‘S-ithole Countries’: What Makes A County? The Place Or The People?
By ilana mercer
President Trump’s questioning of immigration into the United States from what he crudely called “s-ithole” countries masks a more vexing question:
What makes a country, the place or the people? Does “the country” create the man or does the man make the country?
To listen to the deformed logic of the president’s detractors, it’s the former: the “country” makes the person. No sooner does an African or Haitian immigrant wash up on American shores—thanks to random quotas and set-asides, lotteries and other government grants of privilege and protection—than the process of cultural and philosophical osmosis begins. American probity and productivity soon become his own.
As an African libertarian—an ex-South African, to be precise—I took the liberty of addressing the matter in the book “Into The Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America from Post-Apartheid South Africa,” in which a Cameroonian scholar, Daniel Etounga-Manguelle, among others, is extensively cited.
Easily one of the most controversial thinkers on the causes of underdevelopment in Africa, Etounga-Manguelle, a former adviser to the World Bank, contends that “What Africans are doing to one another defies credulity. Genocide, bloody civil wars, and rampant violent crime suggest African societies at all social levels are to some extent cannibalistic.” Why so? In part, because of the inveterate values held by so many Africans.
Etounga-Manguelle and scholars like him, cited in “Into The Cannibal’s Pot,” are responding to an “explanatory vacuum” that has opened up among honest academics.
All have been willing to admit that constructs like racism, discrimination, and colonialism no longer serve as credible causal factors in divining underdevelopment and delinquency.
None has been called upon to enlighten the greater public.
In such intellectually candid circles, the intellectual “vacuum” is being filled with reference to culture, namely 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. The same is true of South Korea (versus Turkey), and Indonesia (versus Nigeria).
VOODOO FOR VALUES
Before the end of free speech on American campuses, Etounga-Manguelle, aforementioned, attended a symposium on “Cultural Values and Human Progress” at Harvard, circa 1999. He had come to bury and not praise the cultures of his 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). The culture of envy makes it hard for Africa as a whole to rejoice in the success of its exceptional sons and daughters.
In this context, the systematic “expulsion and slaughter of productive minorities,” at the behest of the people, not necessarily their leaders, deserves scrutiny, too. This has been a factor in Zimbabwe’s demise and in South Africa’s increasing economic insecurity. In both countries, life for the productive European minority is perilous.
Will this reality magically dissipate once the same people are invited to be fruitful and multiply in America?
Not according to Etounga-Manguelle’s lifelong observations: 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—amplified in Nigeria, a country touted by the president’s enemies as fertile recruiting grounds for future Americans—comports with Etounga-Manguelle’s paradigm. In Nigeria, this designated class of kids is blamed for every pestilence to plague the community.
Likewise do the Zimbabwean tribal chiefs saddle angry ancestors in need of appeasement for everything from famine to inflation. Their solution to the first “supernatural force” is to brutalize the bewitchers, the “witch children.” To resolve the second, beer is brewed, drums are beaten and beasts slaughtered. (Not that the American Left cares, but the importation of certain “shithole” values heralds incredible cruelty to animals.)
Not for nothing did Alexis de Tocqueville conclude “that what made the American political system work was a culture congenial to democracy.” A lesser luminary, Lawrence E. Harrison, has isolated some salient factors that distinguish development-prone from development-resistant cultures.
Western cultures emphasize the future; view work as a blessing rather than as a burden; promote individuals based on their merit; value education and frugality, are philanthropic, identify with universal causes, and have higher ethics.
In static cultures, individuals tend to be fatalistic rather than future-oriented; live for the present or past; work only because they need to; diminish or dismiss the value of education, frugality, and philanthropy; are often mired in nepotism and corruption; and promote individuals based on clan and connections, rather than capabilities.
“I am because we are” is how one wag encapsulated the cog-like role of the individual in African culture. In advanced cultures, on the other hand, the individual, and not the collective, is paramount.
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.
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.
Africans inhabit stratified societies in which “strength prevails over law,” and where “the best way to change a social system is to overthrow those who hold power.” African totalitarianism was not born with independence, warns Etounga-Manguelle, who counsels the need for a mind-freeing, “cultural adjustment program” for Africa.
Such a cultural adjustment program, of course, lacks the Compassion Chic that marks the present system of subsidies to dictatorial kleptomaniacs.
HUMAN ACTION IS INDIVIDUAL ACTION
Be it Africa or Arabia, the Left labors 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, by the removal of tyrants such as Robert Mugabe or Jacob Zuma, or by bringing the underdeveloped world to The West. (Left-libertarian Katherine Mangu-Ward actually told Tucker Carlson Of Fox News that, “If we had a billion people in America, America would be unstoppable. That would be amazing.”)
Alas, bad leaders are not what shackle backward peoples. Not exclusively, at least. And Africa’s plight is most certainly not the West’s fault. Rather, Africa is a culmination of the failure of the people to develop the attitudes and institutions favorable to peace and progress.
Human behavior is, indubitably, mediated by values. Nevertheless, we’d be intellectually remiss to deny that the cultural argument is flawed. It affords a circular, rather than a causal, elegance: people are said to do the things they do because they are who they are and have a history of being that way.
What precisely, then, accounts for the unequal “civilizing potential,” as James Burnham called it, that groups display? Why have some people produced Confucian and Anglo-Protestant ethics—with their mutual emphasis on graft and delayed gratification—while others have midwifed 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, however, is verboten—a state-of-affairs Harvard sociologist Orlando Patterson blamed on “a prevailing rigid orthodoxy,” which is the preferred academic phrase for political correctness:
“Culture is a symbolic system to be interpreted, understood, discussed, delineated, respected, and celebrated as the distinct product of a particular group of people, of equal worth with all other such products. But it should never be used to explain anything about the people who produced it.”
This much can be said: The West is what it is due to human capital—people of superior ideas and abilities, capable of innovation, exploration, science, philosophy.
Overall, American society remains superior to assorted African and Caribbean societies because the tipping point has not yet been reached here. A preponderance of a certain kind of individual still makes a civil society possible.
Human action is the ultimate adjudicator of a human being’s worth.
The aggregate action of many human beings acting in concert makes or breaks a society.
The question posed at the onset is thus no chicken-or-egg quandary. The individual creates the collective, not the other way round. The Man makes the country what it is.
Ilana Mercer has been writing a weekly, paleolibertarian column since 1999. She is the author of “The Trump Revolution: The Donald’s Creative Destruction Deconstructed” (June, 2016) & “Into the Cannibal’s Pot: Lessons for America From Post-Apartheid South Africa” (2011). She’s on Twitter, Facebook, Gab & YouTube.