Some hard truths about our overweening vanity |

Some hard truths about our overweening vanity

Sam Bauman
Entertainment editor

“Vanity of vanities; all is vanity.” (Book of Ecclesiastes in the Old Testament. The pointlessness of human activity is the major theme of the book.)

Truer words were never wrote, and we continue to prove it day after day. Just consider some of these exercises of vanity, where we think in our vanity that we know what is best for others. You may disagree, but plow ahead.


We’ve all seen those pictures of starving Africa children in an ad or letter asking for food for Africa, our highest birthrate continent. Out of compassion we give to this charity or that. Millions of tons of wheat are shipped off and consumed. It’s presumed that the food shortage being treated will stave off starvation.

But does it? Our charity food enabled millions of Africans whose ecosystem no longer supports them or their offspring to live another year and bring another child into the world. The African land doesn’t get any bigger or better, it’s fixed at best (I recall flying over Egypt and seeing how the Sahara Desert was eating up once fertile farmland).

So we send food, the problem is temporarily solved only to worsen at the same time. Next year another plea, another good deed, another worsening of the problem. It is a positive feedback loop, where we are left trying to put out fire with gasoline.

The answer? It is a false compassion to send more food to places where the population has grown beyond the carrying capacity of its biosphere. We only delay and worsen the inevitable. But don’t ask me, I’m just a newspaper man.


Mexico has roughly two-thirds of the population of the United States with a gross national product that is 5 percent of ours. Needless to point out, that means things aren’t good south of the border. So what happens? Mexicans (and other Latinos) cross the border in search of a job. Quite reasonable. So we hire them, legal or illegal, and they send money home. Some even settle down here, although most want to return home after making enough cash to live there.

All the fences and all the border police aren’t going to stop them – they’re stymied at home and here we are. It’s easier to cross the border than to force a broken government to reform. There are fine, undeveloped resources in Mexico, the workers are diligent, but rather than reform a crony government (Zappato, where are you when we need you?) we are the safety valve.

The answer? Maybe put enough pressure on Mexico to use its resources to create jobs as we close the safety valve before it goes the way of Africa. But how could our agribiz (which gets all the billions in crop support, not the individual farmers, few as they are) survive? Pick our own veggies? Quel horror!


Iraq as a country goes back to the post-WWI divvying up of the spoils between France and England. No consideration to a homogenous population, just draw a line in the sand. Ergo – Iraq, Iran, Syria, Lebanon. Many historians bemoaned this for decades and explained the problem. One book alone (Tom Friedman’s “From Beirut to Jerusalem”) could have made it clear to the unknowing neocons that Iraq was a fragile vessel in which to install democracy (Islam is totally incompatible with democracy; see Iran). George H.E. Bush apparently reads or had readers advising him; he said, “Baghdad? Forget it, just have to put in another strongman to run those tribes and religious fanatics.”

Our current leaders knew nothing apparently of the real non-state Iraq. They forgot that it took us 200 years to learn how to make our somewhat rickety democracy function. Ron Reagan woke up when 200 U.S. Marines were killed in an explosion in Beirut; there were no good guys there and not ever a functioning government. He skeddaled in a hurry.

The answer? Every presidential candidate must take a year of world history and religion before running, taught by arguing, varied professors. Each would have to read 30 books on history and religion. Are you listening, Hillary and Rudy?


It’s vanity to think we know how to solve Africa’s problems, or Iraq’s, or Iran’s. We barely know the difference between Catholics and Protestants, between parliamentary government and a republic. We didn’t even invent the atomic (excuse me, nuclear) bomb. Most of the idea was based on guys like Bohr (Danish), Fermi (Italian), Einstein (German) etc. We did have the machine to make it work, however, an industrial complex that is fast being dismantled.

So what am I suggesting?

Might as well keep feeding Africa and hope for a new rice that grows on rocks (which would only extend the starvation), otherwise we’re racists.

Getting politicians to read? If it’s not a hack’s written speech, we’re lucky they can read at all.

Iraq? I shudder to say it – but walk out. That’s what the Brits did in the 1920s, the French in the ’50s, that’s what we did in Vietnam (Cambodia wasn’t a bloodbath because we bugged; it happened while we were still fighting there). Saigon today is a tourist trap.

Mexico? Forget immigration reform. I’m too old to pick my own grapes.

• Sam Bauman is the entertainment editor who often tries to recall his salad days as an international journalist (read “foreign corespondent,” which is too arty.)