By David Brooks, New York Times, April 12, 2012
Many of the activists (social entrepreneurs) talk as if the world can be healed if we could only insert more care, compassion and resources into it.
History is not kind to this assumption. Most poverty and suffering — whether in a country, a family or a person — flows from disorganization. A stable social order is an artificial accomplishment, the result of an accumulation of habits, hectoring, moral stricture and physical coercion. Once order is dissolved, it takes hard measures to restore it.
Yet one rarely hears social entrepreneurs talk about professional policing, honest courts or strict standards of behavior; it’s more uplifting to talk about microloans and sustainable agriculture.
In short, there’s only so much good you can do unless you are willing to confront corruption, venality and disorder head-on. So if I could, presumptuously, recommend a reading list to help these activists fill in the gaps in the prevailing service ethos, I’d start with the novels of Dashiell Hammett or Raymond Chandler, or at least the movies based on them.
The noir heroes like Sam Spade in “The Maltese Falcon” served as models for a generation of Americans, and they put the focus squarely on venality, corruption and disorder and how you should behave in the face of it.
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. The assumption in a Hammett book is that the good guy has a spotty past, does spotty things and that the private eye and the criminal are two sides to the same personality.
He (or she — the women in these stories follow the same code) adopts a layered personality. He hardens himself on the outside in order to protect whatever is left of the finer self within.
He is reticent, allergic to self-righteousness and appears unfeeling, but he is motivated by a disillusioned sense of honor. The world often rewards the wrong things, but each job comes with obligations and even if everything is decaying you should still take pride in your work. Under the cynical mask, there is still a basic sense of good order, that crime should be punished and bad behavior shouldn’t go uncorrected. He knows he’s not going to be uplifted by his work; that to tackle the hard jobs he’ll have to risk coarsening himself, but he doggedly plows ahead.
This worldview had a huge influence as a generation confronted crime, corruption, fascism and communism. I’m not sure I can see today’s social entrepreneurs wearing fedoras and trench coats. But noir’s moral realism would be a nice supplement to today’s prevailing ethos. It would fold some hardheadedness in with today’s service mentality. It would focus attention on the core issues: order and rule of law. And it would be necessary. Contemporary Washington, not to mention parts of the developing world, may be less seedy than the cities in the noir stories, but they are equally laced with self-deception and self-dealing.
Those, like Brooks, who focus on the need for order and the rule of law, as necessary support for the exemplary work of many young people who believe, naively perhaps, that they can change the world, with their new technology for making clean drinking water available where none now exists, are, for those same social entrepreneurs, a wet blanket on a massive number of inestimable social tumours in countless countries and regions. They are doing more, in a decade, for example that my generation or Brooks' generation have done in a lifetime. They are doing, not merely talking. They are digging into their available resources, researching specific chronic needs and going about taking positive, creative and often courageous steps to address those needs. And, from a different perspective than Sam Spade, they might actually believe that, with clean water, for example, that specific community might find the health, and the education and the necessary advice and resources to manage that water system equitably, and thereby begin the process of establishing their own order and governance.
While the definition of a human as both spotty and angelic stands up well through history's lens, and the need for order and the rule of law is well established, it is not up to those from the developed world to impose their concept of order or the rule of law on those countries where such conditions have not yet been met. Showing them, if asked, the models of both law and governance available, along with their respective histories conditioned by culture, climate, religion and geography, would be a welcome addition to the clean water.
But, when people are dying from disease, dehydration, starvation and homelessness, they first need to meet those needs, and then concentrate on developing those abstractions of order and the rule of law.
Recall Maslow's hierarchy of needs. It is not only individuals, but also desperate communities, that need to meet their basic needs before aspiring to meeting their higher needs. Of course, if those same people are also struggling with conflict originating with those who would rape and pillage them in their depravity,
that "basic need for security and safety" needs to be addressed as well.
However, knowing that everyone needs clean water to survive does not require a deep and profound knowledge of the kind of society that a specific group might choose. No one has to be shown how to drink fresh clean water. No one needs instruction, either individually or collectively, in how to eat healthy, nourishing food, even if that food comes in the form of a peanut melange, without much form or taste or variety. If one is struggling with disease, and some form of either preventive or ameliorating medicine is available, it does not take hours of instruction for the person responsible to permit the administration of that medicine to the sick.
Let's get serious, here, Mr. Brooks.
Political structures, while necessary, are still beyond many human beings struggling to stay alive, and the social entrepreneurs who are attempting to meet those oh-so-basic human needs, deserve not only our deep appreciation and support, but also a back-home culture that begins to grasp the fine detailed nuances of those needs, and how they are being met, not some abstract lecture about reading books that define humans as part good part evil.
There are lots of Sam Spades in both literature and in history. There are damn few Mother Theresa's, in spite of some of the chronicle of her spotty history and performance. Maybe a few more will help shift the "have world" into actually perceiving and coping with the reality of the dispossessed.