BY: DAVID PATON
In 1899 Rudyard Kipling, the likeable and well-meaning British author of The Jungle Book, penned a poem he entitled The White Man’s Burden. It was a love poem to colonialism, painting the world as it was – a world where colonial governments exploited whole peoples and cultures for profit – as a place where white imperialists were picking up the developmental slack for people who apparently just couldn’t act in their own best interest. In today’s context, colonialism is viewed with the corrective lenses of history for what it is: completely fucked.
These same lenses, however, don’t provide perfect vision in our current world.
In our image culture, the colonizer is a stock Disney villain; he’s a sneering white man in safari gear toting an elephant gun that he’ll use to massacre savannah animals for the photo op and wall decoration. He’ll use a child as an ottoman and his servant has to sleep under the stairs. He’s a total dick, and everyone knows that about him and everything he represents. Most people agree that the large-scale murder, theft, and abuse brought about through the colonization of places where people hadn’t invented weapons on par with the firearm, is not something the West should be proud of.
But though these images of our history disgust us, this serves to produce new paradigms that have many spitting out poison only to bite into more barbs hidden within safe-looking food.
Indeed, colonialism has essentially mutated, slimmed down for easy use by people who speak in high schools, local newspapers and hand out pamphlets on the sidewalk. It has changed colour and is now used to decorate World Vision and Me to We ads. The colonialism of today has transformed into sentiment fuelled, Western-guided development and philanthropy.
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So the young people of the West are flying far to every spot in the developing world where there isn’t a school or a well and righting all the wrongs. On its face, the whole deal is quite nice. There is indeed a problem of development in Africa and the Global South as a whole. It is undeniable that children don’t have the opportunity to attend schools with even close to the amount of ease that children of this nation enjoy. As well, safe drinking water is out of reach to much of the population of the developing world. The masses of young adults and children leaving for these places do so to help rectify these problems and that really is nice of them.
Africans can build Africa, South Americans can build South America and so on and really that is the end of it for me. Fundamentally, the paradigm that most middle-to-upper class households come to easily accept as being the most helpful to the less fortunate, when used themselves, they find is flawed to its bones. What my own parents and community raised me on as being the “good way”, when viewed critically – and not cost/benefit critically mind you – is genuine glossy paternalism, a world view where whole populations become like Youtube puppies that can’t roll back onto their tummies, unfortunate creatures that no one with a heart would allow to be victimized by fate.
World Vision and its breed play the strings of your heart with crying children to encourage you, the bystander, in your privilege to want to wipe their dirty faces of tears, because no one else will. That is a truly unfortunate facet inherent to all this ho-humming about how to alleviate the human suffering in the places we don’t live; that if we don’t do it, who will? Stewing for a second and a half on that question provides an obvious answer: the people who live there.
But that isn’t the answer people seem to put faith in, and instead decide to brandish the fates of these places themselves.
In the hundreds of thousands of pictures that exist of privileged sons and daughters, there is a gratitude that fuels this faith on the smiling faces of children. The pictures draw you close. ‘Look’ they say, ‘these little guys are happy as shit with me.’ But this practice is a whole problem unto itself, the way foreign Western volunteers turn children into backdrops much like a far mountain range or a guy in a Goofy costume at Disneyland. But really it all comes back to Kipling, even the smiles.
Our part of the world has decided to carry the burdens of another part of the world on our back, and that “responsibility” exists in an unbroken continuity that stretches all the way back into the imperial courts of history. It was always us doing a solid for them, it was always that they couldn’t do it themselves; it was once that it was our right, now it is our privilege. We ask for nothing in return now – that is if your name isn’t ‘World Bank’ – and that is certainly an improvement, but the deal has never really stopped being paternalism.
So here we are, the world full of problems, and you and me wishing they were fixed. Never let it be said that one should not take an active roll to assist in the betterment of the world, but with many things one should always do so critically, because just wanting to do good has never been enough. Never also should it be said that we should do nothing for the people living in the Global South, but if anything the first thing we should do to help them, is to harmonize with the idea that we as a society, and as the West at large, are smothering peoples who we are almost afraid to let self-determinate.