The Death of Idealism: Development and Anti-Politics
in the Peace Corps
by Meghan Elizabeth Kallman (NPCV)
Columbia University Press
$28.00 (paperback); $15.39 (kindle); $110.00 (hardback)
ONE RPCVs VIEW
Marnie Mueller (Ecuador 1963-65)
As I read Meghan Elizabeth Kallman’s book, THE DEATH OF IDEALISM: Development and Anti-Politics in the Peace Corps, all I could think was, of course, idealism was challenged by the experience of being in the Peace Corps. It should have been, if you accept the definition of Idealism as: the practice of forming or pursuing an ideal unrealistically, as in the idealism of youth.
Kallman’s book is an erudite, complex treatise on the many ways that idealism was “killed” in Peace Corps Volunteers over the organization’s six-decade history. I’m afraid I can only speak for myself and a few others of my early 1960s cohort in this review, a microcosm in relation to the whole.
I was in one of the early Peace Corps groups, entering on a beautiful, unseasonably warm fall day, November 22, 1963. I had a certain sophistication, but nothing like the sophisticated girl named Ciel with whom I walked up Seventh Avenue toward Central Park that day from our New York City Hotel on 54th Street, and entered a Deli to a barrage of distraught voices saying “the president has been shot in Dallas.” Minutes later the news came over a radio on the counter, announcing through the static that the president had been pronounced dead.
The next I remember is hanging out the window of our hotel room, looking down five stories to the street, and watching people gathering together and dispersing and hurrying on their way. Ciel told me she’d talked on the phone to a former boyfriend, who wrote for Ramparts magazine that the word out was that Johnson had Kennedy shot. “I’m a cynical person,” she said, “and I believe it.” Ramparts, a radical magazine, was new to me, as was the word cynical as a self-identification. My idealistic parents were the furthest from cynical, believing they could make a better, more egalitarian world if they just keep working at it, and I certainly didn’t come up against cynical people during my university years in Cleveland, Ohio. I was struck by Ciel’s worldliness as I tried on the concept of cynicism in my mind, turning it over and over and applying it to what I heard on television that afternoon. Don’t believe what you’re seeing, I said to myself, don’t be taken in by the obvious.
Our group left before dawn the next day to go to Idlewild airport for a flight to Puerto Rico for training. They wanted to get us out of the country as quickly as possible, the people in charge said. As we waited for our flight I noticed people staring at us with looks of sympathy. I didn’t understand until I noted that the tags on our suitcases said Peace Corps. We were Kennedy’s children and we would remain so for years.
But that was the end of our mourning period. By the time we finished the intensive Outward Bound training, we had missed participating in the national sorrow, hadn’t seen Jack Ruby assassinate Oswald, hadn’t witnessed the funeral, hadn’t taken in what would be an iconic image of Jackie, the veil obscuring her face, hadn’t seen John-John saluting when his father’s coffin passed. We’d not had television for the entire month, nor Time Magazine or Life, nor newspapers. Instead, we’d begun our new lives as adults and would for the next two years carry on without coming to terms with the changes initiated in our own country or even incorporating into ourselves the political course in our nation that began with the death of our president. The only image I carry with me after that was our shock in the Dallas airport on a stopover when one of us caught sight in the gift store of an ashtray with Kennedy’s image dead center, for putting out a cigarette.
What I’m trying to say with this personal story is that the death of idealism comes in many forms. And in our case as a group, it happened eight hours into our service, before Peace Corps policies had an effect on us. We were already primed for loss of idealism when we set out. And what I’m also attempting to say, is that it wasn’t the Peace Corps that caused us to lose our political virginity, it was the experience of living among destitute people, and coming up against military juntas, attempted coups, and our own missteps and bone-crushing mistakes. It was the cold war politics of our country and the secret underpinnings of why we were there in the first place. I’ve always said that we were the grunts for our country’s cold war, just as the boys were who were sent to Vietnam. If anything it was that unspoken agenda, which emanated from the top echelons of our government, that eroded what we set out to do in the early ’60s, and left us confused about why many of our endeavors went so wrong.
Kallman writes of that period as though it was the best of times for idealists. She goes on to criticize the “professionalization” of the Peace Corps and from my reading, how that undermined the freedom of volunteers and constrained their idealistic creativity and in a sense brought careerists into the fold as it discouraged idealist goals.
Our group was perhaps anomalous for the time. We were edgy, many with a dark sense of humor, untrained for anything specific, with unusually non-sexist men, and determined, adventurous women. We even had a tough-as-nails white Pachuco girl from LA, complete with gang tattoo, in our group. We were twenty-four women and thirty-two men, a pretty good gender ratio. Of the fifty-six there were two African Americans, one female, and one male. When Kallman writes of the sexist, militarized culture of the early Peace Corps, I have to disagree. We, women, were expected to do all that the men did and many times during the outward-bound section we displayed more physical courage than the men and were applauded for it. We viewed the physical feats as empowering athletic challenges: rock climbing, drown proofing, running a mile each morning, belaying off a 200-foot dam. Were we idealistic? That’s hard to say. We were too busy to speak about our dreams.
We were generalists whose mission was to do community development. My complaint, beyond the geo-political, hidden agenda, was the fact that there wasn’t a certain professional criteria demanded of us. Of the group, I was definitely the best prepared to do community development. My father was a masterful community organizer, and I learned from the earliest age by observing him, how one waits and listens and eats the food proffered by poor people and how important it is to have people speak their minds and needs, even when you as the organizer disagree with them. As a result, I went into my urban community in Guayaquil, Ecuador, well versed in what I had to do. Even with that, it at times was brutal. But too many in our group wandered in a desert of not knowing what to do or how to reach results. Only those who had other special skills like a woman weaver who finally of her own accord went to work with Salasaca tribal weavers, helping them to get back to using organic dyes. Or, Ceil, my friend, who after weeping for 12 hours one Christmas night high-tailed it out of Guayaquil, up to the mountains to use her gift as a brilliant ethnographic photographer to document the craftspeople for OCEPA, an Ecuadorian crafts co-operative organization.
For a while, we had trained with a group of young men whose task it was to set up credit unions throughout Ecuador. They spent their time learning about the principles of the co-operative movement, the economic benefits of co-operatives and gained skillful expertise in community organizing techniques. They went in as professionals. We could have used a lot more professionalism, if indeed, as purported, we were expected to do a job and not just satisfy and indulge our own idealistic desires.
I could say a lot more about how things went bad, and also what went well, for me and our group in Ecuador. Perhaps for another essay. But what I do know is that it trained all of us to be skeptical about surface appearances, whether purveyors of utopian ideals are purporting to save the world, or are on a warpath to destruction. It trained us to analyze and think for ourselves politically and culturally. And I think that holds us in better stead than seeing the world in black and white idealistic terms. Perhaps for me, the most dangerous political action is to blindly follow the rhetorical stances of leaders who say all the right things. You rarely find a Peace Corps Volunteer from whatever decade who falls into that category of naivety.
Marnie Mueller was born in the Tule Lake Japanese American Segregation Camp in northern California where her Caucasian parents went to work to try to make an intolerable situation tolerable for the people imprisoned there.
Mueller spent her two years in the Peace Corps working and living in one of the roughest urban barrios in South America, Cerro Santa Ana in Guayaquil, Ecuador. There she focused her organizing efforts around a community center built by the previous volunteers.
She developed a board of directors from the community, working with them to create a small industry making mosquito nets for sale, establishing a pre-kindergarten for neighborhood children with breakfast for each child, an automotive repair school for men, a library, a soccer team that competed in a citywide league, and political actions pertaining to dire sanitation issues in the neighborhood. Additionally she, with other volunteers, created a summer camp for boys and girls.
Returning to the United States, Mueller worked as a community organizer in El Barrio East Harlem and in the South Bronx of New York City. From there she became the Director of Summer Programming for the City of New York, responsible for scheduling all outdoor events from the Philharmonic Orchestra in Central Park to Jazz in the Streets in all five boroughs of the City. She went on to become the Program Director of the Pacifica Radio affiliate in NYC, WBAI-FM.
She is the author of three novels: Green Fires, The Climate of the Country, and My Mother’s Island. She is a recipient of an American Book Award, the Maria Thomas Award for Outstanding Fiction, a Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Award, a New York Public Library Best Books for the Teenage, a New York Times Book Review “New and Noteworthy in Paperback,” and a Barnes and Noble “Discover Great New Writers” choice.