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


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.

Three Cups of Tea: One... Greg Mortenson, David ... Best Price: $0.01 Buy New $3.00 (as of 09:20 EST - Details)

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.