Zen of Arrogance: Confessions of a USA Recycling Madman

"Might as well be me"
If you've followed this blog for much of the decade, you know how much "guilt and privilege leverage" I write about, the liability culture. Both liberals and conservatives play "gotcha-ism".  Let me indulge in a backhanded swing, to return the ball to the court of European Recycling Overlords.  Basel is Better?  Or is it a new "infant formula" for Africans?  

Used and repaired goods are best for emerging markets, be they in the Ozarks or Cameroon or Ghana.

The irony of Europe's infatuation with Basel Action Network is that they think they are owning up to their post colonialism.  They feel heroic, doing a good one for the former colonies. But instead of "environmental justice", they accidentally delivered racial profiling of the talented tech sector.  Once again, USA is less racist despite our worst efforts.

Cross cultural case in point:  I used the n-word in a story I was recounting.  Hear me out....

Since it was quoting another person - a judge - who used the word in a sentence to me personally, I've always thought it was fair to leave it in the judge's quotations.  The use of the n-word by the judge impugns the judge. In that context, leaving the word out intervenes on the judge's behalf, at the expense of the folks he was commenting on (me and some black folk).  I literally imitated the judge's voice, and the shock value resounds because it's shocking to have heard the words coming from a judge's mouth.  But I heard through the grapevine that the Europeans thought it was verboten, and another black mark against exporting fairly.  Robin used a word Europeans know not to use.

Nuance?  It's an example of some folks being more comfortable and direct about the state of affairs our friends face.  If you've never met a black person in Arkansas, you're safer avoiding the term altogether.  If you are comfortable in your relationships, you skewer the 1970s Ozarks judge with his own words.

This was some racial tolerance inside baseball.
So - How does a guy from the Ozarks get to know more about Africa than Europeans do?

In the context of the N-word, I was in Austria, speaking on a panel, and told the story to other panel members (not to the audience).  I was telling them I was on my way back to Ghana and Agbogbloshie, and trying with the story to self-deprecate the part of America I come from.  The story is humiliating, which is a form of humility.

So let's dissect the nuance.  In telling the story, I'm letting these anti-exporting Europeans know that I grew up in a pretty segregated part of the USA.  My relatives were all from the Missouri Ozarks, which was at the time perhaps the most segregated and Bible thumping part of the USA.  Arkansas is different in some ways, similar in others.  Hillary may have been a former Governor's first lady, but the votes swung to Donald Trump.

The liberal white people who blow on the imaginary embers of "one sixty-fourth Cherokee", or who use 2 years in Peace Corps to establish their "liberal credentials", or who give Basel Action Network awards for courage, are not that different in New England or in Switzerland or in Fayetteville.  You aren't the Arkansas "Booger County" judge I was talking about. But as it turns out, for Africans, that judge is not the problem.

Europeans and American NGOs have decided they are the judge of African tech sector trade. The goods are picked and packed by Africans, who take pictures of the goods and send them to their family and friends back home before they ship them.  But E-Stewards and UK Environmental Agency and Interpol decided Africans cannot do that, that we need a white person to inspect the loads, and other white people to stick GPS trackers in devices to catch them.

And everyone thought this was normal?  A good idea?

In Joe Benson's case, he lost his home and was locked in a jail cell over a massive hoax at Agbogbloshie.  Because white people saw used junk.  But they didn't speak the local language or, evidently, even ask the people who got that junk.  It didn't come by sea container.  It was rounded up from African city that has 20+ TV channels and has had TV stations since at least the 1970s.
"arrived just days before" - Jim Puckett

I understand the 1/64 Cherokee thing.  I started there (liberal guilty) myself.  I'd work as the sole white employee on a housekeeping crew, I'd have an African American speech partner (Chris Daniels) to win tournament trophies with.  When I got into Peace Corps in Cameroon, I'd get into one of the bush-est pioneer posts.  I'd integrate so well that my Cameroonian best friend would marry an American and move here, we'd start a business together.

Liberal Passport stamped. Officially baptized.  Fluent in racial equality. 

Can my first-generation self confidence turn into a liability?  By being happy and grateful with my comfort zone, do I make people uneasy with my self confidence?  If you have outgrown measuring your "Cherokee", and found real Zen in the Art of Relationship Maintenance, do you pay a social tax for being pompous?  This is what I'm talking about - environmental malpractice.  I'm open to hearing that, are you (EU) listening as well?

American racism is a very tricky sport.  Academics dive deeply into derivatives, slave holding presidents, Lincoln's quotes on preserving the union, and of course the appropriation of words in Huckleberry Finn.

Does there come a point when you just let Mark Twain be a great guy, and stop thinking of ways he might have been racist, too?  Does there come a point when you let Lincoln, or John Brown, or Marco Polo keep their reputations and dignity as integrator and stop digging holes around the headstones?

I was trying to say "Look I KNOW racism. I've been there. I understand it deeply".  And I'm not at all surprised Obama was elected, nor am I surprised some people voted against "political correctness" when Democrats swung at the ball too hard.

If you grew up listening people opposed to the "Loving vs. Virginia" (Supreme Court decision recognizing interracial marriage) outcome, yeah, sure, you do want to be self confident that you didn't wind up a racist.  If you are a descendant of General Custer, you do want a new page in native American history books.

Just be happy you are part of a society that made the biggest integration change in the history of the world.  If someone wants to find fault with it, shrug it off.  

You've done great, America.

Feeling guilty was the first step. Don't abandon the guilt over intolerance. Don't accept that we've attained all our goals.  But if you are playing Serena Williams in a match of racial tolerance, have some confidence in bringing your best game. Don't hide your light under a bushel, America.  Even your segregated white hillbillies are mastering the zen of environmental justice, and tolerance for geeks and fixers in emerging markets is just the beginning.  Europe brought it's Basel Ban Amendment game to the table, and rather than embarrassing us for trading with geeks of color, found itself in a cringeworthy position of jailing "Hurricane" Joe Benson.  And giving Barack Obama a "Nobel Peace Prize" for getting elected didn't make it any better.

Ha-Ha.  Might as well be me.

The Zen of Arrogance.

You don't become a Zen Master your first day at the Monastery, and you don't lick racism the first time you protest #blacklivesmatter.  There's a certain amount of tennis practice that John Mcenroe or Serena Williams had to do.  But enough time has gone by for me to feel comfortable with my role in international affairs.  I can't be ashamed of founding Fair Trade Recycling.  If BAN slips me a mickey (sabotaging a repairable laser printer with a GPS tracker), I'm not going to crumble.  I'm fully confident - if anyone is exploiting racial injustice, Basel Action Network is.   The "Project Eden" and "Shantytown" and "Rice Paddy" labels for Tech Sectors in emerging markets are cringeworthy, and I'm just sorry it took so many of us two decades to realize it.

Why do I accept my role as zen master?  Is it a trap for the privileged to declare yourself non-racist?  Or can zen be mistaken for arrogance when you've mastered your inner privilege?

For nine years I had a job heading a division of the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection.  A job I may never have left, had my wife not gotten a job at Middlebury College to call my bluff.  Once I was freed from the position of "best recycling job", I could use my archery skill in cross culture to master the art of export, and turn the friendly fire of environmentalists away from the collateral damage of Joe "Hurricane" Benson and other tarnished second hand importers.  The minute I had to work for myself, I started where I left off on returning from Peace Corps.  I looked up an old pal, Yadji Moussa, to start a business with me.  And although we lost Yadji (and I had my implicitly racist chops handed to me after writing a blog eulogy), the cross-cultural comfort zone is solid.

Might as well be me.

I found out that I can be better than most environmentalists and recyclers at practicing cross culture. Why not? I gained a racial and cross cultural extreme Jimmy Connors / John Mcenroe confidence in it.   I found I could stare down anyone who accused me of being a "southern racist" because I really did know a lot of them, was related to a lot of them, but also knew they stereotypes of Arkansas were as absurd as Agbogbloshie.  I kind of jujitsu'd that into what it felt like to be profiled myself.  

If my overconfidence reeks, then let that be a path for someone to do a better job in the wake of my trail. The first guy to declare the emperor naked may be Nelson ("Ha Ha!").  It's the consensus in "new clothes" that counts.

Some people now talk about "derivative" forms of racism, over-compensation, implicit racism.  If you are "privileged" then you may be collecting black-people like t-shirts, showing off how you've licked the racist label and demonstrate how holier than thou, how color-blind, you've become.

The main reason people resent me is that I'm a pit bull terrier in my business and with my family. I'm aggressive, and grow my business pretty well.  I'm all "self made man", I spit good.

Thing is, when you are talking about yourself, you are already in a defensive position.  But if you don't examine yourself, you will never overcome your biases and spiritual materialism.

However I got to where I am from where I started, I can't go back and second guess it.

If you are a lawyer, and on self-examination, you find you are Atticus Finch, keep it up.

If you are a writer, and find that you are Mark Twain, don't stop.

If you are a nobody, a nothing, the least important person in town, you can be Huck Finn.

It's not time to apologize or consider "Fair Trade Recycling" to be an ego-trip. We find that the people we are exporting and importing with are creating value in their countries, solving teledensity, and doing so without mining and treating copper ores with cyanide.  We find that the people "recycling by hand" are not shameful people.

We found a lot of accidental racism in the environmental community, a lot of racial profiling, the marketing of which was serving big shred, planned obsolescence, big government, a lot of privileged commercial interests.

And we were comfortable enough and confident enough to call it out.  And my delight and comfort at having achieved lasting friendships in Africa, Taiwan, Malaysia, Egypt, Peru, etc. has nothing to do with the E-Waste Hoax, and nothing to do with making myself more important.

I'm as important as a banjo player, or a tennis player, or a laundromat owner.  Saying true stuff is a good job if you can find it.

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