'I Didn't Mean To': Well-Intentioned Meddling Is Still Meddling

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The message
of Avatar is a message echoed in 3
Cups of Tea
, a book lauded across the political spectrum,
about a focused and determined American who went abroad to build
schools. It's the compelling true story of a former mountain climber
overcoming great adversity (especially among the "locals")
to do well for his fellow man. As the book tells us, Greg Mortenson
has essentially dedicated his life to this work. Fascinating story.
However, the saddest aspect of the book, something that leaves the
book's theme on rocky foundation, is Mortenson's rationale for doing
this. He offers no questioning process of the positives and negatives
of his "footprint." No, like many meddling Americans abroad,
there is no handling of this issue. What is my goal? What good do
I bring? What bad do I bring? A good question in the style of Hazlitt:
How will this affect everyone and what will that effect be over
a long period of time? How will my footprints left, my shadow cast,
my encouragement and my influence that I open the door to, how will
that affect the people there — these people being the people I am
to "help." What is the definition of help? Who should
I be seeking to help? And will the people I seek to help maybe just
be better off if I stay home on the couch watching TV?

Mortenson looks
at the positive impacts, he looks at negative impacts on his own
life, and addresses his own shortcomings. In the book, he does not
evaluate how he might negatively affect his target villages. Since
this issue is not dealt with, it entirely undermines the rest of
the book. It entirely undermines the whole argument of the book.
Because this is what Greg Mortenson has dedicated his life to, it
entirely undermines what we are to understand is the purpose of
his life.

If my neighbor,
Chase, decides to spend the next 30 years digging a tunnel by hand
that stretches from his house to downtown, are we to believe the
tunnel is a good idea just because he is working hard at it and
has decided to dedicate his life to it? No. I'm going to be concerned
about the foundations of my previously solid house falling into
this tunnel that he is digging under it. As if it were relevant,
you may ask "Well, why is he building the tunnel?" And
he might answer you, "To allow children to walk to school safely
when it is snowing, to allow elderly people to not slip on ice,
to allow people accidentally locked out of their houses a warm place
to sleep for the night, to give people without a house a warm place
to sleep for the night." These all sound like great reasons
for building a tunnel. They do not, however, address the real damage
that might be done to my house and the other 300 houses that he
will have to dig under between here and downtown, houses that may
be put at risk.

If you cut
seven slits into a hotdog just right, it'll look sort of like a
little pink octopus with it's eight plump legs once it's boiled.
But it sure ain't an octopus. No matter what Chase tells me about
how great that tunnel is, it doesn't get around the fact that he
plans to use a shovel to dig a tunnel under my house. No matter
how much good you can accomplish with all of your hard work, if
you do not realistically address the bad, then once again, maybe
it's best for you to just stay at home on the couch and let people
go about their lives.

Now I entirely
understand that it's frustrating to look at an apathetic person
who has great potential and to think "It's a shame that person's
not more engaged. He could do great things if only he tried."
In this aspect, I appreciate Mortenson's encouraging message: "Get
out there in the world and just do something." Just do something,
anything is a message of the book. Go all over the world and just
help. Just do something.

However, action
is not the key. Simply acting is not the reason to act. The message
needs more modifying — act with purpose.

It's often
assumed uncritically that a penny sent abroad is a penny used for
good. An hour spent volunteering abroad is also assumed to be an
hour used for good.

Acting with
purpose adds a different dimension to ones actions. Don't just go
out and interfere with the ways of life people know and have established
with good reason. Sometimes the locals are best left alone. People's
ways of life are established through countless millions of instances
of what my 3rd grade math teacher called "guess
and check." You think something might work, so you try it.
If it works you repeat it, if it doesn't work then you try something
else. What ends up happening is the creation of a way of living
that is sustainable over a lifetime and eventually over generations.
Even if such ways of living make absolutely no sense to an outsider,
it is important to remember that they are the ways that have proven
to work for that individual, who, incidentally, spends every day
of his life in his own shoes. No outsider will ever be forced to
walk in the shoes of a local, so no outsider can know what is really
happening in the life of that local. It's that individual who is
best prepared to make decisions that affect his own life.

While I do
not consider the following to be a valid theological viewpoint,
I do think it is an important viewpoint to keep in mind when one
attempts a project that affects the lives of others: "The path
to hell is paved with good intentions."

"But I
was just trying to help" loses its validity in personal relationships
sometime around the adolescent years of the speaker. It therefore
doesn't seem right that we let mature adults use that excuse in
their business dealings, whether those be for-profit business dealings
or non-profit business dealings, as in the case of Mortenson. Instead
of praising his book as the feel-good book of the year, instead
of cherishing this man for really getting out there and doing something,
we should be calling him out for not acting with purpose. Such self-criticism
is lacking in 3 Cups of Tea.

In the same
way, it doesn't make sense that we allow entire departments full
of government employees to use that same excuse: "But I was
just trying to help." They are, after all, grown adults who
wouldn't be able to use such an excuse in their personal lives to
explain failure. It's an excuse we wouldn't allow from teenagers.
Yet we allow those public servants to use it to explain away the
failures, misfeasance, and blowback of intrusive government policies
in areas spanning from emergency management to foreign policy. Anyone
who accepts that kind of excuse encourages repetition of the same
mediocrity that led to the initial failure, along with the reappearance
of its strange bed-fellow: self-assuredness in government intrusion.

"The path
to hell is paved with good intentions" is a phrase meant to
awaken the conscience, to put a person on alert. In response to
complaints from the locals, an American missionary in Slovakia regularly
pointed out to me the rationale behind so many of his tricks that
he used to get his way: "It's easier to ask forgiveness than
to ask permission." Easier. Easier indeed. Easier for the person
kicking through the waters of life eager to find purpose in his
own life, so eager that he travels the world looking for someone,
anyone to help. Not easier for the person whose way of life he has
just trampled.

Which brings
us to the central point of the movie Avatar: Diplomacy is
better than war. Pretending that diplomacy and war are the only
two options is foolish. It's like McCain campaigning on the importance
of a troop surge in Iraq and Obama campaigning on an entirely different
and radical foreign policy — a troop surge in Afghanistan. Despite
the striking similarities of those two policies, in the autumn of
2008, it was never hard to find someone who would argue aggressively
for the necessity of one policy over the other.

Saying "diplomacy
is better than war" is the same sort of "better-of-two-evils"
kind of approach, that seems to be missing its modifier. A modifier
would turn the sentence into something like: "If the US were
destroyed tomorrow by a nuclear catastrophe and the remaining million
Americans had to leave the US immediately or risk their own survival
and not one single country in the world was opening its doors to
those Americans, and the solution is either a few hours of diplomacy
or a few years of war, then diplomacy is better than war."
In the movie Avatar, we are given a modifier that goes something
like this: "When someone else has a mineral that you really
want (called "unobtainium" in this case) and you really
want it from them even though it will destroy their way of life,
diplomacy is better than war."

The distinction
between these two arguments is the idea of want versus need. All
members of western culture are at some place along a continuum in
understanding the differences in those two terms. More contact with
reality brings more contact with the distinction. The distinction
says much about how one lives his life.

On the first
day of Econ 102 at the University of Illinois, Fred Gottheil taught
me, along with an auditorium of 1,199 other freshman "The basis
of economics is that supply is finite, but human demand is infinite."
To put it in the words of a pop culture icon: "You can't always
get what you want." That's reality.

In Avatar,
governments don't need to abide by reality; they just need to decide
if they will either seize property through diplomacy backed by the
threat of force or if they will simply seize property through force.
That's fine for a movie. What's problematic about the movie is that
those two options sound similar to the two popular possibilities
for US foreign policy as portrayed in US media. The existence of
other options seems so seldom considered. That view of reality can
be boiled down to the phrase "might makes right." It is
important to remember that such a view of dealing with others does
not often prove a long-term success and can be detrimental over
the long term when it can create resentment and if that resentment
is acted upon, eventually blowback.

Towards the
beginning of Avatar we hear some complaints that the exclusively
American-accented invaders have about the locals. The locals appreciate
their own way of life and reject the way of life presented by the
invaders: "We try to give them medicine, education, roads and
no, they like mud." We learn early in the movie that the reason
the locals need to be moved is because they live on a plot of land
with a great deal of mineral wealth: "Their village is on the
biggest unobtainium mine in 200 klicks." And that means "Either
the carrot or the stick, but they'll have to move in three months."
Three months is how long the good guys (the diplomats/spies) have
to get the locals moving before the bad guys (the military) come
get the locals.

And so begins
the conflict. The evil invading military commander, who answers
to the evil invading corporate executive will kill all the locals
if, in the next three months, the kind invading covertly disguised
spies do not infiltrate the locals and convince them to leave the
special place in which they've lived for time eternal. Yes, the
bad guys and good guys do have the same goals: chase the locals
from their land, turn the land over to a corporation, mine their
land. One side wants to do it with a show of force (G.W. Bush style
foreign policy) the other wants to smile at you as he coaxes you
from your land and eventually shows you force (Barrack Obama style
foreign policy).

We are supposed
to sit in the theater for three hours believing that there is enough
of a substantive difference between these two groups of invaders
to create three hours of interesting and believable conflict. Why
not? After all, we spent 24 months in a presidential election cycle
convincing ourselves that the proposed foreign policy plans had
substantive differences.

Just as with
the presidential cycle, the interests of the locals who stand in
our way are rarely mentioned with any substance. They are either
bystanders or obstacles to be moved by diplomacy or force. At no
place in the movie does there seem to be even the hint of a third
option. This demonstrates a disconnect with the reality of need
versus want and brings us back to the unmodified idea "diplomacy
is better than war."

Sure, I agree,
diplomacy is better than war. Even better is to leave other people
alone, not push them around when they've done nothing to you, let
them keep theirs with the understanding that they will let you keep
yours. It's a lesson taught to many of us early, that somehow increasingly
evades as we get older: "mind your own business."

At the base
of this concern of mine is a foreign policy establishment that argues
over whether diplomacy is better or war is better. In fact there
is a much broader range of creative options that are never allowed
into the discussion. And these arguments somehow make their way
as accepted truth to Hollywood, where the supposed engine of American
creative arts gets involved in the same embarrassingly oversimplified
discussion that happens within the DC beltway. It's an updated version
of America's manifest destiny of centuries past. Not only will we
claim the land west of us inhabited by the non-white, non-European
heathens, heck all the land everywhere is ours too. We'll just come
to claim it when the time is right.

I'm grateful
that Avatar's director made good use of the available 3D
technology, because it allowed me to overlook the ridiculous, "let's-do-whatever-we-want-in-the-whole-continent
hemisphere western world communist
world third world world
solar system galaxy-because-we-can" plot for
an entire three hours. Additionally, I'm glad that 3 Cups of
Tea had a good "the man who wouldn't take no for an answer
motivational story" along with neat cultural anecdotes about
Pakistan to make up for the hours I spent waiting for the "let's-do-whatever-we-want-in-the-whole-continent
hemisphere western world communist
world third world-because-we-can" plot to justify
itself.

Yes, Greg Mortenson
says he didn't take government money, he says he didn't cooperate
with the Pentagon, he says he isn't CIA, this is all great. I guess
it makes him better than all the people who do take that money to
do things to people they wouldn't talk about in polite company.
Avatar goes a step further than the book, because Avatar
delves into the sinister. In both of these pop cultural defenses
for an oversimplified foreign policy, what I so sorely missed was
the justification for why the action taken is okay. I missed the
conscience. Conscience – that thing that collective ways of looking
at the world seem to drain from individuals.

Allan
Stevo [send him mail]
is the author of Somewhere
between Bratislava and DC.
He is working on his next book. His website is www.allanstevo.com.

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