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What Not to Do in a Foreign Country, Lesson #2: St. Emma of the Absurd, Pray for Us

September 19, 2010

In the late 1980s, as many thousands of decaying, dismembered corpses littered southern Sudan, you might well have glimpsed a lithe, stunning young Englishwoman traipsing through the mayhem, her long pale legs shown to best advantage in a minidress or demurely obscured by a free-flowing A-line skirt. Something more Ann Taylor, really, than Laura Ashley. And the print? Something muted but not somber. Something stylish enough to suggest regular visits to London high streets, but nothing so simple and boldly geometric as to suggest “going native” or some other half-hearted attempt at blending in. The young woman, Emma McCune, wanted to stand out.

She did.

Emma McCune made the inductive leap from being part of the solution to being part of the problem. She embraced Sudan’s sorrows as very much her own.

She went to Sudan as an aid worker. But the Sudanese ended up naming one of their most violent conflicts “Emma’s War.” And in 1993 she ended up dead at the age of twenty-nine, crushed to death in a mysterious car accident while in exile in Nairobi, married as the second wife to polygamous guerrilla commander Riek Machar, and pregnant with his child.

Since the late 1970s, the bitter phrase turistas de la revolucíon has floated around the world’s more fragile societies where weapons and slogans have traditionally been plentiful, but medical supplies and potable water have not.

The phrase has proved so useful that it’s lately been applied to those Al-Qaeda sympathizing Wahabis from Saudi Arabia who descend upon fractious Muslim nations to promote their uncompromising brand of Islam, bring local politics to the boil, and then retreat to the luxury and comparative calm of Saudi Arabia as soon as bullets start to fly and IEDs start going off, thus leaving the resentful locals to bury the dead and clear the wreckage.

But as turistas de la revolucíon suggests, the phrase first gained currency in the 1970s in Latin America, a region whose twenty sovereign states, countless ethnic and racial tensions, and infinite geopolitical intrigues, offered innumerable destinations where college-age North Americans and Europeans could take the Marxist-Leninist or Maoist theory they’d dimly gleaned from their sociology, anthropology, and political science classes, and apply it hands-on in situations where the stakes were high and where ideas had consequences, especially for the locals who didn’t hold passports allowing them, when things got messy, to wing their way back to places where bodies weren’t routinely dumped in front of embassies, and dissidents didn’t disappear in the middle of the night, and municipal stadiums didn’t ring with the sound of automatic gunfire.

One should dismiss this flakiness, in whatever guise, as reliably symptomatic of romanticism or idealism or any of the other pie-eyed isms that afflict the young and under-educated and overly earnest, if the violence of the outcome weren’t so terribly explicit at the very outset of their endeavors.

The American Lori Berenson left El Salvador and the Farabundo Marti National Liberation Front to move to Peru and cast her lot with the Tupac Amaru Revolutionary Movement (MRTA) precisely because Salvador’s leftist guerillas and Communist Party had transitioned to non-violent legal political entities dedicated to rebuilding their nation after a protracted and very dirty civil war.

Since Berenson’s arrest in January, 1996, Peruvians of every political stripe have had a difficult time forgiving her for meddling in their internal politics, and an even harder time believing her public claims that her intentions were benign, especially given that she appeared on national television with her fists clenched, screaming in red-faced rage, “There are no criminal terrorists in the MRTA! It’s a revolutionary movement!”

There’s a great deal, in fact, that’s unforgivable in these doleful stories of erstwhile revolutionaries who invariably end up militating most ardently not for the liberation of the wretched of the earth, but for their very own. What’s unforgivable isn’t their willfulness or ignorance or carelessness or their stubborn determination to see the world only their own way.

What’s unforgivable is their unyielding literalism. Their fanatical attachment to the superficial. Their insistence that what they see is what they get.

“There are no ideas here, only ambitions,” is what a high-placed Salvadoran official confided to author Joan Didion in 1982, while she was visiting the country at a time when its internal contradictions were at their most contradictory.

What this high-placed official explained to Didion was that no matter what outcome, no matter whether the extreme right or extreme left ultimately prevailed in the country’s seemingly endless and intractable conflicts, the most powerful positions in El Salvador’s government would invariably be held by members of one or another of the families that had ruled El Salvador since the mid-19th century.

In parts of the world where traditions run deep, which is to say most of the world, terms such as “right,” “left,” “capitalist,” “communist,” “socialist,” “globalization,” “revolutionary,” and “neo-liberal,” which Americans and Europeans like to bandy about as if they had fixed and imminently discernible meaning, tend to be repurposed for use a placeholders, or markers, in contests and quarrels that have nothing to do with “politics” as Americans and Europeans understand it.

These are contests and quarrels cross-indexed over centuries of intermarriages and highly attenuated kinship alliances. These are intensely personal disagreements that can be understood as intensely personal disagreements only by people who’ve kept track of which fourth- or fifth- cousin sided with which great-great-grandfather during the first war of independence, or the second or third counter-revolution, or the twentieth land reform.

Only the conquerors and the conquered know and keep the accurate score.

Any outsider, no matter how well-intentioned or pure of heart, who steps uninvited into the fray in order to “help” or “make the world a better place” or “lessen human suffering” can act upon only the literal, the immediately obvious, upon those facts or opinions or strategies most readily at hand.

And to act upon those things, really, is to act upon nothing at all.

And to act upon nothing at all is absurd.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. Nelly Thompson permalink
    September 21, 2010 9:25 am

    Hugo de Naranja, or whoever you are…
    Who are you to be so superior? You think you know everything and you are just some would-be academic who doesn’t understand the People’s struggles. In one article, you have managed to render meaningless, the efforts of hundreds or thousands of us who have worked covertly for years helping populations less fortunate than ours.
    We are lucky to come from a place where we can learn what is right and wrong. When you live in a confusing third world country, it is not so easy to distinguish these things. We are proud to be able to shed some light to the uneducated peoples of the world.
    Our organization, code-named Burkkha, has excellent analysts who are able to adapt our formula to any struggling country in the world. First of all, we put ourselves (figuratively) in their place, so we understand their agonies. Then, we teach them that there is a better way, and finally, show them how to get there. It is a simple path once you see it. Yes, there are casualties along the way – theirs and ours – but they are for the greater good.
    I myself have been selected to go to Afghanistan next month. Several of us will be embedded with revolutionaries in the mountains to show them how to drive off foreign domination.
    Nelly of Burkkha

  2. Sybil Shade permalink
    September 21, 2010 2:00 pm

    Whoa, Nelly!

  3. Beryl Gorbman permalink
    September 30, 2010 1:19 pm

    It’s good that in Mexico, the government makes it very clear. Foreigners participating in local politics will be immediately deported.
    One of my reasons for moving to Mexico was to escape American politics and politicians, specifically George Bush. I just couldn’t stand it.
    Here, I have the luxury of observing without getting the least bit involved. Sure, there are things I don’t think are great, and things that are terrific, but it isn’t my country. What a relief!

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