Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Perspective II

I recently read the novel Things Fall Apart, by Chinua Achebe (a longer review is forthcoming), only to find myself unsettled, a little, by some of my reactions to the first part of it. It tells the story of a transitional time in west African tribal culture near the end of the 19th century. It had survived more or less intact from the days of the transatlantic slave trade (or at least the communities in the novel had), but was now facing cultural imperialism by the British. Achebe presents tribal life with hardly any explicit moralizing (one reason it's such a powerful little book), and as he got into Igbo life, my mind kept rebelling--what an unsatisfying way to live! Not, I mean, in terms of abstracts--in those areas, the Igbo peoples had the Europeans squarely beat, even in terms of whitey's own stated secular values. The tribal organization that Achebe describes put modern notions of democracy and egalitarianism to shame. The villages weren't ruled by kings or caste, and titles are awarded through accomplishment and are more tokens of respect than actual authority. The closest thing they had to government were priests (who advised on superstitions), and occasional meetings among decision-making elders. It's presented in the book as ideal a non-authoritarian society as humans have yet produced, ruled for a thousand years by traditions rather than by people. Nor does Achebe communicate that these folks lacked intellectual or emotional sophistication. The book itself, though parable-like, is a walk through that very landscape.

Nope, I was thinking more shallowly in terms of the habitual western quality of life. The Igbo villagers could expect a lifetime of toil, of violent superstitions (infanticide, circumcision, threat of exile, conflict with other tribes), and believing things that are tragically untrue. Their diet sucked--yams are on the high labor and low nutrient side for a staple crop--and outside of domestic labor, they don't have a fuck of a lot to do. Women, like in many cultures, could look forward to lives of drudgery, sexual obligation, and the occupation of lesser social spheres. It's almost enough to make you understand missionary zeal. Those poor bastards live in dirt huts!

The Christian missionaries that sailed up the Niger River no doubt had the best intentions, but they brought their own corruptions, including, as Achebe states it, a government too. The moral argument for the new Christian faith varied greatly with the missionaries who made it, and Achebe appears to harbor some sympathy (as I do) for those inspired to great humanity through faith, and to acknowledge some universality of all belief. The British that came to semi-fictional Umuofia brought in a religion that accepted society's rejects, and although it won converts by refuting local gods through empiricism, it still was a faith (and this is the very definition of faith) that was apart from available evidence. (It's just that Christianity by then had learned to scope itself outside worldly cause and effect.) History tells us that the Igbo would soon fall for Christianity in huge numbers, but was it an improvement? Hard to really say.

You'll have to forgive me here. I've been wrestling with a gigantic post for some time, about 20% of which (the part about life expectancy) came out a couple years ago in one big installment that was boring enough to scare me straight, and yet here I am again, about to liberate another chunk of it. It's trying to address a paradox of modern times: the world has improved, right? But human nature has remained the same.

Improved for whom, you might first ask? And by what measure? And for how long? The global metric I prefer is, more or less, better lives for more people, sustainable for longer—these are things that morally justify our social nature. What else is there, really?

Technology and organization let us achieve more spectacular evil, but they also seem to palliate some burdens of living. In my past blatherings, I've attributed the general condition of the species to population density, resource availability, and the level (or manner) of technological development (for which "improvement" isn't linear, or a given). Modern America may net a better score than the colonial powers of the late nineteenth century, a hideously overrated time if there ever was one. Igbo social taboos arguably existed to accommodate high-impact slash and burn agriculture and to manage a sustainable population (even amidst horrifying infant mortality). However, at least to hear Chinua Achebe describe it, they avoided the iron rule of oligarchy better than most societies (although maybe tell that one to the women), and offered a simple and satisfying life. Could the more egalitarian parts of Igbo tribal culture really survive with modern scientific inquiry, population level, and global communications?

If I had to define "standard of living," I would put in terms of how difficult it is to do the stuff that we want to do. If we have few impediments to performing those things that our minds suggest are fulfilling and feasible (travel, eat, surround ourselves with beauty, enter and exit places freely, accomplish entertaining tasks), then our standard of living is high. If, however, we can afford few of the comforts we can conceive, then it's not so high; if we can't get our hands on the necessities of life (nutritous food, sanitation, optimum health), then things are officially squalid. If we're looking across centuries or across cultures, I'd take a normalized standard of living as a measure of, given the known options and preferences, how much of it a can body hope to enjoy.

As an economic term, it normally refers to, more or less, how much stuff we have. GDP per capita is a measure that is often connected to standard of living, and it's imperfect for the various ways that Wikipedia describes. [If you must go that route, I think energy consumption is probably a better scorecard than currency. Kilowatt hours describe how much we actually do per capita, not like these things aren't correlated.] By this measure, standard of living suffers from inevitable fallacies of small or large numbers; when we are measuring our happiness in stuff, there are rapidly diminishing returns at play. Attainment matters immensely when we have next to nothing, but there's also some threshold at which we don't--or shouldn't--experience a greatly increased standard of living due to additional television inches, or housing square feet, or asset valuation. And of course we're about due for a horrifying lesson in the environmental consequences of overconsumption as well.

In a way, standard of living is always subjective, and based on what we think is possible, that in turn increases with existing understanding, scientific knowledge, and social precedent. Innovations eventually become necessities because we know that they are available. Medical care, for example, wasn't a necessity back in the barbarous days of medieval barbering, but now that medicine is sufficiently advanced to improve health more than damage it, it has become an important component in the equation, as reasonable to expect as shit-free drinking water, which is to say, because we know better. That's not to say that people wouldn't already imagine a better life without cholera (or cancer, or oppression, or aging, or managers, or the aristocracy, or…), but it's another thing entirely to believe existence is without them is attainable. What did the Igbo people think of infant mortality? They imagined life without it, and believed (falsely), that they could reduce it drastically through superstition. Did that wrong belief further reduce their standard of living? (I'd say yes.) Would they have been happier with improved medicine? (Probably if it didn't come with the British district commissioner. It's not so clear the British could have provided it in 1900 either, mind you.) Would a people in possession of improved medicine be wrong to withhold such information (probably), and is it hopeless paternalistic to intervene with it, assuming without nuance what another group of people can and can't imagine, and what they do or don't value? Or, for that matter, is it hopelessly paternalistic to assume that we understand very well what we think we know now? (Please, let's take a moment to laugh at the Victorians again.) Anthropologists must make for terrific basket cases.

Qualitative changes exist though, differences in kind, not number, that really do improve the game at a basic level. Incremental technical innovations can be oversold, but there are a few that really did change the human experience: agriculture, air travel, telephones, washing machines, that sort of thing. It's grown, and increasing the options for human happiness might be a good argument for increasing accurate knowledge in general. Better to devote energy to understanding how electricity works than to appease the proper gods, right? But there's more too. A counterargument is that technical progress has always increased the options for human misery as well. Another is that it rules out simpler, more isolated options.

Mostly we Americans accept obligations for all of the other things, continuing to do so even as productivity (measured per unit American anyway) increases. There is an ideal where productivity shoots to infinity (zero man-hours to make all the shit we feel we need), in which people would at least not want for things, feeling free to waste their days wreaking their philosophical havoc. Let's posit infinite energy, and look at fun literary experiments from Player Piano (suggesting it's deeply unfulfilling to violate our natures like that) to The Diamond Age (or that we'll find other ways to ensure inequality) to Steel Beach (or maybe find new ways to be a bunch of useless gadflies, so long as we can prevent our nearly omniscient helper from being too much like us) to The Cassini Division (when the means of production is trivial, Communism will finally work). I love reading this kind of stuff.

Modern America, Europe, Japan, all look great in terms of standard of living, at least if you take the self-affirming view that those regions tend to, and exclude people who don't fit the story. Here in modern America, a young black man was killed--a sadly unremarkable fact in itself--last week in a manner that managed to highlight, even in our cynical times, a class of people that half of this allegedly Enlightened country would still prefer to exile. (There's little doubt that the arrest, investigation, and the interpretation of "self-defense" would have been different had Mr. Martin been white.) A small wealthy group consolidates its power at the expense of most of the rest of us, fighting hard to define obligations which preserve their financial wealth, and dismantle any state mechanisms that share the wealth. And even the reasonably well-off waste their lives unhappily in front of a computer instead of in front of a hoe. As well, the U.S. is doing its level best to recreate the British experience in Afghanistan, inspired as much (and as little) by revulsion at their backward religion as the colonial British were. Even our staple crop, maize (which Igbo people also grew at the time of the novel), is another nutritionally inferior one, no matter how much we can creepily over-engineer the stuff. Our own times tend to overestimate themselves.

Happiness, satisfaction, contentment--these things are what really matter. Forming gigantic social groups may have allowed the technological development that has improved our chances of finding these things. On the other hand, advanced civilization also takes happiness away just fine.


Keifus said...

To reiterate, I never posted the part (comprising about half) of this-here entry that doesn't relate to the book because it's (a) obvious, Cap'n-Picard-level anthropological bullshittery, and (b) just so motherfucking boring.

MichaelRyerson said...

Well, couple of things, first Cap'n Picard-level anthropological bullshittery is what all us non-professional 'innocent' bystanders is stuck with. The best we can do is give it an honest shot and try for something that is at a minimum internally congruent and parallel (no mean feat). Beyond that we've got to leave it to the 'professionals' and watch out for the occasional semi-hidden agenda. As for the motherfucking boring part let me say nothing of value comes without a little effort (on the part of both the reader and the writer) and I managed to slog my way through it without slitting my wrists and while it was a tad dry I came out the other side hoping you'll post the longer version. You might pump it up with a car chase or two or maybe some bestiality but, really, poetic license only goes so far.

Keifus said...

Aw, thanks Mike. I generally think that a better writer would (and better writers do) internalize something like that and riff on it, instead of spelling it out so very earnestly.

The other chunks of that were one on mortality rate that I linked to(thinking in the terms that the amount of excess grief is a sort of global measure of quality of life), and was okay, but also a little dry. The other sections were "freedom" (trying to be honest about the tradeoffs, and false tradeoffs), and not just excess grief, but excess dickishness, comprising the stuff that doesn't usually kill you, but you have to put up with anyway (Antonin Scalia recently showcasing this well).