Last week, I wrote a summary of the charities I’m giving at least $25 apiece to this year. It went up on Friday morning, partly because of the Peace Corps section. I kept rewriting it and rewriting it, and I finally only bashed it into the approximate paragraph that’s there by taking the rest of the material and stuffing it in another document.
American friends and readers probably already have some idea of what the Peace Corps is and does. For my international friends, the Peace Corps is a program instituted by John F. Kennedy in 1961. The mission of the Peace Corps is to provide technical assistance and training to foreign lands that need them by sending volunteers abroad, to help other peoples learn about Americans and, just as important, help Americans learn about other peoples. The Peace Corps has its roots in older religious and progressive missions conducted by European countries – one proto-Peace Corps proposal even referred to Peace Corps Volunteers as “missionaries of democracy.” Volunteers live in and with the communities they serve (many are homestays) to plant gardens, dig wells, build roads, find financing, and develop community and economic relationships.
Kennedy’s announcement, in his um-er-ah Boston Brahmin brogue, puts it thusly: “We will send Americans, men and women, who are qualified to do a job […] It will not be easy. None of the men and women will be paid a salary. They will live at the same level as the citizens of the country which they are sent to, doing the same work, eating the same foods, speaking the same language.” He specified that the Peace Corps would put particular emphasis on “those men and women who have skills in teaching, in agriculture, and in health.” Not much has changed – there are now opportunities for Americans skilled in community organization, environmental protection, and business development as well, but everything else is as true today as it was in 1961.
So, why in Hell would I join? Why would anybody?
When I went to China the first time, it was 2006. Two years earlier, America collectively woke up after Voting Day to discover that not only did we elect George W. Bush again, but we’d doubled down on him and everything he stood for. It’s hard to express how utterly disillusioned and defeated the American left felt in those days. Media figures theorized that this marked the demise of the Democratic party, at long last. I remember watching V for Vendetta and being shocked and not a little relieved that I apparently wasn’t the only person left who felt dismayed by the whole apparatus of Homeland Security, the PATRIOT Act, military adventurism, an endless and fathomless War on Terror, and the smug assurance that neoconservatism was right, was sacred, and would endure forever.
I was a bitter and self-loathing American at 20. You can ask any of my old drinking mates in Asia.
But during my year there, I fell in love with China – with the night markets, the street food, the depth of meaning in the language. I also, much to my surprise, fell in love with America – with the gregariousness, the diversity, the cheese. I learned what it was to live with the chilling effect of censorship and to be a second-class citizen, not only to the Chinese but among foreigners as well (thanks to military adventurism and an endless and fathomless War on Terror).
I came away with a feeling that underneath all that were things worth upholding and celebrating – a national character that turns around and says hello while waiting in line and puts its scandals on the front page instead of hiding them in the back. Americans are weird, and I came around to loving them for it. And I felt the urge to serve my country, to honor the things it stands for and do what I could to make its people better – starting with myself.
My interests and talents skew international, but I felt that I would clash with the Armed Forces. I also feel that America’s interests and, more importantly, her morality and values are better served by exporting American generosity and pluck rather than American iron and lead.
Volunteers, when they return home, come back with a greater awareness and understanding of life outside our borders. Five years in China was educational, but I’ll be first to tell you that it’s only marginally prepared me for two years in Senegal. Returned Volunteers have unique experience and skills, in dealing with cross-cultural business, organization management, and inter-organizational cooperation, that their homebody contemporaries frankly can’t match. This is over and above job skills: medical Volunteers have had to deal with giving vaccinations for scarlet fever out of windswept canvas tents with only boiled water for sanitation. That kind of even keel and resourcefulness is something you want in your doctor.
Returned Volunteers get a laughably small stipend for relocation and may be able to afford a year of grad school afterwards, too. But that’s not the big reason – the real reason.
We, America, are the preponderant power in the world. Our battleships patrol the Malacca Straits and the Red Sea for pirates, our air support prevents use of chemical weapons. Our media plays a grotesque and distorted but ultimately recognizable self-image on screens from Russia to Rio. When we commit atrocities, everybody knows it – usually because we tell them.
We also come up with stuff like a United Nations for representatives of all countries to discuss their differences before resorting to armed conflict, like a space program to put a man on the Moon and return him safely to the Earth, like a government organization that sends people to foreign lands just to dig wells. Because they want to help.
That’s the kind of leadership, the kind of moral leadership, that America has glimmerings of in our best moments. Sometimes, we actually live up to the nobility and good-natured dignity that the American character is capable of. Establishing a constitutional democracy was good – opening the doors to the world’s poor and tired and huddled masses was better. Defeating Nazi Germany alongside our British, French, and Russian allies was good – the Marshall Plan that allowed all those countries to rebuild after the War was better.
Americans are weird, and wonderful, and sometimes even great.
If America is supposed to be the Leader of the Free World, if we even remotely deserve to be, it’s because of the kind of activities, values, and psychology that the Peace Corps embodies. The generosity with our talent and initiative, the innate friendliness and confidence, the desire and ability to lend a helping hand, the focus on individuals and communities over institutions and collectives. Above all, the hope and idealism that other nations have sneered at and that we now specialize in sneering at, ourselves. It’s those traits, more than anything else, that will make America genuinely worthy of being Leader of the Free World.
In other words, we could be The Americans.
Sidebar: A lot of my friends abroad seem to think that the Peace Corps is some kind of CIA plot, which I find frankly perplexing. You won’t find two organizations in Washington that hate each other more than the intelligence community and the Peace Corps, with the possible exception of the Democrats and Republicans. When I applied for the Peace Corps, they made it quite clear that I would be disqualified if I or any of my immediate family were involved with the CIA, FBI, or other alphabet-soup agencies, now, in the past, or in the next five years. Conversely, the Peace Corps is listed as a subversive organization (sandwiched between the American Communist Party and the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)) if you try to join the intelligence community. The two groups have two very separate missions, and always avoid each other at parties.