First, out of respect to my father, I must point out that he taught me many things, including how to sail and fish. He even taught me how to tie my own flies. He started me on simple poppers and advanced me to more intricate caddis flies made with deer hair, which is no mean feat with an impetuous young boy. But, intentional or not, what my dad taught me most was how to car deal. I have given up fishing and didn’t sail much past my youth, but I cannot shake the early imprint laid on me thanks to my dad’s appreciation for a pretty car and haggling.
It would seem with all the heated political verbiage flying around that a primer on hatred and its evils may be in order. Passion is part of our nature. Loyalty is a virtue. But, unchecked by wisdom, both can be blinding, especially in economically difficult and politically divisive times.
One would think, after relocating our household more than a dozen times in 22 years of marriage -ten involving moves to completely new communities- that we would be so good at moving that we could do it in our sleep. But every move has enough of its own peculiarities to keep even veteran movers from feeling settled about being unsettled. Sure, we have gotten exceptionally good at the packing part and the inevitable garage sale, but the psychological impact of moving does not fade much with experience. In fact, it seems to intensify along with the back pain!
The two most influential groups in deciding what will happen next in post-earthquake Haiti are not the Haitian government and the International Community, nor the UN’s multi-national security force and the large supra-national NGOs, nor even the movie star led groups and grass root missionary organizations. The two groups that will decide where we go from here are the camped, the Haitians who by necessity or choice occupy the half dozen large intra-urban tent villages around Port au Prince, and the uncamped, those Haitians who either chose not to enter the camps or were fortunate not to have to relocate at all. It is the emerging interaction between these two groups that will decide whether Haiti sinks or swims. Even an informal survey of young adult Haitians who did not relocate to the tent villages will reveal that there is a commonly held belief that a significant number of the people living in the camps are there by choice, not necessity. The young uncamped are not shy about asserting that a significant percentage of people their age are in the camps to take advantage of the freedom from parental controls, cash-for-work programs, entertainment, business opportunities, free rent and/or free resources. The uncamped young adults, particularly those who have managed to navigate the difficult educational system in Haiti to the university level, argue that there are alternatives and necessity is by no means the real driver of the continuing population growth in the camps.These uncamped young adults, who are from the same impoverished to extremely modest neighborhoods as many of those living in the camps, will just as firmly state that they would never live in a camp, not even as a last resort. That may seem easy for them to claim given they have not been forced into one by necessity; however, they rattle off a pretty convincing set of alternatives: live with family or a friend, go to the provinces, rent another place, clear the debris and stay put, live at work, etc. Their declaration seems authentic and the options plausible. To their credit, many Haitians who lost their residences, private or rented, did choose options other than the ad hoc camps. However, for what happens next in Haiti, it may not be as important if they are right about why the camp occupants are choosing to remain, as it is that they have this particular opinion and hold to it in debates. For the most part, the young adults in the camps do not talk much about past alternatives; they talk about future options. In these conversations, they are very open about sharing their belief that foreign NGOs have more to offer them than their own government. Reportedly, local government representatives are largely ignored when they come to the camp while foreign NGOs appear to be Pied Pipers. Again, whether right or wrong, it is important to recognize that this is the common belief of the camped, especially the young adults. In candid, unmonitored conversations, camped young adults, especially 17 to 25 year old females, do talk about their tents like they are houses of their own—an opportunity to get out from under their parents. They point out that they have water and food and their men have access to jobs. They seem myopically unconcerned that both the tents and the cash for work programs are temporary. I recently spoke with an uncamped twenty-one year old woman who felt compelled to see for herself if it was true that the open parties in the camp and easy access to tents was likely to ensure that much of the population so sadly lost in the quake would be quickly replaced - a callous joke that had begun circulating among her peers. She got her answer within a few moments of embarking on a self-tour of one of the larger camps in Port au Prince. Six months was plenty of time for the outward sign of this new “domestic independence” to manifest itself and prove the talk is more than bravado and the joke, sadly, a truth said in jest. Older women in the camp are even more critical of the camps’ inadvertent facilitation of young women prematurely entering into family life, pointing to girls as young as fourteen who had also become pregnant, most certainly against their will, to bolster their case. In the camps, people, especially the young, are exposed to many more hazards than rain to be sure. Given the familiarity of this oft-reported horror story of rape in refugee camps, one would think that the NGOs who trot the world running camps would know the real threats of camps are internal and would have offered a woman-and-children-only camp option. I am neither camped nor uncamped; however, after fourteen years I am sufficiently rooted in Haiti to know when a storm is brewing. Historically, new social constructs in Haiti have created two byproducts: change and violence. Dictatorship produced clean streets and the murderous tonton macoutes; populism brought socio-political freedom and the chimères - erratic groups of young thugs for hire. With more focus on creating permanent housing, maybe the attention that the earthquake has brought to the housing issue in Haiti does not have to have a violent counterpart. Everyone could just go to their house in peace.
I realize that it is customary to make resolutions at New Years, but maybe we could start using July 4th as a day to make some promises as well. We could focus on personal declarations of independence aimed not only at living life better, but making our nation even freer. We could use each 4th to identify things that shackle us and our great nation and vow to throw them off.
Until recently, we didn’t talk much about the weather in Haiti because we generally only have one kind: sunny and blue. During the two annual rainy seasons, it often rains. But, what is there to discuss—it’s the rainy season. The only time weather would make it into conversation was when a hurricane or heavy tropical storm was brewing, and then only if it were headed our way. That was until the tent-cities.
Michael Kinsley, writing about the Tea Party Patriots in a recent column in "The Atlantic," wryly points out, “The government’s main function these days is writing checks to old people. The checks allow people to retire and pursue avocations such as going to Tea Party rallies.” Point well taken. Evidently, one can bite the hand that feeds them.
Somewhere along the way, the major media seems to have lost track of what actually rises to the level of real investigative reporting. The latest example in pseudo-journalism is Matt Lauer’s June 7th interview with President Obama on the oil spill. The suspiciously well choreographed dialogue, presented in the genre of an hardcore 60 Minutes segment, lacked the depth and intensity of even a mediocre day on The View. Despite the probing eyeglasses and mano-a-mano chair setup, Mr. Lauer is no Mike Wallace. His big victory—getting the President to say “ass” and emote.
In a recent review of an autobiographical book about three women who pass a set of vials containing market procured sperm one to the other, only to have each bear a child naturally, the reviewer concluded, “…voila—three happy families, with all the pregnancies happening the old fashioned way.” Further details revealed in the May 23rd New York Times article titled “The Gift of Donor 8282” recount that not one of the women was married before conceiving their children. Evidently, all that is required to meet the current level of old fashioned is to conceive a child through the normal biological process. That seems like a rather low threshold.
I was born in 1964, so I missed the opportunity to be part of many trends and fads. I was too late to really be a boomer; too young to be a discoer; and too old to be a hipster. It seemed like everybody else was either a trendsetter or buster while I was always showing up when the party was over or before it started. Except for male hygiene - I was a witness to the very moment that changed.
In the movie version of Sue Monk Kidd’s Secret Life of Bees, August Boatwright, played beautifully by Queen Latifah, paraphrases the author’s insightful commentary on the difficulty of human love in real time. In a pearly wise voice, she laments, “We like to believe that love is pure and limitless. But, love like that is not possible in hateful times.” Unfortunately, hateful times change names, but never seem to disappear entirely from the world. The absolute accuracy of this succinct social indictment of the fallen human condition struck me. A missionary in an economically poor country, I spend days working in a stew of human virtues and vices and nights trying to sort out how it happens that we, who are so capable of unconditional love, often end up giving and receiving a lot less. My last reflection of the evening, when I am capable of real honesty, is a self-study of what limits and adulterates my love. Embarrassingly, given the relative ease of my life, I think its fear of survival as well.
It is true that our country has experienced nothing but economic growth and positive cultural diversification with the arrival of each wave of immigrants from around the world. This should give us the confidence to pause for a moment in the debate over immigration and realize that, in the long-term, we have nothing to fear but xenophobia itself. Immigration is, and always has been, a net positive for our country.
We all live in two economies simultaneously: local and global. Those of us who live in the developed world, especially in the U.S. or Europe, may not be aware of the economic duality we navigate daily because the seam between the two is hidden by the size of our domestic economies, the relative strength of our wages, and the global power of our respective currencies. Yet, even a simple trip to the gas station for a tank gas and a Coke involves crossing from one economy to the other.
Land has been on my mind a lot lately, which is interesting since I don’t own any. Nevertheless, I was curious to know who does. It turns out that the largest land owner in the world is Queen Elizabeth II, if you take it at face value that she owns Canada and several other countries. She is followed by three Jacks of a sort: the governments of Russia, China and the United States. There are several Middle East monarchs in the top ten that might just have a little bit more personal control of the land they are reported to own than the Queen and her government court. The King of Saudi Arabia, for example, is reported to own over a half of a billion acres.
When I was a commodity trader, I always wanted to go to China. Had I been given the chance to work in China prior to leaving trading, it’s possible that such an opportunity may have even delayed me in becoming a missionary. I was always fascinated by China and intrigued by the opportunities presented as it opened up in the 90’s. However, my interest in China and its economic potential has never dulled my contempt for their central government’s questionable domestic and foreign policies, most notably the one child policy and their refusal to allow religious freedom. Unfortunately, many corporations and governments around the globe seem to contract a severe case of amnesia about this when it comes to doing business with China. It is as if China’s economic hold on the world has created a global “Stockholm Syndrome.” Faced with gargantuan economic opportunities or unbeatable competition, few companies or nations seem able to say, “The Party Leader has no clothes.” China is just too big to diss. Lured by the cheap cost of manufacturing and a market with one billion plus consumers, companies rarely take the piracy of intellectual property to the mat. They just keep coming back for cheaper versions of their old models, switching without complaint from absentee manufacturer to product buyer. The new rule of thumb is, “If you can’t beat’em, buy from them”. I am proud of Google for putting their foot down on this issue and on censorship. Reports suggest that Big Brother is not only watching what Google does, he is also watching HOW Google does it. It is clear that what a company does in China not only stays in China, it ends up being done all over China by competing local firms. With Iran and North Korea looming in their thoughts, visiting government officials seem to be too busy courting favor [begging] with the Chinese Government that they forget to visit Tiananmen Square or to ask hard questions about China’s millions of missing girls. Groping for something to say in the thick, repressive air of Beijing, they settle for “Wasn’t the Olympics amazing?” Evidently, it’s easier to point out the one positive thing than to go over a thousand negatives. When positives are in short supply, it is always possible to deny the negatives. During her first visit to China as Secretary of State last year about this time, Hillary Clinton downplayed China as an adversary. Motivated by the need to borrow, she went as far as to suggest that the United States and China could be good partners in the 21st century, sharing mutually in the economic benefits of ongoing globalization. This is simply a fairytale. First, there is no doubt that the Chinese government is an adversary. The only way that will change is if there is no competition. Secondly, the Chinese government isn’t looking for partners – it is looking for land, natural resources and cheap labor. Partners are for investing and development. The Chinese government isn’t interested in investing in the world; it wants to buy it and ship it home. Their land and resource grab is driven by the need to feed the machine and not by a monetary return on an investment. In fact, it is quite possible that the Chinese government does not even believe in money as a necessary financial construct. Perhaps that is why they lend it to us so easily and cheaply. Like old man Potter, the Chinese government focuses on controlling the things themselves and not on a return on capital. This makes sense from China’s industrial perspective. You can’t run a coal turbine on Euros or run dollars through a steel mill. The dollar value of a barrel of oil is simply not very important if you plan to use it and every other one you can find. The Chinese government thinks like a manufacturer on steroids, not like a financial banker. This is why China, at least currently, isn’t a good partner for the U.S., even on purely economic terms. While the Chinese government and industrial complex may be truly be our adversary, it is also true that the wonderful, multi-ethnic people of China are not our adversaries. They are, in fact, our best ally against the Chinese government. People tend to like having freedom and choice. People are by nature traders and pro-free market. Who doesn’t want the best deal? So, we should continue to invest in the people of China. It will be the people of China that will break the country up and reform it. What corporations and other nations have failed to do, the people will succeed in doing. Someday, the Chinese men will realize that their government has robbed them of the chance to have a family because there is no one to marry. Someday, Chinese women will reject being pressured into to preferring male children. Even non-monks will tire of the religious suppression and the jailing of bishops. When 1.2 billion people get mad at their government, they are going to need someone to listen. That is when we should be there and not a day sooner.
I recently read Joel Stein’s tongue-in-cheek column [Time March 29, 2010] about his joy at finding out that his son, Laszlo, is genetically more influenced by him than his wife. Evidently, for a relatively small amount of money and a bit of saliva, one can secure (or lose) parental boasting rights. The days of relying on the unscientific, subjective statement by a friend or family member that your son or daughter favors you are gone. For $499, you can be sure, down to the genome.
I fly so frequently that watching the movie Up in the Air felt like work. The other day I walked into a newly renovated part of the Miami airport and thought to myself, “Who moved the furniture?” I can sleep almost as comfortably in the Boston airport as my own bed. So I am not kidding when I say that I know the industry and appreciate it. I also have to admit that I accept free upgrades whenever offered. Having said that, I do hope this column is read by my friends at American Airlines.
I have to say that I was quite happy with the Oscars. Not only did the hype of “Avatar” fade, but, against the odds, “The Hurt Locker” won. Many doubted the ability of this relatively limited release and low grossing film to make it in the final round. Yet, “The Hurt Locker” won six awards, including Best Director and Best Picture. Bravo!