Sunday, July 17, 2005

African aid: Weak incentives of good intentions.

An earnest call for aid to Africa occurred in the 1960s with the conviction that lack of savings in third world countries hampered these economies from making the investments needed to take the first step in the ladder to sustainable growth.

More than four decades later the question is, ‘has aid helped?’ According to the CATO institute Africa has received 450 billion dollars worth of aid from 1960 to 2000 and yet the average GDP per capita of the continent has declined at a rate of 5.9 percent per year. They put this statistic into perspective by comparing the progress made in South East Asia for a fraction of that aid. The report of recommendations presented to the Secretary General by Jeffrey Sachs and the UN Millennium Project also brings attention to this disparity in performance between the emerging economies in Asia and the ones in Africa.

Even though it is unanimously accepted that corruption and the disruption of free markets and trade are the chief causes for the lack of progress in eliminating poverty, there is debate over whether corruption can be reduced by asking for good governance conditions in return for aid.

Empirical research done by the World Bank on 10 countries that receive aid suggests that there is little correlation with the amount of funding and constructive policy change needed for economic prosperity. Some of the 10 countries made very good policy changes, some made negligible reforms while others made no changes or went from bad to worse. The disparity in results suggests that aid has no average impact on policy reforms.

The World Bank study shows that although aid has greatest effect in reducing poverty in countries where there is good governance, donors continue the ill-advised practice of providing greater sums of aid to governments that repeatedly fail to reform while reducing aid to governments who implement good policies.

In a Washington Post article World Bank economist William Easterly comments that broad ranging reforms, what he calls ‘utopian social engineering’, like the ones proposed by the Jeffrey Sachs and the Millennium Project are far too complex to control and implement effectively and costs are great when they fail. Instead, he argues for an alternative ‘piecemeal approach’:
The piecemeal reform approach (which his book opposes) would humbly acknowledge that nobody can fully grasp the complexity of the political, social, technological, ecological and economic systems that underlie poverty…Large-scale crash programs, especially by outsiders, often produce unintended consequences. The simple dreams at the top run afoul of insufficient knowledge of the complex realities at the bottom…Nor can you hold any specific agency accountable for their success or failure. Piecemeal reform, by contrast, motivates specific actors to take small steps, one at a time, then tests whether that small step made poor people better off, holds accountable the agency that implemented the small step, and considers the next small step.
But according to the Millennium Project report, the reason for past failures is the lack of commitment to big broad ranging plans with broad goals. They imply that the goals of piecemeal approaches have not been sustainable due of the interdependency of various problems. Funding money into specific issues is not enough, as related issues around it have not been solved. The effect is that eventually the good work done on a particular project will be diluted. It also criticises the short-term perspective adopted by piecemeal advocates, saying that the unstable and so far unsatisfactory influx of funds cannot lead to sustained development, i.e. even if the goals were broad enough, commitment to it was lacking.

They also comment on the lack of systematic frameworks for looking at countries and political systems on an individual basis, the result being a generic and inaccurate approach to African poverty. Each country has it’s own unique social, economic, geographical and political problems. For example some countries seem to enjoy fairly competent governments while most others are corrupt to the core. These differences are not being adequately factored in aid provision strategies.

In The Cartel of Good Intentions, William Easterly makes a comprehensive criticism of aid agencies, including the new Millennium Development Goals, which he sees as a re-branding of the same old mistakes. His main thrust is that top-down broad approaches have the usual problems of an inflated bureaucracy not driven by market motivations. Beginning by covering the myriad of administrative processes and informational requirements involved in getting funds to cover a simple task of fixing a road he illustrates the problem of taking on too many tasks in a centralised manner:
Within the World Bank, the transport economist must try to convince the desk economist that a Road Maintenance Loan that would repair this particular pothole merits higher priority than some other project, like say an Education Reform Loan pushed by the education economists…
Easterly tries to explain why it is that aid bureaucracies are finding it hard to change their persistent and ineffective practices. The problem comes from a conflict in incentives. “It is very hard for aid bureaucracies to get constructive feedback from past mistakes because admission of past failure is a threat to getting new aid resources to dispense in the future.” The problem with not learning from past mistakes is that those mistakes are more likely to be repeated.

This is also why we don’t see much work being done in projects that are hard to ‘show off’ to donors, like stocking and maintaining already built facilities. These endeavours have low observability and it looks like not much is being done:
Aid reports for many decades have bewailed the tendency of donors to finance new capital investment projects (easily observable at a point in time) and the neglect of operating supplies and maintenance after the project is completed. Donors consistently refuse to finance maintenance, with the idea that this is responsibility of recipient governments.
There are estimations that suggest that the benefit of spending on books is much higher than actually building new physical facilities, but donors still prefer to fund the later because it looks like they are doing a lot more.

The main source of this bureaucratic dysfunction is that these agencies do not have enough market feedback. They are monopolies and as such they have the same problems that afflict normal monopolies, i.e. they have less of an incentive to provide the quantity of services for relatively low price as a competitive firm.

The article continues on to discuss how the current set-up of the aid system also gets the stick end having multiple agents and multiple principles. It becomes very difficult to pinpoint the actual problem and which party is responsible. There is also a weakening of incentives when multiple principles are being served. There is also a tendency to collude, as agencies are terrified of being outcasts bringing about an increasing likelihood of being blamed for future failures by the rest of the cartel.

‘Something has to change’ is what I get from all this. If this crippling ineffectiveness of aid continues, donors will eventually get fed up with the wastage and funds will dry out. Then it will be too late for any reforms.

The real tragedy of all this is that just in the time that I spent today reading the various papers and writing up this review and just generally wasting away my Sunday, another 10 000 people have died due to starvation.

Thursday, July 07, 2005

Blogger v Spaces

I read somewhere that it was a challenge for software designers to lessen the daunting learning curve for newbies while at the same time providing the functionality they might want once they get past the initial experience.

Obviously MSN Spaces are very easy to set up and run. Unfortunately however, this means trading off high functionality for a low learning curve. This strategy is understandable when we consider its target group.

As a regular user of MSN Messenger, my introduction to MSN Spaces came via the button in Version 7. After doing a few test entries and liking the therapeutic feel of writing it became natural to just stick with it.

However I don’t use it for the purpose of sharing details with family and friends. Just by reading my blog and profile I don’t think you would be able to gather too much about my personal life. I use it as a sounding board to bounce off my thoughts about the state of affairs as a way to test the coherency and consistency in views. Getting comments from people who question those thoughts are an added bonus.

And I like customisation. I like to play around with the look and feel of the site and in that department Spaces is getting a little stale. So I decided to take a relatively closer look at Google’s by populating it with some entries that I made earlier.

I actually signed up for an account fair whiles back, purely out of curiosity, but I never got past the first few entries. They were having some problems with updating the blog on time and new entries failed to appear for days. Now it seems like those issues have largely been resolved and most of the entries that I made went through almost immediately.

The best thing about blogger is that they allow you to edit the template file, and this provides unsurpassable customisation ability, which I am pretty happy about. I actually started with one of the standard templates, changed the colours and a couple of graphics, and I ended up with this.

The biggest downside for a lot of people is that you need to know some basic html to make substantial modifications to the standard selection of templates. But in my case this is actually a positive since this provided me with a motivation for learning html.

They even have some great hacks. For example it is possible to implement a drop-down comments feature like the one we get in Spaces when you use IE. It is also possible to implement expandable entries so that interested readers can see the full text of very long posts while casual surfers can skim through an uncluttered interface. All the tags, both the general tags and the markup for these tricks are well documented.

One of the worst things about MSN Spaces is keeping track of comments. If it's a particularly busy period for your blog, comments get lost. Blogger solves this problem by providing an email notification system so that a copy of every comment pops up in my inbox.

MSN Spaces do have some features that Blogger doesn’t have. An external application is need to maintain a photo album on Blogger, but that is really not an issue for me. The very useful ‘categories’ feature at Spaces cannot be replicated at Bloggers and I will miss that. They also don’t have Lists, but you don’t really need those at Blogger where you can just as easily construct your own list by editing the template.

In my short time playing around with Blogger it has been a positive experience barring the following minor issues: Firstly there is sometimes a slight delay before the blog gets updated, and there is a mismatch in the timing of the update between the addresses and I find that the later address updates quicker than the former, so on rare occasions we have two versions of the blog online, one being the older version and the other being the never version.

Secondly the stats are temporarily down and that screws up my profile page. So I had to make it private for the moment until they sort that out.

Thirdly, although posting pictures with your articles are easier with Blogger, the pictures that you upload and the old blogs that you’ve deleted still remain on the server. This isn’t as much of a problem as there is no limit to the amount of pictures you can upload, but it just seems like a waste of space. And some users might get a little suspicious about Google holding their pictures indefinitely.

Fourthly you need to get Haloscan for trackbacks. But trackbacks aren’t big deal for me yet so that issue is largely irrelevant.

So am I going to make the switch? Well, not yet. I am just going to simultaneously post entries to both blogs. This shouldn’t be too much of a problem since I only expect to post an entry every two days or so anyway.

Take the MIT Weblog Survey

Monday, July 04, 2005

A hit, a very palpable hit

Deep Impact has just hit Tempel 1 about 30 seconds ago. Been following it on NASA live TV. The TV camera was on the controllers and not on the actual image of the impact as it occurred. So I was looking at everyone getting really exited about the something off screen, making me yell out at the camera guy to turn his camera to the right.

A lot of jumping up and down and clapping and screaming going on in the control room.

Impactor team are wearing red t-shirts and Flyby team in blue

Someone just commented: ‘wow, and we were expecting something subtle!”

Finally, they are replaying the actual image of the impact

Wow. That was pretty huge.

Someone, possibly the mission manager, said “Ok folks we have another vehicle to worry about, so let’s settle down.”

No one is settling down.

Some interesting commentating going on now, with great images of the comet pre-impact from the Impactor itself. The guy is saying how “the navigation was perfect”, “the explosion was much larger than what we expected”.

A few congressmen walking through the room shaking everyone’s hands and congratulating them.

Ok medium resolution image of the impact from the flyby.

‘Flawless’ according to the commentator who is now going to interview a few scientists. I am going to go listen.

Saturday, July 02, 2005

Well, everyone else has blogged about this

No prizes for correct guesses as to the story that had flooded my news aggregator this morning.

Now I must admit to ignorance when it comes to American judicial politics, partly because I had this naïve notion that there wasn’t much politics involved in the judiciary and mainly because I am not American. The only thing I knew about Justice Sandra Day O'Connor before today was that she was meant to be at the centre of a divided SCOTUS and that she was one of the dissenting judges from a disturbing majority decision in that property rights case from a two weeks ago.

So I spent a couple of hours this afternoon reading various articles and listening to a couple of interviews on her life and her approach to the job and I must say, I dig this chick.

This feeling of admiration is probably due in part to the sympathy I feel for those who get accused of being wishy-washy when in fact they really are trying to be as consistent as possible in their values but realise the complexities and individuality of each circumstance and problems that they encounter.

I think this was evidenced in an answer she gave in an interview to NPR’s Nina Totenberg who asked: “what are your feelings about being so often described as a decisive fifth vote?" O’Conner replied, “I think it is ridiculous because all nine people have to cast a vote and there is no way to single out one as being more significant than another.”

Totenberg pursued: “If the court is divided somewhat ideologically and it’s very clear that one person is sitting in the middle and whichever way she or he casts the vote decides the outcome…”. But O’Conner was having none of it: “I am not sure it’s very clear if it’s going to be one way or the other but for one vote, so I get a little impatient with that notion.”

Such faith in the justice system and in her fellow justices after being so involved for so long is quite inspiring.

Of course with her resignation comes all the speculation about the next appointment and I just thought I’d take this opportunity to bring your attention to one of my favourite political bloggers; Jay Cost, who ran the most insightful commentary on the last American presidential election. Now blogging over at his advice is that the President would be better served by a smooth nomination through the Senate. Check out his entry and check out some of the comments below, which argue that maybe a long hard fight is exactly what the President needs right now to remobilise support.

Tuesday, June 14, 2005

America is good because it doesn't behead people

An MSN Space that I frequently visit recently pointed to a Washington Post article wherein Fred Hiatt addresses a common criticism aimed at the mainstream media; a criticism that is often echoed in the US Government by folks like DefSec. Rumsfeld:

Two of the country's largest newspapers, for example, have devoted more than 80 editorials, combined, since March of 2004 to Abu Ghraib and detainee issues, often repeating the same erroneous assertions and recycling the same stories"…"By comparison, precious little has been written by those editorial boards about the beheading of innocent civilians by terrorists, the thousands of bodies found in mass graves in Iraq, the allegations of rape of women and girls by U.N. workers in the Congo.

I agree that there is a bias in this discrepancy but unlike Rumsfeld I think the bias is a justified pro-American one, or at least it is an anti-terrorist one. Hiatt explains it better:

But it's also true that The Post has published more editorials criticizing Donald Rumsfeld than Abu Musab Zarqawi. That's partly because, to the extent that editorials are meant to educate or explain, there isn't all that much to say about Zarqawi's evil that isn't evident to most Post readers; and to the extent that editorials are meant to influence, there's no point in addressing messages to the beheaders of the world.
At least with the US Government there is a chance that criticism will be heard and taken into account and there is hope for reform and change.

With the terrorists and suicide bombers there is just no point. Their lack of morality and sanity is obvious and simply beyond our comprehension. The only useful thing we can do is to get rid of them.

Many critics note that the Post and other papers have given much more coverage to the faults of the administration than to the infinitely more serious crimes of mass graves and suicide bombings conducted by Saddam and the opposition.

If someone were to tell me that I am a good bloke because I am better than a guy who beheads people, then I would definitely be offended. What these critics are doing is putting the United States on the same measure of morality as the terrorists and that in itself is an insult to the United States and its allies. Hiatt agrees:

...just invoking such a comparison, even implicitly, amounts to a loss for the United States. If we have to defend ourselves by pointing out that we are morally superior to terrorists, it's a loss.

Of course when the media does increase its reporting on the atrocities committed by terrorists they are criticised (with some justification I must say) for being too negative.

It’s damned if you do and damned if you don’t

Sunday, May 29, 2005

Morality and the need for God

According Peter Schwartz, religion is not necessary for a morally stable society. Although hypocritical attacks against the phantom 'left' dominate his article, there is still fading evidence of some logical capability ticking away beneath all that political narrow mindedness:
Morality begins with the individual's life as the primary value and identifies the further values that are demonstrably required to sustain that life. It observes that man's nature demands that we live not by random urges or by animal instincts, but by the faculty that distinguishes us from animals and on which our existence fundamentally depends: rationality.

I’ve said something similar on a previous entry. However the real value of religion is not in the explanation of morality, but rather in the motivation for morality.

Atheists frequently recite the phrase “Good men do good things and bad men do bad things, but it takes religion to make good men do bad things.” Then they go on to cite various religiously motivated atrocities.

It would then be logically inconsistent of them to not follow that argument through to its conclusion; i.e. ‘it takes religion to make bad men do good things.’

Morality may begin with the value given to an individual’s life, but there are many individuals who only care for the welfare of one life; themselves. All this high talk about preserving the rights of the ‘universal individual’ means nothing to them. If they can steal, lie, cheat and get away with it, they would do so. The impact it has on the welfare of the others around them has no bearing on their conscience. They are not hindered by the possibility of everyone acting in this way. These are Nietzche’s 'last men'.

This is where all that fire and brimstone stuff comes in. In childhood (also applicable to the folks in the formative periods of civilisation), individuals initially choose the moral options due to the fear of being deep-fried by a giant thunderbolt. Of course, over time they are mentally conditioned into developing a conscience, and as a result realise feelings of guilt for committing a sin and feelings of joy for committing acts of nobility. Yet, it is that unparalleled motivation arising from self-preservation, which sets them off on that track.

Religion shares much of the responsibility for the progress of civilisation. I am of the opinion that for a much of human history, religions have been a force of overwhelming good.

Secular Law and its enforcement by itself cannot govern a society of people who have no qualms about lying, stealing or killing if they feel that they can get away with it. Thus in a way Justice Scalia is right when he says, “Government derives its authority from God”.

The problem is that at some point civilisation will outgrow the beliefs and traditions that nurtured it and kept it safe for so long. With our knowledge of the universe increasing and changing at such an accelerated rate, it seems only natural that more and more people will begin questioning the existence of long held notions such as Divine Justice, Karma and Final Judgment.

Some believe that this point has already been breached. They feel that the counterproductive influences of religion are slowly catching up to it's positive aspects.

Should we react in fear and choose the option of the fundamentalists? Should we try and turn the clock back? The danger in that is similar to the danger faced by an overly protective parent. The child might rebel not only against the unreasonable restrictions, but also, in it’s eagerness for independence, the good teachings of the parent.

So if 'God is Dead' or is in his death throes, what is his replacement? How do we engender a love for the Human Ideal and respect for it's consequential moral codes? What will now ensure the rights of the individual in a global society?

Personally, I think we are all doomed. Conclusive evidence? Click here.

Friday, May 27, 2005

Is Religion a Force for Good in History?

First a few qualifications:

  • I am a Weak Agnostic and my sympathies lie towards Atheism.
  • I do suspect that religion might be, for better or for worse, approaching its use-by-date.
  • Religion has played a constant role in human history and I can only take specific examples that illustrate its persistent and fundamental quality as a supreme organisational tool. If this was a contest of how many examples each side can bring to the table, then we will be here for quite a long time.
  • It may be true that if we were to only look at history since the Age of Enlightenment, religion’s counter productive influences have become increasingly prevalent and steadily negating the impact of the positive role it had played till then.
  • This has become all the more evident with the changes of the 19th and 20th centuries (I can find no adjective to sufficiently describe the vastness and sheer speed at which these changes occurred).

But if we take a look at history from the beginnings of civilisation, then yes, I do think religion has been, on balance, a positive force and overwhelmingly so.

Allow me to focus on the development of society in pre-Islamic Middle East and Arabia to illustrate, chiefly because I am not completely ignorant about this particular region. Secondly because I have Lapidus’s definitive textbook: “History of Islamic Societies” on my bookshelf and I can quote it liberally. Thirdly, I felt that some of the events provide interesting parallels to the situation we are in now.

Beginning at the era of hunting and gathering communities, we know that they were organised around small familial units. With the advent of agriculture and domestication of animals they start living in tribes of nomadic pastoralists or in agricultural communities.

As these communities grew, the interactions between them became more frequent, especially with the nomads travelling from one agrarian village to another. Customs and beliefs were shared along with the goods and more than one community began worshipping the same Gods.

Motivated by their shared commitment to the service of these Gods, pastoral villages grouped into temple communities. For example the Sumerians believed that the lands they inhabited were the property of the Gods and that they were obligated to create temples in appreciation. They couldn’t do this if the villages didn’t co-operate.

Thus the city-state is born. This was revolutionary in terms of cultural progress. Constructing temples required administration and organization of previously unheard-of quantities of labour. Supporting professions such as artisans and sculptors began to ply their trade. Writing and trade customs were developed. Specialisation of skills and integration of labour meant that the cities became centres of economic growth and individuals experienced a jump in their standard of living.

It is no coincidence that the priests of the temples were also the city’s lawmakers and political leaders. In those formative periods, belief in the divine authority was essential to maintain the stability and security within the society.

Then came the empires. The first empire of the world was created in 2400 BC by Sargon of Akkad in Northern Mesopotamia. As Empires rose and fell, and each created its own imprint on the landscape. Over time Kings replaced priests as the primary mediators between heaven and earth. Quoting Lapidus (2002):

In Middle Eastern conceptions, kingship was justified as the expression of the divine plan for the ordering of human societies. Sacralized political power, as well as religious community, became a vehicle for the unification of disparate communities.
Empires became the new black:
For ancient peoples, the empires symbolised the realm of civilisation. The function of empires was to defend the civilised world against the barbarians and to assimilate them into the sphere of higher culture. For their part, the barbarians, mostly nomadic peoples, wanted to conquer empires, share in their wealth and sophistication, and win for themselves the status of civilized men. Empires commanded allegiance because they were a coalition of civilised peoples against the darkness without. They commanded allegiance because kingship was though of as a divine institution and the king was a divinely selected agent, a person who, if not himself a god, shared in the aura, magnificence, sacredness, and mystery of the divine. The ruler was God’s agent, his priest, the channel between this world and the heavens, designated by the divine being to bring justice and right order to men so that they might in turn serve God. The king thus assured the prosperity and well being of his subjects. Magically he upheld the order of the universe against chaos.
Leaving Mesopotamia, let’s travel forward to the beginning of 6th century Arabia and to a city called Mecca:
Mecca was one of the most complex and heterogenous places in Arabia. Here society had grown beyond the limitations of the clan and tribe to afford some complexity of political and economic ties. Mecca was one of the few places in Arabia to have a floating, non-tribal population of individual exiles, refugees, outlaws, and foreign merchants. The very presence of different peoples and clans – people belonging to no clan, foreigners, people with diverse religious convictions, differing views of life’s purposes and values – moved Meccans away from the old tribal religions and moral conceptions. New conceptions of personal worth and social status and new social relationships were fostered in this more complex society. On the positive side, the imperatives of commercial activity, and Arabia-wide contacts and identifications set individuals free from the traditions of their clans and allowed for the flourishing of self-conscious, critical people, who were capable of experimenting with new values… On the negative side, society suffered from economic competition, social conflict, and moral confusion. Commercial activities brought in their wake social stratification on the basis of wealth, and morally inassimilable discrepancies between individuals situations and the imperatives of clan loyalty...

Arabia was in ferment; a society in the midst of constructive political experiments was endangered by anarchy; strong clan and tribal powers threatened to overwhelm the fragile forces of agricultural stability, commercial activity, and political cohesion.

And it was into this that Muhammad was born. His book and his monotheistic God re-establishes the cohesive society, halts the decline of Arabia and Middle East and by the twelfth century, Islam had taken the region to the forefront of civilisation. It is also useful to note that when the Mongols destroyed Saljuq Empire in 1243, religious conviction of the Islamic refugees and their desire to fight the infidels of Byzantine led to the creation of that small frontier principality in the mountainous regions of Anatolia under the rulership of Ertugrul. His son Osman will of course start a series of conquests that will eventually result in the Ottoman Empire.

One could point out that all these wars and death and destruction were all the result of religious dogmatism. I would counter that by saying without religions there wouldn’t even be a civilisation to fight these wars with. In fact wars themselves are an evidence of the tremendous organisational capability of religion. There is even a possibility that due to this benefit, spirituality is an adaptive biological trait in humans. If it has the power to get someone to go out there and sacrifice his own life, then one cannot underestimate its power in convincing a person to live a moral life.

Saturday, April 23, 2005

Is God in Our Genes?

A summary of an interesting Time (Nov 8, 2004 Aus. ed.) article:

A molecular biologist called Dean Hamer believes that human spirituality is an adaptive trait and claims to have located a gene that is partly responsible. The way the Time article put it is that “Our most profound feeling of spirituality…may be due to little more than an occasional shot of intoxicating brain chemicals governed by our DNA”

He is quoted as saying, “I’m a believer that every thought we think and every feeling we feel is the result of activity in the brain. I think we follow the basic laws of nature which is that we’re a bunch of chemical reactions running around in a bag.”

Another guy they quoted, Michael Persinger, professor of behavioural neuroscience at Laurentian Uni, says “anticipation of out own demise is the price we pay for a highly developed frontal lobe. In many ways, [a God experience is] a brilliant adaptation. It’s a built-in pacifier.”

According to Paul Davies, a professor of Natural Philosophy from Macquarie University in Sydney, “religions represent an attempt to harness innate spirituality for organisational purposes” i.e. a social mortar bringing groups together and enforcing social order.

Some theologians were ‘rankled’ by the implication that faith in God is nothing but a product of natural selection, but as Harmer says “[the] findings are agnostic on the existence of God. If there’s a God, there’s a God. Just knowing what brain chemicals are involved in acknowledging that is not going to change that fact.”

Then the article asks why, if spirituality is an adaptive trait, it is being used to organise ‘armed camps’. Robert Cloninger, a psychiatrist from University of Washington says that “while spiritual contemplation is intuitive religion is dogmatic; dogma in the wrong hands has always been a risky thing.”

It ends with a discussion on why some people are more religiously motivated than others and a discussion of environmental factors

Saturday, April 16, 2005

Utilitarianism and Religion's Annexation of Morality

Let us construct a society from scratch. We will begin with a single individual. When one is alone with no potential of interaction with other humans, there is no great need for moral codes. No need for rules that tell you not to lie, cheat or covet another man's wife. However the individual would develop pragmatic rules that prevent him from wasting food, eating poisonous berries, or placing his head into the mouth of a crocodile.

This individual then meets up with another bunch of people. He finds that his life becomes a lot easier if he can get their help to search and hunt for food, make cloths, build shelter, and fight with him against predatory animals. He realises that with specialisation of skills, the talent and economies of scale can be exploited to greater benefit. Thus with the interest of self-preservation he joins a community.

One day this person murders another man, steals the victim's food, takes over the victim's cave and lies with his woman. The others in the community realise that if these kinds of acts are encouraged people will stop doing their own hunting and their own work. The society will crumble. They see the danger that is inherent in allowing such acts to continue and will enact laws to prevent it. The act of killing and stealing becomes immoral as it is so conditioned by punishment. This punishment is not just physical but also psychological (seclusion, derision, enmity). Soon people instinctually realise that it is bad to kill and steal. They feel guilty. They have added that to their social and individual conscience.

As the society becomes more advanced they tried to explain what is going on around them. They envisaged great powerful beings striking down with lightning, crying down the rain, roaring out thunder, asking plants to grow, flowers to bloom and fruits to ripen. They began to explain away in similar fashion, the phenomenon of birth and death, dark and light, of the sky, stars, earth, rivers and the seas. Some societies had gods for every natural occurrence they couldn’t explain.

Leaders of these small societies gradually realised the advantage in imprinting the moral codes in religions, the advantage of having these great unseen yet immensely powerful beings in charge of what is right and wrong. They realised that the community will more readily accept their rules if they believed them to be inspired by the Divine.

A few thousand years forward the community has developed into a civilisation. The religion has changed to meet the needs of this society. As our scientific knowledge increases and we continue to learn about the nature of the Universe, many of these gods become redundant.

But the moral codes that were tied to the religion at its birth are still there. Many people still believe in Divine justice, and many feel that they would be judged in their afterlives for sins they commit.

A significant detail of the way in which morals have evolved is that specific standards change from society to society and time to time. For example merely a century or so ago nationalism was a virtue. Pride in your race and the desire to protect it was a virtue. This attitude was necessary for society to flourish in the face of external threats.

With technological improvements in areas of communication and transport, and the benefits of global trade, most of us have come to believe that nationalism is in fact the cause of wasteful wars and that it is destructive to the welfare of the community. In most advanced nations, nationalism is now considered a vice.

No less than three centuries ago, it was sin to question the Divine Authority of our Kings. It was sin to rebel against the noble blooded aristocracy. This was only natural in societies where strong rulers are needed to govern a nation surrounded by enemies. This loyalty and unquestioning obedience is still encouraged in our armed forces. However in much of the rest of society, where we conduct commerce instead of war, we have begun to recognise equality as a virtue.

The most immediate inference we can make from these observations is that moral codes are linked with welfare and as such morals fit with Jeremy Benthem's theoretical framework of utilitarianism.

Yet it would be a mistake to arrive at the conclusion of all morals are strictly relativistic. It could very well be that moral codes throughout human history are derivative of some fundamental source, whether it be Theistic, Pantheistic, Deistic or any of a multitude of possibilities.

Wednesday, April 06, 2005

Tolkien and Racism

The charge of racism has been frequently levelled at Tolkien after the release of Peter Jackson's Lord of The Rings. I have been involved in a lot of discussion with interested viewers and readers who are genuinely concerned with the perceived racial elements of Tolkien. The following FAQ was written about the time of the release of the Return of the King. After seeing the volume of accusatory material on net I thought it might be advisable to compile all the arguments into one single FAQ-style essay so as to save future effort and redundant recycling of arguments. As a biased fan and I may have missed a lot of points so I would appreciate any further arguments from either side.

There are no African, Indian, Japanese (…etc) humans in the story. Is Tolkien guilty of racism because of this?
The story was written as a mythology for Northern Europe and specifically England. Tolkien explicitly states his motivation in Letter #131:
I was from early days grieved by the poverty of my own beloved country; it has no stories of its own (bound up with its tongue and soil), not of the quality that I sought, and found in legends of other lands. There was Greek, and Celtic, and Romance, and Germanic, and Scandinavian, and Finnish; but nothing English; and does not replace what I felt to be missing.
This would explain why most human races in the story are 'white'. You wouldn’t expect to see a large number of Caucasians in an Indian, African or Chinese myth would you?

Another factor is that Tolkien had used Celtic and Teutonic myths and the myths of the Anglo-Saxons of pre-medieval England as inspiration for his story.

An internal answer would be that Middle Earth resembles the descriptions of the English countryside, the northern reaches of Scandinavia, Ireland and Scotland therefore it would damage the authenticity of this geographical setting if races from other parts of the world inhabited these lands.

As a testament to how inclusive he was it may be worthwhile (even if it is irrelevant) to mention that he had considered non-European societies when constructing some of his cultures. Evidence of this can be found in Letter #211 where Tolkien compared several significant aspects of the society of Gondor to that of ancient Egypt.

Why was he so concerned about England and Northern Europe over other parts of the world? Isn’t he overly preoccupied with Nordic regions?
Personally I think this question is counter-intuitive but I have heard it being asked in earnestness many times so I will answer it using the following quote from Letter #294:
Auden has asserted that for me ‘the North is a sacred direction’. That is not true. The North-west of Europe, where I (and most of my ancestors) have lived, has my affection, as a man’s home should.
He also takes offence at the use of the word ‘Nordic’ as "a word I personally dislike; it is associated with racialist theories". And in any case,
the action of the story takes place in the North-west of 'Middle-earth', equivalent in latitude to the coastlands of Europe and the north shores of the Mediterranean. But this is not a purely 'Nordic' area in any sense. If Hobbiton and Rivendell are taken (as intended) to be at about the latitude of Oxford, then Minas Tirith, 600 miles south, is about the latitude of Florence. The Mouths of Anduin and the ancient city of Pelargir are at about the latitude of ancient Troy.

Orcs are black and Elves are white. Isn’t this showing that 'black' represents evil and 'white' represents good?

Yes; but I don’t believe this to be racial distinction. Almost all mythology and imaginative stories in human history, whatever culture or society, have made the association of 'Darkness' to Evil and 'Light' to Good. This should not be mistaken for distinction based on colour of skin.

The sun is the primary source of energy for all living things. Humans are diurnal creatures and have always been afraid of the night. Thus it is not very hard to see why light and darkness have created these associations in our historical psyche.

The reasons are obvious as Tolkien states in Letter #131; "Light is such a primeval symbol in the nature of the Universe, that it can hardly be analysed".

Orcs are bad, Elves are noble, Dwarves are selfish and greedy. Doesn’t this mean that character traits are predetermined by race?
It is important to remember that Orcs, Elves and Dwarves are completely different species, not different races of humans. It’s a bit like comparing a domesticated dog to a tiger in the wild. In fact orcs aren’t really even ‘natural’ beings, but were actually manufactured by the Enemy.

How about the different classes of Humans that are defined by their blood and ancestry? In the Gondorian society why are the men of Numenorean decent considered nobler than men of mixed blood?
This is probably the question that has the least satisfactory answer. During Tolkien’s time there was a commonly held conception in his society that blood carried a set of rights with it. Even in this day the British (and many other societies) have a monarch and an aristocracy. This is really more to do with the right of material inheritance rather than the qualities inherent in blood.

We can find a more plausible answer in the story of the Edain, ancestors of Numenoreans, who "alone of the kindred of men fought for the Valar (gods), whereas many others fought for Morgoth." and for this they were rewarded with "wisdom and power and life more enduring than any other of the mortal race have possessed" (from the Akallabeth). I think all three characteristics were not just 'learnt' but were permanently endowed in their biology, to be passed on to their heirs. In addition to this the descendants of Elros further enriched the Numenorean blood. (Elros being the Elf who chose to be a human, one of only two Elves to be given that choice.)

Even given these gifts we know that the Numenoreans commit grievous crimes, eventually resulting in great catastrophe. The damage that they caused due to their arrogance and thirst for power was far greater than any other that Humans or Elves have caused since.

Ok then let us look at the different races of humans, the Haradrim and the Easterlings were described as swarthy and squint-eyed. Tolkien mentioned in the Two Towers that "they were ever ready to His (Sauron’s) will". Doesn’t that imply that they are racially predisposed to evil?
That statement was made by the character Damrod, a Ranger of Ithilien, and thus you must take into account his biased view towards his country’s historical enemies.

It is true that at the time of the War of the Ring, the Haradrim and the Easterlings were allied with the Enemy, but this was not always so. During Nirnaeth Arnoediad, Bór, the Chieftain of the Men from the East allied himself and many of his people with the Sons of Feanor against the forces of Morgoth.

We also have to consider their particular geographic position. The men of the West have access to the knowledge and experience of the Elves and Numenoreans, who have had extensive prior dealings with Morgoth and Sauron. The Southrons and Easterlings on the other hand are left to fend for themselves without such information.

It may also be true that the men of the West are more technologically advanced than those in the south and the east, because they had extensive connections with Numenor in it’s prime. In addition the exiles of Numenor had formed kingdoms and colonies in the west. Unfortunately for the Southrons and Easterlings, they had no such technological advantage available to them, making them a weaker opposition. They simply had to comply with the wishes of Mordor.

In LotR Tolkien has in fact made a point of making sure the reader considers the terrible situation that these 'strange' men were in. He wants us to understand what compelled them to do what they did. Sam, after witnessing the death of an Easterling in a skirmish, wonders "what the man’s name was and where he came from; and if he was really evil at heart, or what lies or threats had lead him in the long march from home; and if he really would rather have stayed there in peace."

Also as I mentioned earlier, even the Numenoreans, who are considered the most noble of Humans did commit great crimes.

We also know that some of the men of Gondor and Bree are dark skinned.

Aren’t the bad characters predominantly black or ‘swarthy’, i.e. Melkor, Sauron, Bill Ferny?
How about Saruman, Grima, Gollum, Boromir, and Denethor? There are just too many exceptions when you consider individual characters. Melkor is a Valar and Sauron is Maia in any case.

This statement was made by Tolkien in Letter #210: "Orcs are squat, broad, flat-nosed, sallow-skinned, with wide mouths and slant eyes: in fact degraded and repulsive versions of the (to Europeans) least lovely Mongol-types." How is this not racist?
This statement gave me a lot of grief initially. At first glance it can be taken as evidence of racism. However as a poster on this board (I’ve infortunately forgotten who it was) mentioned a long while back, the qualifier; "to Europeans" actually proves otherwise. It shows that he actually acknowledges the different measures of beauty existent in different cultures. He shows that beauty is not an absolute quality but is rather in the eye of the beholder whose opinions are shaped by social constraints.

I have to admit that by today’s standards this statement is highly inflammatory and insensitive and can be taken as evidence of his sub-conscious prejudices.

He also stated in Letter #45 (9 June 1941) that: "There is a great deal more force (and truth) than ignorant people imagine in the 'Germanic' ideal." Isn’t this admitting support for the policies of Nazi Germany?
The term 'Germanic Ideal' has been used in modern historic literature, erroneously and far too prolifically, to describe the ideals of Nazi Germany. This identification is racist in itself. The term could very easily mean the ideals of Kant, Hegel, Heidegger or Schopenhauer; all more influential than that “ruddy little ignoramus” (Tolkien’s words); Hitler.

“You have to understand the good in things to detect the real evil”. These words follow almost directly from the above statement. To me this shows a mind more than ordinarily aware of the importance of empathy and understanding of those who are different from us.

And goes on to say that the Nazis are "ruining, perverting, misapplying, and making for ever accursed, that noble northern spirit, which I have ever loved and presented in it’s true light."

Tolkien does admit to feeling that obedience and patriotism are virtues, but then again most people still feel this way today.

Here are some further statements made by him that goes a long way in showing that he is in fact ahead of his times when it came to ideas of pluralism and equality:
There was a solemn article in the local paper seriously advocating systematic extermination of the entire German nation as the only proper course of after military victory….The German have just as much right to declare Poles and Jews as exterminable vermin as we have to select the Germans; in other words, no right. – Letter #81
To me this communicates his ability to perceive beyond the prevalent mists of nationalistic antagonism to come to a rational outlook of the whole matter. If only the political leaders of his time and ours had such clear sight.

This next scathing letter was written to German publishers who inquired whether he was ‘arisch’ or Jewish. The laws of Germany at the time required this inquiry before any work was to be published:
…I regret that I am not clear as to what you intend by ‘arisch’. I am not of Aryan extraction: that is Indo-Iranian; as far as I am aware none of my ancestors spoke Hindustani, Persian, Gypsy, or any related dialects. But if I am to understand that you are enquiring whether I am of Jewish origin, I can only reply that I regret to have no ancestors of that gifted people. My great-great-grandfather came to England in the eighteenth century from Germany:…I have accustomed…to regard my German name with pride…

…I cannot, however forbear to comment that if impertinent and irrelevant inquiries of this sort are to become the rule in matters of literature, then the time is not far distant when a German name will no longer he a source of pride." – Letter #30 (25 July 1938: Unfortunately his London agents failed to pass on this letter to the intended recipients for fear of financial repercussions.}
In my mind this letter absolves any doubt about Tolkien’s values. He is not only extraordinarily modern and rational but he also has the courage to stand up for his pluralistic values. His tone and dry sarcasm shows how deeply he is offended by the racist attitudes of the German publishers.

As Aule said a while back (in a post that I had luckily saved);
One of the major themes of Lord of the Rings is the coming together of the races in a common cause. It's just that the races are elves, dwarves, men, and hobbits rather than Whites, Blacks, Orientals, etc.
The fact of the matter is that most of us have preconceptions and prejudices in our minds. Tolkien is no exception. But by considering his rhetoric in social context I think we can safely claim that he was indeed far ahead of his time in his inclusive and pluralistic perspective of the world. The key to dealing racism is to accept that they exist within each of us and do everything you can to defeat it within yourself.