Just to let you all who didn't realize that my post on Fast and Furious was meant as a bit of a joke....the "plot" is actually ongoing in our real world, along the Arizona-Mexico border and in Washington, DC. Check out the links. It was simply an alternative presentation of the news, or maybe reality has truly become an alternative presentation of TV and movie thrillers.
Speaking of which...novel-reading can provide an excellent introduction to realities which few of us experience. As a compulsive reader, I snatch at anything that offers intellectual support for my habit. One of my favorite bits of support came from a visiting professor of family therapy at George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Washington University, where I received my MSW. Arthur Mandelbaum, the visiting professor from the Menninger Clinic, gave one of the best classes I have ever had anywhere. And he said, read novels, read novels, read novels. He wasn't referring to trash, but to novels,(not necesssarily classics: good mysteries and hard-boiled detective stories count), which opened up private worlds which we could never know any other way. Great TV series can do this as, as anyone who was sucked into the vortex of The Wire knows.
In the western world, let's say the educated upper reaches of the western world, and let's say particularly in the United States (I really don't know much about European thought) there has been a tendancy to replace experiences which might deepen empathy for other humans (and animals and plants, I could easily add: for the planet, in fact) with scientific approaches. Rather than enhancing our knowledge and wisdom, the culture has chosen to use these dare I say so-called scientific approaches to narrow them.
Three areas which particularly interest me in this regard are psychology/mental health, medical care in general and cross-cultural, cross-social strata awareness especially when national policy is seriously affected. Obviously these are enormous areas and I am only writing a blog.
So here I just want to mention once again, perhaps from a slightly different perspective, the fact that US foreign policy not just towards Mexico is made by very smart, very ignorant people and that it doesn't have to be that way AND then to recommend some books.
This is the fiftieth anniversary of the US Peace Corps. Jim and I were early members. Jim entered a program which took him to Ethiopia 45 years ago, I entered one for Uganda 43 years ago. We each underwent three month training programs before our two-year terms began. As I've said before, it changed us deeply and forever and our experiences are probably why we have chosen to live where we live in Mexico.
Charles Kenny, a senior fellow at the Center for Global Development, has written a proposal for reforming the Peace Corps, updating it, if you will. As he says, things have changed over fifty years. He accepts the original mission and goals:
To promote world peace and friendship and
1. To help the people of interested countries in meeting their needs for well-trained men and women;
2. To help promote a better understanding of Americans on the part of people served; and
3. To help promote a better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
Here I'd just like to talk about the third goal, the promotion of better understanding of other peoples on the part of Americans.
In many ways, those of us who have returned have done a lot in small and big ways to act on our own increased understanding of the lives of the people we lived among for two years. But still I think we are a vast underutilized resource perhaps because we often don't fit standard models of "experts" and we may not be in public life.
As Kenny points out, although there are now vastly more opportunities in a vastly more interconnected world for people to see and serve poor countries, the Peace Corps remains one of the rare organizations in which volunteers learn another language and stay in another country for an extended period of time. And they stay in areas which are where ordinary people, often very poor, live. He says the training teaches mostly language. When we had training, we also learned the history of our host countries and were placed as student teachers in non-middle class schools and non-middle class living situations to test our ability to adapt and accept. We had lectures by people from Uganda on cultural issues as well.
Of course the training is never the real thing. And, looking back, the real thing was incredible. We were privileged to have been permitted so far into a foreign culture: almost like reading a novel.
To my knowledge, no groups of us Uganda volunteers were ever asked as a group to talk to people in the US government about how local Ugandan culture should affect our government's foreign policy efforts. Why should this matter? Foreign policy and aid policy is often made by people who have no clear idea of how most people live in a region or country. Nor do most Americans. I think of images of India and Brazil in the US press. Because India and Brazil are presented as "economic miracles", few in the US realize that by far, most people in those countries do not come close to a US middle class existence. It's also important to understand, and few do, that maybe they don't want to. Which doesn't mean we should just drop out of the world. We need perhaps an understanding of urban Indians and rural Brazilians that would help people charged with policy to understand the difference between statistical measures of income growth and real life.
I have mentioned too many times the lack of any deep knowledge of Mexico on the part of those who make policy towards Mexico, or even a sense of humility in the face of a lack of knowledge. We need to reframe how we see the world. National governments are societies onto themselves, and small ones at that. They are made up of human beings just like the rest of us, and it is hard for the members to conceptualize the fact that their policies can truly damage the lives of millions of people -- and that economic and aid policies are among those that cause damage. It's the same (or worse) with corporations. The vast number of people in the world are mere abstractions to the leaders. And among corporate leaders and government leaders are many who seem to have lost their souls.
If leaders who so profoundly affect the lives of those they've never met and have little or no knowledge of (see Hillary Clinton in Mexico) don't have time to come and maybe visit for a few weeks in ordinary neighborhoods, returned Peace Corps volunteers are a tremendous asset, especially since leaders certainly don't speak most of the languages of the people of the world. (And there is now Peace Corps in Mexico, surprise surprise. I had no idea.) Returned volunteers could act as bridges, in a manner of speaking, presenting not statistics, but stories of real people -- as well as reminders that even two years or ten don't really make one privy to all the workings of another culture. Then maybe leaders wouldn't be misled into thinking that, for instance, US troops will be welcomed with open arms or that Mexico is a nation permeated with violence. Or that people with kind hearts and advanced degrees can know what's best for people who live in mountain villages.
Okay. Books. It's not that you have to read novels of the places you are studying or working in necessarily (though this is a good idea), it´s that by reading about other places (Other Voices, Other Rooms, if you will*) you can't help but open your soul to the varieties of human experience.
There's a telenovela on now based on the novel Queen of the South (Reina del sur) by the Spanish author, Arturo Pérez-Reverte. Pérez-Reverte is a Spanish author, but this book is about a Mexican woman who becomes a powerful narcoboss in Mexico. It isn't a nice book, but it offers a what shall I say, a less abstract view of narcodealers, one in which you may find yourself having some sneaking sympathy for the characters.
Also half about Mexico but by a non-Mexican: Barbara Kingsolver's The Lacuna.
To come to understand that though not on as obvious a scale, drug stuff goes on in the US and that corruption and so forth does, too, and again is in the hands of people you might have some sneaking sympathy for, I highly recommend the books of George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane, Walter Mosely and on and on.
To escape to Scandinavia and its predictably gloomy but extremely interesting characters, try Jo Nesbo or Henning Mankell. Read the books in order. I love these books.
*Truman Capote. Read everything he ever wrote.