I got a lot of responses from my last post on design imperialism, and you can read some of them on the comments section of that post. Really, a lot of the responses just proved my point that it’s often hard to get unemotional responses when you bring this topic up–and I’m not quite sure why. Sometimes, in defense of imperialism, you get some really weird writing, much like Bono’s op-eds in the New York Times, or Cameron’s Sinclair’s nonsensical responses to the article that kicked off this debate most recently on the web (Bruce Nussbaum’s “Is Humanitarian Design the New Imperialism?“). Nevertheless, the exchange allowed me to put in writing more concretely some issues that I only briefly sketched around in other posts. So, for the sake of posterity, these are the issues I’m concerned about in regards to foreign interventions:
- What steps/methods need to be taken to ensure that foreign intervention doesn’t end up creating dependency: political, economic, or intellectual? How do you avoid reiterating or reifying the power structures that created the need for aid in the first place?
- Does material/physical concerns outweigh mental/spiritual? As in, if you save a group from suffering from water-borne disease, but breed resentment and ill-will through “drive-by aid,” is one worth the cost to the other? How much?
- How much knowledge of another culture do you need before you can feel confident to enter their community and change things? Is the language enough? Two years of study? Does having attended an elite Western university prepare you to intervene on any community, anywhere? Why not the other way around?
- Across what kind of scale do you think it’s appropriate to act? Does one type of intervention work unfailingly for an entire continent? A country? A city? A community? A group of friends? One person?
- Across what spans of times can we frame the parameters for success or failure? If one generation benefits from an intervention, but the next one is harmed by it, is the project a success? If some group shows benefits within the year, but the next year no progress is shown, was the intervention a success? Or is the idea that no matter what harm you do immediately, generations that follow will benefit (the Mao-George W gambit)? What kind of time frame do we frame our actions by?
- Do certain fields of intervention have differing criteria for the above? As in, if you’re an architect, the scales and time frame by which we judge your work is such and such; however, if you are a doctor, then these are the parameters by which we will judge the effectiveness of your aid?
- How much resistance are you willing to fight in order to impose your ideas/designs/solutions/food/aid/medicine/politics? From where is resistance acceptable, since there is inevitably some from some place or another. How much resistance is the sign to cease and desist? Like in the spread of vaccines? Or in politics? i.e., “We must destroy the village in order to save the village.”
As much as it is possible to put down in words what concerns me about design imperialism or foreign interventions, the above is as best as I can frame it at this point. I think in all of the above points, there is a fundamental line that each of us has to draw, where we delineate how much harm we are willing to do to attempt to help in whatever way we can. This is in part because I believe that is in our fundamental human nature to destroy as much as we create, and life itself is an endless cycle of creation and destruction. You just have to decide how many eggs you are willing to break to create the omelet you want to make.
One of my favorite moments in the great Stanley Kubrick movie, Full Metal Jacket, is when the main character, a journalist for the Army, runs into a high ranking officer on one of his assignments. The office asks the journalist, why are you wearing a helmet that says ‘Born to Kill’ along with a peace symbol? And the protagonist tries to laugh off the question, but the officer or general won’t let it go. Why? he continues to shout over the loud din of surrounding battle site. Finally, the journalist gives in, and answers the commanding officer–he shouts: “WELL, I GUESS I WAS TRYING TO SAY SOMETHING ABOUT THE DUALITY OF MAN.” To which the officer just stands there, dumbfounded, and then says–get on our team–inside every gook is an American trying to get out.
It was a great moment in American cinema, and the spectrum of movies that were made about the Vietnam War continue to be marvels of moviemaking, for various reasons that might have a lot to do with the way movie studios were structured at that time. However, such sentiment is more common in the Japanese movies that I’ve seen. In many Japanese movies, there doesn’t exist this idea of a binary good versus evil that probably is most archetypically found in examples by Disney. A lot of Japanese movies start out with a crisis, like any traditional narrative would, but as the movie unwinds, we find that the agent causing the strife to begin with isn’t something with malicious or malevolent intent, as we would in any standard American film. Instead, the cause of the suffering in many Japanese movie is another person who is trying to do GOOD. It’s just that that one idea of how to do good is causing hurt to another way of life. It’s a more sophisticated and mature understanding of human nature, and it’s something that gets lost when people try to discuss issues such as ‘imperialism.’ Often, people on one side or the other of that issue caricature the other sides’ argument, trying to box the opposing viewpoint into some sort of absolutist position: you are good if you believe this; you are bad if you believe that.
This is why I never really understood giving George W. Bush a hard time. I don’t mean to defend him, and in my personal opinion, I believe he caused incredible amounts of harm and suffering. But I always felt he sincerely was trying to help people. A lot of people disagreed, and for good reason. But he staked his ground, and acted upon it. The issue is what conclusions he came to in regards to the issues I listed above. For example, in issue number 5 that I brought up above, it’s very easy to say that for George W. Bush, he thought the time frame in which he would be judged is over many generations. History will vindicate him, he often said, by which he meant that anywhere from 10-200 years in the future we will not look at him so harshly. So it was fine if he sent thousands of people to die immediately, invaded countries and created animosity, provoked enemies and created huge swaths of political instability–FOR NOW. He knew the sacrifices he would be making, or so I believe. He sat in front of families of soldiers who were maimed and killed. He simply thought it would be worth it–good would come out of his actions–AT SOME POINT IN THE FUTURE. I find that conclusion dangerous. But some people believe in it. But I felt it was immature to simply call him evil. That isn’t understanding anything, any more than when he called Iran or North Korea evil. This is what I mean when I think it’s important to think about the issues I listed above, and to discuss them without rage or caricaturing the other side. What time frame is acceptable for us to judge our interventions?
But actually, I’m not sure that Bush understood the magnitude of the sacrifices he made other people go through for his idea of doing good–and that was a critique that was often leveled at him, fairly, I believe. In a similar, but very personal way, I’m not sure that most people understand the magnitude of cultural and intellectual oppression that can occur when one country, with whatever good intentions, enters another and gives aid. This is the resentment from locals that Bruce Nussbaum pointed out whenever there was some presentation about a fancy new aid intervention being bestowed upon some community. The underlying message, though delivered with a smile and good intentions, is pure and simple, from one culture to another: you need our help. You can’t do this on your own, and it’s your fault. We thought of this–you didn’t. We’re better than you.
I’ve often felt this because I actually feel it is a defining national psychological trait of the Vietnamese people. As a country that has been colonized, or attempted to be, by well meaning Western powers for most of the 20th century, subtle reminders of our cultural inferiority are there at every building in the center of town built in the French colonial style, or in the numbers of children still born with birth defects due to Agent Orange, or quite frankly, in the numbers of Westerners coming in and handing out candy and food and discarded clothing as some well-meaning but ultimately humiliating gesture. I worked as a medical assistant in an orphanage in the center of Ho Chi Minh City for one summer. There was a storage room full of candy from such foreign visitors. More than they could give away.
The Vietnamese-American novelist Andrew X Pham wrote about this cultural feeling of inferiority a bit in his wonderful memoir, Catfish and Mandala. And I think you sense it a bit in sensitive novels like Graham Greene’s The Quiet American. The main means of transportation in Vietnam are these mopeds: small engine motorcycles that cost about $2000 for a nice Japanese model. The Honda Dream model was the most desired of the road in Ho Chi Minh City (they considered Vespas too unreliable). Since the streets were literally bursting at the seams with these foreign mopeds, and this sort of transport was sort of unique to Vietnam (these Japenese models aren’t used in Japan), I naturally wondered if there wasn’t a local manufacturer. When I asked the local people why there was no Vietnamese producer of mopeds, the unified response was, “There’s no way–we’re not as smart as other countries that can produce cars and such.” This sentiment, I feel, is in part due to the legacy of colonialism. This is why I’m concerned when somebody with little knowledge of another culture feels entitled to travel thousands of miles to give aid–be it in the form of design, medicine, or other forms to a community they have little understanding of. The issue is time, scale, and power (see the list above)–strangely, very architectural concerns. I assume the intentions are good. I just feel the results can often be bad–in ways that can be too subtle to measure, but are ultimately devastatingly debilitating.