L’Esprit de l’Escalier

If you asked a 22-year-old American about gun control in this country, she would probably tell you that it’s a lot more complicated than taking some workshops on social entrepreneurship and starting a non-profit. She might tell her counterpart from Kampala about the intractable nature of our legislative branch, the long history of gun culture in this country and its passionate defenders, the complexity of mental illness and its treatment. She would perhaps mention the added complication of agitating for change as an outsider.

But if you ask that same 22-year-old American about some of the most pressing problems in a place like Uganda — rural hunger or girl’s secondary education or homophobia — she might see them as solvable. Maybe even easily solvable.

That’s from “The Reductive Seduction of Other People’s Problems,” an essay by Courtney Martin. While reading it I was reminded of Aiding Violence by Peter Uvin, about the development industry’s contribution to the genocide in (Uganda’s neighbor) Rwanda.

I read it many years ago, and what’s always stuck with me is, of all things, a footnote:

Although it is politically correct to affirm that underdevelopment also exists at home, I know of few organizations or persons that take this seriously in practice. The reason is simple: at home, we realize how difficult it is to overcome apathy, fear, racism, poverty, distrust, alienation, violence, bureaucratic inertia, and so forth. We know about the historical legacies of problems, the way they are deeply ingrained in relations of power, in ideologies, and in social systems. In far-away places, about which we know little, we can pretend that these problems do not exist and that we can promote development through some simple actions. Ignorance is truly what allows us to act.

Shortly after I returned from Rwanda, I was temping at a financial services firm. One of the partners – who struck me as quite intelligent – told me, entirely seriously, that the genocide could have been prevented if Rwanda had had the equivalent of the Second Amendment. He even lamented that the US had not air-dropped Kalashnikovs.

What I wish I’d said is something to the effect of the genocide having occurred not for lack of well regulated militias.

Instead, I think I replied: “Huh!”