During a brief visit to the states several weeks ago (following my trip to Cuba), I received a certain amount of feedback in regards to my blog. While everyone was very encouraging and supportive of my work, there was also a certain amount of healthy criticism, which is both appreciated and expected, seeing as I am writing for a public audience. This criticism seemed to revolve around a particular theme, which I hope to address here--that theme is my obvious political leanings and its manifestation in my writings. It should be pointed out that on returning to Paraguay, I was informed via a Peace Corps official channel, that my blog needed to carry a clearly displayed disclaimer as the reader will now see is posted to the right of his/her screen.
As a Peace Corps volunteer, who is both an employee (technically, we have ‘volunteer’ status, not ‘employee’) of the United States government and a guest in a foreign country (invited to serve by that country’s government), it is important for the success of my field work that I remain politically uninvolved. Therefore, I do not participate in any political activism here in country and I refrain from even perceived affiliation with political groups. Peace Corps volunteers can and do accomplish wonderful things, engaging in quality work while remaining apolitical functionaries in these situations.
The problem arises not from the ambiguity of our mandate as Peace Corps volunteers, but instead with the murkiness of the worlds we inhabit for our 2 years of service. We live in some of the poorest communities and among some of the poorest people in this world. We are sent to the most impoverished areas of already poor countries, given limited training and resources, and asked to address the symptoms of often corrupt and unjust systems as they effect the lives of our neighbors and friends. It is one thing to see poverty on a TV infomercial; it is one thing to visit a slum in a developing country. It is entirely another to walk to your neighbors house and find their already collapsing home pillaged and empty because they have sold off almost everything they own to buy the antibiotics necessary to save the life of their 4 year old child who lies unconscious from pneumonia on the dirt floor of their hovel.
When a volunteer has time to step back and think, to thoroughly analyze the situation in which he/she is operating, it becomes very evident, very quickly that the problems we address are fundamentally political in nature. Poverty, development, environmental degradation etc.--these things are not products of local origin, they are the sickness from the national and global policies in this world. They involve many groups and governments, many competing interests, many clashing ideologies, and ultimately, they produce effects for real people that exist in our daily lives.
I know that I have not endeavored too stringently to mask my own political opinions in my blogs, but as a reader, you must try to understand that I am currently living in a completely different world. As a middle class citizen living in the United States, you likely have an opinion on universal health care. As a person living in the middle of an impoverished South American community without any sort of health care program, I have an entirely different perspective on this issue. It is not because I am Democratic or Republican, it is because my daily reality sees the most abject cases where a ‘privatized’ health care system fails to meet the basic human needs. While a policy maker in Washington might say, “Well, there are always winners and losers,” I cannot write these things off any easier than you might be able to write off your next door neighbor as their house burns to the ground. Right now, I do not live in a world that debates the pro’s and con’s of free-market economics with hypothetical references to the human toll it may have on the lower classes. I live in a world that literally is that lower class, that experiences only the shaft’s end of a world that increasingly operates accord to profit-driven neo-liberalism. I live in a world of people that struggle to feed their families, not in a world that experiences the rise and fall of the stock market on retirement plans and mutual funds.
Everyone is entitled to their opinion and it is precisely these variable opinions that make life in a democratic society (with freedom of speech and freedom of the press) so wonderful. Healthy debate is the cornerstone of democratic freedom and should be exercised continually and relentlessly. The challenge comes not in holding an opinion or defending one, but in understanding the true meanings and nuances of opposing opinions.
Our great (global)-social experiment should not choose ideological sides, but instead, seek with full hearts and minds the truth which lies at the core of humanity. As individuals and as a society, we must transcend the group-think, tribalistic mentalities of competing factions and instead engage in an honest soul-searching analysis of what it means to be a human being at all points of the socio-economic, racial, gender, and global spectrum. We should not be seeking “fairness” or “equality” or “freedom” or any of these variably defined and often politically-wielded catch phrases; we should be seeking a way to alleviate the suffering for others and ourselves. Taxing the rich might not be ‘fair’ in an economic sense, but if it means helping African-American students to leave troubled urban areas and go to college, then I support it. Those millionaires might not like it, but they will not suffer for it.
The problems of this world, both my world and your world--our world--may be inherently political in nature, but the solution is not. The solution is personal: it starts with empathy, being able to feel the suffering of others as they suffer. It becomes compassion, a yearning to alleviate that suffering as if it were your own. And it creates love, a self-sustaining system of emotion, philosophy and rationale that stifles greed and selfishness. It has absolutely nothing to do with religious or political opinion; it is humanistic. To achieve this perspective, it is necessary to be continually self-reflective and self-critical. It requires the highest degree of personal and social honesty. If we act or support actions that cause pain and suffering, we should be willing to modify, change or even surrender our affiliations with these ideas in an attempt to make our world a better place. We are culpable for the effects of the ideas that we support either tacitly or explicitly (as the Nuremberg trials clearly evidenced). Therefore, we all share a part of the burden for the fact that there is poverty in this world and that people do starve to death every day.
My job as a Peace Corps volunteer (and I am speaking now personally, not for other volunteers or for Peace Corps as a whole), is part of my general attempt to faithfully trod the path towards alleviating suffering as I have outlined above. I am not perfect and I have (and will continue to) stray from this ideal, however, I would like to offer the fact that my political leanings and my expressed opinions do not arise from any thing other than empathy, compassion and love for my neighbors, my fellow man and my world. I am more than willing to discuss, debate, and if need be, modify my ideas and my opinions. I assure you that I am, above all, my harshest and most thorough critic. But no matter what I may support or what ideas I may espouse, I can assert with absolute and unquestionable certainty that I will only ever do so out of empathy, compassion and love, and for that, at least, I will always be political.
From our world,