European institutions were at roots a product of this concept. Despite massive effort by missionaries, religious and secular, and of institutions imposed on poor countries, reason failed to get transmitted. Whatever marginal improvement was achieved over 200 to 300 years of colonization is therefore slowly and surely being undone.

Without reason, the concepts of equal law, compassion, and empathy do not operate. Such societies simply cannot have institutions of the rule of law and of fairness. The consequence is that they cannot evolve or even maintain the Western institutions that European colonizers left behind. Any imposed institutions — schools, armies, elections, national executives, banking and taxation systems — must mutate to cater to the underlying irrationalities and tribalisms of the third world.

Alas, it takes a Ph.D. from an Ivy League college and a quarter of a million dollar salary at the World Bank or IMF not to understand what is the key issue with development economics and institutional failures.

In these “emerging markets,” education has become a dogma, not a tool; it floats unassimilated in the minds of people lacking objective reason. It has burdened their minds. Instead of leading to creativity and critical thinking, it is used for propaganda by demagogues. Without impartial reason, democracy is a mere tribal, geographical concept steeped in arrogance. All popular and “educated” rhetoric to the contrary, I can think of no country in the nonwestern world that did well after it took to “democracy.”

The spread of nationalism (which to a rational mind is about the commonality of values) has created crises by unifying people tribally. The most visible example is what is happening in the Middle East, but the basic problem is the same in every South Asian and African country. It is the same problem in most of South America. India, the geographical entity I grew up in, has rapidly been collectivized under the flag and the anthem. It might eventually become the Middle East on steroids, once Hindutava (Hindu nationalism) has become well-rooted.

In Burma, a whiff of democracy does not seem to have inhibited Buddhists’ genocide against the Muslim Rohingya. Thailand (which wasn’t colonized in a strictly political sense) has gone silent, but its crisis hasn’t. Turkey and Malaysia, among the better of these backward societies, have taken paths of rapid regression to their medieval pasts. South Africa, which not too far in the past was seen as a first-world country, got rid of apartheid, but what it now has is even worse. The same happened with Venezuela, which in the recent past was among the richer countries of the world. It is ready to implode, as may Brazil one day. Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, and East Timor are acknowledged to be in a mess, and are getting worse by the day. Indonesia took a breather for a few years and is now again on the footprints of fanaticism. India is the biggest democracy, so its problems are actively ignored by the Western press, but they won’t be for long, as India continues to become a police state.

The spread of nationalism has created crises by unifying people tribally.

Botswana was seen as a country whose growth was among the fastest for the longest. What was ignored was the fact that this rather large country has a very small population, which benefited hugely from diamonds and other natural resources. The top political layer of Botswana is still a leftover from the British. The local culture continues to corrode what was left by them, and there are clear signs that Botswana is past its peak. Papua New Guinea was another country that was doing reasonably well, before the Australians left. It is now rapidly regressing to its tribal, irrational, and extremely violent norm, where for practical purposes a rape is not even a crime.

The world may recognize most of the above, but it sees these countries’ problems as isolated events that can corrected by a further imposition of Western institutions, under the guidance of the UN or some such international (and therefore “noncolonialist”) organization. Amusingly, our intellectual climate — a product of political correctness — is such that the third world is seen as the backbone of humanity’s future economic growth.

Unfortunately, so-called emerging markets are headed for a chaotic future. The likeliest prospect is that these countries will continue catering to irrational forces, particularly tribalism, and that they will consequently cease to exist, disintegrating into much smaller entities. As their tide of economic growth goes out with the final phase of plucking the free gift of internet technology, their problems will surface rapidly, exactly when the last of those who were trained in the colonial system are sent to the history books.




Share This


Infinity in One Hour, 48 Minutes

 | 

Biographical films, or “bioflicks” as they are often called, constitute a challenging genre for filmmakers — for a variety of reasons.

One major challenge is the difficulty of avoiding the extremes of hagiography and exposé. The temptation of a bioflick maker — especially one who is very sympathetic to the subject of the story, or who knows his audience is — may be to understate or omit relevant but unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or exaggerate the character’s good qualities or actions. One thinks of many of the biographical films of sports stars, artists, and political leaders from the 1930s through the 1960s. Conversely, the filmmaker — especially one who is very hostile to his subject, or who know the audience is — may be tempted to exaggerate the unfavorable qualities or actions of the real character, or to understate or omit the character’s good qualities or actions. There are even cases in which the bioflick maker is sympathetic to the perceived flaws of the real character and is tempted to exaggerate or accentuate them, in an effort to convince the public that they aren’t really flaws.

For these very reasons, bioflicks are often used as propaganda. Political regimes have long recognized the power of biographical film to advance their political causes, either by adoring portrayals of certain figures (such as key leaders of the regime, or historical figures whom the regime views favorably) or hateful portrayals of others (such as key opponents of the regime or historical figures whom the regime views unfavorably). For example, the Nazi Regime used bioflicks such as Hitler Youth Quex (1933) to convince people that the Party had among its supporters many noble young people.

The young Ramanujan apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers.

Another challenge is conveying what the subject of the film actually accomplished, together with its significance. This is relatively easy if the subject is (say) an artist: the filmmaker can inter alia show pictures of the artist’s work, while portraying the difficulty he or she faced in gaining acceptance (as is nicely done in Vincente Minelli’s acclaimed biography of Van Gogh, Lust for Life [1956]). Again, if the subject is a composer, it is easy to make his major compositions part of the movie’s score (a successful instance is Richard Whorf’s popular biography of songwriter Jerome Kern, Till the Clouds Roll By [1946]). It can be more difficult if the subject of the film is a scientist, or worse, a mathematician. One sees these challenges, and a creative response to them, in an excellent new bioflick, currently showing in art houses.

The Man Who Knew Infinity tells the story of the great Indian mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujan. Ramanujan was born in Erode, in the state of Madras, in 1887. He was of a Brahmin family (on his maternal side), but his parents were of limited means. His father was a clerk in a dress shop; his mother was a housewife. He survived smallpox when he was two, and grew up in a modest house in Kanchipuram (near Madras). The house is now a national museum in his honor. His mother — to whom he was very close, all his life — had three other children, all of whom died as infants. Raised as a devout Hindu, he kept the faith and Brahmin customs (especially vegetarianism) as an adult.

While Ramanujan went through secondary school and attended some college, he was largely self-taught. He mastered advanced trigonometry by age 13, discovering some higher-level theorems by himself. At age 14 he was able to pass in half the permitted time the high school math exit exam, and at age 15 he learned how to solve cubic equations. Then, by himself, he figured out how to solve quartic equations. A crucial year for him was his 16th, when a friend gave him a copy of A Synopsis of Elementary Results in Pure and Applied Mathematics, a compilation of 5,000 theorems by G.S. Carr. He apparently spent that year mastering the theorems, and by the next year he independently developed (among other things) the Bernoulli numbers, a subject on which he published a paper some years later. He was graduated from Town Higher Secondary School that year (1904), winning the K. Ranganatha Rao prize for mathematics.

Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as an editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

Unfortunately, although he was given a scholarship to attend college, he refused to focus on any studies besides mathematics, a refusal that resulted in his failure and dismissal. He subsequently left home and enrolled in another college, but again focused only on mathematics and was unable to get his bachelor’s degree. He left college in 1906 and worked as a poor independent scholar. In 1909 he married a very young girl, Srimathi Janaki — marrying very young was an Indian custom of the time — and after a bout of testicular disease, found work as a tutor helping students prepare for their mathematics exams.

In 1910, Ramanujan showed his work to V. Ramaswamy Aiyer, founder of the Indian Mathematical Society, who recognized his genius. Aiyer then sent him to R. Ramachandra Rao, secretary of the Indian Mathematical Society. Rao was initially skeptical but became convinced of Ramanujan’s originality and genius and provided both financial aid and institutional support so that Ramanujan could start publishing in the society’s journal. As the editor of the journal noted, Ramanujan’s method was so quirky — “terse and novel,” as the editor put it — that many mathematicians found his papers hard to follow.

In 1913, Rao and some other Indian mathematicians tried to help Ramanujan submit his work to British mathematicians. The first few who received the material were unimpressed, but G.H. Hardy was quite struck by the nine pages of results he received. He suspected that perhaps Ramanujan wasn’t the real author, but he felt that the results had to be true, because they were so intricate and plausible that nobody could have dreamt them up. Hardy showed them to his colleague and friend J. E. Littlewood, who was also amazed at Ramanujan’s genius. Hardy and others invited Ramanujan to come to Cambridge to work. The Indian was at first reluctant, because of his Brahmin belief that he shouldn’t leave his country, and apparently also because his mother opposed it. To the disappointment of Hardy, he obtained a research scholarship at the University of Madras.

Nevertheless, in 1914 — apparently after his mother had an epiphany — Ramanujan agreed to come to Cambridge. He started his studies under the tutelage of Hardy and Littlewood, who were able to look at his first three “notebooks.” (Ramanujan’s fourth major notebook — often called the “lost notebook” — was rediscovered in 1976.) While Hardy and Littlewood discovered some of the results and theorems were either wrong or had already been discovered, they immediately put Ramanujan in the same class as Leonhard Euler or Carl Jacobi. Hardy and Ramanujan had clashing styles, personalities, and cultural backgrounds — among other things, Hardy was an atheist and a stickler for detailed proofs, while Ramanujan was a Hindu and highly intuitionistic — but they collaborated successfully during the five years Ramanujan was at Cambridge.

One of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is his personal friend.”

In 1916, Ramanujan was awarded a Bachelor’s of Science “by research” (a degree subsequently renamed a Ph.D). In 1917 he was elected a Fellow of the London Mathematical Society, and in 1918 to the extremely prestigious Royal Society. At 31 years of age, he was one of the youngest Fellows of the Royal Society ever elected, and only the second Indian so honored. In that year also he was elected a Fellow of Trinity College, Cambridge.

Ramanujan became ill in England, his sickness perhaps intensified by stress and (as the film suggests) by malnutrition. He was increasingly depressed and lonely, receiving few letters from his wife. The film identifies the cause as his mother’s jealous refusal to mail his wife’s letters to him. In 1918 he attempted suicide and spent time in a nursing home. He returned to Madras in 1919, and died the next year, barely 32 years of age. The cause was thought to be tuberculosis, though one doctor, examining his medical records, has opined that it was actually hepatic amoebiasis. His young widow lived to the age of 95.

The film centers on the period of his life shortly before the point, shortly before his death, at which the adult Ramanujan (Dev Patel) is gaining recognition through his work at Cambridge. As the film opens in 1913, we meet Ramanujan in the temple of the goddess Namagiri, writing an equation. (The film rightly portrays him as believing that mathematical truths are divinely crafted.) We see him desperately trying to provide for his pretty young wife Janaki (Devika Bhise) and his proud but rather domineering mother (Arundhati Nag). While the film focuses primarily on the relationship between Ramanujan and his work, it does skillfully present his loving but difficult marriage (he was in England, separated from his wife for nearly half his married life) as well as the strained relationship between his wife and mother.

The main part of the film, which ends with Ramanujan’s death in India, concerns his time in Britain, following with fair accuracy the real timeline of his life. We meet Hardy (Jeremy Irons) as he is given Ramanujan’s first letter and asked to comment on the handwritten pages. Irons plays Hardy as a crusty old bachelor, but also as a person who is obviously sincere in his desire to help Ramanujan. The film capably explores the relationship between the two, showing the transition from a mentorship to a friendship based on deep respect.

We watch as Hardy and Littlefield (Toby Jones) try to get the rest of the faculty — especially the racist Professor Howard (Anthony Calf) — to recognize Ramanujan’s worth. The film explores at length the antipathy that many of the British, even the faculty and students, felt toward Indians, culminating in a scene in which Ramanujan is beaten up by some soldiers — an episode that has a dramatic function, since racism against the immigrants from the colonies coming into England at the later part of WWI (to work in a labor market that had been decimated by the war) was exceedingly common — though this specific episode may have been invented. It also shows Ramanujan battling poor health in the face of a cold climate and lack of nutritious food. But Ramanujan’s spirit prevails, and we see him elected a Fellow of the College, a satisfying vindication of genuine genius over jealous bigotry. As one of the British professors exclaims about Ramanujan, “It’s as if every positive integer is [his] personal friend.”

The film takes the mathematics quite seriously. Two distinguished mathematicians — Manjul Bhargave and Ken Ono — are associate producers of the film. Bhargava is a winner of the Fields Medal — often called “the Nobel Prize of mathematics” — and Ono is a Guggenheim Fellow.

How can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof?

Portraying Ramanujan’s work cinematically is of course especially challenging. Even if the audience were shown mathematical formulas he devised, few would comprehend them, much less see the genius it took to come up with them. And, unlike some scientists or other scholars that have a sudden dramatic “Eureka!” moment when they encounter the central theory or discovery for which they become famous, Ramanujan produced a continuing torrent of major work, even when ill — nearly 3,900 results during his short life (really, just 14 years of mature research).

The film, however, is rather effective at conveying Ramanujan’s work directly, as in the scene in which Hardy describes to his valet what “partitions” are — the number of ways a number can be the sum of others, as “4” is the sum of “4,” “2 + 2,” “2 + 1 + 1,” and “1 + 1 + 1 + 1” — as well as the scene in which Hardy and Ramanujan are waiting for a cab, and when one pulls up, Ramanujan immediately observes that its ID number (1729) is unique in that it is the smallest number that can be expressed as the sum of two cubes in two different ways. The film even more successfully conveys his genius obliquely by showing how the other great Cambridge mathematicians received it: Hardy and Littlewood immediately recognized the genius in his work, and we see how the other mathematicians (who are initially governed by their prejudices) are eventually compelled to recognize it. Still, this is not a movie for the completely innumerate.

The acting is outstanding across the board. Dev Patel — well-known to American audiences from his leading roles in Slumdog Millionaire (2008) and The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel (2011) — ably conveys Ramanujan’s earnestness, integrity, and perseverance. Toby Jones is also superb as Littlewood, and Jeremy Northam givers a good supporting performance as Bertrand Russell. The supporting actresses are also excellent — Devika Bhise as Ramanujan’s young wife and Arundati Nag as his mother. But especially noteworthy is Jeremy Irons’ performance as Ramanujan’s sponsor, mentor, and friend G.H. Hardy.

Director Matthew Brown does an outstanding job conveying Ramanujan’s story, with descending into melodramatic hagiography. Really, he doesn’t need to because the true story — a modest, decent, indigent, largely self-taught genius in a colonized, poor country rises to the very top ranks of mathematics, in the face of considerable hostility, becoming a hero in his native land, before dying tragically young — is the very stuff of legend.

This film explores a number of issues of philosophic interest. Regarding the philosophy of religion, the exchanges between the avowed atheist Hardy and the devoutly religious Ramanujan on whether the gods give Ramanujan immediate access to mathematical truth are illustrative of how atheists and theists see the world in significantly different ways.

Regarding epistemology, Hardy is portrayed working hard to convince Ramanujan of the need not merely to recognize that a mathematical theorem is true, but to construct a proof that it is. This is an issue among other things about epistemic style: does any science advance more from bold broad conjectures, or by exact argumentation? (The movie interestingly presents Russell as counseling Hardy to let Ramanujan “run”; i.e., to let him do math as his heart dictates, which is by intuition instead of meticulous proofs. But considering the detailed constructive logical proofs that Russell — along with his mathematician coauthor Alfred North Whitehead — created in their seminal logical treatise Principia Mathematica, one is surprised and puzzled at this.)

Regarding history, the film nicely shows the effect that World War I had on the British intelligentsia, with some, such as Russell — and here the film is undeniably historically accurate — being opposed to the war, and having meetings on campus to organize opposition, while the rest of the faculty is outraged at what was taken to be a lack of patriotism.

Regarding psychology, the film invites us to think about the nature of mathematical genius: how can an autodidact from a colony of a major world power so powerfully demonstrate to the colonial overlords that his mathematical insights are true, or worthy of attempted proof? Here we should observe that many of Ramanujan’s conjectures on prime numbers were proven incorrect — however insightful and reasonably accurate they may have been — by Littlewood and others. I would suggest that his tutelage by Hardy was of great use in getting him to provide more proofs, and that most of his 3,900 results have been proven, including work that is being used today to understand black holes.

Finally, regarding an issue of concern in America today, The Man who Knew Infinity helps the audience understand the value of immigrants. The vicious discrimination that this estimable and amiable genius from India faced at the hands of the British makes one wonder why immigrants to our own country today are being targeted for systematic abuse. This is as counterproductive as it is immoral.

In fine, this is a bioflick of rare insight, and not to be missed.[i]

 


[i]It should be noted that in 2014 an Indian company produced a major biographical film, Ramanujan. It ran two and a half hours, was shot in multiple languages (including some pidgin languages, such as Tamenglish), and had a mixed reception. I don’t believe it was generally released in America.

 


Editor's Note: Review of "The Man Who Knew Infinity," directed by Matthew Brown. Pressman Film/Xeitgeist Entertainment Group/Cayenne Pepper Productions, 2016, 108 minutes.



Share This
Syndicate content

© Copyright 2019 Liberty Foundation. All rights reserved.



Opinions expressed in Liberty are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Liberty Foundation.

All letters to the editor are assumed to be for publication unless otherwise indicated.