Katya and I were discussing science fiction movies the other day when she happened to mention “Avatar.” I recently had a chance to watch the movie (in 3-D!) here and I really liked it. Of course, as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV), I like any movie that touches upon the themes of colonization and missions.
Katya said “good things: negative portrayal of colonialism, positive portrayal of environmentalism and respect for the planet as an interconnected ecosystem…bad things: the colonist is the savior? wtf, there was nothing he did that a native couldn't have done, his skills had nothing to do with being a colonist. Hence it's just to relieve white guilt or something. It would have been more powerful if they'd saved themselves.”
I couldn’t help but let escape a self-disparaging laugh at her critiques of the movie. “No, the colonist helps the natives save themselves…like Peace Corps Volunteers,” I explained.
Katya continued by discussing exploiters versus exploited: “if the exploited become friends with the exploiters, it’s bad news- they just open themselves up to get hurt more…but this is an area where I think “Avatar” got it right…the happy ending is that he completely gives up on making peace between the two groups, chooses the not-engaged-in-evil-activities group (aka the colonized people) and the happy ending is that they get rid of the colonizers, not become friends with them.”
I responded by pointing out “You realize that as Americans trying to engage in development, we are him.”
Katya said “You’re him earlier in the story because you work FOR the government that also engages in exploitation which seems a little naïve.”
Ouch! I realized that she had a point though, as Peace Corps Volunteers we are all Jake Sully. We are that group of under-funded (and underpaid) researchers that seeks to find out as much about the other culture as we can. Meanwhile, the military sits on an enormous budget provided by corporations and wealthy investors that will stop at nothing to exploit the foreign territory. We are the good face the government can present to the world, the cheap publicity tricks they can employ to justify its meddling in other countries. Our reward is cultural understanding, the military’s (and hence its backers’) is lucrative resources. Why do you think the U.S. government spends 30 times as much on its defense budget as on its development one? We struggle to maintain our independence from the exploitative government, in spite of promises of greater social status and our dreams coming true in return for selling our souls and assuming a government job.
The good news is that there is a middle path. Katya told me that she hopes “to be a different him [Jake Sully] – not a savior, just an extra person in the fight. The leaders should be FROM the countries the movement is for. There’s a difference between being an ally, and thinking you know enough to LEAD someone else’s movement.”
I couldn’t agree more. I’m conscious that as a PCV I technically work for the U.S. government. I resent that the Peace Corps belongs to the same superpower which is responsible for the majority of the abuses happening in the world today. That isn’t to say that I haven’t been able to make a positive impact in my community, but as the movie “Avatar” suggests, that only happens through disassociation with my status of “exploiter.” I don’t mean the negation of my U.S. citizenship or pride in my country, rather the renunciation of the accompanying condescension that is part of being born in the rich world. I think that all of us development workers from the “Global North” carry into the “Global South” unconscious feelings of superiority that our economic system is better, that our political system is better, etc.; that’s why we are rich and they are poor. The sooner we eliminate those prejudices and seek to understand the other culture – like Jake Sully –, the sooner we can be of help. As a PCV, this is what I’ve struggled with – trying to do good but being an outsider; trying to mix my priorities with those of my community. Some things they didn’t realize were important for their lives, while there were other things that I was clueless about. It took a year for me to be fully accepted into my community (lucky Jake, it only took him 3 months!), to achieve that status where I could bring my understanding of the outside world and use it to fulfill their needs and to advance their priorities, not mine. It’s a balance but we’ve found it.
1 As a matter of fact, PCVs are no longer allowed to have work for government intelligence agencies for a certain period of time before and after their services. This policy stems from the Peace Corps’ early history, during which the CIA infiltrated the agency with spies whom would report on the happenings in their communities to the U.S. government. Hence, in most Latin American countries, the natives assume that their volunteers are U.S. government spies.