Sunday, November 30, 2008

Three cups of cheese (by Skylanda)

There's book going around these days, you might have heard of it, called Three Cups of Tea. It's by a guy named Greg Mortenson, who stumbled off of a failed assault on K2 'round about 1993 and into a small Pakistani village, where he promised to return the hospitality of those who helped him by building a school. He went home, he returned, and he built a bridge, and then a school. And then he made it his life's mission to build lots of schools, in one of the most contentious areas of a very contentious planet, at a fair amount of peril to self and soul.

Usually, do-gooder books by Americans (and other westerners) abroad do not sit well with me. Usually they are entirely too rife with the spoils of moral superiority, and entirely too charged with the self-important notion of one's own role in a moving scene largely too fast and furious for anyone but the self to take note of one blathering foreigner mucking up the landscape. The last foreigner who wrote a good tome about do-gooder'ing abroad was Paul Farmer - the Boston-based doctor who has spent about half his life establishing world-class community-based health care in Haiti - and even he has a few rare moments of such intense self-righteousness it makes the breeze blow backward.

But I digress.

So this Mortenson guy, he ain't all bad. Much of the gist of his book is that poverty is grist for the fundamentalist mill (he kinda glosses over the way that poverty is compounded in that region by the seasonal migration of the trekking crews, which juxtapose some of the planetary heroics of elitism over the sorest hot-spots of deprivation in the world, but hey, everyone's got a blind spot, right?), and that education is the key to opening up equality and quashing fundamentalism - and terrorism - before it even begins. This is pretty heady stuff. It was not a very popular notion right after 9/11; it's all kinds of trendy now, though in a fairly good way. Moreover, he emphasizes again and again the importance of educating girls; he didn't discover or pioneer the data on the effect of educating girls on improving standards of living in a community, but he champions this notion like nobody's business. Educating girls in some of the most conservative, fundamentalist regions of the world: tough stuff. Admirable, even. I kinda dug the book, western do-gooder-isms and all.

So I was fascinated to see the guy talk when he came through my town on his recent book tour. His talk didn't entirely disappoint; he does hammer some politics home, especially in his insistence that whatever Obama might get right, he's dead-on wrong if he thinks that what Afghanistan needs is another tens of thousands of American troops on its soils wreaking even more havoc than we've already wreaked over the last seven (count 'em, seven) years that we have already spent there.

But his talk is a lot more off-the-cuff than his book, and it's always a little disconcerting to see the disconnect between a controlled descent into a topic and a conversational parsing of opinion. First and foremost, he loses the gravity his own quest by delving into the sort of We Are the World feel-good rhetoric that is equal parts smarm and unadulterated schlock. Yeah, for anyone whose seen his talk, I know: his pre-teen kid helped write that cheeseball song (I'd link to it, but it's hard to find I can do is the amazon page for the CD), it's not meant to appeal to adults. Problem is, once you stick it in your stock Power Point presentation, it becomes impolite for the adult audience not to cough a few times over it. Kids have the right to feel that they are doing great things by throwing pennies at poor people - that's part of being a kid who eventually grows into a compassionate maturity; adults who feel that way (gatherings of eighties pop stars entirely withstanding) generally are not nice people to be around, especially if you happen to be on the receiving end of those charitable pennies (and even moreso if you don't happen to show properly gracious humility for being the beneficiary of such enormous generosity as unwanted pennies thrown your way). I always find it awkward, then, to be asked to oooh and aaaah over what I largely consider to be an insult to people experiencing a whole lot of trouble in the world.

That personal bit aside though, he emphasizes the power of individuals to do great things, most often by using the stories of the Pennies for Peace campaign that engages children to gather up spare change for his school-building missions. That's all nice and good and all - I'm all for indoctrinating the young'uns as soon as you can get 'em - but in propping up that effort as a solution, it privileges charity over justice in that peculiar way that people do who want the world to look nicer while not giving up any of the privilege that caused the world to look sorta ugly in the first place. As if somehow wealthy white kids in Waldorf schools in Minnesota doing their holiday do-gooder project can ameliorate oppression...ya know, that kind of oppression that you can really only achieve from being batted around for thirty years between the Cold War super-powers and sundry warlording marauders gunning for control of the world's finest opium crop. Ya know, that kind of oppression. The kind that Mortenson demures from really delving into, because it really is more fun to talk about how the pennies in your pocket can save the world, when really, world save-age (to steal an apt phrase from the Whedonverse) is a whole lot more complicated than that. It doesn't take charity to save the world; it takes realizing that one nation using a quarter of the world's oil spells desolation for others that need those resources, or just don't need to lose a war whose main purpose is to see a pipeline run across a contested territory to feed the oil thirst of the west. It doesn't take pennies to save the world; it takes a mass down-ratcheting of our expectations of what kind of lifestyle some 300 millions Americans can reasonably sustain - how many SUVs we can drive, how many McMansions we can dwell in - to reasonably expect to house and maintain the world at large in a reasonable standard of living. It'll take a lot more than schools to save the world if those schools are routinely caught in the crossfire of trade made profitable purely on the prohibition of drugs in the western nations, a prohibition suspiciously profitable to large number of US corporations - especially those who sell high-tech police gadgetry and man high-tech prisons. To steal straight from Isabel Allende, it doesn't take charity, it takes justice. Justice for Afghanistanis, justice for every petty pot smoker picked up in a rather unjustified drug war. There's a lot of justice unmet out there, and pennies for schools in Pakistan are a small drop in a very large ocean of need - need that will be largely unmet as long as long as we rely on individual charity instead of systematic justice to prop up our sense of right and wrong.

Ninety percent of the US once supported George Bush during the era of his rush into Afghanistan; I wasn't among those people (if nothing else, I had too much to lose: immediate family in the line-up to the front), but you can't tell me that everyone who cheers on Greg Mortenson today when he yammers about pennies and peace was among the rarified ten percent that wasn't hooting and hollering for violence when the mood struck fancy. It's popular now to feel good about feeling good about the Muslim world; it hasn't yet become popular to do something besides throw the cast-offs of children at it.

Someday, maybe we'll get there. I'm not counting on the Greg Mortensons of the world to light our way.

Cross-posed from my blog at Loose Chicks Sink Ships.