Have the chickens come home to roost in Burkina Faso?

News from Burkina Faso has been steady during the last few months. 

Violent attacks of villages. Kidnappings of western foreigners. demonstrations against the police. An entire government resigning in face of mounting problems. 

At one time this was one of the most quiet and peaceful countries in Africa, And today it seems to become another chapter in the spread of violent extremism in Africa. 

Granted I lived in Burkina Faso more than ten years ago, but today’s reports seems to come out of a different country. This type of violence and instability was unheard of.   I would generally shrug off these items as looking bad through a single lens. But I’ve recently heard stories of people quietly leaving or deciding not to return. It may be coincidence. Or, it may be the tell-tale signs of people voting with their feet. 

This got me thinking about the dire straits Burkina Faso is always supposed to be facing. Could the years of dire predictions be coming true?

Burkina Faso has always been a poor country. Landlocked in the Sahel, the scrubby area between the Sahara Desert and the Atlantic coast. The country has only a few natural water sources, and the land can be pretty infertile. Burkina Faso is home to one of the highest population rates in the world, spread among at least 60 ethnic groups. 

This recipe of threats, on top of increasing desertification thrown in, was supposed to spread instability  through countries like Burkina Faso. And for years the warnings didn’t ring true. Even as political tensions were ripped open during the slow demise and then rapid downfall of a president in office for three decades. 

Places like Burkina always look worse from the outside than they do from the ground. Looking at macro issues — climate change, unchecked urbanization, food security, health and education indicators — the country would appear on the bottom of many indexes. But through this, people continued. The country’s greatest resource was its people, who often had to leave to find work. For those who stayed, though, they survived and sometimes they even thrived.

If Burkina Faso were a person it may have been the likable, plucky kid who grew up in a bad neighborhood. Oftentimes the external forces drag these kids down. Sometimes these kids succeed.  

What would success in this case look like? In a time when countries are viewed as having balance sheets where its macro advantages and disadvantages are visible to all, where does a country like Burkina place? In a time where we pit one country against the next, how does Burkina Faso stack up? 

For those who rank these countries, the dark clouds from this country were always apparent. Those who lived there, and those who knew the place, knew that its intangibles, its ineffable goodness, would allow it to continue. 

That may be true. But these could be tough times to test that faith.

Fighting against the forces of our time

There comes a time in history when forces bring about so much deep change that people must strike back and decide how they will reorganize society and adapt to these violent eruptions. These reorganizations or countermeasures are never calm or subtle. They are chaotic and uncivilized affairs. Revolutions. Wars. Civil conflicts pitting families against each other. 

One of our biggest failures is that we constantly think of the present as some spear point of time —the furthest point of the story that started so long ago and culminates today. Until tomorrow comes, of course. 

But if we were to take the last decade — or perhaps the years since the beginning of this century — we shall not ignore that we are living in a changing time. The seeds were planted years before the arbitrary date of January 1, 2000 but the problems facing our society seem to have escalated since then. 

In the Western world, we face major economic calamities, pitting the poor against the rich. We have governments unable or unwilling to check the economic, social and political forces foisting themselves upon people. 

Perhaps worse yet, most of us are at a loss at what to do. Some of us want to lurch forward with few questions asked while others blindly jump backward into a false and fake past.  

It is no wonder people look to other sources for inspiration and protection against these rushing forces: narrow religions, clannishness, drugs and alcohol, radical politics. you name it.  

How else shall we as a society carry each other through these times? What type of protection can we grant each other from these destabilizing forces? Would it be too much to ask us to look back at revolutionary times to understand how those people adjusted to instability. 

Hannah Arendt lists the “ambiguous formulations” of once-revolutionary creeds like “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” What type of specific protections can we offer people in this age? Physical safety? Free health care? A decent minimum wage, or a minimum living allowance? The chance at a decent education? A clean, healthy environment? 

If these sound like standard political fare, it’s because they are. The answers to the question of how to readjust during these times should be far reaching and complete. It’s all we can do if we are going to push back against these great factors that hold so much influence on so many lives.  

Bring Karl Marx back into the big house

Happy birthday to Karl Marx, who was born 200 years ago on May 5. He was the most astute and influential critic of capitalism in history — and also the most misunderstood.

It is long since time that Marx re-joined the community of ordinary intellectuals, considered as neither the terrifying harbinger of social upheaval, nor a secular pope with the eternally correct description of all human society. He was a genius, but in the end, only another human scholar with a brilliant but incomplete perspective.

To the media: John McCain will not die for your sins

D.R. Tucker in the Washington Monthly on the media's John McCain death watch. 

Ten years ago this month, when Kennedy was diagnosed with cancer, I recall a rather distasteful tone to the coverage of his illness, almost a sense that the Fourth Estate couldn’t wait for Kennedy to pass away due to the likely bonanza in ratings and newspaper sales his passing would generate. It’s hard to read the coverage of McCain today without the same morbid sense that the press wants to hasten his death in order to cash in.

Whatever you think of John McCain, he deserves better than to have his impending passing be turned into a media circus, no? The McCain Death Watch is nothing short of sour; it’s as though the controversies surrounding the media exploitation of the deaths of Princess Diana and John F. Kennedy Jr., and the lessons learned from those controversies, have been forgotten–or deliberately ignored. 

Tribalism, politics and you

I’ve always enjoyed former lawyer and current baseball analyst Craig Calcaterra’s Twitter-length take on how tribalism is responsible for most of our opinions: 

The world is less aggravating when you accept that 75-90% of all opinions on everything are informed by base tribalism. Including your own.

Recently, David Brooks had his own Op-Ed-length take on tribalism and political beliefs through the lens of the gun debate in the US: 

We don’t really have policy debates anymore. We have one big tribal conflict, and policy fights are just proxy battles as each side tries to establish moral superiority. But just as the tribal mentality has been turned on, it can be turned off. Then and only then can we go back to normal politics and take reasonable measures to keep our children safe.

Looking back to the darkest days of the 20th century, you'll see we can't just turn tribalism off. George Orwell called it by a different name — Nationalism — but in the hyper-tribal World War II era, it looked largely like it does today (although with very different consequences). 

The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them. For quite six years the English admirers of Hitler contrived not to learn of the existence of Dachau and Buchenwald. And those who are loudest in denouncing the German concentration camps are often quite unaware, or only very dimly aware, that there are also concentration camps in Russia. Huge events like the Ukraine famine of 1933, involving the deaths of millions of people, have actually escaped the attention of the majority of English russophiles. Many English people have heard almost nothing about the extermination of German and Polish Jews during the present war. Their own antisemitism has caused this vast crime to bounce off their consciousness. In nationalist thought there are facts which are both true and untrue, known and unknown. A known fact may be so unbearable that it is habitually pushed aside and not allowed to enter into logical processes, or on the other hand it may enter into every calculation and yet never be admitted as a fact, even in one’s own mind.


Perhaps we may not be able to completely move away from tribalism — Orwell's nationalism — is because it's coded in our DNA. If you want to place blame for tribal identity, look to evolution, argues Jonathan Haidt of the Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided By Politics and Religion

...As Darwin said long ago, the most cohesive and cooperative groups generally beat the groups of selfish individualists. Darwin’s ideas about group selection fell out of favor in the 1960s, but recent discoveries are putting his ideas back into play, and the implications are profound. We’re not always selfish hypocrites. We also have the ability, under special circumstances, to shut down our petty selves and become like cells in a larger body, or like bees in a hive, working for the good of the group. These experiences are often among the most cherished of our lives, although our hivishness can blind us to other moral concerns. Our bee-like nature facilitates altruism, heroism, war, and genocide.

Once you see our righteous minds as primate minds with a hivish overlay, you get a whole new perspective on morality, politics, and religion. I’ll show that our “higher nature” allows us to be profoundly altruistic, but that altruism is mostly aimed at members of our groups. I’ll show that religion is (probably) an evolutionary adaptation for binding groups together and helping them to create communities with a shared morality. It is not a virus or parasite, as some scientists (the “new atheists”) have argued in recent years. And I’ll use this perspective to explain why some people are conservative, others are liberal (or progressive), and still others become libertarians. People bind themselves into political teams that share moral narratives. Once they accept a particular narrative, they become blind to alternative moral worlds.

'More artistic than most typical official portraits'

Slate speaks to Richard J. Powell, a professor of art and art history at Duke University and an expert in the history of black portraiture, about the official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, which were unveiled recently

Rachelle Hampton: So what did you think of the portraits and of the Obamas’ choice of artists? 

Richard Powell: I was surprised by the portraits and what I mean by that is, I found them to be more artistic than most typical official portraits are. If you go to the National Portrait Gallery and look at portraits of famous people, they tend to be real vanity pictures and often by artists who are able to do a likeness but they’re not able to really make what I would consider a profound artistic statement. There are lots of great portraits out there, but these are really strong works of art as well as portraits. 

As to the choice of the artists, I thought it was special. Amy Sherald has been in the pipeline for a little while, but not as long as Kehinde Wiley, and so choosing to place someone I would still call up and coming alongside someone I would certainly call a veteran was inspired. 

What statements do you think the artists are trying to make here? What do you think they’re trying to communicate? 

Well, I want to separate them out. I want to start with the Michelle Obama portrait: It’s very much in Sherald’s style, which are these figures that are often placed on very flat backgrounds. She experiments with chroma so that the figures are not necessarily representing things in a realistic way, but they provide an interesting relationship of one color to another to another. What I was struck by in the Michelle Obama portrait was the graphic quality of it, and when I say graphic I mean that the dress is this dramatic abstract statement—the patterns in it, the bold shapes, the limited color palette—and that has an interesting way of interacting with Mrs. Obama’s figure, her famous arms are there, and they frame her head. Amy Sherald really is attuned to the interrelationship between the body and a pose and the accoutrements that surround that pose, in this case a very bold dress