We don’t need no stinken’ white knights

Sheila Lennon points to Jimmy Carter’s new weblog and specifically his current travels to Africa to help eradicate the Guinea worm. I’m afraid my reaction was less than positive. As I wrote in an email to Sheila:

I did a bit of reading in the weblog. I am not being deliberately contrary – truly I’m not– when I say this, but I thought that Carter’s recital of his good works that day was appalling. It was condescending, and the trip seemed more an effort to make rich white Americans feel good than to work with the people of that country to solve this problem, within the culture of the country.

Rows of children were lined up and instructed in what to do and then permitted to return home. Classes disrupted. Leaders lectured.

Listen to this:

” There was considerable consternation among all of us about the basic cause of their failure and a lot of embarrassment among officials when confronted with Ghana’s poor performance, but obvious dedication to their duties. After a long series of speeches, I was anointed as an honorary king, clothed in a robe and hat, given a long hair whisk as a symbol of authority, and urged to dance around the arena accompanied by a chorus of drums. After this performance we went to a nearby club for a brief lunch, detailed visual assessments of Ghana’s lack of progress, and another series of speeches.

It became increasingly obvious to me that a basic problem was that Ghana’s officials, from field workers to the president, considered the drilling of deep borehole wells as the primary solution to the Guinea worm problem. The common theme was “a deep well will eradicate our Guinea worms.” Although highly desirable and much needed in every village, this is not the way to eradicate the disease. Extremely expensive and time-consuming, with no assurance of finding potable water in many areas, the borehole dream had become a substitute for simple filtering of each drink and keeping people with emerging worms out of the ponds.

Most communities throughout the world have eradicated Guinea worm without drilling a well, and many people are still infected even when blessed with a good underground source of water. Just stopping by the local pond for one drink is all it takes. I explained this to them in very strong terms, had the ministers adopt the same sermon for our joint press conference, and we continued this explanation during our very pleasant visit with President Kufuor when we returned to Accra.”

Now imagine me as a visiting dignitary, a former leader from another country. First, I have been assured that the President will drop everything in order to meet with me later, at my convenience – after all, I am only in the country for a few days. Following, I head into a town – let’s say New York, shall we – and have the adults and children line up so that we may examine them, ask them questions. We also break into your country’s classrooms to tell your children how your fast food is killing them, forcing the children’s parents to show off their obesity, and then sternly lecturning the mayor and city council about how food nutrition labels aren’t working, and that the children must be prevented from eating at these places. They should go on more hikes, too.

And then, “… when all our meetings had been completed, we felt that a new day may have come to the US in its effort to eliminate unhealthy fast food. The president pledged full personal support to us and to the assembled news media, and there is little doubt that his ministers and key health workers will now join in a proper effort with a renewed sense of dedication.”

By the way, dig this jacket I picked up on 5th.

Tomorrow, I head to Canada.

What the world does not need right now, is more American Presidents swooping into their worlds uninvited and telling them how to live.

I know that Sheila’s probably disappointed in my reaction, and most (all?) my readers will be also. But there is a very real difference between a commitment to spend time with the people of Ghana, or any other country for that matter, and work through change, then to ride in on a white horse, line the people up for a photo op, and then move on smug in the assertion that you’ve shown the world a better way to live.

If Mr. Carter wanted to raise awareness of the Guinea worm because there was something we in the West could do to help, I could see his actions. But from what I can read, the solution to the problem is very simple and there’s nothing we can do to help. Rather it is the people of the country themselves that will have to make changes in their lifestyle to meet this problem and a former American President coming in for one day, lecturing the leaders on how to do things better, and then leaving with the almighty smug feeling that things will now be better because of his benevolent, but stern, sermon – isn’t going to make a bit of difference.

There is a very real hypocrisy by our actions such as these. We have become very good at telling other people how to live, a trait shared equally between conservatives and liberals in the United States. Frankly, in the Western world.

We demand change in others, but we can’t even effect humanitarian change in our own countries – how can we possibly think to impose our standards on others, when we are noticeably lacking in same ourselves?

More than not cleaning our own house before telling others to clean their’s, when we charge in like the heros of yore, we do so without careful regard for the consequences. The impact of our actions, whether good intentioned or not, can leave things worse then if we had done nothing at all. Our own experiences in Iraq demonstrates this.

Iraq is better, we say, because Saddam is no longer in control. The world is safer, we say, because Saddam is no longer in control of Iraq. But people are dying in Iraq, women are being raped all too frequently in Iraq, minorities are being oppressed in Iraq, and our country is even more afraid then it was two years ago. Exactly how can any of this be considered ‘better’?

I don’t know that I have enough understanding of what’s happening in Iraq to make the claim that it’s ‘better’. I don’t know that any of us outside of Iraq does. All I know is I’m seeing a country heading into bloody civil and religious war, started by one faction in this country making things ‘better’ by invading the country without UN support, and another faction in this country making things ‘better’ by getting us to pull out now.

But this is about Jimmy Carter and him trying to work to eradicate the Guinea Worm, not Iraq. No one can deny that eradicating the Guinea Worm would be a good thing. And no one can deny that Mr. Carter has the best intentions in the world, and that his approach most likely is the better one for the people of Ghana.

But frankly, the world doesn’t need any more knights in white armor, charging in to save the day.

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