There’s this idea that we’ll get rid of poverty by giving away food and aid. And sure, that’s part of the problem. But poverty isn’t at its root about simply not having enough food. Poverty is about institutions.
Countries with solid institutions have a much better class of poor. Being poor in Canada is very different from being poor in Mali. If we want to try fixing Mali, we need to focus on the stability of that country’s institutions. Rule of law, income equality through redistribution, sensible civil engineering, a non-corrupt police and military force, etc.
The problem is that we can give aid now, but making strong institutions takes time. Take India as an example. They should have a reasonably strong set of institutions thanks to the legacy of the British Empire (we can also say this about the Roman Empire — this isn’t to say that empire is a good thing, just that it can produce good things). But they don’t. Corruption, income inequality, and massive poverty.
It takes time and political will to get there. And in a sense this change has to come from within. Strong institutions simply can’t be imposed without a massive ongoing investment. Look at Iraq. It needs another 50 years of occupation.
This isn’t even a matter of democracy. I’m not even sure democracy makes it better. It might make institution-building worse.
Either way — it takes time.
If I write somebody a letter, it gets taken seriously. The guy opening it shows it to his manager. His manager shows it to her manager. Maybe I still don’t get what I want—but I get treated well and taken seriously. My letters—even the angry ones—are unfailingly polite. I don’t need to be angry to get somebody’s attention. I just need to sign the letter “Attorney at Law.”
Being a white guy has the same relative effect. It takes negligble effort to be treated well and taken seriously.
I’ve been thinking about TV lately. It’s the defining storytelling medium of our time. At least, I think so. I think we’re going to look back at the early decades of this century as the golden years of TV. For better or for worse.
That’s all been said and done before, though. I want to talk about something different. I want to talk about the kind of heroes and anti-heroes we’re making for ourselves.
I want to talk about Breaking Bad.
Walter White isn’t a hero. So why do we want to watch him? He’s not a good man. He’s at best a decent man who stumbles a bit and then runs swiftly downward.
We watch him because he’s fascinating. And he’s fascinating because he’s in control. His manipulation of his family, his enemies, his friends, his circumstances…
It’s like he’s a little puppet-master. Maybe even a little god. He bends the world to his will.
I call this ubercompetence. And TV is full of ubercompetence. People who are so good at something that anything can be forgiven.
I can forgive Breaking Bad. It has some redeeming qualities, despite its protagonists focused ubercompetence.
But then there’s Suits.
The problem with labeling something like ubercompetence is you can’t stop seeing it. And when you can’t stop seeing it, it starts to get annoying really quick, unless done really well.
Suits does not do it really well.
It doesn’t really do anything really well, actually. It’s every other USA show with a slightly different location. Have you seen White Collar? You’ve seen Suits. The same can-do-no-wrong with a the same smirk.
Week after week these characters win the day through sheer manipulation. Then, at the end of the episode, or if you’re lucky, at the end of the story arc, they smirk off to victory. They’ve turned the tables.
Now there’s nothing fundamentally wrong with watching this show. Or even with enjoying a series centered around the ubercompetent man or (rarely) woman.
The problem is when you start identifying with them.
I have this theory that we become what we behold. Or let me put it a different way, one that’s a little more personal. I become like what I look at. And I mean “look” as in “gaze”. What I fix my eyes on, as it were. I gaze at something because I admire it. So in a sense, I become like what I admire.
Which athlete isn’t inspired by great athletes? Which leader isn’t inspired by great leaders?
But of course reality is at once much stranger and much more prosaic than TV could ever imagine. There are few people who can warp the world to their will. It seems like life enjoys breaking those who try.
All great people eventually fall. They fail or they die or their imperfections are exposed. Which is why we don’t build our empires or our organizations or our families around a person.
So where do we direct our gaze? Who can we admire?
I think you might know the answer.