In situations of despair, when it seems all the pieces are broken and there is no chance to fix or repair them, hope can be the road into the light. It can be a tool for change, and a catalyst to move forward and to keep going. But at a time where there seems to be, at some level, a degree of hyper-awareness of corrupt systems and a lack of trust in government institutions, it seems as if this hope is dwindling into oblivion, thrusting many into a chasm of hopelessness. This hopelessness pushes away the motivation to enact change. This is not to say that there is no value in cynicism.
Realistic, cynical observations can often lead to an insightful view of how the world operates. But it seems that society is often divided into two polarizing camps: the hopeful and the hopeless, and with these two camps comes a preconceived notion of these types of individuals. The hopeful are wide-eyed do-gooders whose beliefs are heavily entrenched in U.S. exceptionalism, and the hopeless are steely-eyed cynics who think the systems in place are damaged beyond repair. The polarization between hope and hopelessness leaves out the opportunity to combine these two camps and ignores the fact that hope and cynicism can coexist.
When analyzing humanitarian intervention today, it does not do someone any good to look at systems of foreign aid from a hopeful or hopeless perspective, for this leads to the conclusion that it is either inherently good or bad. This line of evaluation and analysis does not help to improve the system that is in place. There seems to be a symbiotic relationship between the thought that U.S. foreign aid can only cause more harm than good, and a feeling of hopelessness in the world. Yet here, there must be an opportunity for hope, for improvement. Despite most conclusions that the state of U.S. humanitarian intervention is in a hopeless shamble, clinging to hope allows an avenue to open up to improve and better this system of foreign aid.
Graham Greene’s novel, “The Quiet American,” epitomizes the very hope that a substantial portion of U.S. millennials seem to be so critical of. This sense of hope is embodied in the main character, Alden Pyle, a young U.S. diplomat sent to Vietnam in southeast Asia in the 1950s to aid in the spread of democracy. He is a firm believer of U.S. exceptionalism; the idea that the U.S. is a force of good in the world. But with this attitude, Pyle falls victim to his own naivete and fails to recognize how much destruction U.S. foreign intervention can cause. The entirety of the novel is narrated by Thomas Fowler, a British journalist who harbors a hard, cynical view of the United States’, and to an extent, Pyle’s, role in the war. Near the very beginning of the book, Greene writes, “He didn’t even hear what I said; he was absorbed already in the dilemmas of Democracy and the responsibilities of the West; he was determined — I learnt that very soon — to do good, not to any individual person but to a country, a continent, a world.” Evident here and throughout the book is Fowler’s critical, cynical view of Pyle as a naive American who is in way over his head. The stark contrast between the hopeless and the hopeful are clear in the juxtapositions presented between Pyle and Fowler. And because Fowler controls the narrative of the book, it is easy for the reader to fall in line with his criticisms and feel similarly toward Pyle as he does.
While it might feel tempting for young U.S. millennials — especially those who feel disillusioned with U.S. exceptionalism — to take Fowler’s side and condemn Pyle, the reality is that every American, no matter what their ideas of government, humanitarian intervention, or foreign aid may be, has a bit of Pyle in them. Even if one may not believe the U.S. can be a force of good in the world, there is still a Pyle-like voice that begs to ask if the U.S. is capable of enacting positive change. This is the hopeful thinking that is often suppressed in exchange for pure cynicism that this country’s government system is so broken that it cannot possibly be fixed. But perhaps the aversion to Pyle and the drive for a handful of readers to separate themselves from him —perhaps mocking his optimistic worldview and penchant for saviorship — stems solely from the fact that many Americans are hesitant, ashamed even, to think that they are Pyle. The idea of wanting to enact change and “save the world” has become so tainted that most people revulse at the idea. This separation, however, leaves no room for hope to grow or even plant a tiny seed.
This is not to say that Pyle’s own ideals are free from criticism. There is a danger in the idea of U.S. exceptionalism and the idea that this country is the greatest nation in the world. Placing too much hope in government and democracy can blind a person to the damage that can result from these ideals. This became evident in “The Quiet American” when it was revealed that Pyle was involved in the explosion of a car bomb that killed innocent Vietnamese civilians. Becoming so entrenched in the ideals of exceptionalism and democracy is a refusal to acknowledge the harm the U.S. has caused around the world — from the bungling of Southeast Asia in the late 1900s to the destruction in the Middle East today. There is a strong correlation between U.S.exceptionalism and support for foreign intervention, as it is often believed that the U.S. has the resources, power and political clout to fix the world. Yet from this arises a dangerous savior complex that perpetuates an “us versus them” mentality: the powerful are praised for lending a hand to the impoverished and are relegated to the status of a near-superhero while the helpless are seen as lacking the agency to support themselves, making it seem as if they “need” help.
Having this type of savior mentality actually creates a further divide between humanity, particularly between the privileged and the oppressed. The recognition of these flaws within U.S. exceptionalism and in Pyle’s own liberal ideologies, however, can be useful in deconstructing this way of thinking and instead finding new foundations for humanitarian intervention to operate.
Even in situations like genocide, one of the most extreme forms of violence, there are people who are guided by the hope that they can help in some way, no matter how miniscule their efforts may be. For instance, Romeo Dallaire, commander of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, sought to mitigate the genocide in Rwanda despite the obstacles in his way. In Samantha Power’s book, “A Problem From Hell,” she describes Dallaire by saying, “If ever there was a peacekeeper who believed wholeheartedly in the promise of humanitarian action, it was the forty-seven-year-old major general who commanded UN peacekeepers in Rwanda.” While Dallaire was driven by his dedication to humanitarianism, the U.S. did not share similar sentiments. In the book, Power wrote that “Dallaire lacked not merely intelligence data and manpower but also institutional support.” It is obvious here that the fault was not in Dallaire’s ideological viewpoints on humanitarian intervention, but in the lack of support from governments that are more concerned with protecting their own interests than human life. Having a government that behaves in the way the U.S. did sets a negative precedent for foreign intervention. When people like Dallaire feel compelled to act in the name of humanitarian intervention, governments should also stand by these people in a reasonable way.
Dallaire is quite similar to Pyle in that both men were hopeful in their efforts to save and help others. However, there is a stark difference in the support the men received from the U.S. While the U.S. supported Pyle in his endeavors as the Third Force in Vietnam, the U.S. did not answer/respond to Dallaire’s constant requests for more resources in Rwanda. The outcomes are Pyle, a man who was too blinded by his ideologies to see the damage he was leaving in his wake, and Romeo Dallaire, a man who was unable to get even a foot in the door. In Dallaire’s situation, his hopefulness to help mitigate the problems in Rwanda were squandered by the lack of government aid and resources. If an individual is fueled by hope to enact change, this can only be accomplished by further support from the institutions in power that have the ability to move these endeavors forward even more. In the middle where these two polar opposites meet is a system where governments support individuals who have good, humanitarian intentions without giving them too much clout to cause destruction.
The novel that showcased the most hope in action was “World Hunger: 10 Myths” by Frances Moore Lappe and Joseph Collins. Each myth that was debunked was accompanied by examples of farmers in countries in the Global South who are employing different farming methods that are environmentally sustainable, and groups who are fighting for greater economic equality in their own countries. For instance, in the two states in India, Himachal Pradesh and Kerala, the presence of strong community involvement, high levels of female participation, local accountability, and land reform laws in the 1950s and 1970s have allowed for a greater proportion of households to own land and a greater reduction in caste inequality.
What these places and other nations around the world show is the importance of collective units working together to improve social, economic, or political systems. But in many of these places where innovation and collectivism leads to improvements in equity and distribution, there is no room for hopelessness; there is no place for wallowing in despair, despondency or woe.
Hopelessness is a state of emotion for the privileged — those who have the luxury of feeling hopeless without suffering from any life-threatening consequences. For the people who live in the Global South, where poverty and homelessness is rampant, there is no productive outcome that can result from feeling hopeless. The need to survive each day trumps the hopelessness that seem to be prominent among millennials living in First World countries, particularly the U.S.
Hopelessness is a state of stagnancy — there seems to be no avenue of change, and this is something those living their day-to-day without any sense of food or home security cannot afford. There is often no use in feeling defeated — it implies that there is no point in moving forward. Despite the hopelessness that is rampant among many young Americans, there is a lot to learn from those living in the Global South. As is seen in “World Hunger,” there are millions of people throughout the Global South who are driven by the need to survive and the need to provide for their family, with the hope of a better future.
It is important to recognize the caveat to being hopeful: the danger of crossing into saviorship in the name of “saving the world.” This is clearly evident in Pyle’s actions/thoughts in “The Quiet American”, and in many other philanthropy and charity organizations that seek to make a positive change in the world by helping the underprivileged. Oftentimes, those who have the power to do good are motivated by the idea of saving and the self-gratification that accompanies helping others. But this can lead to misguided philanthropy and volunteerism — the kind that donates food, clothing, money, or other forms of humanitarian aid — which produces short-term success but leads to long-term damage.
It is important for volunteers and organizations to develop an understanding of the people they are helping, instead of deciding which form of aid is best for them without receiving their input first or considering the cultural, political, social and economic implications of their actions. Through this, greater positive change can occur without enacting debilitating damage on these nations. But even if charities are more responsible with their humanitarianism, the reality is that underlying notions of saviordom will most likely continue to exist. And perhaps it will always prevail and will never truly be eradicated from U.S. ideology. This does not mean human aid and philanthropy should stop entirely for the sake of getting rid of the U.S. savior complex, nor does it mean foreign intervention is utterly hopeless. Instead, it should be wary of treating people in need, especially those in the Global South, as radically different and seeing them as incapable of helping themselves.
Despite hope being a valuable asset to enacting change, when it comes to humanitarian intervention, much of the decision-making rests in the hands of powerful government officials. The reality here is that governments do not operate on hope, but on power and control. Furthermore, the type of hope that may be present in systems of government is the type of self-serving hopefulness that their policies, whether domestic or foreign, succeed without much regard to the constituents that these policies will impact. Government often operates in its own self-interest, making sure that the resources or money being used do not negatively impact the country’s own assets and reputation.
A primary example of this is the way the U.S. repeatedly chose not to recognize genocides that occurred in many countries across the globe, from Rwanda to Cambodia to Bosnia. In these instances, the rationale for its neutrality and non-intervention ranged from believing there was a reluctance to expend the country’s resources, and a denial to accept the reality of genocide.
However, the current concentrations of power and the dynamics behind government institutions do not have to remain this way. The tenth myth in “World Hunger,” “Power is too concentrated for real change — it’s too late,” speaks directly to the hopelessness many people feel about current power structures that are operated by the few and oppress the many. In their book “World Hunger: Ten Myths,” Lappe and Collins introduce the idea of “Living Democracy,” which they define as “not a fixed structure, but an evolving culture characterized by a wide dispersion of power, transparency, and mutual accountability: neither one-way blame nor one-way power”. This new, different way of thinking about democracy and power includes the voices of all people and not just the few and far-between. Living Democracy is led by hope, as it perceives democracy as a vehicle for all people to create a system of laws and policies that are beneficial to them and represent their concerns. In these budding political systems, there is room for hope as a driving force for constant change, and there is the space for it to become a force that is concomitant to power instead of the two being separate from one another.
Hope is the foundation for change. It inspires and motivates people to continue moving forward. However, hope still cannot properly function without hopelessness, as the absence of one disrupts the balance that must exist between the two. Having too much hope, as seen with Pyle, can result in a misguided and blinded perception of the world. On the other side of the spectrum, feeling utterly hopeless leads to despondency and the thought that damaged systems cannot be fixed. It invokes a sense of doom and a bleak future. However, mixing hope and hopelessness together allows people to recognize the cracks present in the world, but still have the drive and motivation to fix them.
In the realm of humanitarian intervention, realistic hope is key to helping people locate the resources they need to help themselves. Looking at the state of humanitarian intervention, it is not so much asking if the system does more good than bad or vice versa, but how it can be improved. Clinging to hope in the face of immense obstacles is not foolish, as some people may believe, but a noble act. It is understanding the roadblocks that take away people’s agency and makes it difficult for people to help themselves, and subsequently working to transform the current power structure that creates these obstacles. Hope is choosing not to give up, but rather choosing to move forward.
Celisa Calacal is a junior journalism major and legal studies minor at Ithaca College. Celisa’s academic interests are studying identity politics, public policy, women’s rights and the criminal justice system in the U.S. She is currently the opinion editor of The Ithacan, and has also interned for ThinkProgress, a left-wing news site in Washington, D.C. With her journalism degree, Celisa hopes to become an investigative journalist who weeds out systemic corruption and sheds light in the darkest of places.