I haven’t made a Christmas list since Sears had a catalogue. I can still remember the toy section vividly. Not one of the toys was electronic. They all required direct manual physical manipulation—not the swipe of mouse or thumbing of a button. My list was all about those toys: action figures, Ping-Pong bazookas, and construction sets.
In general, I find that the Associated Press does a better job covering Haiti than many of the other major media outlets. I also feel that the Wall Street Journal is doing a good job even though their coverage is less frequent. What are the AP and WSJ doing differently from the others? They provide a clearer picture of the causes behind the sorrow and desperation, not just the shock of it. They also take the time to see what is being done right — especially by Haitians for Haitians. It is important to provide a poignant description of the pain being experienced by Haitians who have been through a century’s worth of calamities in a single year and who are now, on top of that, justifiably anxious about the slow pace of the internationally-assisted reconstruction. But, it is also important to report, in detail and based on serious research, the causes behind Haiti’s pain and frustration, especially when those causes are neither natural nor local in origin. AP writer, Martha Mendoza did a great job of this in her recent article, “Would-be Haitian contractors miss out on aid” [Washington Post, 12/13/2010]. She describes the local business owners’ frustration as they watch international non-governmental organizations, aka NGOs, and large foreign companies take the lion’s share of contracts. Local business owners might have come off looking like crybabies if it were not for Mendoza’s uncovering the fact that they are seeing less than $2 out every $100 of aid pass directly through their businesses. While her story has little of the immediate drama of those describing the human sorrow associated with the earthquake and cholera, Mendoza has provided a clear description of one reason international aid administered by globetrotting relief organizations often does less than the amount of money being spent would suggest. For those of us who are caught involuntarily in the centrifuge of the large NGOs, not to mention the traffic jams they cause daily, this is the growing drama. It is the un-covered disaster that needs to be uncovered.Even Mendoza left a few rocks unturned. She reports that two large NGOs involved in the cash-for-work program — a program that pays the Haitian minimum wage to masses of unskilled, poorly managed workers to do what amounts to busy-work — spent 70% of the funds they were given on equipment and materials. As a result, only 8,000 Haitians received very short term employment through the program, rather than the 25,000 they had projected.What she doesn’t report is that, given Haiti’s minimum wage is roughly $5 US per day, a shovel costs two and half days’ work; a wheelbarrow is equivalent to 20 days’ pay; and the car driven by the ex-pat sent to supervise the program is equivalent to employing one worker in the program for 25 years. This not only sheds light on why a high percentage of the money went to tools and materials; it also points to the futility of the program — which is even clearer when you see it in action. Why aren’t more journalists reporting on the deeper causes behind the sad stories? Why aren’t they asking hard questions like, “Wouldn’t it be cheaper and more logical to fund public works through the local government rather than have NGOs act governmental?” Could it be that they are too stunned by the sadness to see beyond it? Or, is the sadness all they are being allowed to see?It is likely a little of both. Much of the media is either embedded with or highly reliant on the large NGOs to get the story. This makes it easy to get caught up in the drama. It also means journalists are getting much of their information from these NGOs which are competing for big funds. Since funding is given in proportion to the size of the misery, not the effectiveness or appropriateness of the solution, the NGOs talk pain and suffering, not causes and progress. There is also the pressure to sell papers to readers — pressure made worse by the demise of traditional newspaper looming on the horizon. Shocking stories sell papers, not dry pertinent facts. The critical words of real investigative journalism have been replaced by superlatives. Facts are no longer important — just how many ways you can say biggest and worst ever. Oddly, I fear Haiti will only get what it really needs when journalists stop focusing on Haiti’s suffering. That may seem a bit cold to say, but it is the causes of the suffering, and not the suffering itself, that need to be reported. There are causes and there are solutions — that’s the actual story.
Our organization, which has built six permanent houses to date thanks to the increased financial assistance given after the earthquake by our support community in the United States and Haiti, cannot build a house in Haiti for a family of five for $3,000. A recent TIME article (12/13/2010) reports that there is at least one organization that says it can. The organization is offering to build a house in Haiti in the name of a donor’s friend or family member as an alternative Christmas gift. Based on my experience, it is more likely to cost $8,000 to $10,000 to build a modest house for a family of five in Haiti. This price includes the cost for land but not indoor plumbing or electric, which most people do not have. Maybe my estimate is higher because we are only a private, free boarding school and not a large international NGO. Then again, maybe it is because it is not actually possible to build a house for $3,000 when all costs are considered. First, I want to be clear. I am not writing this to discourage individual charitable or governmental support to Haiti—the country needs both. My concern is simply that attractive but unrealizable promises, when they are not fulfilled, will discourage future funding for Haiti. Also, the under pricing of housing makes it harder to find funding for those who are reporting the full costs to find funding. I am also prompted to write this by the promise just after the earthquake by several large international non-governmental organizations to build 134,000 shelters for those Haitians displaced by the disaster. Now, eleven months after the earthquake, roughly only 20,000 have been completed while more than 90% are funded. Who benefited the most from this promise? Gives one pause, n’est ce pas?Here is the math from what I know about post-earthquake house building in Haiti. Land in our area before the earthquake was $10 per square meter. Today, it is likely to run $15 to $20. This would be for very small parcels. A modest house requires at least 200 square meters and would be better on 300 square meters of land. So, that means $3,000 at best for the land and likely more.When it comes to the cost of construction materials, even very modest houses are not cheap in this global economy. In order to provide assistance to more families, we made the decision to keep costs down by not including interior plumbing or electric in the first houses we built. (This was in line with the housing in the area, but it was still a hard concession to make since our primary mission is building a nation, not simple relief.) We did improve the structural quality of the housing by including bonding beams at the bottom, middle and top of the walls and adding more windows. The cost of materials for these first houses ranged roughly from $5,000 to $6,000.One way to lower the cost is to bring in materials directly in order to avoid local retail margins. This may save 15 to 20% as the building materials market is pretty competitive in Haiti. Non-profits could possibly even avoid paying taxes, which may save another 10% or more. This could reduce materials cost by 25 to 30%. But, even with these advantages, the cost of materials alone for the houses we have built would exceed $3,000.Labor adds another $1,500. So all in, we might be able to build a house for as little as $8,000 on a reasonable piece of land—but for $3,000, no way.By the way, our decision not to bring in our own materials is not laziness or a lack of appreciation for frugality. Rather, we chose not to do this for two reasons. First, we rely on the local commercial community to hire our students. We do not want to export our graduates to work at a building materials company in the United States, so we proudly support the local economy. Second, we also recognize that a government cannot offer services to its people if it does not have a tax base from which to draw revenue. No nation can survive without an economy.Pricing a home at $3,000 may be a good marketing tool for attracting “charity dollars”, but it may build a house that a Haitian family cannot use any more than your uncle can use another sweater. The offer may sound like a great gift option for a picky or globally concerned friend, but who is it that really needs the right gift this Christmas?We think it is the Haitians, so we are now considering how to add indoor plumbing and septic. This makes it important to build several houses at the same time and in the same area, because it would allow for the possibility of putting in a common well and septic without greatly increasing the cost of each house. Providing toilets and showers just seems like the dignified thing to do.We have also begun to consider the feasibility of including 250 to 500 watts of solar with each house. This will provide environmentally responsible and locally available electricity, which would give children a better chance to study at night and provide the opportunity for a small freezer to help preserve food. It also offers a positive way to encourage Haitians to stop diverting electricity from the state power company’s lines, which much of the population sees as a necessary evil even as it hurts the country’s economic viability.So, we are not actually looking for ways to building cheaper homes—we are hoping to be able to build more expensive ones. We are also working to stimulate a local mortgage market that will allow our employees to get a house the old fashioned way. After all, not every home needs to be a gift.
I remember a lot from eighth grade science. I owe this to our teacher, Mrs. Archer, who used mnemonics to help us to learn the basic principles that govern the world around us. She taught us GREMB for the definition of a living organism and FARBM for the evolutionary development of animals. I especially remember learning the six steps of the Scientific Method: Identification, Investigation, Hypothesis, Observation, Experimentation and Conclusion. The acronym for this has a poetic sound: “IIHOEC”—you have to pronounce the I’s as long, the E as short and the C as hard to make it really sing.Thirty years older and with ten more years of education, I still remember IIHOEC; it is, along with the “ends do not justify the means,” one of the intellectual principles I make use of regularly. I have found since I have become a missionary in a puzzling and sometimes volatile country, that many of the confusing things that occur in a developing nation, particularly problems with plumbing, electricity and politics, become clearer when I apply IIHOEC. Having studied philosophy as part of my major at a university a lot of people “ooh” and “ah” over for its intellectual rigor (even if I do not), I could claim that it was my study of Locke that formed the foundation of my empirical approach to solving problems. However, just as Locke owes much to Aristotle, I cannot honestly credit my university for what I learned much earlier and more simply from Mrs. Archer.Whether we call it a method or philosophy, drawing conclusions based on one’s actual experiences usually beats postulating theories based on mere assumptions, preconceptions, speculations or past history—no matter how well-founded and convincing the past history may be. Certainly, there are limits to the breadth of the concepts that our senses can understand directly, just as there are limits to the clarity and level of completeness that physical observation can provide. Still, I have found it pays to identify the problem, investigate, hypothesize and test the hypothesis before leaping. I cannot help but think that a more empirical approach to examining the circumstances surrounding Sunday’s election in Haiti would have helped to clarify the situation. Instead, with little to go on and many facts missing, not the least of which were the results, a momentary gaggle of otherwise intelligent, well-meaning and sincere presidential candidates described the ongoing election as failed or severely flawed. However, before we are too critical of the candidates’ possible misstep or at the very least the prematurity of their accusations, let’s keep in mind that democracy is only 4.5 presidential elections old in Haiti. Open elections are still in the developmental stage. They are beta at best. We in the United States have had more than ten times as many elections without achieving perfection. Over two hundred years into the process, our candidates still cry foul—sometimes with good reason. It is also important to acknowledge that candidates themselves, not presidents, create the opportunity for democracy to occur. Out of respect for this, we should emphasize Haiti’s presidential candidates’ positive contribution to the matter at hand, not their possible eleventh-hour error. Put into the context of their tireless campaigning, the candidates’ strong reaction to the unexpectedly low turn-out, at least in the Port au Prince metropolitan area, and the predictable but troubling chaos at the polls, is understandable. It is also true that they may need to turn their criticism on themselves for not inspiring a larger turn-out, but that is for down the road. Right now, given the hurt, I suppose it just too much to be self-critical. To be fair, we must also keep in mind that elections have actually been stolen in Haiti—wholesale even. Duvalier’s re-election and the later referendum making him president for life are two clear examples. When it comes to stolen elections, there are precedents to consider. It is understandable why Haitians’ default position is that every election has a boogeyman. However, the boogeyman’s power lies in our unwillingness to actually check if he is there or not. This is where empiricism comes in handy. In this case, this means voting. It may also mean taking the time to forensically examine the ballots cast. The boogeyman only really disappears when we become courageous and mature enough to walk over and open the closet. If we do not, the boogeyman, real or imagined, will continue to influence our decisions and limit our freedom.
Two weeks ago, I attended the marriage of two thirty-something friends. It was a beautiful wedding. So beautiful, I even cried. It was truly a special occasion. What I did not realize then was that it was also a rare occasion—or at least rarer than it has ever been. Maybe I have had my head in the sand, but until I read this week’s TIME report on marriage, I had no idea that the institution was in such a severe decline in the US. Shocked, I went to the bar—the Google bar. I found several sources that corroborate the report. Amazingly, we are less married today than we have ever been in our nation’s history!In fact, if the trend continues unchecked, very soon more adult women will be unmarried than married. Obviously, men will not be far behind. The most precipitous drop has been among young adults, who are a nearly a third less likely to be married than were their parents at the same age. Ironically, TIME reports that we continue to hold marriage in high esteem even as we participate in it less. Somehow we know marriage is good for us, for children and for society, but it is less and less what we want for ourselves. I have to say, since I grew up having marriage as a goal for myself, it is a bit odd to live in a world where mounting majority of people no longer want to get married, even though they readily admit that they are glad that their parents did. Should this be a concern? After all, lots of social values and traditions end this way—highly regarded by all, practiced by a few. For instance, we are also less churched today and the world has not come to an end. We belong to fewer civic organizations and life goes on. But, given the importance of marriage to the stability of society, the economy and child rearing, this institution is likely to go out with a bang, not a whimper. We should be afraid, very afraid. Unfortunately, in a wealthy, advanced society, it is easy to feel we can afford anything, even the sacrifice of something very important to our social structure. After all, we are a modern people; what do we need with the restrictive bonds of the past? We stopped riding horses and bought cars and the world did not end. Yet, we know that having nearly half our country’s children born to unmarried mothers is going to hurt them and us. The decline in marriage has seen a rise in many other social issues: teen pregnancy, high school dropouts, gang participation, and the widening of the economic gap in society.We like to blame Wall Street and the public education system for our societal and economic woes, but marriage is a Main Street and domestic issue. Maybe our resistance or inability to make the most fundamental bond of society work is the real problem.The family unit is the most basic building block of society. A house made up of individuals from divided or never-unified families will not stand. Every economic, academic and psychological statistic supports the fact that marriage is beneficial to society. It is so obvious that even our otherwise consensus-challenged politicians agree that the institution should be encouraged with a tax-break.I currently work and live in a country were marriage, especially among the poor, is almost nonexistent. You can Google all day and you will not find many formal statistics on marriage in Haiti, but I can assure you it is not at all common. In our immediate neighborhood, I know of only one household in which all the children are from the same two parents and the parents are formally married. There is no way to tell for sure, but I am willing to bet that Haiti has the lowest marriage rate in the Western Hemisphere.Is it a coincidence that Haiti is also the poorest country in our hemisphere?Sure, we have a lot going for us in the US that Haiti does not, like natural resources and a strong industrial and technology sector; however, the historic ubiquity of marriage may be more important to our economic and social success than all of these other factors.I have been praying for my own marriage and marriage in Haiti for a while; I have now added the United States to the list.
God does not answer Cain’s flippant response, “Am I my brother’s keeper?” We may assume God’s answer would have been yes. However, we should be careful when putting words in the mouths of others, especially when that mouth belongs to God. Maybe God left this question open purposefully to prompt a deeper reflection on the subject. Are we our brother’s keeper?By “brother” I mean all of humanity, male or female, family or not. I apologize in advance for any inadvertent reinforcement of male chauvinism the use of this term may cause. Brother, antiquated though it may be, just works poetically and conceptually here given the allusion.So, are we our brother’s keeper?The answer may depend on how we define “keeper.” If by keeper we mean owners, we are certainly not keepers. We are not allowed to lock others in shackles and keep them. Fortunately, slavery ended a century and half ago in the U.S. (To keep us humble: I’ll point out that ended sixty years earlier in the proud nation of Haiti.)According to the law, even in cases of serious mental or physical illness, we are not our brother’s keeper unless our brother signs a power of attorney or is declared mentally incompetent by a duly appointed authority. Those who have been forced to become keepers in this manner know that this is not an easy process. I know this from experience. My older siblings were tempted to become our parents’ keepers when my mother and father bought me a horse and then sent me away to private boarding school. My better-raised siblings were sure that our once frugal parents had lost their heads. Just to show them, Mom and Dad kept the horse even when I went to college. Still, no judge stepped in!On a more serious note, “subsidiarity” requires that we also reject the concept of being keepers of others. This social principle, formally clarified and named by Pope Pius XI in 1931, states that it is improper for an authority at a higher level to take over what can be done better by a local organization or by the individual on his or her own behalf. When subsidiarity is ignored, as it is when help is given from a distance in a manner more commensurate with the needs of the giver than the receiver, even the best of help can become unhelpful. In fact, it can be demoralizing, debilitating and even enable dependence, as we are beginning to see in Haiti.Solidarity, another social principal, also rejects the idea that we are our brother’s keeper. Solidarity prompts us to work with others where they are. It asks us to work collaboratively with others for positive change that leads to systemic and individual development. Solidarity is a powerful catalyst for social progress. It is integral to maintaining human dignity.We throw solidarity out the window when we view those who require assistance as needy clients to be cared for rather than as people to join with in working for change. Solidarity is further hampered when we see people as their social circumstance rather than as humans caught in a harmful social circumstance. Solidarity is most hampered when we do not recognize our own need to change as we help others to change.These principles are important for two reasons. First, subsidiarity reminds us that people are capable of change and being a positive participant in their own change. And, second, solidarity reminds us that we are called to work with people in need where they are developmentally and socially, not where we are most comfortable. Simply put, these fundamental social principles keep us from being keepers when what the world needs is brothers.The difference between brothers and keepers is more than semantic. Anyone unsure of this fact need only come to Haiti which has been invaded by hundreds of International Non-Governmental Organizations (INGOs). It would only take a day to see the difference: brothers work for change, keepers keep. It is clear that INGOs, especially the large ones, are keepers. They are very good at helping people organize into camps. Unfortunately, they are far less capable and/or interested in helping them get out. They are also skilled at massive-scale relief, which is exactly what is needed right after a disaster; however, they are weak on stimulating progress. Consequently, little has been made. I do not know how or when INGOs morphed into being keepers. Some critics suggest that this change is a result of their increasing competitiveness and focus on funding. Certainly, I have been shocked to see INGOs that I had previously believed were advocates for human dignity present humans as helpless in their own survival to that end.Brothers would not do that. How sure am I about my opinion? Sure enough to know I will likely wish I wrote this column anonymously.
First, I want to point out that I was not inspired by Clint Eastwood’s “Bridges of Madison County” to write this column as one might assume by the tittle. For the record, I did not like that film or its topic. In fact, it is the only Eastwood film I don’t like and have never seen more than once. Oh, yeah, I am not fond of the films with the orangutan either. The only reason I can imagine that Clint did the orangutan movies is because he was experiencing a period of low self-esteem as an actor. He must have thought to himself, “I am not at my best. I better not do a movie with a famous co-star I cannot out-act. I got it. I’ll costar with a monkey. Anyone can out-act a monkey.” Just to be sure, I understand that Clint demanded that he get all the good lines. Instead, I was inspired to write this column by another movie, Tom Tykwer’s “The International.” More specifically, I was inspired by one line from this movie, delivered by the main character, Louis Salinger, who is played by Clive Owen. Salinger is a troubled champion for truth faced with making a hard decision. At the penultimate moment, Clive Owen delivers the movie’s most insightful line as naturally as the pope saying the Our Father. If you have not seen this film, you should. It is well worth it. But, don’t worry. You can read on, I am not going to spoil the plot. The line is “Sometimes the hardest thing in life is to know which bridges to cross and which bridges to burn.” I have to admit, I did not catch this oft-quoted line the first few times I saw the movie (I pull it out whenever I am feeling especially underdog-ish—which is quite often the case while I am in Haiti). I think the line struck me this time for a few reasons. First, I recently started playing the game Risk again. Besides the normal borders between countries, Risk has “strategic bridges” between the continents that provide an opportunity for one opponent to attack another. Without going into to detail about these somewhat arbitrary connections, it suffices to say these bridges can be extremely painful when left open. Unfortunately, the game does not give the option to burn them.Second, I have been conscious lately of the way that pursuing a particular truth tends to force one to cross some bridges while at the same time burning others. In my experience, being on a defined mission drives one forward. This necessitates crossing into new territories while at least closing, if not burning, past connections. Maybe, this is what Tom Wolfe meant when he said that we cannot go home again. I have also been watching my son prepare for making his first big life decision: what college to attend. Like all young men, he has a greater capacity for conviction than for clarity of thought. However, he will soon choose a bridge to cross and others will be burnt. It is both difficult and exciting to watch him struggle towards his own point of no return. Observing him in this dilemma, I am reminded of Yeats’ description of himself at fifteen as an “antique brass cannon full of shot.” He wrote that the only thing that kept him from going off was his doubt in his ability to shoot straight. Fortunately, my son is nearly 18 and his aim is improving. Certainly, real world politics is more complex than games like Risk or the simplistic world presented in action movies; however, it also occurred to me upon watching “The International” yet again that President Obama may find Salinger’s warning helpful. There are a lot of bridges in our interconnected world. Can we afford to maintain them all and still hold fast to our values? Is it not possible that talks with slow-to-change nations, such as China or Iran, may be better conducted over simple phone lines than bridges?In the myriad affairs that involve bridges, prudence requires a willingness to keep as well as to burn—to be sure.
Every election has winners and losers, but this November 2nd appears to have delivered a bit more collateral damage than usual. There are those who are disappointed that the tempest never really got out of the teapot. There are others who found you could spend a pretty penny and still get a very ugly result. And still others, maybe only a few stalwart party loyalists or anti-federalists, who are a bit less than amused that an endorsement at the national level could end the party for both parties and deliver a first-time independent governor for our smallest state (Maybe Tip O’Neill was wrong—not all politics is local).There is also my colleague in the political trade who remarked a week ago that he felt like he was living in a foreign land for the past nine months. He groaned via email that he wished he had retired, at least professionally, a year ago. Today’s politics just make little sense to him, I guess. Then, there is me. I am happy as a quahaug (I just can’t seem to get RI off my mind)! Why? Partly, I must admit, I am happy because I have actually lived in a foreign land with bigger problems than U.S. politics to concentrate on for the past nine months, and so for me, the entire election cycle transpired in under 24 hours. There was no waiting and no protracted set of prognostications or too-early-to-tell moments—I don’t get any TV signal, let alone cable. I just woke up the morning after and typed in “election results” in the Google bar. Bingo! Mainly, I am happy because our national government, wisely broken into separate parts by our founding architects, is now also divided, at least partially, across party lines. This gives us a better chance of hearing open debates as well as productive bi-partisan dialogue rather than the sour-grapes rancor and power-mongering speeches we have been subjected to for the past two years.Checks and balances are here again—hooray! That is three exclamation points so far—I told you I was giddy. I remember learning about Checks and Balances in ninth grade civics class. I really liked that class. It was my only class, other than gym, that was un-leveled. The student make up was decided by alphabetical order according to our last names. There was not a civics class for fast learners and another one for those who struggled with academics. Even at fourteen, I knew that this was the right context to discuss politics and civic responsibility. Civics class remains one of the few educational experiences that I can remember clearly as I head into my fifties. I can still see where I sat, and I remember the names of the students who sat around me. Sadly, I do not remember the name of my teacher—just what he looked like. Besides the theory of checks and balances, I learned in that Civics class that effective government must represent the interests of everyone, lest it become pork belly cronyism driven by the need to fulfill campaign promises made to special interest groups. I also learned my favorite political word of all in that class: gerrymandering. The word has such a great ring to it. I like to define it as election by invitation. Unfortunately for my sense of patriotic pride, I have learned more recently that our Founders were not the first to come up with the separation of powers which creates the mechanism of checks and balances. It turns out a French fellow with a name a little too large to print on a business card lays claim to its invention: Charles-Louis de Secondat, baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu. We also have to give credit to the British who got it partially right even before the United States or France. Just like the British to be radical in an understated way. Besides a return to a two-party Washington, there is the election of Jerry “Moonbeam” Brown to smile about. I do not know if he can help California, and I certainly do not agree with his campaign’s adamant embrace of pro-choice, but I sure like the optimism of a guy who was first governor when I was ten years old claiming, “I want to build for the future. That is what it is all about.” And I thought my dad was an optimist for buying two new cars at 82.
I do not want to write this column. I have many reasons: I do not have Cholera. Nobody I know has cholera. Too many people have already died of cholera in Haiti. Cholera gets too much press. My mom reads my column. Cholera scares people. Cholera is a demon. Most importantly, I adamantly believe that the only thing that needs to be written about Cholera is how to stop it, and the local press has that covered. A quick poll of our students and staff at our Catholic secondary boarding school in Haiti reveals that most everyone has heard the message: wash your hands, and drink clean water. Sounds simple, but this is the battle cry against cholera.
In the aptly titled article, Education of a President (New York Times Sunday Magazine, October 17th, 2010), White House correspondent Peter Baker presents President Obama’s administration as a work in progress. Writing from both a fly-on-the-wall and a confessor’s perspective, Baker intertwines his own observations with Mr. Obama’s personal reflections. While Baker may be a bit more critical, both agree that Mr. Obama’s on-the-job training has included a steep learning curve and plenty of rough moments. This is no surprise given the complexities of the times and the President’s relative inexperience upon taking office. What is also not a surprise, and is in fact concerning, is that much of what the Washington crowd is teaching the President appears to be bad for him and for us. Unfortunately, due to the overtly partisan culture gripping Washington at the moment, he is not likely to get much of chance at a better education from his pals in DC any time soon. Maybe this is why, according to Baker, the President prefers sitting in our backyards to being in the Capital. The first bad lesson Washington is teaching the President is that the world is divided into friends and enemies. The current level of virulent partisan politics, stoked both by the sheer magnitude of stimulus pork and the pressure of mid-term elections, is forcing the President to consider the politics of the source for everything, even decorating tips. This may make sense in the context of mid-term elections, but it kills the chance for bipartisan and minority solutions to make it to the floor. In short, it is a bad way to lead a nation. A man who needs a lot of answers to a whole range of hard questions is probably better served by seeing the world as divided into good ideas and bad ideas rather than enemies and friends. In times as tough as these, the president should be happy to find reasonable solutions whenever, and wherever, he can. Who cares what side of the aisle or which street, Wall or Main, they come from?Another bad lesson Washington is teaching Mr. Obama is that it is more important to be responsive to public opinion than to be responsible for public welfare. Baker quotes the President as saying that “you can’t be neglecting marketing…and public opinion.” Just before this, Mr. Obama is quoted saying, seemingly regretfully “…we probably spent much more time trying to get the policy right than trying to get the politics right.” Mr. Obama appears to have learned that good communication is more important than good policy. I am not sure when it became more important for a politician to have a great sense of timing than to have a deep sense of responsibility, but I am suspicious that it was shortly after President Clinton started his first campaign. According to Baker, Mr. Obama seems convinced that many of the rough patches in the road that he has been down thus far came as a result of his own failure to smooth them. Baker’s comments and Mr. Obama’s own musings suggests that the President is contemplating playing even more politics in the second half. Neither a fly on the wall nor a confessor, here are my thoughts from a far greater distance. First, the President will inevitably have his own personality and approach, but what matters are results. Whether Mr. Obama stays in the room and chats or heads out on the veranda to ponder his options is for him to decide. Discussing his developing political personality makes for a good article, but it is no more important than the color of rug he chooses for the Oval office. Therefore, it is time we stopped trying to decide whether our President is calm and deeply reflective or out of touch and callous and focus on more important things. The election is long over; it is time that we judge him solely on results.Second, I can tell you from having lived through a few populist presidents that being immediately responsive to the people is not necessarily the same as being a responsible steward of their well-being. In the same way, being a popular politician is not the same as being an actual person of the people. It takes more than hearing and responding to fulfill the actual responsibilities of governing. It takes making the right decision without concern for the political cost. We can hope the President reverts to this strategy once mid-terms are over.Finally, I wonder how anyone with a good idea can be any enemy in times as tough as these.
First, I have to give a little shout-out to Thomas Friedman who wrote the excellent book, The World is Flat. Thanks to the ubiquity of satellite supported communication, the world has become flatter in the way he suggests. The accuracy of his statement is made clear when you see a young person living in a chaotic and poor country who has very limited access to clean water, electricity, and education whip out a cell phone. The point is made even more poignant when the phone has internet connectivity. In this sense, the world is much more connected for us than it was for Columbus. The world may be more connected, but are we? I mean as people, one to another. With each technological advance in communication, we fortunately break down more and more of the boundaries that separate us economically and geographically. Yet, has the advancement in technology really lessened our personal isolation? Are we any more connected to one another than before the cell phone? Do we understand each other more on account of the net? Has a decrease in privacy really delivered an increase in authentic intimacy? I do not think so. Changes in technology have very little real impact on the closeness of our relationship with one another, because what really keeps us apart is not external, it is internal. It is psychological, not physical. It is our individuality. This cannot be bridged by faster wireless or increased band width. Even the amazing mass connectivity provided by Facebook has not been able to remove the inherent isolation resulting from our individuality.Ironically, Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s inventor, seems to be proof of this to the extreme. If the recently released film about his life is at all accurate, it would appear that he remains a very solitary being despite his fame, fortune and half-billion member network. The movie ends with the apparently perennially sophomoric genius who turned “friend” into a verb in hopes of making one or two, sitting by himself tapping a keyboard, hoping to connect. Not a scene for the faint of heart. While it was the shock of sitting through the Facebook movie’s unexpectedly horrific romp through bizarre human relationships that forced me to ponder the real basis for this human divide again, work as a missionary has often given me reason to reflect on the topic. These reflections have slowly erased most of what I learned in college about the basis of human connections. Having worked for a long time in circumstance where I am a foreigner and having made many close local friends in the process, I have come to discover that two individuals are already a mile apart due to their individuality, and being different races and/or ethnicities only adds about another ten feet or so. Yet, we talk as if the opposite were the case. The impact of our individuality, a result of the uniqueness of every human being, is underplayed in our society. In our overly politicized world, we tend to put more importance on race, ethnicity, political affiliation and culture than on individuality as sources of division. That is because we tend to listen to politicians more than philosophers and poets. Yet, what really separates one individual from another is that we are indeed individuals. Sounds simple, but that difference is much more profound than the difference emphasized by the race and class oriented divisive ranting of characters like Al Sharpton.With all due respect to Mr. Friedman, the journey required to connect meaningfully with another human being remains as difficult today as it was before the world became flat. Technology has certainly lessened the physical distance between each one of us, and air travel and the net have made it as possible for us to undertake the monumental task of connecting authentically with a person across the globe as to do so with our next door neighbor. Nevertheless, the last mile still remains.This distance represents the real challenge of the journey. It requires us to travel outside of ourselves. We must seek to enter the world of the other person and put aside our own. In this technologically flat world, the only mountains left lie within ourselves, and they are most certainly high enough to keep us apart, should we allow it.
In his song “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” which was made popular again by the Coen brother’s movie “O Brother, Where Art Thou,” Harry McClintock sings of a hobo promised-land where “there ain’t no short-handled shovels.” Amen brother, there is nothing worse than a short-handled shovel. My back knows that all too well. A missionary to Haiti for nearly 15 years, I have spent a lot of time with shovels. My favorite is the flat shovel. The broad, shallow blade of a flat shovel slides easily under a load. It picks up a much larger volume than its spade counterpart, which can dig in unexpectedly and veer right or left, dropping its load as it goes. This shovel is best for loading sand and gravel that has been dumped on a hard surface, such as a driveway or public road. It is also handy for mixing concrete by hand. Spades are good for digging and breaking down piles in order to increase the yield of a flat shovel when loading an aggregate that time and weight have compacted. Spades are also helpful for cutting roots and dislodging rocks when you are digging trash holes in which to bury things you can’t use anymore. Unless you are in a tight space or shaping a hole from the inside, spades are also best long-handled.Not all wheelbarrows are the same either. Like shovels, the best designed wheelbarrows have longer handles, at least long enough to allow you to walk comfortably without banging your shins into their rear braces. On the other hand, handles need to be short enough to make it possible to get the load up over the wheel without having to cock your arms too much.The deeper the front of a wheelbarrow, the better. A deep front allows for the maximum forward load. In wheelbarrow physics, everything that is loaded over the wheel requires about half the energy to push as that which ends up at the back of the bucket. In fact, once you tip the load over the wheel, you can barely feel it. A deep front also helps keep the contents, especially liquid concrete, from sloshing out.My wheelbarrow and shovel time has increased of late. Almost every hour of the day since Haiti’s earthquake, we have been hauling debris from our fallen walls to be crushed and used for building materials at sites around the school and neighborhood. This adds a lot of wheelbarrow and shovel work to our normal daily activities of picking up trash along the nearby national road, turning the compost, and cleaning our school. I have no complaints. While the circumstance that brought this work on is very sad, working with shovels and wheelbarrows is spiritually and physically beneficial. The ardor of the work focuses the mind. It creates a proper perspective for compassionate, yet realistic contemplation of the massive devastation done by the earthquake to this already impoverished country and the tough, long road ahead to recovery. In this way, the work is cathartic, redemptive and constructive. Shoveling and wheelbarrowing also keep my hands occupied. This removes the temptation to point fingers at others out of frustration over the dirge-like pace at which recovery naturally moves. Pointless blaming has become the distracting, and possibly destructive, pastime of more than a few of those from the international community who, invited or not, have taken on the leadership of the outside world’s effort to rebuild Haiti. I am grateful to have something to do in order to avoid being caught up in that subterfuge. Daily bouts of hard labor also keep me constantly in contact with what it is going to take for this historically important, but environmentally devastated, country to recover and move forward, namely lots of hard work. I appreciate the daily reminder to not over intellectualize Haiti’s recovery and advancement. While I sweat through my comparatively minor labors, I also have the chance to daydream. Released by the rhythm of my flat shovel scraping on the ground, I happily imagine that Haiti has just been given $5 billion dollars by the Unites States to fund WPA-style projects aimed at improving the country’s environment and infrastructure rather than bounce-back relief dollars—dollars that all too often go to international consultants companies rather than into the local economy. I dream of these funds being direct funds, uninhibited by mediating international organizations. Real dollars for Haiti, not near useless in-kind donations that are actually veiled stimulus packages for the donating nation. Then my trusty shovel skips and the dream goes with the lost rhythm.
The free-associating mind finds irony almost everywhere. I have one of those minds. Things pass through my head on two routes simultaneously, never just one. Even the most concrete of inputs undergoes consideration for contextual incongruities or double meanings. This may result in some confusion or the delay of more relevant thoughts, but it certainly makes life more interesting.
In a recent article in The New York Times on the deplorable situation in the ambiguously defined tent camps of Haiti, a new oxymoron appeared that is neither amusing nor positive. The journalist reports that the inhabitants of a failing relocation camp, constructed far outside of the city in a dusty, deserted desert, where even lizards fear the noon-day sun, were encouraged by the camp leaders to write letters to the nongovernment authorities in order to voice their complaints.
It is clear that Aristotle did not have a teenage daughter. Or, he would not have denied the possibility that two contradictory statements can be true at the same time. I offer these two statements as my proof: “I hate you, Dad.” and “I love you, Dad.” Not only does my daughter hold these statements both to be true at the same time, I am also suspicious that they mean the same thing to her—which, of course, further buries Aristotle’s principle.
I am sure that by the time my words are printed thousands upon thousands will already have been published denouncing Reverend Terry Jones’s plan to burn copies of the Qur’an on September 11. However, an act this misguided and objectionable is deserving of constant and universal condemnation. So, let me add my voice to the growing group of detractors by stating without hesitation or qualification that what Reverend Jones is planning, while legal, is clearly repugnant.
One of the first things I remember learning in science is that we require food, water and shelter to sustain our lives. Later, I learned from deeper study and life itself that we, since we are social beings, also require love. Rich or poor, old or young, we all have these four basic needs.
Before I have the chance to write this column, it happened again. I was on my way back from Haiti. The amount started at $400 and quickly went to $500. Still, no takers, but you could see people traveling together doing the math in their heads. A thousand dollars is a lot of money.
Having spent one third of my life dedicated to providing education in Haiti, I recently read the August 16, 2010 New York Times editorial entitled “Haiti’s Schools” with great interest. I have to admit that I turned to the article not knowing what to expect, given the simple title and my varied experience with education in Haiti. But, I was truly surprised to find an unqualified endorsement by the Times for the Inter-American Developmental Bank’s plan to totally “reinvent” Haiti’s education sector. I had no idea there was such a plan.
The Fox News gang has their undergarments in a bunch again. This time it is over the Fannie Mae-backed pilot mortgage program called Affordable Advantage, which allows a prospective home buyer to secure a 30-year mortgage at market rates with a minimum down payment of only $1,000. Qualifications also include having a 680 plus credit score and a strong work history. There is reason for caution here; however, with a few adjustments, this program could be made safer and more palatable for tax payers who are already on the hook through Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac for billions in mortgages.