Sunday, December 17, 2006

Well-Intentioned Foreigners

In 1975, not long after the fall of Saigon, the Washington Post explained patiently that bad things sometimes happen to good people:

[I]t was right to hope that the people of South Vietnam would be able to decide on their own form of government and social order. The American public is entitled, indeed obligated, to explore how good impulses came to be transmuted into bad policy, but we cannot afford to cast out all remembrance of that earlier impulse.
Translation: We were nuts to think that the gooks could be civilized, but wasn't it swell of us to give them the benefit of the doubt?

In today's WaPo, Lawrence E. Harrison strikes up a variant of this tune:
The war in Iraq has produced many casualties. One lesser-noticed one may be the death of an idea -- the idea that the culture of a nation or region can be transformed quickly by well-intentioned foreigners.
Much as I admire the pitiless rigor of his analysis, Mr. Harrison worries himself unnecessarily. "Well-intentioned foreigners" will always try to spread democracy by means of airstrikes and massacres, and thoughtful commentators like Harrison will always give them an "A" for effort while reminding them that some people simply aren't up to the burdensome responsibilities of civilization. One must be realistic, after all: Not everyone can be as good and caring and honest as we are.
For the past half-century, politicians and experts in rich countries have tried to improve living standards and build democracy in Africa, Asia and Latin America. Early on, they, too, were convinced that tyranny and poverty could be defeated....
It's odd to read this at the end of a week consecrated by the Right to masturbating earnestly over Pinochet's corpse. But that's by the by. Harrison's point, stripped of (reduced to?) its liberal-humanist boilerplate, is that the goddamn darkies ain't right in the head:
[A]s I encountered daily the intractability of Latin America's problems, it became clear to me that poverty and injustice were rooted in the region's values.
And since that's the case, Alcoa may as well cash in! That way, we get to impose or exacerbate poverty and injustice for the sake of the corporate bottom line, and display our exquisite sensitivity by weeping over the inability of the Inferior Races to become civilized. And if all else fails, we can always install or support a dictator, like Pinochet, whose ideological commitment to the free market can be measured, reassuringly, in acre-feet of blood.

Lest you think I'm being too hard on Harrison, get a load of his explanation for the troubles in Haiti:
The dominant religion in Haiti is voodoo, which nurtures mistrust and irrationality. Its roots are in the Dahomey region of West Africa -- what is today Benin. The levels of income, child malnutrition, child mortality, life expectancy and literacy are virtually identical today in Haiti and Benin.
The roots of Haitian voodoo "are in the Dahomey region of West Africa," eh? I wonder why that might be.

Besides, Harrison has no reason to claim that voodoo is the dominant religion in Haiti. That distinction goes to Catholicism, which some observers - including Harrison, as we'll soon see - have found to be less than rational itself, on occasion.

But let's not split hairs. The important thing is, we've ascertained that the Haitians are painting themselves with mud and beating on their goatskin drums; their yellow eyes are rolled back in their heads, and their breasts and penises are swaying hypnotically in the Plumeria-scented breeze of a tropical midnight. Clearly, there's no point looking for civilized values there.

The situation is much the same in Latin America, sad to say. An eternal peonage ideally suits the impressionable natives of those lands; in many respects, they are little more than disobedient, lazy children, and are prone to all sorts of dangerous mischief unless kept busy. In Asia, meanwhile, the queer superstition of "Buddhism" inculcates the fatalism for which its inhabitants are famous; if life is an illusion, civilization is doubly so, and it may even be that certain of these races have sought out political tyranny, the better to transcend it by means of that unmanly quietism propounded by Siddhartha Gautama.

Where then may we find true civilization?
Some religions and cultures do better than others at promoting personal responsibility, education, entrepreneurship and trust -- all values that shape political and economic development. Protestant societies -- above all, the Nordic countries of Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden -- have generally done better than Catholic nations, particularly those of Latin America. Confucian societies such as Japan, Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan and now China have produced transforming economic growth. Islamic countries, even those with oil, have not.
Well, except for Malaysia and Qatar. And maybe a couple of others.

To his credit, Harrison understands that even some non-Muslim religions have an anti-progress streak:
Catholic ambivalence about free markets has contributed to Latin America's costly dalliances with socialism....Orthodox Christianity's similar ambivalence has contributed to anti-capitalist currents in Russia and elsewhere in Eastern Europe. Support of democratic capitalism by both religions, coupled with their concern about injustice, corruption and crime, could play a key role in progressive cultural change.
In other words, these religions need to drop all their otherworldly mumbo-jumbo, and start preaching the Gospel According to Milton Friedman. That way, we well-intentioned foreigners can gradually homogenize nonconforming cultures, in part by convincing the poor that despite any appearance to the contrary, their lack of clean water and adequate medical care amounts to a failure of personal initiative.

If we're going to remake the world in our image, we also need to weed out dishonesty and petty scheming:
Costa Rican psychiatrist Luis Diego Herrera argues that child rearing in his country typically upholds shrewdness over honesty. "Children are taught contradictory standards of behavior," he said. "They are supposed to abide by the rules, but if they break them, the important thing is to get away with it."
I'm as shocked as you by what they've been getting away with down Costa Rica way, and I think we can both agree that there's no better remedy for this cynical outlook than a stern dose of free-market dogma.

Harrison is a Serious Person, so he knows that "ambivalence about free markets," like other forms of third-world "mistrust," is a sort of mental illness. Granted, our attempts to raise these backwards people out of the muck may have led to the occasional anti-labor bloodbath, or worse. Regardless, we perceive that our good intentions outweigh - or even ennoble - these little missteps, and so should everyone else. To do anything less is to block the path of Civilization.


Anonymous said...

O Phila, one humble reader and admirer begs you : please, please make some kind of categories, ven as feww as Friday Nudibranch, Friday hope, and Others...
This would make this blog so much easier to link profusely to!

¡El Gato Negro! said...

Ahhhh, si, the free market, where one can always make a comfortable living as an apolgist for thugs.

(Especially when the demand for apologists ees eencreasing daily.)


Phila said...


I'd love to, but I don't think I can do that with Blogger. I'd have to switch to Typepad or something similar.

I'll check into it, though.