From the Voice of Experience?

Oh, I know, you don’t have to be able to do something–or to have done it–to comment upon it. But there is certainly value to experience. Those of us who are Returned Peace Corps Volunteers, for example, can tell much more about the lives and systems of our host countries than can those journalists who passed through on the way to a story.

Those of us who have been involved in alternatives to traditional business models can, too. As can those who have spent time involved in any sort of movement to change people’s ideas. Doing any of these things, you learn about both the best and the worst of humans. You may come out of it focused on what is best–and on what is possible–but you also know something of what is worst.

David Brooks who, as far as I can determine, has done none of these things (I’ve done all three), sets out to give advice to young people engaged in any one of them today. He writes that “many of these social entrepreneurs think they can evade politics. They have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it.” As someone who has never worked on that ground, I suspect he has very little idea of what really goes on there. From reading his piece, I am sure of it.

Brooks makes the bizarre argument that young idealists could learn from the hard-boiled detectives of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler. He writes:

A noir hero is a moral realist. He assumes that everybody is dappled with virtue and vice, especially himself. He makes no social-class distinction and only provisional moral distinctions between the private eyes like himself and the criminals he pursues.

That’s an odd depiction of Sam Spade or Philip Marlowe, both of whom (in movies as well as in the original books and stories) see everyone as fundamentally flawed–even themselves. They have little interest in virtue. They certainly do make social-class distinctions, and their ‘moral distinctions’ between themselves and criminals are fundamental to their characters. Brooks should read a little more, and a little more carefully–and might want to watch a few more noir movies. Sam Spade sends his love up the river to save himself–he makes a practical decision, not a moral one. That’s the case in almost all noir books and movies.

That aside, Brooks’ real argument is a classic top-down one, the model that can be traced back to Alexander Hamilton and further (and that also can be found in Lenin and Hitler–but we needn’t get into that), that a stable political structure must be imposed for real change to happen, for things at the bottom to get better. He writes: “Most poverty and suffering — whether in a country, a family or a person — flows from disorganization.” Starting at the bottom, in his view, is doomed to failure (he is no Jeffersonian and no Jacobite, that’s for sure).

To me, though, his most interesting statement (and most perplexing, considering who it is coming from) is this: “if the ruling class is predatory then your achievements won’t add up to much.” From someone who is a tireless promoter of the predatory ruling class of America, this is an odd statement, to say the least–unless he means it to apply only elsewhere, and not at home.

Soon after we returned from Peace Corps, Bronwyn Hughes and I wrote a piece on community-level development that was eventually published in a couple of places, most recently by ePluribus Media. We were writing from experience, having helped guide a business from creation through success–including through the thickets of corruption and political instability. Fifteen years later, the business was still going–in fact, it had become a major force in the region. It had survived all sorts of problems–in part, because we imposed nothing, but supported use of cultural structures that were already in place (and there are such structures everywhere, and they can be found–if you know how and where to look).

David Brooks: Take it from those of us with real experience in the areas you write about. Only starting from the bottom really works, dealing with structures that were not imposed from the top but that build from the communities involved. Yes, today’s young idealists “have little faith in the political process and believe that real change happens on the ground beneath it” Why? Because your way (in Africa, most certainly–and that’s the ground of my own experience in development) has consistently led to failure–while ground up has managed successes that survive even the periods of political chaos (which come, as you know, most always from the top).

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