No longer at ease in America



In Chinua Achebe’s second novel, No Longer At Ease, the main character ends up taking bribes. He excuses himself by arguing to himself that the people given favor are all qualified… the son of the man in the following passage is already on the short list for a scholarship:

‘Please have a seat.’

‘Thank you.’ He brought out a little towel from somewhere in the folds of his flowing gown and mopped his face. ‘I don’t want to waste your time,’ he said, mopping one forearm and then the other under the wide sleeves of his agbada. ‘My son is going to England in September. I want him to get scholarship. If you can do it for me here is fifty pounds.’ He brought out a wad of notes from the front pocket of his agbada.

Obi told him it was not possible. ‘In the first place I don’t give scholarships. All I do is go through the applications and recommend those who satisfy the requirements to the Scholarship Board.

”That’s all I want,’ said the man. ‘Just recommend him.’

Obi Okonkwo is caught between two cultures, one based on “rational” and “objective” choice based on evidence, a cultural attitude brought to Nigeria by the British and dating back to the Enlightenment. In it, extraneous factors (personal, financial… whatever) need to be ignored in decision-making. The other, the Igbo culture of his family, is based on relationships and on the gifts that solidify them. It’s not exactly a culture from The Godfather, though the idea of the ‘favor’ is important to both–as is the family.

Those of us, about half of Americans, whose lives have been imbued with the secular liberal culture that has dominated intellectual activity in this country for the past few centuries, tend to see the other culture in American (it is there) as atavistic, as something “we” should all rise above. At the same time, we do tend to participate in its processes, though often with eyes closed. “Legacy” admissions to college, doing a favor for a friend’s child that will advance their educational possibilities, even writing a letter of recommendation (without a specific bribe) for a pet student… these are all not far removed from what Okonkwo is doing. We espouse an ideal of equal opportunity that we rarely live up to.

In his new book Against Fairness, Stephen Asma writes “a public official has accepted a unique role, moving from mere citizen to some kind of administrator or manager.” This leads, Asma argues, to a diminution of other roles, including family ones: traditional societal obligations have to be set aside. If we are to be exactly fair in a public role, we have to be unfair in a personal one. Few of us are willing to do that, so we hide our assistance, cloaking it and ignoring it–until like Okonkwo, we are caught. Though the “bribes” we take may not be the monetary ones that bring Okonkwo down or contain the implicit reciprocity in the “favors” of the Corleone family, they happen every day and to every one of us–though we like to pretend otherwise.

The more we try to remove favoritism from our colleges and universities, setting up reviews of all hiring, for example, and contracts and ban the accepting of even the smallest of gifts, the more we find ourselves trying to dress an elephant as a pig. No matter how we try to imagine otherwise, all human cultures operate on the “grease” of connection, and rules are not going to change that. As Asma says, the contemporary mania for social networking is an affirmation of connection, not of fairness. People are going to connect, through family or college or ethnic identity, and are going to use that connectivity as a basis for decision-making. Doing so, according to Asma, is simply part of being human.

Asma writes that his “hope is that other thinkers will follow my lead and try to find ways to integrate preferentialism into Western liberalism, but also adopt enough realism to acknowledge the unfixable value clashes when they arise.”

The need for fairness is quite real. When we rely simply on connection, we allow the emergence of an elite and the oppression of the rest. However, we have to find ways of building into our quest for equal opportunity the realities of human interaction. We haven’t done this, so are stuck with layers of judgmental reviewers and lawyers who attempt to do the impossible, who attempt to stop us from being ourselves. This does little more to promote fairness than reliance on connection does–in the long run–which is why so many people are so continually upset with equal-opportunity programs.

I don’t know what the answer is or how even to find the “ways” Asma would like to see discovered. I only know that “our” current mania for fairness (in academia, at least) has done little more than help widen the divide between the two cultures of America, the ones loosely defined as “red state” and “blue state.”

A person’s connections often help that person. There’s no way to deny that.

The question is, how can we turn that to the greater good?

So far, we haven’t really tried–not in the past generation or two–believing that things like affirmative action are enough. They aren’t, as we can surely see by now.

Just look around.