Where Magic Wins Out Over Reason

Ilana Mercer, August 12, 2011

The images coming at us from Somalia are too horrible for words. And I don’t mean the sight of celebrity journo Anderson cooper and his CNN sidekicks standing in the neighboring Kenya, and blaming, against all evidence, the “worst drought in 60 years” for mass starvation in Somalia. As BBC tells it, the drought “has gripped only parts of Somalia,” and then only “since June.”

You have flint for a heart if the images of children starving slowly do not reduce you to tears. Aidan Hartley of the London Spectator describes these distended-bellied, dying innocents as “martian-headed skeletons,” whose emaciated little bodies have begun to eat up their fat reserves and muscle proteins. Many, if not most, will succumb to slow and agonizing organ failure.

In conjunction with “the drought”—isn’t Texas experiencing one of those—Cooper and company (joined by other cretins on Cable) have mentioned the menace of the Islamist group al-Shabab, which “rules over the population in a style reminiscent of Pol Pot’s Cambodia crossed with the Taleban.” However, Hartley imparts what Cooper is incapable of imparting—and what any vaguely knowledgeable journalist writing about Africa knows: “war caused this famine.”

In this case, internecine warfare was compounded by foreign, military intervention courtesy of the duopoly I dub the “Anglo-American Axis of Evil,” in my new book. Washington and Westminster (and their special forces) galvanized a neighboring Ethiopian gang to invade southern Somalia and occupy Mogadishu. “The objective,” explains Hartley, “was to expel Islamists alleged to have been linked to al-Qaeda.” And never mind that, “Under the Islamists, the city was enjoying its first period of relative peace since Somalia collapsed into civil war in 1991.”

Hunger in the Horn of Africa is not something Cooper is capable of understanding, let alone explaining to his fans on twitter. Contra Cooper, Hartley has not pruned the evidence. As jaundiced a journalist as he is, however, Hartley has failed to look deeper into the heart of darkness that is Africa. “Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa” fills this gap:

“Liberals labor under the romantic delusion that the effects of millennia of development-resistant, self-defeating, fatalistic, atavistic, superstition-infused, unfathomably cruel cultures can be cured by an infusion of foreign aid, and by the removal of tyrants,” I write in the book. However, “Africa is a culmination of the ‘failure of the people to develop the attitudes and institutions favorable to peace and progress.'”

What do I mean? The following are verbatim excerpts from the chapter subtitled “Culture Counts” (pp. 171-175):

“With racism, discrimination, and colonialism no longer credible causal factors in divining underdevelopment and delinquency, an ‘explanatory vacuum’ has opened up among academics, and is being filled with reference to culture. In other words, to the ‘values, attitudes, beliefs, orientations, and underlying assumptions prevalent among people in a society.'”The idea that culture is benign and harmonious if not disrupted is a delusion, argues anthropologist Robert B. Edgerton, who also believes that in Africa, ‘traditional cultural values are at the root of poverty, authoritarianism, and injustice.’ By taking account of culture, posits David Landes, a Harvard economic historian, and author of ‘The Wealth and Poverty of Nations,’ one could have foreseen the postwar economic success of Japan and Germany.”

“Easily the most controversial thinker on the causes of underdevelopment in Africa is Cameroonian Daniel Etounga-Manguelle. In 1999, he attended a symposium on ‘Cultural Values and Human Progress’ at Harvard. He had come to bury and not praise the cultures of the Continent. In a paper titled ‘Does Africa Need a Cultural Adjustment Program?,’ Etounga-Manguelle quipped controversially that ‘The African works to live but does not live to work.'”

“Another of his off-the-cuff remarks: ‘African societies are like a football team in which, as a result of personal rivalries and a lack of team spirit, one player will not pass the ball to another out of fear that the latter might score a goal.’ Etounga-Manguelle was referring to what he perceives to be the culture of envy—the kind of all-consuming envy that, in the Rwanda of 1994, caused certain Africans (Hutus) to attempt to kill off other, frequently more industrious, better-looking brethren (Tutsis).”

“A former member of the World Bank’s Council of African Advisors, Etounga-Manguelle observes that in Africa, ‘divination and witchcraft’ are integral parts of all aspects of state and civil society among all segments of society. Africans do not believe control over uncertainty is achievable through planning for the future and mastering nature; through reason, the rule of law, or technology. Rather, being by and large fatalistic and superstitious, they all too often resort to magical thinking to cope.”

“The plight of witch children across Africa comports with this paradigm. These children are blamed for every pestilence to plague the community. Zimbabwean tribal chiefs saddle angry ancestors in need of appeasement for everything from famine to inflation. The solution to the first ‘supernatural force’ is to brutalize the bewitchers. To resolve the second, beer is brewed, drums are beaten and beasts slaughtered.”In general, “Africans inhabit hierarchical societies in which ‘strength prevails over law,’ and where ‘the best way to change a social system is to overthrow those who hold power.’ The paucity of planning and future preparation in African life, Etounga-Manguelle puts down to a suspended sense of time. The reverence for the ‘strongman of the moment’ he roots in the sincerely held belief that these men harbor magical powers.”

In “Into the Cannibal’s Pot,” I concur to an extent with thinkers such as Etounga-Manguelle. Indubitably, in Africa “magic wins out over reason; community over individual; communal ownership over private property; force and coercion over rights and responsibilities; wealth distribution over its accumulation.”Indeed, human behavior is mediated by values. However, I criticize the cultural argument for “affording a circular, rather than a causal, elegance: people do the things they do because they are who they are and have a history of being that way.”

But “why have some people produced Confucian and Anglo-Protestant ethics—with their mutual emphasis on graft and delayed gratification—while others have midwived Islamic and animistic values, emphasizing conformity, consensus, and control? Why have certain patterns of thought and action come to typify certain people in the first place?” Such an investigation, I conclude, political correctness prohibits.

In any event, bad leaders or bad weather patterns are not what shackle backward peoples. Not exclusively. As cities across England burn because of the “unequal civilizing potential” of certain peoples—James Burnham’s coinage—it has become clear that the values and cultural influences which people (and peoples) bring to the polity cannot be tweaked out of existence like some unsightly nose-hair.

August 12

CATEGORIES: Africa, Britain, Foreign Aid, Free Markets, Individualism Vs. Collectivism, Racial issues, Socialism