Sunday, September 25, 2011

Bieganski in Peace Corps, and in the Heart of Darkness

Walt Kelly's "Pogo" and Joseph Conrad's "Heart of Darkness" sent the same message:
"We have met the enemy and he is us." 
A journey into the Heart of Darkness -- toward "Others," or into our own souls?
Jozef Korzeniowski, aka Joseph Conrad. You can see the wisdom and compassion in his face. 

I learned last week that a new anthology of writing about the Peace Corps is soon to appear. A contributor to the anthology posted the following announcement: that he would be publishing an essay in that Peace Corps anthology "about Antisemitism in Poland."

***

Before I began my own Peace Corps service, PCDC – Peace Corps Washington – advised me to read "Heart of Darkness."

I read "Heart of Darkness" in the first apartment I moved into after I left my parents' home. The most remarkable landmark I could see from the window of my bedroom was the World Trade Center. The landmark was all too appropriate to the content of the book, it would later turn out.

"Heart of Darkness" was one of those books I read in that apartment in one sitting. The other was Albert Camus' "The Plague." Both books would stay with me for the rest of my life.

Luckily I also read Annie Dillard's "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" there, an almost hallucinogenically life-affirming book.

But Camus' "The Plague" also inspired and exhilarated me – perhaps an odd reaction to a book about bubonic plague.

"Heart of Darkness" terrified me. Really. I was a tough kid. I had worked as a nurse's aid for many years by that point; I was used to debriding pressure ulcers and preparing corpses for their last journey. I had lived on the streets and known what it is to have someone press the point of a knife into my back and to calculate what move I'd make next that would not result in the knifepoint driving in deeper. But something about "Heart of Darkness" really rattled my soul.

"Heart of Darkness" tells the story of Marlow, a British man traveling up the Congo River in Africa during the days of Belgian colonization. Marlow keeps hearing about a man named Kurtz, a "universal genius," who lives in the bush. The African "savages" and "natives" look upon Kurtz as a God. "He came to them with thunder and lightning." Kurtz commands the marvels of modern technology. The Africans are impressed by that. Marlow meets Kurtz. Kurtz is dying. His final words are "The horror, the horror."

It turns out that Kurtz was not a universal genius. Kurtz was a really bad guy who did really bad things. He did these bad things when he was living alone in the African bush. He felt entitled to do bad things. He was superior, the Africans inferior.

I didn't articulate it at the time, but I think this is why this book so troubled me: "Heart of Darkness" closed off any escape route from evil.

See, we all think we are better. We all think we are qualified to work for "The International Society for the Suppression of Savage Customs." There was never an actual society for the suppression of savage customs – Conrad made up the title. Conrad is criticizing European colonizers in Africa who said that they were there to enlighten the savages, but who were really there to exploit them and their natural resources.

"Heart of Darkness" tells us that we are not what we imagine ourselves to be. We are not better. We are not superior.

"Heart of Darkness" also tells us that evil is not what we think it is. It is not out there, locatable outside ourselves, ready to be suppressed.

We are part of the problem. We are not qualified to suppress savage customs. "The horror, the horror," is not out there – it's not in the bush (exclusively). It is not located in an "Other," the black African – at least not exclusively. "We have met the enemy and he is us." The horror is inside of our own souls. It's our arrogance, our greed, our sadism. Until we confront "the horror, the horror" in our own societies, we only exacerbate "the horror the horror" in those societies we colonize and exploit.

Sadly, idealism is often the very quality that morphs into "the horror, the horror." Idealism in practice confronts the realities of the real world: savages who don't want to be "saved." Systems that don't want to change. Primarily, the idealist's own arrogance and ego.

These real-world complexities can warp an idealist. An idealist so warped can become a hater without peer.

Not always. There is a way idealists can avoid becoming warped. They can surrender to a Higher Power – for me, that Higher Power is the loving, forgiving and just, Judeo-Christian God. "I won't save the world today, and I won't become world famous by doing so. I'll just do what God asks, and allows me, to do, and have faith for the rest." That kind of reality-tempered idealism, that kind of surrender to that kind of God, works wonders. Mother Teresa was that kind of humble, God-surrendered idealist. She didn't need to save the world. She needed to wash one dying leper. Mother Teresa said, "We can do no great things. Only small things with great love." Those are the words of a humble idealist.

Narcissistic, arrogant idealism creates monsters like Kurtz, like the nineteen hijackers, who did, of course surrender to their idea of God – and their idea of God is one that warps.

***

I was involved with Peace Corps, both overseas and in the US, for several years. I served twice, once in Africa and once in Asia. On PC's behalf, I also trained volunteers. I published in a few Peace Corps publications, and participated in conferences. I visited with volunteers in countries other than those in which I served. I kept in touch with Peace Corps and my Peace Corps buddies for years afterward, up to today, visiting former vols in several US states. On behalf of volunteers, I prepared a report about PC operations and delivered that to PCDC, on PCDC's dime.

I lived a movie. I met famous people. I traveled to exotic locales. I saw wild rhinos and trekked so close to Mount Everest I was certain, if only I were a better shot, I could hit it with a rock. I learned libraries full of lessons. My fellow volunteers were exciting, funny, smart, colorful, creative, gifted people. Really, glow-in-the-dark special.

Peace Corps was the most flawed institution I've ever been a part of, and that's saying a lot, because I've also been part of American academia and the Roman Catholic Church.

I've soundly criticized academia on this blog. And I acknowledge that the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis is a serious problem that the church has yet to adequately address. And, yes, proportionate to its size, Peace Corps is even more flawed.

Most PCVs I had contact with, in several countries where PCVs serve, didn't actually do what their job descriptions said that they did. Teachers, more often than not, didn't teach. Fish farmers didn't raise fish. Community organizers didn't organize communities.

We were sent to dysfunctional societies, where, more often than not, schools don't run, there are no supplies, and entrenched power relations mitigate against any change that will benefit those who most need change: women, children, low status people. And Peace Corps had zero interest in addressing any root causes – in fact, if we brought up root causes, like the caste system or entrenched misogyny, we were accused of being cultural imperialists. Who's to say that gouging out little girls' clitorises is a bad thing? So, basically, we were sent out on fools' errands.

What did we do, if we were not teaching, growing food for hungry communities, scattering the blessings of representational democracy?

What do you think we did? Young, single, away from home for the first time since we graduated college, pockets full of monopoly money that could buy us anything in-country and nothing any place else, no supervision, and thrust into absurd, nihilistic scenarios?

We partied, man, we partied.

Nobody parties like Peace Corps volunteers. Rock stars? Don't waste my time. The residents of Sodom and Gomorrah envied us.

I could tell you stories …

The drugs, the sex, the dancing, the flamboyant outrageousness of it all. Uppers. Downers. Narcotics. Hash. Morphine. Moonshine, the dancing that went on for days, the public displays of S&M…

I'll stop there.

I knew one group of volunteers, nicknamed "The Fish," who never, in their entire service, ever did any work. They wanted to. They couldn't. The official bureaucracy never supplied them with even the most rudimentary tools of their trade. They wondered around a Third World country for two and a half years, traveling from party to party.

I'm not here to criticize that. If you want to criticize that use of taxpayer dollars, feel free, but that's not why I'm writing this blog post.

There was another serious problem with the utter disconnect between how Peace Corps sells itself and what Peace Corps really is.

Imagine being an American girl, weighing a bit over one hundred pounds, no muscles – your life has been servants and Ivy League schools – why would you need muscles? You're alone in a remote African village. Imagine being raped, at night, by a stranger who breaks into your isolated dwelling, where you have no electricity, no running water, no way of contacting anyone. Where your nearest neighbor is out of range of your scream. That's bad enough, no?

Then imagine being told by PCDC that you can't talk about that to anyone, can't get any services, and, if you make any trouble, you will face trouble, like, for example, when it comes time to claim your "readjustment allowance."

That happened to a woman I knew. Google "Peace Corps" and "rape." Here's a recent excerpt from the New York Times:

"Jess Smochek arrived in Bangladesh in 2004 as a 23-year-old Peace Corps volunteer with dreams of teaching English and 'helping the world.' She left six weeks later a rape victim after being brutalized in an alley by a knife-wielding gang. When she returned to the United States, the reception she received from Peace Corps officials was as devastating, she said, as the rape itself."

My most disturbing Peace Corps tale is actually really hard for me to tell. I've never told it in public before. It involves someone else, someone else's life, so I'll be vague with details.

One day I was going for a walk. It was a nice, sunny day, and I had some free time. I was in a Third World village.

A local kid approached me. "Mees, Mees" – her pronunciation of "Miss" – "Mees, your friend is over there!" the kid pointed to a hospital set up by, iirc, Canadians. There were just a couple of Canadians on staff.

I had no idea what the kid was talking about. For some reason, I followed the kid. I could not believe what I saw.

One of my fellow PCVs was lying, suspended, on a piece of plastic, with a hole in the bottom so that waste could pour through. Her body was the color of camo gear. Her kidneys had shut down. She was clearly dying, alone, in horrible pain.

I sprang to action. I went to the one telephone I knew of in this village, in the post office. It took me hours of begging and pleading and arguing to get a call through. I was lectured on how dying of dysentery was not such a big deal; local people died of dysentery every day. I wouldn't leave. Hours, and hours I argued: get the call through. Get the call through.

Peace Corps tells vols that it will send an evacuation helicopter if you need it in a medical emergency. I finally got the call through. They refused to send a helicopter. They said that *the next day* they would send *a jeep.*

A jeep. For a twelve-hour ride over bumpy, dangerous, unpaved roads. For a dying young lady in excruciating pain.

I wondered how much morphine they'd have to use on her to make the ride possible. I wonder how they found a vein that could support the IV in her drained, skeletal body.

I received a post card from that young lady some months later. She told me she was learning to walk again.

I could tell you more such stories.

PCVs who lost it, who needed to be "psycho-vacced," but were left in their village to slowly lose their marbles, one by one. Or lost their intestines. Or their lives.

But that's not what I wrote this blog to focus on.

What I want to focus on is this: the "Heart of Darkness" I encountered in Peace Corps.

I'm not talking about individual "hearts of darkness;" I'm not talking about one or two bad apples – any more than the Catholic Church sex abuse crisis is about one or two bad apples. I'm not talking about something separate from the nature, the essence of Peace Corps.

I'm talking about a very big, unaddressed problem with the essence of Peace Corps itself. Something so corrupting that, at this point, I think it would be a really good thing if Peace Corps were put on hiatus.

I'm talking about the soul, not of this or that volunteer, but of Peace Corps itself.

A big chunk of Peace Corps' raison d'etre, its reason for being, its soul, its day-to-day functioning, has nothing to do with "saving the world" in the best sense of that phrase.

A big chunk – maybe the most significant chunk – of Peace Corps' raison d'etre, its soul, its day-to-day functioning, is a modern, prettied up, multicultural version of "white man's burden," of "the horror, the horror." The Peace Corps I knew overseas, in several countries, and the Peace Corps I met face-to-face and had sit down talks with in the US, exists so that American arrogance can put privileged Americans in exotic situations so that they can feel superior and have colorful adventures, at the American taxpayers', and local citizens', expense – and then parlay those adventures into jobs where their arrogant cluelessness and multi-culti pretense will continue to be rewarded.

The other Peace Corps may exist, too. The idealism, the beauty, the small school built in a remote locale, the water tap in a village that never had one, the bridge, the paved road. I met one vol, Judy, who did build a water tap in a remote village that had never had one before. I met one guy, Scott, who did build a bridge.

But the "heart of darkness" Peace Corps is the bigger part of Peace Corps that I encountered.

Just a few anecdotes:

I and all other PCVs was issued a Peace Corps Volunteer's health care manual.

It wasn't enough that I followed its hygiene guidelines. I was encouraged to worship – literally to worship – the health care manual's author. He was a MacArthur "Genius Grant" winner. Our Peace Corps trainer called this man "a living saint."

I was not willing to worship a human being. Too, something about the health care manual hit me wrong. I was reprimanded for not being part of the group, not being idealistic enough, for being churlish.

In 1993, the very Peace Corps trainer, and later country director, who had insisted that I worship this health care manual's author went public with allegations that the health care manuals' author, the living saint, the MacArthur genius grant award winner, had used his status in Third World villages to have sex with boys between the ages of 12 and 16.

Another anecdote.

In PC I knew a girl – I really can't call her a woman – who came from a very privileged American family. Her ancestors had arrived, not on the Mayflower, but on a subsequent ship carrying religious dissidents from England. They were among a group who made great fortunes over two hundred years before. Her life as a member of a privileged elite was still floating on that, over two centuries later. She hired an African man to clean her house, so that she could, as she described in juicy, enthusiastic detail to me, gaze at his very black body and the articulated muscles underneath, as he, in minimal clothing (this was a very hot country) labored for her in his domestic, gender-transgressing, maid-like chores.

One man I knew told me that he "had to" sleep with an African prostitute – a desperate, impoverished village woman who did agricultural labor during the day – he paid her a piece of cloth – because "If I went back to New York, and told the guys there that I had not banged a black woman, they'd never let me live it down."

I knew more than one male PCV who left their own babies behind in the village, along with their African "wives." No vows. Just sex. And clean laundry.

This was so common there were jokes about it. A sample:

A Peace Corps volunteer is about to leave. The Village Elder calls him in. "You are leaving behind a half-white child. You need to address this matter."

The Peace Corps volunteer panics. Busted! He looks out the window and sees a flock of sheep. Amidst all that white wool, there is one black lamb. Aha, he thinks. He turns to the Village Elder, and points out the black lamb.

"If you don't tell anyone about me, I won't tell anyone about you."

The joke implies, of course, that the Village Elder has sex with sheep – and is so low he can reproduce with them. There was another famous Peace Corps story in circulation about an African woman who turned herself into a pig. This story was widely believed to be true.

There was this joke: Africans are so stupid that, during the dry season, they don't think that the river shrinks, they think that the land rises.

In Asia, I heard this one: The Neutron bomb is perfect for India. Save all the glorious architecture; get rid of the annoying Indians.

Telling these jokes was okay. Our sense of entitlement made it okay. We were heroic idealists, better than everyone else. Especially we were superior to those hopeless cases we came to save, who resisted our salvation.

The most celebrated PCV I knew, the kind who gets newspaper write-ups both in America and overseas, was a deathly cynical fulltime party animal and druggie. He knew how to milk the publicity machine just enough, yank its crank and tweak it just enough with photo-ops and free goodies brought to the village, to make a name for himself, a name he traded in for big cash prizes – a glam job with international development when his term was over.

The Peace Corps director in one country I visited was notorious among Peace Corps volunteers for feeling up every female volunteer he could get his hands on, often while his wife was at the same party. He went on to be the director of a major mulit-culti institution in Vermont.

I could go on. But you don't really need me to – just read the "Decameron" and you'll get the general idea.

Why does any of this matter? I don't know that it does. I've sat on these memories for years, never feeling any need to bring them up. If people want to believe the lies Peace Corps peddles about itself, they have my sympathy. If Peace Corps never wants to wake up to itself, there's nothing I can do about that.

The decadent partying of Peace Corps was supported by the same foundation that supported the Peace Corps' shameful treatment of rape victims. Both were supported by Peace Corps' heart of darkness.

We are idealists.

We are saving the world.

We are sacrificing a great deal to do that – we left our comfortable homes and are now relieving ourselves of parasite-riddled waste in filthy outhouses.

Because we are so idealistic, so self sacrificing, we are special. We are deserving. We are privileged. We are better than you.

Any criticism of what we do must be demonized. Thus the shameful treatment of rape victims. They were seen as casting dispersions on Peace Corps.

Me? I rented a room in this heart of darkness. I partied. I was arrogant.

What changed? I grew up. I realized that Peace Corps was lying. I saw the lies in front of my eyes.

In PCDC, in a government office, staffed by US taxpayer-funded employees, on Peace Corps' dime, I delivered a detailed report I had written with the cooperation of several volunteers in a country so dangerous the ambassador and the Marines had been evacuated – but not the PCVs. The report detailed rapes, kidnappings for ransom, stabbings, and fatal bombings. It detailed that all this danger was being risked for very little gain – teachers couldn't teach. Schools didn't run. Engineers' projects were sabotaged by locals. One community organizer had retired from the field and was slowly going mad in a hut.

The country director looked me right in the eye with a huge dollop of contempt. How dare I criticize Peace Corps? How dare I disparage its idealistic, self-sacrificing mission to save the world? I was obviously not an idealist. I could never understand. "Peace Corps will have every man, woman, and child in that village living like an American within twenty years."

Yes, those are the exact words. I did not change one syllable. Some things you never forget.

In addition to seeing what Peace Corps was doing wrong, I saw what others were doing right, including Mother Teresa's Sisters of Charity, with whom I volunteered. Using cold water from an outdoor, communal pump, I hand washed lice out of the clothing of homeless, dying Hindus. The result? Cleaner clothes, and fewer lice, for homeless, dying Hindus. "We can do no great things, only small things with great love."

I met Sir Edmund Hillary, who impressed me as a truly great man. He could party, too. Though in his sixties, and undertaking a strenuous trek, he drank me under the table.

His Himalayan Trust struck me as doing something that Peace Corps was not doing: real work. I met Jesuits, who were educating Third World kids, and Mennonites and other Christian missionaries. Unlike Peace Corps, they did not send lone, naïve, kids into impossible situations. They sent seasoned professionals, with full support, into hospitals and schools for real work.

***

What's all this got to do with Bieganski, the brute Polak stereotype, you may ask?

This.

In Kurtz's day, you felt superior if you were a British, Victorian gentleman. In fact, E. B. Tylor, the father of anthropology, placed that very creature on the top of his evolutionary ladder.

Elites have thrown out E. B. Tylor's ladder.

Elites still feel superior.

And that sense of entitlement, of superiority, prevents them from taking a good, hard look at themselves, and their own flaws.

Bieganski and other contemptuous stereotypes facilitate that process. We don't need to confront our own racism, our own anti-Semitism, elites think. We've already fixed that problem. You can find people making statements like that in Chapter Two of "Bieganski." You can find a published author and successful scholar claiming that Americans have never killed Jews as Poles have. Have never been prejudiced against Jews as Poles have. Americans are better. Poles are worse. The heart of darkness is always out there. Not in here.

People who like resorting to the Bieganski stereotype always defend themselves thus: "I believe we need to talk openly about Polish anti-Semitism!"

Well, of course we do. Talking openly about Polish anti-Semitism is not the problem.

Rather, what is the problem is that people who have not come to terms with the bigotries and injustices of their own group using Bieganski as a way to continue to refuse to confront, and address, their own failings.

That's what I fear an essay about Polish anti-Semitism in a Peace Corps anthology might just contribute to, in however small a way. That feeling that Peace Corps volunteers and the wider Peace Corps community are a superior, entitled species who need never take stock, not of isolated incidents of personal failure, but of endemic institutional rot.

I could be wrong. I have not read the essay, or the anthology. If this essay were to mention Polish anti-Semitism in the context of the rampant elitism, exploitation, and a refusal to take a look at one's own failings that are root and branch of Peace Corps, that would be a good thing.



8 comments:

  1. "The horror" is ubiquitous. Nice expose. Imagine my surprise. The usual f-ups.

    Nemo

    ReplyDelete
  2. Does this mean you won't be purchasing the Peace Corps anthology that addresses Polish antisemitism?

    ReplyDelete
  3. I really should read more of your posts. Every time I read one, you open my eyes to something in the world I was completely ignorant to, and you come off as an even cooler person each time. I was actually considering the Peace Corp, maybe I still will, who knows. And I recently read "Fecundity" one of the chapters from Tinker Creek for my nature writing class. She is sooo good!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I might read that part, but not buy it, and consider purchasing it only if it were balanced and exceptional. Statistically, that is unlikely. And if one article has worms, likely all the apples in the basket do. These things are not random events. Probably it will be available in multiple public libraries (check that on WorldCat). So I guess in a way I will be purchasing it, but coercively.

    Nemo

    ReplyDelete
  5. Dominic, thank you. I am sure you can find people who've had a great time in Peace Corps and who have nothing but good feelings about it.

    And, yes, Dillard IS amazing.

    Nemo, I won't read the essay. After the author announced his publication on a facebook page dedicated to Polish American writers, I asked him why he would publish an essay about Polish Antisemitism in an anthology dedicated to an institution that is itself so flawed, so needful of self examination.

    His response was to insult me and to insult the three other Polish American writers who posted messages similar to mine.

    He didn't respond to the substance of our posts -- he just called us names.

    That does not increase my confidence in this author.

    I sent him a private post inviting him to comment on this blog post, and he did not respond.

    You'll note that I don't mention his name, or his essay's name, or the name of the anthology. I do that because I'm not interested in the personalities or the politics.

    I'm interested in the principle -- is it ethical for a Peace Corps publication to call Poles on their problems, when PC itself is so flawed and so desperately in need of self examination, including examination of its self image as holier than thou.

    ReplyDelete
  6. You wrote a great piece Dr. Goska.

    Agree with your above, and this supports my stance that communicating directly with these types is a usually a waste of one's time and life.

    I mean, if it's a book about the Peace Corps, why not write about air pollution in Pittsburgh too? Something pertinent to the topic? Or is this sneaking in the agitprop at every opportunity?

    The academic/media complex are just full of these Kurtzes. Besides, even if some fraction of Poles are antiSemitic, they have other parts of their personalities which render them as complete humans, and not any less worthy than all the other flawed humans on the planet. It's not like this Kultur or its pushers examine their own Slavophobia much.

    As with most really good propaganda that people have been working on for a long time, Slavophobia is such a consistent part of the Kultur that it looks normal, and is affirmed from a variety of directions/institutions, etc., a consistent confirmation.

    And of course, this is what the Admetus Complex is all about -- the incredible presumption that single issues related to themselves or their darlings rightfully trump all of other people's lives.

    On another note, you might enjoy reading and writing on the book How We Survived Communism, and Even Laughed, by Slavenka Drakulic.

    Nemo

    ReplyDelete
  7. I note that Phi Beta Kappa allows members to submit books for possible review in their Key Reporter, in case that might help get Bieganski exposure.

    Nemo

    ReplyDelete

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