February 21, 2010

Colonialism Redux

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In response to the United States’ victory in the Philippine-American War, The Jungle Book author Rudyard Kipling composed The White Man’s Burden, a motivational poem calling upon the United States to send forward “the best ye breed” to colonize the Philippines. A paean to the then-burgeoning colonial project, it was truly a product of its time.

The days of colonialism are past; however, the mentality that motivated it — that the West is morally obligated to bring its “light” to uncultured non-Westerners — is still present. Ironically enough, the best place to find it is the rhetoric of those most sympathetic to these foreigners.

Consider fellow columnist Carolyn Witte’s “Giving Back on Shaky Ground,” published earlier this month. In it she describes her experience over winter break volunteering in Humjibre, Ghana.

She recalls how upon hearing of the Haitian earthquake, the locals — assuming it was an act of God — feared it would approach their village as well. They quickly planned an evacuation, stopping once an assemblyman announced that God would send it instead to a different village.

Reflecting on this moment, she notes how “cause and effect” was to them “a foreign concept, one which could not be developed or taught overnight.” Such, however, was not surprising, given that though some of the locals possessed a “profound wisdom and intelligence”, “the vast majority of people (there) lacked essential deductive reasoning skills.” This, of course, gave credence to her perceptions of being “a minority, both physically and mentally.” Indeed, “far more distinct than the color of my skin was my intellect.”

Let that sink in for a moment.

This statement is interesting — to say the least — for a number of reasons. First, it is somewhat difficult to claim that the concept of cause and effect was “foreign” to the locals immediately after describing their belief that the earthquake was a punishment from God. Perhaps, then, she actually meant that their notions of cause and effect would sound foreign to us.

That, however, is the favorable view. It is also possible that she believes that their notions of cause and effect are, in fact, not “real,” or, perhaps, “rational”; this reading certainly complements her statement that the villagers lacked “essential deductive reasoning skills.” In other words, any form of knowledge that is not our own is not “real.” It is rather a special, folksy “wisdom and intelligence.”

Unfortunately, this thinking is often the next step in viewing foreigners as helpless “others.” Once they become dependent on the wonderful things our society can provide, their culture becomes a mere curiosity.

This is not to say that we cannot provide local cultures with useful supplies, or, for that matter, that volunteers like Witte are not doing some good. However, we must recognize the implications of this sort of rhetoric before we enact policy that ignores the complexities of foreign cultures.

Take, for example, the recent crusade against sweatshops. Its cast of characters was typical of any campus protest: an evil Western corporation, poor, exploited foreigners and noble, pure-hearted undergraduates. The moral case was unambiguous.

Or was it? As noted by Sun blogger Luke Pryor, an ideologically diverse group of economists and journalists maintain that workers endure the admittedly deplorable conditions for a reason: there simply are no other jobs. In fact, Paul Krugman and Jeffery Sachs argue that this form of labor is “an essential first step toward modern prosperity in developing countries.” Closing sweatshops would reverse that trend, causing mass unemployment and misery.

It is therefore essential that when engaging in the complicated business of international development, we do not superimpose our own aspirations on the reality of other cultures. We risk disrupting the structures founded upon communal wisdom and the logic of their individual circumstances. Better to stick with what we are absolutely certain will work.

Witte decides precisely the opposite. Instead of focusing on “numbers and results” — “how much money we could raise, how many bed nets could we hang, how many lives could we save?” — she realizes instead “that my mission had little to do with bed nets, but rather, the people beneath the bed nets — the people of Humjibre. They are my mission.”

Instead of practical, non-imposing and inarguably life-saving measures, she chooses to “work on” the people themselves, so that they fit her vision of what they should be. Rudyard Kipling would be proud.

Judah Bellin is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He may be reached at judahbellin@cornellsun.com. For Whom the Bellin Tolls appears alternate Mondays this semester.

Original Author: Judah Bellin