Friday, June 17, 2011

Bonanza Column 240 - The First World and the Third

Recently a friend of mine sent me one of those emails that talked about all the things people our age remember that our kids and grandkids have never heard of. You know, like milk delivery to your front door (in glass bottles) (with cream on top). There was a quiz of 25 items to see which ones you remembered first-hand. I got 25 out of 25.
That, along with seeing online reports of the IHS graduation and various college commencements got me thinking about what we may have gained and lost in the past fifty or sixty years.
As I write this I’m concluding a three-week business trip to Botswana in Southern Africa. During my trip here I’ve had the enormous privilege of working with a number of Batswana (the country is Botswana with a long o, the people are Batswana, or in the singular Motswana), mainly in the diamond mining business, and have been impressed with how modern they are in some ways and how old-fashioned they are in others.
Don’t get me wrong – everything is up to date in Gaborone and in the villages around the mine sites. The Internet is alive and well, there are HD TVs everywhere, everyone drives a nice car, etc. At the same time from an American point of view much of the Batswana behavior looks quaintly Victorian. The people here are enormously polite, and you don’t get the feeling it’s put on – it seems quite natural, and they are as polite to each other as they are to outsiders. I quickly learned that even the most trivial conversation, business or personal, must start with an exchange of “how are you?” You can go for days here without hearing a single word you would not say in front of your grandmother – even in the rough-and-ready atmosphere of mining, four letter words are conspicuous (to an American) by their absence.
Botswana has been a democracy since 1965 and has an active political process. While there is only one party on the books, that party is so factionalized that there may as well be several. The current President is the son of the founding President and his popularity is not great at the moment – they’ve just gone through a seven-week public employees’ strike that he refused to settle, and Batswana, particularly parents of children who have had no real school for seven weeks, aren’t happy, but the criticism of the President in the press and by people is political, not personal in nature.
Which brings me back to our 2011 graduates from High School and College. They are graduating into a world of technology that was undreamt of in the days of home milk delivery and Butch Wax, but also into a society the incivility of which is unmatched in our history, where public officials who have done nothing wrong are subject to personal attacks that have nothing to do with reality (see “Birthers”) and others are engaged in activities that would make a Nevada Madam blush and don’t seem to see anything wrong with it unless they are caught (see Spitzer, Weiner, Ensign, et al.) or it comes back to haunt them when they think they deserve higher office (see Gingrich).
We are fond of thinking of ourselves as the “First World” and places like Botswana as the “Third World,” (the Soviet Union and its allies were the “Second World,” but now have presumably vacated that space), with the implication that somehow they need to catch up. After three weeks here I’m no expert, but I do see a lot of the values that existed sixty years ago reflected in these supposedly primitive people – sure there are goats and donkeys wandering around in the country and many people still live very simply in thatched huts, but I wonder if on “family values” and living out a deep religious faith we’re not the ones who need to catch up. I’m just sayin’.

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