Her response? She packed her bags that night and returned home. From that day to this she has not spoken to me. I only later learned through my uncle that my cousin blames me for spoiling her youthful dreams, introducing her to the harsh world of cynicism and negativity. She quit the NGO and dropped out of political activism altogether.
What’s the moral to this story? I myself at that time was not so different from the way Kinzer is now, each of us realizing that intrusions on non-Western cultures are all equally disruptive, regardless of whether that disruptiveness is intentional or not. A military invasion, a do-gooder health clinic, a Christian mission, a lecture about women’s rights, the introduction of new technologies — in the end, they all have the same effect, which is to undermine the pristine nature of the native culture.
Back then, however, I was more inclined to accept the “Noble Savage” worldview, that primitive cultures were inherently superior to the horrors of Western civilization, and thus we should protect and admire non-Western societies, like exhibits in a museum.
Since that time, however, my views have evolved, in a way that Kinzer’s apparently haven’t. I see much more clearly now that primitive societies, with their “non-Western” values, are often oppressive and unnecessarily brutal for the people living in them. Not always, but often. Furthermore, as the globe’s population grows, many formerly “quaint” ethnic cultures are growing in dimension and scope, and they no longer need protecting — they need suppression.
Yes, part of me still would like to see Potemkin Villages, or perhaps “It’s a Small World” living dioramas, of each and every ethnic culture on Earth, so as to preserve our species’ amazing diversity. But I also know that there is cruelty in such a fantasy; because real human beings will be compelled to live in these ethnographic exhibits, and must thereby endure real hardships for our intellectual amusement and to alleviate our Western guilt.
I also know too much about history and anthropology to continue the bankrupt charade that all cultures are equal in value and equally worthy of respect and admiration. And this is where the Kinzers of the world and I have parted ways, I suppose. The accumulated Judeo-Christian/Greco-Roman/Renaissance-Enlightenment/you-name-it wisdom that Western culture has integrated over the millennia is without any question the best bet that the human race has going.
The Left Man’s Burden
We as a society have had this argument before. Rudyard Kipling put it in the bluntest possible terms with his 1899 poem “The White Man’s Burden,” essentially saying that when Western powers seize control of third-world countries, it becomes our moral duty to raise up “Your new-caught, sullen peoples, / Half-devil and half-child,” even if by so doing we only earn their anger: “Take up the White Man’s burden- / And reap his old reward: / The blame of those ye better, / The hate of those ye guard.”
Nowadays, Kipling is dismissed as the worst kind of old-school racist: a condescending racist, one who looks down on “half-devil and half-child” non-Westerners with pity, not hatred. Embedded in our offer to help the third world is the presumptuous assumption of our superiority.
The contemporary Left feels free to criticize Kipling because they assume his spirit lives on in the hearts of neocons and warmongers today. He is conveniently categorized as a “bad guy” whose politics closely align with 21st-century Republicanism.
But I see it from a different angle: It is the modern human rights organizations, with their meddlesome insistence on helping downtrodden foreigners, that continue the “White man’s burden” tradition. It is the progressives who are the Kiplings of today. The only difference between Rudyard Kipling and modern bleeding-heart liberals is that Kipling was at least more honest about his feeling of superiority.
Kinzer has realized this as well. Imagine the sense of horror that welled up in him when he became conscious that the white-dominated human rights activist community was doing the exact same things that the imperialists of old imagined they were doing, with the exact same smugness and self-righteousness? Oh my my God: I’m no different than Kipling!
Can’t have that: no sir. And the only course of action, Kinzer concluded, is to leave those devil-children to their fate. Universal human rights be damned!