I had a bizarre but not completely unexpected experience recently. I had the occasion to participate in a conversation with a nobel-prize winning economist and a young women, initially about her activity in a program that sprays people’s houses in various African countries for malaria. As the conversation moved to the different sprays they can use (the safest being the most expensive), I asked how the homeowner felt about outsiders (honkeys, I think I called them), coming in and doing this. Given that most people view people from other cultures somewhat suspiciously, wasn’t there some question among them about the motivations of the people engaged in this endeavor, and fear that the locals might be the object of a scam that worked not only to the advantage of the alleged “do-gooders” but to the disadvantage of the locals.
“Oh no,” she replied. We work through locals.” (I’m not sure that answers the concerns of the homeowners who had to know that both the poison and the organization came from the outside, but that’s another issue.)
The economist, however, made a number of derogatory comments about the “altruism” of the US, suggesting that we are not so positive-sum.
To which I responded by saying, “surely there are times and places where the US pursues its self-interest, even to the disadvantage of another culture/nation/group. But that’s the norm in human history. In the history of hegemons, however, name one that has anything near the record of positive-sum behavior that the USA does.” (This is particularly the case because so much of commerce depends on robust economies all around, and given both the Marshall Plan and its counterpart in Japan, there is no record of a victor in a nasty war, who set about building up their enemies’ nations. Economics is, in many ways, the coin of positive-sum relations in modern democratic cultures.)
“How about Rome?” the economist responded.
“Rome? Slave-owning, imperialistic, bloody Rome, which used their military hegemony to conquer everyone they could, that embodied the Athenian saying, “Those who can do what they will; those who cannot suffer what they must? Surely you’re not serious.”
“Well they did build aqueducts and roads. They did benefit other nations…”
I felt like I was in a scene from Monty Python’s Life of Brian:
“Wha ‘ave the Romans ever done for us? says Reg, the leader of the Judean People’s Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
“Well, aqueducts… sanitation… roads… irrigation, medicine, education… wine… public baths… public order.”
“Awrigh’, but aside from roads, aqueducts, education, wine… wha ‘ave they ever done for us.”
But as I thought about it, I realized that this man operates on a world scene, where being derogatory about his own country actually serves as a lubricant. It reminded me of an incident in Cyprus in 2005, when I sat at a table of scholars from the world over, and someone made a nasty remark about the US’s response to 9-11, much to the assent of those assembled.
“I don’t know,” I had the temerity to say, “I think the US behaved pretty well. There were a couple of incidents of violence, but on the whole I thought Americans bent over backwards not to scapegoat Muslims. Certainly in comparison with the Dutch response to the assassination of Theo Van Gogh, where Muslims were attacked, schools bombed, and vigilante revenge widespread, I’d say American response was pretty exceptional.”
That was the last conversation I had with anyone at that table. I was persona non grata at a conversation in which dumping on the US was part of an invidious identity formation for the “progressive” global elite.
The irony of course of the economist’s self-deprecating remarks was that both the young woman was a committed altruist in her endeavors, as were most of the people who graduated with her from program in Development Economics at Tuft’s Fletcher School of International Diplomacy. And so was my interlocutor. Whether they actually are “doing good” or further contributing to a mess may be a matter of discussion, but their good intentions are, I think, beyond question. So in a sense, the snarky remarks about American “benevolence” was not very nice either to her or to himself.
The reason I tell this story here is because I think it illustrates some important points about self-criticism. It’s one thing to be more modest and self-deprecating than realistic. It’s quite another to believe your modesty. And still another do so for people who take that modesty seriously because, driven as they are by resentment at America’s hegemony – who do these people think they are? The chosen people? – they behave in ways that undermine democracies everywhere, including their own.