Thursday, May 31, 2012

Stranger Than Fact

Richard Linklater is great again? And so is Jack Black? And Matthew McConaughey? It's unbelievable, but it's true. That could be said to apply to their newest film Bernie, which is derived from actual events but goes to great lengths to test the plasticity of the designation "based on a true story."

Based on a 1988 Texas Monthly article by Skip Hollandsworth, Bernie tells the story of Bernie Tiede (Jack Black) a mild and ambiguously gay mortician who is beloved by the town of Carthage, Texas for the kindness he shows his clients, both living and dead. This kindness he extends to Marge Nugent (Shirley Maclaine), reputed to be the nastiest old crone in town. They become increasingly close, shopping, traveling, seeing and shows, with Nugent eventually bequeathing the entirety of her estate to Bernie. She also becomes increasingly possessive, to the point that Bernie snaps and shoots her in the back four times, then keeps her body in a freezer while giving away enormous sums of her money to the people of Carthage. When he's caught none of the townspeople can believe he did it, or that he ought to go to jail, and so it falls on District Attorney Danny Buck Davidson (Matthew McConaughey) to see that justice is properly administered.

The story is straightforward enough, but is given all kinds delightful wrinkles and twists. To start with, the tone is mordantly humorous, especially for a true crime story, but also rather sweet. The opening scene, in which Bernie demonstrates the finer points of corpse preparation (the angle of the head should be "neither star-gazing, nor navel-gazing") sets the deliberately and jarringly light-hearted tone for the rest of the movie.The story is told through a mixture of straight scripted narrative and interview footage with the townspeople of Carthage, who are endearingly provincial; an old codger type has some of the funniest lines, describing southern Texas as "where the Tex meets the Mex," and referring to "The People's Republic of Austin." Many of the interview subjects are actors (one of the actors is Matthew McConaughey's mother), though, which adds yet another layer of unreality to the film.

The comic ambiguity extends to its three stars. Jack Black is the film's greatest asset, giving a performance that is uncharacteristically restrained and made all the funnier for it. His Tiede is mannered and precise, right down to the delicate way he walks, and has a beguiling sweetness that makes his decision to kill his sugar momma both the most natural and most unbelievable thing in the world. (All too fittingly, one scene has him playing Harold Hill in a self-directed community production of The Music Man.) It's by far the best performance of his career.

This goes for Matthew McConaughey, too, generally useless as a rom-com leading man but here displaying great comic timing as the clueless DA who ends up being the only person in town able to view the murder with the proper perspective. Shirley MacLaine at first seems like the weak link, only on rare occasions becoming the Bitch Out of Hell that the townspeople make Marge Nugent out to be, but one wonders if this isn't intentional. The Carthaginians are gossip hounds through and through, and given how much the film is elsewhere forcing us to question what is or isn't true, it's entirely possible that the heavy emphasis on Nugent's happiness when she's with Tiede isn't deliberately chafing against her reputation.

Bernie came from nowhere and has ended up one of my favorite flicks that I've seen in awhile. It is, moreover, one of the most quotable. The last time I can remember reciting lines  to my friends afterwards was Burn After Reading, almost four years ago. Bernie has slipped under the radar thus far--it's made only $2.5 million and is likely only going to play in indie theaters--but I can easily see it finding its audience on DVD. But why wait? It's a great group movie, believe you me.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Summer Movie as Democrat Election Parable

The Avengers is a great summer movie. I don't need to elaborate on why, for if you are reading this you likely have already seen it and either do not need or do not want convincing. A.O. Scott, however, even when praising the film for its entertainment value, is queasy about the cold corporate calculation of it all.
“I’m always angry,” [Bruce Banner] says at one point, and while “The Avengers” is hardly worth raging about, its failures are significant and dispiriting. The light, amusing bits cannot overcome the grinding, hectic emptiness, the bloated cynicism that is less a shortcoming of this particular film than a feature of the genre. Mr. Whedon’s playful, democratic pop sensibility is no match for the glowering authoritarianism that now defines Hollywood’s comic-book universe. Some of the rebel spirit of Mr. Whedon’s early projects “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” “Firefly” and “Serenity” creeps in around the edges but as detail and decoration rather than as the animating ethos. 
“I aim to misbehave,” Malcolm Reynolds famously said in “Serenity.” But for all their maverick swagger, the Avengers are dutiful corporate citizens, serving a conveniently vague set of principles. Are they serving private interests, big government, their own vanity, or what? It hardly matters, because the true guiding spirit of their movie is Loki, who promises to set the human race free from freedom and who can be counted on for a big show wherever he goes. In Germany he compels a crowd to kneel before him in mute, terrified awe, and “The Avengers,” which recently opened there to huge box office returns, expects a similarly submissive audience here at home. The price of entertainment is obedience.
The corporatism goes deeper than cinematic aesthetics. Marvel Comics quite infamously screwed Jack Kirby from receiving proper compensation for co-creating the Avengers and dozens of other iconic characters that Marvel simply would not today exist without. They imposed limits on his rights to his own artwork and have made billions of dollars off his creations. In the months leading up to The Avengers' release there was talk of a boycott on these grounds. The number of people were enlisted to the cause is moot, however, in the face of a $200 million opening weekend that has unstoppably grown the movie Hulk-like into a billion dollar baby.

In a way this reminds me of liberals' moral dilemma when it comes to the question of re-electing Barack Obama. Politically speaking, Obama is The Avengers to liberals: hip, energetic, pushing all the right buttons. He stanched the bleeding of an economy in freefall, saved Detroit, passed Health Care Reform and financial regulation, repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, and is the first president to come out in support of gay marriage. He saved the day and looked cool and smart doing it.

Yet his presidency is littered too with illiberal policies that, were they done by a Republican, would have liberals howling: "extrajudicial killings, violating the War Powers Resolution, waging war without Congressional approval, violating the Geneva Conventions, whitewashing torture, warring on whistleblowers," to name a few. The liberal wish list is being dutifully checked, while fundamental issues of the rule of law have been left to atrophy or, worse, have been outright attacked. Like The Avengers, the slick surface sheen obscures a fundamental emptiness.

Tim Brayton, in a positive if weary review, referred to the Marvel mashup as "Transformers: Dark of the Moon for literate people who enjoy wit." Implicit in the complaint is a reluctant defense: "Have you seen the alternative?" With yesterday's release of Battleship, which grafts an alien invasion plot onto the mechanics of a Milton Bradley guessing game, we get a stark view of just how much worse it can be.

So Avengers, so Obama, whose opponent is a man described by his own underling as an Etch-a-Sketch in what was supposed to be a compliment, who once promised to "double Guantanamo," wants to start a war with Iran, and can barely even be bothered with pretending to care about the law. Unlike movies, elections are zero-sum competitions. One of these two will come out victorious, and anyone who votes for a third-party candidate or abstains out of protest would do well to keep that in mind.

The problem remains that the better of the viable options are still far from ideal. The Avengers is ultimately insubstantial, as is Obama's approach to the law. But these choices don't present themselves out of the blue. They are both, in fact, animated by the same thing that drives their vastly inferior competition: corporate cash and popular sentiment. Like the Jack Kirby case, Obama's legacy is handicapped by monied interests. The health care and financial regulation bills both conceded numerous demands in the interest of receiving industry cooperation. When industry sets the terms of regulation, the word has lost all meaning (that the Wall Street-backed Republicans tried to attack the legislation as a giveaway to the financial industry merely demonstrates, again, the debased nature of the choices we have).

A deeper problem still is in fact the feature of democracy, the wisdom of the crowd. Obama is one of our canniest politicians, such that even a humane gesture like supporting gay marriage is calibrated toward pacifying constituencies, garnering votes and donations. That's just the nature of running for office. Yet where is the civil liberties constituency? I'm not even speaking of liberals, but of the broader electorate that any candidate must court in order to win. Will they favor their franchise toward appeals for due process, executive transparency, and an unwinding of the security state--or promises of jobs and protection from whoever may or may not be trying to take away their influential minority's rights? Whether it's Jack Kirby or Khalid Sheikh Mohammad, the American public has far less interest in upholding fairness and justice than in self-gratification, particularly when life is so dire already.

Obama was once promised to be transformative. That just as well describes Mitt Romney, both for his ideological shape-shifting, and his policies, which have their cinematic analogue in the  empty-headed mayhem of the Transformers movies. Obama and The Avengers are both compromised, but as a product of the broken systems in which they operate. For all the valid criticisms of them that do exist, one must ever ponder the alternative. Revenge of the Fallen was by all accounts a terrible movie; we don't need to watch it again.

Friday, May 18, 2012

Viewing the Past With Eyes Wide Shut

"Conservative, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the liberal, who wishes to replace them with others." - Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary

Charles Murray has historically promulgated racism and profoundly stupid culture war claptrap, but  he has a recent piece for The New Criterion about today's supposed lack of powerful, enduring art that's actually worth grappling with. To be sure, it's essentially an elaborate "get off my lawn" demand. But it is an argument that a great many people likely find compelling, and it is at least responding to actual issues, so it's worth unpacking how wrong it really is.

Murray begins by saying there is a dearth of great art today, meaning the next generation that will create tomorrow's art has nothing to draw on.
The insight that great accomplishment begets more great accomplishment goes back two thousand years to a Roman, Velleius Paterculus, who first analyzed the clustering of genius in Athens and concluded that “genius is fostered by emulation.” In the modern era, that insight has been confirmed in rigorous quantitative studies, and it is one of those social science findings that shouldn’t surprise anyone. If children who have the potential for creating great art are watching a Leonardo da Vinci set the standard, they are more likely to create art like Michelangelo, Dürer, or Raphael did. This is relevant for thinking about the future of American accomplishment in the arts because, as far as I can see, we do not have any great models in the current generation who will produce greatness in the next generation.
Murray lists the exhaustion of forms ("What’s the point of writing a great symphony in the classical style (from the ambitious composer’s point of view), when we already have so many of them?"), and the persistent obscurity of abstract, nonrepresentational, and atonal work among the general public among reasons for concern. Hamlet can only be written once; with hundreds of years of low-hanging artistic and literary fruit having been plucked, artists have to push into ever more esoteric forms in order to break new ground.

The key to innovation, thinks Murray, is technology, which opens up new forms of expression. This is true, though it's largely premised on the idea that nothing of value is being created in the old fields, which the creators and audiences would vehemently dispute. Notably, Murray makes something of an exception for film:
The richest new organizing structure of the twentieth century was the motion picture. It is also the only organizing structure that does not show signs of being filled up. A plausible case can be made that the film industry is still making products that rank somewhere among the all-time best, and there is reason to hope that even better are yet to come.
I suspect this has less to do with film's superiority as an artistic medium or even its relative youth, than with its ease of transmission. Movies require a relatively short investment of time, are promoted across TV and the internet by multi-million dollar ad campaigns, and are easily reproduced and distributed so that they can leave an enormous cultural footprint. The most brilliant work of art will never be canonized if there isn't a mass awareness of it first. Theatre and the fine arts struggle with this, as well as books, a non-visual medium in an image-saturated media environment (book trailers are illustration of this dilemma).

More importantly, technology has lowered the barriers to entry in many creative fields, and paradoxically made it far more difficult for any single person or work to tap into the multiplicity of zeitgeists. This is to say nothing of the replacement of 'high culture''s previous trickle-down significance with popular culture--fifty years on, I think it's safe to say that posterity remembers the Beatles more than it does, say, Phillip Glass.

All of this, it ought be said, is enabled by the moral promiscuity of post-industrial capitalism. The entertainment industry cares for no virtue but profitability. Robert Bork glimpsed this truth when he sighed that "“You almost began to want to put the [Berlin] wall back up,” because of crude American rock music's unimpeded flow into post-Soviet Union Eastern Germany. Murray is not so observant as the already obtuse Bork, but as it turns out, he shares with him a similar reactionary strain.


All the discussion of form and medium is actually peripheral to Murray's bigger argument, which stands on much shakier ground. The deeper problems, he thinks, are a nihilistic mindset, characterized by a rejection of God and religion, that has gripped the intelligentsia and now the culture at large. This has led to an absence of the transcendent, of a sense of "the good," that animates great art:
Beauty is not the only transcendental good that the arts require. A coherent sense of the good is also important—perhaps not so much for great music (though I may be wrong about that), but often for great art and almost always for great literature. I do not mean that a great painting has to be beautiful in a saccharine sense or that great novels must be moral fables that could qualify for McGuffey’s Readers. Rather, a painter’s or a novelist’s conception of the meaning of a human life provides the frame within which the artist translates the varieties of human experience into art. The artistic treatment of violence offers an example. In the absence of a conception of the good, the depiction of violence is sensationalism at best—think Sam Peckinpah. When the depiction of violence is taken to extremes, it can have the same soul-corroding effect as pornography. But when it is informed by a conception of the good, the depiction of violence can have great artistic power—think Macbeth. So whereas some great works of art, music, and even literature are not informed by a conception of the good, the translation of this concept to the canvas or the written word is often what separates enduring art from entertainment. Extract its moral vision, and Goya’s The Third of May 1808 becomes a violent cartoon. Extract its moral vision, and Huckleberry Finn becomes Tom Sawyer
To generalize my argument regarding the importance of the transcendental goods, I believe that when artists do not have coherent ideals of beauty, their work tends to be sterile; when they do not have coherent ideals of the good, their work tends to be vulgar. Without either beauty or the good, their work tends to be shallow. Artistic accomplishment that is sterile, vulgar, and shallow does not endure.
Murray singles out Peckinpah as an example of sensationalist violence that "can have the same soul-corroding effect as pornography." The Wild Bunch's vision of humanity--summed up in its opening scene of children setting a fire ant colony after a couple scorpions during a preacher's sermon--isn't especially uplifting, but it still has considerable power forty years on. A much more accurate target would be something more tawdry and commercial and disreputable; the Saw franchise, perhaps, which certainly doesn't lack for sensationalism and aims for gross disgust rather than any deeper horror.

Moreover, the accusation of 'cultural nihilism' is just a broad-stroke evasion. The "rejection of traditional religion... among intellectual and artistic elites" didn't just happen in a vacuum. The intellectual groundwork was already laid in the 19th century by challenges from the usual suspects, Darwin, Freud, and Nietzsche. Since the 1990s, the period with which Murray is most concerned, the moral authority of the traditional American religion has collapsed, both with the Catholic Church's complicity and conspiracy in child rape and in conservative Christianity's archaic views on sex, birth control, and gays. To call this nihilism is to take the moral rectitude of Christianity and its institutions for granted, regardless of their real-world effects and the changes in attitudes surrounding them. Merely wishing a return to the older, more comforting zeitgeist is not going to bring it back, nor is it even necessarily desirable.

This is not to say that the current order is without its problems. In the arts, the absence of a guiding moral sense can lead to solipsism and a self-impressed cleverness (Damien Hirst and the Young British Artists are for me some of the worst offenders). Yet it isn't like no one else was aware of this. Most visibly, David Foster Wallace grappled with the perils of postmodern irony and its tendency toward hall-of-mirrors vacuity:
For me, the last few years of the postmodern era have seemed a bit like the way you feel when you’re in high school and your parents go on a trip, and you throw a party. You get all your friends over and throw this wild disgusting fabulous party. For a while it’s great, free and freeing, parental authority gone and overthrown, a cat’s-away-let’s-play Dionysian revel. But then time passes and the party gets louder and louder, and you run out of drugs, and nobody’s got any money for more drugs, and things get broken and spilled, and there’s a cigarette burn on the couch, and you’re the host and it’s your house too, and you gradually start wishing your parents would come back and restore some fucking order in your house. It’s not a perfect analogy, but the sense I get of my generation of writers and intellectuals or whatever is that it’s 3:00 A.M. and the couch has several burn-holes and somebody’s thrown up in the umbrella stand and we’re wishing the revel would end. The postmodern founders’ patricidal work was great, but patricide produces orphans, and no amount of revelry can make up for the fact that writers my age have been literary orphans throughout our formative years. We’re kind of wishing some parents would come back. And of course we’re uneasy about the fact that we wish they’d come back–I mean, what’s wrong with us? Are we total pussies? Is there something about authority and limits we actually need? And then the uneasiest feeling of all, as we start gradually to realize that parents in fact aren’t ever coming back–which means “we’re” going to have to be the parents.
Wallace, though, was a part of the group under examination and had a stake in seeing the art redeemed, unlike Murray, who uses the state of the arts as a Trojan Horse for attacking the current liberal social order.


Toward the end of the essay Murray gets to his real point, which is (what else?) to criticize the welfare state. Essentially, ours is an aging society, such that in 50 years the old will outnumber the young. Part of the reason for this is extended life expectancy, which Murray believes robs people of their sense of urgency in life and their motivation to make great art:
In a world where people of all ages die often and unexpectedly, there’s a palpable urgency to getting on with whatever you’re going to do with your life. If you don’t leave your mark now, you may never get the chance. If you live in a world where you’re sure you’re going to live until at least eighty, do you have the same compulsion to leave your mark now? Or do you figure that there’s still plenty of time left, and you’ll get to it pretty soon? To what extent does enjoying life—since you can be sure there’s going to be so much to enjoy—start to take precedence over maniacal efforts to leave a mark?
Naturally, this mindset finds its fullest expression in the conservative bogeyman of Europe:
I believe this self-absorption in whiling away life as pleasantly as possible explains why Europe has become a continent that no longer celebrates greatness. When I have spoken in Europe about the unparalleled explosion of European art and science from 1400 to 1900, the reaction of the audiences has invariably been embarrassment. Post-colonial guilt explains some of this reaction—Europeans seem obsessed with seeing the West as a force for evil in the world. But I suggest that another psychological dynamic is at work. When life has become a matter of passing away the time, being reminded of the greatness of your forebears is irritating and threatening.
Murray looks at European history and sees only its intellectual achievements. These are vast, no one would argue otherwise. But it is simply willful blindness to not see that as enlightened as these advances were, they stand amid a backdrop of serfdom, high infant mortality, and any number of scourges and follies that the modern liberal project has devoted itself to minimizing if not outright eradicating. Goya and his audience could afford to be great--the peasantry, not so much.

Which all to point out that Murray is complaining about standards of living being higher than they ever were.

It's of a poisonous reactionary nostalgia that has gripped the right of late--whether in the form of fundamentalist Christianity, neo-conservative war hawkishness, or the Tea Party, whose shrieks about big government (at least that which isn't benefiting the "deserving" them), Murray's gripe matches best. The urge to turn back the clock, whether with sexual mores, military glory, or anti-government individualism comes from a blinkered view of history and an inability to cope with the world as it is today. To the extent that there exist postmodernism's discontents, a retreat into the past is no solution at all but intellectual surrender.

It may well be that under the welfare state, and the consumer capitalist system that exists alongside it, life accomplishment is viewed with less urgency than it was in more trying times (though I seriously doubt it--ask any creative person if she doesn't feel a "'this-is-what-I-was-put-on-earth-to-do' motivation to create great work," and while you're at it, ask a poor person if, living "In a world where people of all ages die often and unexpectedly," he feels inspired to live out his full potential). But even if we were to grant all this, it would not make Charles Murray's complaints any more valid. Art is inextricably tied with the circumstances surrounding its creation. It's circular to say that 19th century art could have only been produced in the 19th century, but there you go. Really, I'm eager to revisit this argument forty years down the line, if only because at that point I may be filling Murray's role; after all, today's liberal is tomorrow's conservative.

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Moral Minority

A 2009 San Francisco protest against gay marriage.
(David Paul Morris/Getty Images)
Ross Douthat congratulates the gay marriage movement on President Obama's announcement of support yesterday. He does so with a bare-knuckled back-hand:
[O]ver a longer time horizon, the most enduring victories are often won by movements and factions that succeed in branding opposing views as not only mistaken but unthinkable, not only foolish but immoral, and that use stigma as well as suasion to cement the gains that they’ve achieved. This is what’s been happening in the gay marriage debate these last 10 years and more: At the popular level, the country is still divided (and perhaps more divided than polling suggests), but at the elite level and within the Democratic Party’s upper reaches, especially, what was a consensus understanding of marriage just two decades ago has become so associated with bigotry and reaction that a sitting president facing a difficult re-election campaign has been forced to abandon the politically-safer “civil unions yes, but marriage not just yet” position for the uncertain consequences of being for marriage, period. Given the landscape of the 2012 election (and the results yesterday in North Carolina), Obama’s prior attempts to finesse the issue made a lot of sense. But the moral ground had shifted underneath him — to the point where even his own cabinet wouldn’t risk the taint of bigotry in order to give him cover on the issue — and such finesse was no longer an acceptable option.

As a gay marriage skeptic, I’m obviously on what’s likely to be the losing end of this shift. But as an observer of politics and culture —and someone who thinks that moral absolutisms have an important place in both — I can’t help but be impressed by the gay marriage movement’s ability to transform the terms of the marriage debate so completely and comprehensively. Politics is mostly the art of fighting over a muddled middle ground, but this is the way the world gets well and truly changed: Not through conciliation, but through conquest.
Let's get a few things straight, so to speak. The issue of same-sex marriage in itself is not and has not been framed as a moral absolute. Legalization is. It is a yes-or-no proposition. But even if legalized SSM became the law of the land tomorrow, the question of whether a couple should get married, and whether individuals and organizations should marry them or refuse, would be individually decided. The debate has always been about legalization, not mandates. The freedom to marry or not marry is by its very nature non-absolute.

The idea that gay people should not be married, however, is an absolute, which is why the whiff of sour grapeshot in Ross's post is so irritating. He says he admires the SSM movement for its use of stigmatization, to paint the opposition as backward, unenlightened bigots in order to corner Obama into giving his support. His 'admiration' conveniently avoids the arguments over SSM--and the absolutism of his own side in forcing others to abide by standards that affect his side not a bit--and turns the issue into a matter of tactics.

Even on those grounds his argument fails, for what has the opposition to gay rights been but a long exercise in stigmatization and demonization? The counter-gay kulturkampf has ever been waged with accusations and insinuations of perversion, child abuse, and civilizational collapse, none of them being remotely true. That gay marriage proponents 'stigmatized' their opposition is thus an academic point, true in itself but also completely irrelevant.

All moral issues, when it comes to granting or restricting freedoms, will be couched in moral terms. What matters is the particulars of the issue up for debate. Lest we forget, Strom Thurmond and George Wallace too were on the losing end of a cultural shift.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Heart of Daftness

Andrew Sullivan is getting anxious about black people's IQs again:
The authors note correctly that IQ is a function of a cultural construct, the ability to succeed in middle class Western capitalist society. So I'm not sure why they would deny that such big differences do exist across the world and can be explained by lack of economic and social development. The Flynn effect shows that IQ can move swiftly upward as development proceeds. The question, really, is: why is Africa still such a basket-case? Why do we simply assume that it will not be in any way an economic power, even though its natural resources are plentiful? Why do we not hold the same conceptions about, say, the Chinese or Indians or South Koreans?
Look, no one doubts that Africa has problems, many of them internal. But while African nations remain behind 'the West' in a number of measurable variables, the idea that they're just stewing in poverty, and it has something to do with low IQs, is straight bullshit. From The Economist:
Since The Economist regrettably labelled Africa “the hopeless continent” a decade ago, a profound change has taken hold. Labour productivity has been rising. It is now growing by, on average, 2.7% a year. Trade between Africa and the rest of the world has increased by 200% since 2000. Inflation dropped from 22% in the 1990s to 8% in the past decade. Foreign debts declined by a quarter, budget deficits by two-thirds. In eight of the past ten years, according to the World Bank, sub-Saharan growth has been faster than East Asia’s (though that does include Japan).
From The World Bank:
Following a 4.6 percent expansion in 2010, the region’s output is expected to grow by 4.8 percent this year (5.8 percent excluding South Africa) and by more than 5 percent in 2012 and 2013. Indeed, African countries are amongst the fastest growing countries in the world: Ghana is projected to grow by well over 10 percent this year; and nearly 40 percent of the countries in the region are likely to see 6 percent or higher growth rates. Growth in Africa remains closely linked to the evolution of international commodity prices—oil, metals, and non-food agricultural commodities—which have remained generally buoyant.
As it so happens, many African economies are quickly growing—just like the Chinese and Indians and South Koreans!

It only took a quick Googling of "growing African economies" to find these. The question "Why is Africa still a basket case," with its 'are you still beating your wife?' framing of Africans as a perpetually benighted people, is misleading at best and racist at worst. It leads into the same condescending 'why are blacks are dumber than whites' rut that, as a longtime reader, I really wish Sullivan would get himself out of. A better, though tangential, question is, "Why does Andrew Sullivan think Africa is still a basket case?" but this is well-trod territory. An even better question might be, "What are the problems still afflicting Africa?" Some people are doing work to answer that, right now. One of those answers, from an actual African, author Teju Cole:
How, for example, could a well-meaning American "help" a place like Uganda today? It begins, I believe, with some humility with regards to the people in those places. It begins with some respect for the agency of the people of Uganda in their own lives. A great deal of work had been done, and continues to be done, by Ugandans to improve their own country, and ignorant comments (I've seen many) about how "we have to save them because they can't save themselves" can't change that fact.
The first step to helping is to not assume helplessness.