May 23, 2011

On "To Hell With Good Intentions"

During our mid-service training, one of the breakout sessions had us reading a speech by Ivan Illich called "To Hell With Good Intentions" arguing that volunteer service in developing countries is terrible:
I did not come here to argue. I am here to tell you, if possible to convince you, and hopefully, to stop you, from pretentiously imposing yourselves on Mexicans.

I do have deep faith in the enormous good will of the U.S. volunteer. However, his good faith can usually be explained only by an abysmal lack of intuitive delicacy. By definition, you cannot help being ultimately vacationing salesmen for the middle-class "American Way of Life," since that is really the only life you know. A group like this could not have developed unless a mood in the United States had supported it - the belief that any true American must share God's blessings with his poorer fellow men. The idea that every American has something to give, and at all times may, can and should give it, explains why it occurred to students that they could help Mexican peasants "develop" by spending a few months in their villages...

Next to money and guns, the third largest North American export is the U.S. idealist, who turns up in every theater of the world: the teacher, the volunteer, the missionary, the community organizer, the economic developer, and the vacationing do-gooders. Ideally, these people define their role as service. Actually, they frequently wind up alleviating the damage done by money and weapons, or "seducing" the "underdeveloped" to the benefits of the world of affluence and achievement. Perhaps this is the moment to instead bring home to the people of the U.S. the knowledge that the way of life they have chosen simply is not alive enough to be shared.

By now it should be evident to all America that the U.S. is engaged in a tremendous struggle to survive. The U.S. cannot survive if the rest of the world is not convinced that here we have Heaven-on-Earth. The survival of the U.S. depends on the acceptance by all so-called "free" men that the U.S. middle class has "made it." The U.S. way of life has become a religion which must be accepted by all those who do not want to die by the sword - or napalm. All over the globe the U.S. is fighting to protect and develop at least a minority who consume what the U.S. majority can afford. Such is the purpose of the Alliance for Progress of the middle-classes which the U.S. signed with Latin America some years ago. But increasingly this commercial alliance must be protected by weapons which allow the minority who can "make it" to protect their acquisitions and achievements.
To be brief, I think this is a bunch of shit. But it's worth unpacking a little because it contains a lot of pathologies still common on the left. The first is the classic self-critical regression. A great phrase used to describe the American right wing that has cropped up recently is "epistemic closure," an upgrade from "echo chamber," meaning the conservative movement is impervious to new (or any, really) evidence and completely unwilling to engage in critical reflection. (I think that's mostly true.) The left, wanting to demonstrate our intellectual bona fides—and above all avoid appearing like conservatives—tries to keep up a healthy tradition of soul-searching. That is a good thing.

However, it can be taken too far; you end up with that old Robert Frost joke: "A liberal is a man too broadminded to take his own side in a quarrel." What should be honest self-examination of the limits and dangers of visiting a foreign country, and the obvious realization that "helping the peasants develop" is pretty insufferable, turns into a sarcastic tirade about the inescapable paternalism inherent in "imposing yourself on Mexicans." One of the most obnoxious habits on the American left is one-upping those of insufficient ideological purity. "Calling out" someone who has done something wrong is a good instinct, but it often turns into a game of holier-than-thou.

The second is the conflation of democratic capitalism with American imperialism. This is less common now, but I still see it now and then. Activists back in the Cold War (this speech was given in 1968) saw America's imperial actions all over the globe—our support for various awful dictators, our wars, our persecution of anyone deemed to have the faintest tinge of communism—and concluded that the system of democratic capitalism was necessarily predicated on either the exploitation of a giant underclass of peasants or the forcible creation of a tiny "middle class" in poor countries that would buy our exports. Thus, argues Illich, American volunteers are actually helping prop up the capitalist empire, which would collapse absent continual global meddling.

I think it's clear now this idea is bonkers. Yes, the US has definite imperial character, and continues to commit atrocities to that end, but the economic system is not based on subjugating the globe. The empire is a creation of nationalist zealots, basically like all the others. Developing countries all over the world have embraced the capitalist paradigm and represented most of world economic growth for the years of the financial crisis. Bringing more countries into the economic fold, while it may cause some low-paying jobs to migrate out of the developed world, will represent a net positive for the US and the world. At the very least it isn't causing the collapse of the global economy.

The third is an overestimation of the distance between cultures. This is the one that really gets my goat:
All you will do in a Mexican village is create disorder. At best, you can try to convince Mexican girls that they should marry a young man who is self-made, rich, a consumer, and as disrespectful of tradition as one of you. At worst, in your "community development" spirit you might create just enough problems to get someone shot after your vacation ends_ and you rush back to your middleclass neighborhoods where your friends make jokes about "spits" and "wetbacks." [...]

In fact, you cannot even meet the majority which you pretend to serve in Latin America - even if you could speak their language, which most of you cannot. You can only dialogue with those like you - Latin American imitations of the North American middle class. There is no way for you to really meet with the underprivileged, since there is no common ground whatsoever for you to meet on.
It's true that one can never really leave behind one's culture, but I categorically reject any theory saying it is a priori impossible to have any cross-cultural contact whatsoever with the underprivileged. I have been a miserable failure at development, but one of the greatest parts of this experience has been meeting and interacting with those from another culture. I've made friends here, be they poor or rich, be they Tswana, Zulu, Afrikaner, Xhosa, or otherwise; to say that my contact with them is really just part and parcel with American cultural imperialism is bullshit. Full stop.

We're all human beings, social creatures, immensely capable of adaptation and interaction. I will always be an American, but I say learning from others around the world is possible—indeed, necessary these days—and to be commended.


  1. Illich has some legitimate grievances but he definitely represents an extreme viewpoint that largely ignores counter evidence. I agree with your take on the passages you quoted.

    Whether missionaries, PCVs or aid workers, the ones I notice that become disillusioned the quickest are the ones who enter thinking they are going to "change the world." It's a pretty rude awakening. The attitude that seems to the most beneficial is one of adventure, cultural openness and patience.

    Like you, I can say that my experiences with locals where I am working are of course not as rounded as with friends back home with which I share a cultural background, but to say that it makes my relationship with Azeris meaningless is to throw the baby out with the bath water.

  2. >> I have been a miserable failure at development, but one of the greatest parts of this experience has been meeting and interacting with those from another culture ... to say that my contact with them is really just part and parcel with American cultural imperialism is bullshit. <<

    While you have described the benefit you have received from these encounters, the real test would be to know what these individuals themselves would say about THEIR encounter with YOU. That 'turning of the tables' is ultimately Illich's (and Paulo Friere's) message.