National Introspection and International Condescension

Nathan Lafontaine
J.D. Candidate 2015, UCI Law

Among United States citizens who have traveled broadly to countries rich, poor and in-between, two camps of thought have generally arisen. In the one camp there are those who, having considered the great variety of cultural norms and practices, the social networks necessitated by material realities, the nature of corruption and the levels of government and private business interactions that it affects, take away the considered opinion that there are benefits and drawbacks to residing in nearly every country on the planet. The other camp dismissingly, concludes, “I am so lucky to be an American,” adopting a viewpoint based on superficial observations.

In my youth, when my mother moved my sister and me to Ghana, I witnessed the realities of abject poverty—open sewage, electricity failures, bribery, water shortages, and even the remnants of government takeover. But I also saw the incredible beauty of a country not yet paved over with concrete, subject to the pressures of punctuality, or overburdened with laws rendering liable anyone who practiced an unlicensed activity entailing so much as a modicum of self-peril. A daily walk through any neighborhood was met with an array of smells so distinct that here in California I might only encounter them all were I one minute in the perfume section of a high-end boutique, the next minute in a neighborhood restaurant and the next minute on Los Angeles’s skid row. I might hear a group of rambunctious cawing parrots when I turn this corner, or, if the hour were late, see a giant bat tearing into the fruits of a palm tree. During such a walk, in other words, I might be met with more real-life stimuli than any twelve-dollar 3D movie could ever simulate.

Similarly, during my family’s years in Puerto Vallarta, there were such disparities in income, wealth and even health that, admittedly, my first few months were spent lamenting our immigration from a middle-class Pasadena neighborhood. In Puerto Vallarta, cobblestone streets were not amenable to skateboarding, the movie houses were largely loud, boisterous social affairs during weekend matinees, and since most house windows contained shutters rather than glass, all kinds of winged, and non-winged, creatures made their way into our homes daily. On hikes through Remanse, a small rural area between the town proper and the deep forest, people lived without electricity or running water, women laundered clothes in the river, and a legless man got around shuffling on two worn blocks of wood.

Over time, the acculturation process—and our mom’s lack of any sign of co-dependence—impressed on my sister and me the same forces of adaptability to which most young people eventually succumb. With this came enrollment in local schools, integration into the community and making friends. I learned to fish with nothing but a Coke can, a hundred yards of fishing line, a hook and shiny metal lure. In school, the kids teased me about my accent until it became my trademark, as endearing as the nickname I earned before I understood its meaning—“Chino,” in reference to my large afro. More importantly, at no time were my friends or I ever ticketed for swimming in the main river, enjoying the beach after dark, or diving off the main pier—even when this diving involved the dangerous aim of making it through an inflated inner tube 15 feet below, no matter the risk of poking one’s eye out on the valve stem.

Returning to the United States, it was cold reality to witness the amount of crime that pervaded neighborhoods where people at least had running water, free schooling, and received welfare benefits. Recalling the image of twelve or so Ghanaian children laughing as they all took turns bathing in a tin tub only feet from open sewage, I was numbed by the realization that such a large gap in material wealth had such little bearing on one’s state of mind or feelings of entitlement. My love of fishing died a quick death when I learned that, in this country, you often needed to pay for the privilege and were required to buy a valid fishing rod. The myriad smells and sounds that I once ran into walking down any street in Puerto Vallarta were replaced by the occasional aroma of a starch-filled lunch at the high school cafeteria, burning rubber on congested streets or the infrequent, humid aftermath of a heavy rain. The crushing weight of “cool” was the most oppressive thing of all. Being a nation of stereotypes, I had to learn quickly to hide the speech inflections I had acquired. So too, it was important to know the right dance moves, the acceptable combination of attire, and even the correct way to carry my textbooks if I was to be accepted as “normal.”

I make these distinctions not to disparage the benefits of living in the United States (although I find it telling that I should feel compelled to insert such a disclaimer). That man in Puerto Vallarta without legs might have benefited from a wheelchair or, today, high-tech prostheses to make his life easier. But this presupposes that he might have opted to live here and accept such conveniences, for there would be little benefit to them on a mountain path, a swinging bridge or a cobblestone street. The young classmate, who before class put in an equal amount of hours working to provide his part of the family income, might have preferred to attend school in a country that paid for his schooling and prohibited 13-year-olds from carrying large water bottles up steep streets. But given the realities of people of his income level moving to the United States, the trade-off would have likely involved living in a gang-infested neighborhood, where even spending a day at the community park came with the risk of being shot for no reason.

My point is that there are pluses and minuses to living in most every country on this planet, although it is arguable that some countries come with more overall benefits than others. Yet many United States citizens who have had the privilege of visiting and even living in other countries insist on empowering the myth that everything is better here in America. In the legal realm, this mindset has allowed our own freedoms to be encroached upon. In the political realm, it has fed the arrogant belief that to reflect on our shortcomings is to admit weakness.

In this country, if an extremely overweight person injures herself by sitting on something that breaks, manufacturers everywhere are put on alert to test to failure whatever they design for sitting on so that they can publish warnings. In this country, one teenager injures himself by jumping his dirt bike off a makeshift ramp without a bicycle seat attached, and now it is against the law to ride a bicycle without a bicycle seat. In this country, once-ubiquitous diving boards are removed from both public and private swimming pools across the nation because of the liability to which owners are subjected due to a user’s miscalculations. And in this country firework shows have devolved into little more than distant, tepid displays, far divorced from the awe-inspiring, overhead phenomena that used to evoke “Oohs!” and “Ahhs!” All these curtailments to our freedoms and enjoyments have been made in the name of safety and preventing liability. Yet our country is more dangerous and obsessed with violence than at any other time in its history.

On the political level, to this day a great many people are reticent to the idea of ever apologizing to people of other nations for anything we do. To do so has been labeled as unpatriotic. This is analogous to believing that engaging in self-reflection is equivalent to not loving oneself. When President Obama did just this, he was of course lambasted from the right for making us appear weak. But it would be a mistake to conclude that this sentiment is somehow tied to the conservative or nationalistic mindset. It is only a variation of a viewpoint that I find is shared to a large extent by the most progressive and left-leaning among us as well.

While most United States religious missionaries are of the decidedly Christian faith and subscribe to the conservative school of thought, the missionary mentality is pervasive among United States citizens of all faiths and non-faiths. It is especially perceptible in the worldwide traveler who retains the conviction that she has gained little from her interactions or residence in third-world countries other than a greater appreciation for being an American. This same person is usually willing to recount some small lesson she learned while living among other peoples, but generally with an air of sentimentalism or for the purpose of entertaining. The sentimentalism derives from her overemphasis on the irony of someone in her position actually caring for, say, a small African child with some birth defect. Her recounting is permeated with the condescension of someone who revels in her own benevolence while affecting the attitude that it was she who should be grateful.

Yet the almost exclusive emphasis on the value of emotional interactions begs the question what, if any, structural or social observations were made? By ignoring the lessons inherent in the cultural practices of people that in most cases have inhabited a given region much longer than the United States has been a nation, these travelers reinforce the concept that these people deserve our pity rather than our receptiveness. In short, they have little to offer us but an opportunity to feel better about ourselves for caring about them.

This is a type of cynicism that ironically disguises itself as progressive and international. It is analogous to the United States citizen who buys an African talking drum to join a drum circle full of other exotic drums from other countries, but never takes the time to learn how the artists of those respective countries actually play those drums. He seems to believe that the mere fact that he’s open-minded enough to recognize the value of a foreign drum means he does not really need to delve into the disciplinary aspects of using it; rather, his shallow display of homage to the culture that created the drum is sufficient to show that he respects that culture.

As long as we assume that other countries, specifically poorer ones, have little to offer us but evidence that we should be grateful to be Americans, we will remain blind to the solutions many of these countries offer for improving our own lives and become complacent about the rights we give away. Rather than seeing the benefits of life in other countries, we will read “lack” into everything they do not have.  Instead of perceiving the strengthening of community bonds among people who by necessity are forced to interact at the local well or faucet, we see only that these people lack reliable running water in their own homes. Rather than seeing the benefits to one’s health of walking to and from the local market daily to pick up fresh meat, fruit, vegetables, and milk, the missionary sees only that these people don’t have the luxury of buying bulk and storing a month’s supply of food in their home, closing the garage door and interacting with others as little as necessary. By eliminating all vestiges of “third-worldliness” we fool ourselves into thinking that our choices reduce to false binaries: progress or squalor, security or famine, health or danger. That spirit of risk-taking, creativity and diversity that has been the hallmark of our nation suffers when we hermetically seal ourselves off from the chance to be nourished by the knowledge and practices of other nations simply because they possess less material wealth.