Monday, January 30, 2006

Exit, Voice, Loyalty; Maria Full of Grace; Samburu

Watched "Maria, Full of Grace" this weekend, the very good movie on a Columbian drug mule. Also continued reading Albert O. Hirschman's Exit, Voice, and Loyalty--see this summary at Wikipedia. And finally read this piece in the NYTimes magazine on American missionaries to the Samburu tribe in Kenya. What do they have in common?

Not much, except provoking thought on the boundaries of human loyalties and experiences. With the Samburu, the missionaries hope to bring Christianity to the tribe and eliminate female circumcision from its culture. But the tribal members seem satisfied with their religion and culture, even the females. The tribe is not in decline; members are neither exiting nor voicing discontent. Does one go along, or is there a moral obligation to change it?

The movie shows exit--Maria leaves the drug running and leaves Colombia. But one of Hirschman's points recapitulates the old "safety-valve" theory of American history: to the extent that the discontented are able to leave a human organization/group, the strength of voice--the expression of discontent and the working for change from within an organization--is weakened. (Part of the old "frontier theory" was the idea that "free land" in the West drained the cities of their poor and malcontents. Think of Horace Greeley's "go West, young man". My understanding is, while the idea seems valid, historians couldn't find many people who actually moved from cities to farms.) Anyhow, the director's commentary on Maria says 10 percent of Colombians live in the U.S., often the better educated. Does that mean that the forces of democracy in Colombia have been weakened? Do our open borders hurt the cause?


Tim Abbott said...

Working for change within an organization or society is perhaps more revolutionary, and harder to achieve, than outright disassociation.

Institutions can be understood as consisting of repetative patterns of behavior. Behavior changes only when its root causes are understood and addressed, and this can better be accomplished through engagement with the problem rather than from exile.

To transform an institution requires an act of social change, and anything less than that merely replaces the gargoyle at the top of the capital and leaves the rest of the column on the same shaky foundation as before. "Meet the new boss, same as the old boss." Plus ça c'est la même chose.

The "safety-valve" of the American frontier probably did not bring about the remarkable progressive reforms of the late 1800s and early 1900s in American society. I'll acknowledge the possible exception of the extra impetus Western states may have provided for women suffrage. Nonetheless, societal changes in this period came from predominantly middle class reformers who shared a belief that human nature could be bettered by improving living and working conditions. They strove for these ends by working within and improving the systems of government, as well as by muckraking journalism in the daily press and in Cosmopolitan Magazine, among others.

Some of their efforts went astray (Prohibition most notably) and others profoundly influenced the course of American society (Income Tax and the direct election of Senators, to name just two). The transformative change, however, came from within society and not from its margins.

The role of the exile in bringing transformative change to those living under oppression at home is complex, and I do not wish to devalue the contributions and sacrifices made by those who leave a tryannical society in search of better lives. Those who remain, however, have an enormously challenging task, a burdon which places different demands on those who work for change from within the system than are required to put pressure on from outside.

The question may be not how to prevent the flight of talent from struggling societies through our immigration policies, but how best to support reformers within. The aftermath of the Gulf War shamefully illustrates what happens when we urge the oppressed to shake off their oppressors and commit nothing in support of their effort.

Bill Harshaw said...

My point didn't come across clearly. In part I was suggesting that by being open to immigrants the U.S. has in the past and still today perhaps is reducing the steam for reforming various societies (like Colombia and Mexico). As a liberal I support easy migration, but I need to recognize the possibility it might be counterproductive. Of course, you also get nations like India and China, where the return of emigres seems to be helping in the evolution of those societies. It's a complex subject, and I don't know the answers.