Monday, August 25, 2008

To Hell with Good Intentions

So right after I wrote that last post, I had to read this speech by Ivan Illich for a cross-cultural session and write a little bit about it. It touches on some of the concerns I have about my service here, which I mentioned in "Development" (particularly the need to consider and incorporate local culture in development), but Illich is much more condemnatory. He views the American international development mission as not only culturally insensitive but just plain disrespectful. He feels that on no level can the middle-class American volunteer relate to the poor and/or underprivileged that (s)he claims to serve. Most provocatively, he suggests that the American interest in international development (as promoted by the U.S. government through Peace Corps, for example) is to stimulate the development of a consumer class abroad.

Illich was speaking in 1968, and his views reflect the cynicism of Latin Americans toward the U.S. at the time. His speech was also made to a group of volunteers who had only committed to serve for a few weeks or months, which I think makes a huge difference. You can't do much in two months, whereas two years gives you time to learn about and appreciate the culture.

Anyway, I have plenty to say about this subject, but I'm really interested to read everyone's thoughts, so please comment!


Chris Grant said...

Despite a pretty amazing level of condescension, and what sounded suspiciously like boilerplate Cold War anti-capitalism, the idea that development aid is inherently disrespectful is interesting. The problem is where to stop. Should the developed world withhold/horde all of its educational, technological, medical, etc., advantages? Whats the difference between: training an engineer from the developing world at MIT, sending democracy specialists/election monitors overseas, teaching Mauritanian girls computer literacy, and sending free vaccines or food aid? They're all a case of "you can't do this for yourself, so we'll do it for you."

The answer, I think, is that Illich needs to be a little more introspective. Rejecting charity based on pride is understandable, but not justifiable. If PCVs are actually performing a service that cannot be provided locally (which I feel is true practically by definition), it's childish to object to their presence.

I also think it's childish to object to PCVs representing American culture and values (as opposed to active proselytizing). New ideas can certainly be disruptive, but in the long run I think the head-in-the-sand approach is more damaging. If it's a good thing for Americans to learn about the world, it's also a good thing for the world to learn about America.

Love the blog, Elise. Keep it up!

Elise Szabo said...

I think childish is a good word to describe it. Thanks for the insight, Chris. And for validating my life for the next two years. :)

beatriz said...

The broad scope of why PC is in RIM today is certainly more complex than Illich interprets (perhaps given the era in which he wrote his ideas). You as a PCV know why you are there and can see firsthand how your presence and what you bring to share impacts those you interact with. Stand true to your intentions as they are as they can only (in my opinion) be a good thing. Love, Mom

beatriz said...
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Julie.Schrier said...

I stole your speech. It's been bothering me. In the end, I think that there is no unselfish act. We're all in the Peace Corps for our own selfish reasons, ranging from mildly selfish to perhaps-you-should-stop-preaching selfish. In the end, I think that the Peace Corps does a good, persistent job "teaching" us how to be less-offensive Americans and that in the end, the good we do increasing sustainability (sick of that word already) outweighs the cultural offenses and faux pas along the way. I hope. Okay I might actually use some of this in my blog... I miss you...

James said...

I agree with some of the things Illich has to say and I don't think I'll be offending either of you (Elise or Julie) when I say that his core message, that we shouldn't send out middle-class white kids as missionaries of the "American Way of Life", is true. It doesn't take a complete cynic to realize that the PC might very well have been contrived to create a friendly market for American goods and market capitalism. Let's be real, the PC being signed into existence coincided pretty nicely with our involvement in South America and Vietnam in openly professed missions to stem to spread of Communism. There's no such thing as altruism between nation states, we help you now so you can help us later.

But who's to say you can't take advantage of a program with flaws to do something meaningful? So what if the students Illich met were on narcissistic power trips? If I go to Guatemala for two weeks, build a hut and come back to the US only to extol my own virtue doesn't some family still have a roof over their heads? If I go serve food in a soup kitchen in Chicago and let that soothe my middle-class guilt when I come home to XBox 360 and $3 bottled waters isn't somebody sleeping on a full stomach all the same?

It's not hard to see that Illich's argument is also pretty dated since his three "great areas of the world" resisting this American perversion of Democracy include China and Chicago which have now provided us with a massive, quasi-capitalist international market and a black presidential nominee, respectively. (And Chicago, really? Did he say that with a straight face?)

No, I don't think we should send out missionaries to preach American ideals but I don't know any PCVs who would take a Ford F150 over a dozen cattle for their village or who write home ecstatically about the subscription to Vogue they procured for their girl's school. Most of the people I know - current company included - are actually pretty disillusioned with the whole idea of "American Democracy" and are trying to find not only it's but their own place in the world.

I love guys like Illich are almost nihilistic enough not to care but still condemn people for trying, for aspiring to something noble no matter what their motives. Instead of cutting it off at "don't try and change people" he spirals into "it's not worth it, stay at home and talk to other middle class white kids like yourself before you screw everything up" (that might be paraphrasing). It's easy for a guy who speaks close to a dozen languages to disparage volunteers for their linguistic deficiencies or to mock them for a lack of perspective when you've studied at three universities and taught on that many continents. It's harder to sound a call for change, to ask people to better themselves if not their world.

Before I start rambling (it's too late you say?) I thought I'd quote this line from Vonnegut's last novel Timequake:

"Artists are people who say I can’t fix my country or my state or my city, or even my marriage. But by golly, I can make this square of canvas, or this eight and a half by eleven piece of paper, or this lump of clay or these twelve bars of music, exactly what they ought to be."

It's easier to see the faults in others, maybe that's why Illich can suck the life out of a speech so well.

I have to get back to training monkeys, miss you guys.

Julie.Schrier said...

We miss you too Jellis.

Elise Szabo said...

its been too long since ive been subject to one of your rants, james. i miss them immensely.