A boss of mine once told me, ‘You can make any mistake. Once.’
I’m a firm believer in this principle, but based on what I’ve seen about people’s ability to repeat mistakes, I guess a lot of us aren’t.
We build cultures of incompetence and corruption—the two are conjoined—by tolerating repeated mistakes and misdeeds, in ourselves and others. We forgive because it costs us less emotionally to work within a broken system than it does to fix it.
But democracies are built on a different kind of laziness. The kind of laziness that will take time to fix problems today that would otherwise slow us down tomorrow and every other day.
Larry Wall, the inventor of the Perl programming language, talks about the virtue of laziness:
“The quality that makes you go to great effort to reduce overall energy expenditure. It makes you write labor-saving programs that other people will find useful, and document what you wrote so you don’t have to answer so many questions about it.”
This willingness to spend inordinate amounts of time making small things work marginally better is the spirit that animates the mind-boggling improvements we’ve seen in computer software over the last few decades.
(It’s also the spirit that’s animated a lot of well-intentioned Galaxy Brain world-hacking that has gone disastrously off-course. But more on another day.)
In the Pacific islands more than many other places, there is a constant, almost overwhelming need to get along. It’s hard to be hard on someone when you know you’re going to see them every day. The emotional consequences of letting their misdeeds slip are not nearly as dire as having to face them every day for the rest of your life, or as long as grudges last. Which is a generally a couple of days less.
I have lost count the number of people whom I admire in every other respect, but who have learned to be comfortable with manipulating events and people, dodging around and even redirecting the flow of corruption and incompetence in order to get things done.
A certain amount of this is inevitable. We all have feet of clay.
But in the Pacific, we’re clay up past the short ribs.
The impunity is so ingrained here that it is nearly inescapable.
Now, to be fair, we have no more mediocrity, statistically speaking, than any other human population. We have our fair allotment of dolts, dimwits and dullards; and of the adequate, the advanced and the inspired.
But due to lack of exposure, experience and expectation, their starting line is well behind the others’.
They get a third-rate education from teachers who are often unpaid, unsupervised and—eventually—uncaring, using curriculum that is anything but good, in schools that are in disrepair, producing students lacking basic literacy and numeracy, the best of whom are given jobs based more often on parentage than actual skills (such as they are), and spend their formative years in the workforce covering for the absence and inconsequence of jaded senior management who are long past caring. After years of this, they aspire only to become the lout that comes in late, leaves early, loves everyone but his wife, and gets a car as a reward.
It wasn’t always this way. It doesn’t have to be. Someone recently observed to me, “I don’t think someone wakes up in the morning and asks, ‘Who can I fuck today? Who can I steal from?’ They just want to get through the day like anybody else.”
Wryly, he added, “as the day progresses, that changes. But they don’t start the day like that.”
Yes, people are people. And with apologies to Nietzsche, humans are all too human.
The plain fact is, we all try too hard to get along. And that, perversely, is the thing that keeps us from actually getting along.
The confusion, the incompetence, the corruption that so beset our societies are attributable to many things, but none so much as our willingness to indulge other people’s pathologies.
We have created a fertile environment for corrupt, incompetent bullies and braggarts to rule over us. We positively seek them out. We reward them.
Nowhere in the world, it seems, does the failson rise more rapidly or shine more blindingly than here.
Why don’t things get better? Well, they do, but the corruption and incompetence get better too.
Over the last two decades, I’ve watched a fascinating experiment in development and good governance fail.
Around the turn of the millennium, Vanuatu was in dire shape. Without radical reform, dysfunction was going to eat the nation alive.
Among those who came to help were a few people with one good idea: Good governance needs good people. In addition to installing new systems and upgrading processes and protocols, they sought out and nurtured the best and the brightest of the new generation.
Faute de mieux, they thrust these prodigies into positions of responsibility, requiring them to be the ones to say no.
Saying no, of course, is the hardest thing in the world. It’s hard because it pits one person against the other. It’s also hard because it happens so rarely. Even the mildest contradiction requires its own word. Bislama features a ‘yes we have no bananas’ construction in which ‘yes’ often means no, whereas ‘si’ means, uh, no. But not the kind of no that opposes. The kind of no that agrees.
Telling some privileged scion that he can’t have the thing he’s always had, and whose daddy always had—or worse yet, having to confront daddy himself—is a daunting prospect. It’s designed to be, because daunting people is something that daunters do well. It doesn’t require a special education, though a certain degree of innate cunning and skill certainly helps.
Every society has its unfair share of pathological people who are accustomed to getting what they want simply by grabbing it. But Pacific island societies are particularly vulnerable to this. In larger societies, there’s always someone bigger and meaner, so rather than accommodate one another, they expend most of their time and energy fighting each other. Whether it’s politics, business or crime, sociopaths in larger societies are woven differently into the fabric of society. In many places, this allows the average citizen to spend their entire life oblivious to their existence, if not their influence.
When some person or dynamic finds a way to allow the pathologies to coexist, they coalesce into cultures of corruption and incompetence.
In the Pacific, coexistence is our middle name. The elites are more or less evenly spread, and tend to work through cooption rather than coercion. One of the most feared politicians in this country’s history was notorious for his physical violence against his rivals, but he was beloved, even revered, at home. He protected and provided for his people. If you had a wedding, a funeral, school fees, medical expense… he was always there. In return he got carte blanche to do what he liked beyond the confines of the village.
So what happened to the golden generation of young reformers?
They got picked off one by one. Some slipped up. The others were singled out, pressured until they broke or ran or stepped aside, and replaced by people more comfortable accommodating the amiable, shambling brand of corruption for which we are rightly famous.
Individual excellence is a liability here. Those willing to stand against the tide are either worn down or washed away in the torrent of opprobrium that inevitably follows.
Is there a solution to this? Possibly not. But if we don’t recognise this about our societies, if we don’t understand and accept that we are all complicit in the corruption, incompetence, and—worst of all—impunity that beset our island states, then there’s no hope at all.
Yes, it’s true. Nobody says no here.
But remember: You’re nobody too.
Or at least, you’re nobody until you decide that you’re somebody.