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Monday, October 13, 2008

Paul Farmer: Conservatism, Socialism, and Ambivalence

Via Rod Dreher, I see that Alan Jacobs has written in praise of Tracy Kidder's remarkable portrait of Paul Farmer, Mountains Beyond Mountains. I cannot agree more with what Alan has written: the story of Dr. Farmer--a Duke and Harvard- educated specialist in infectious diseases who has devoted his life to serving the poorest of the poor in Haiti's central plateau, as well as many other places around the world through numerous organizations his expertise and unflagging determination has led him to found or otherwise become involved in--is a beautiful and important one, one which challenges in a very direct sense what our priorities are. It is a book that we are reading here at Friends University as part of our First Year Experience for incoming freshman and transfer students. I wish I could say that all of them are appreciating the message--or at least are finding themselves slapped in the face occasionally by the message--of the story of Paul Farmer, but I'm not sure that's happening. But then again, as Alan points out, Dr. Farmer is himself sympathetic to the idea of the "long defeat," the idea that most battles will be lost, that most seeds which are sown are going to fall on stony ground, that most good deeds will (at best!) simply keep people alive and happy for one more day, until--perhaps--someday, maybe soon, maybe years and years hence, they will be remembered and will expand into a transformation of a person's heart and mind or perhaps even the society around them. Until then, you educate, you serve, you struggle.

A couple of things worth adding to Alan's and Rod's points. First, to get a sense of the man, and what he's all about, check out this recent 60 Minutes interview. It's on the maudlin and simplistic side--like all network television news, I'm afraid--but it gets, I think, the most important things about Farmer's background, drive, and daily life correct:

Second, let's be very clear on what Farmer has to say to all the rest of us. It is a message that focuses on 1) his belief in the absolute right of all human beings--including especially those perhaps 2.5 billion people around the world who survive on the equivalent of $2 or less day--have to basic sustainability and medical care, and 2) his deep conviction that fulfilling step 1) cannot be done through casual charity or even liberal redistribution programs (though both certainly help!): it's going to require genuine social and cultural sacrifice and change:

Just when you thought had the hang of his worldview, [Farmer would] surprise you. He had problems with groups that on the surface would have seemed like allies, that often were allies in fact, with for example what he called "WL's"--white liberals, some of whose most influential spokespeople were black and prosperous. "I love WL's, love 'em to death. They're on our side....But WL's think all the world's problems can be fixed without any cost to themselves. We don't believe that. There's a lot to be said for sacrifice, remorse, even pity. It's what separates us from roaches." [MBM, pg. 40].

What about those who don't feel pity? I mean, isn't that one of the classic arguments for avoiding utopian or socialist thinking: the truth that in a free society--and we all believe in at least a little bit of individual freedom here, don't we?--there's going to be diversity and differences and disagreements, and as such any attempt to impose communitarian, much less any morally felt obligations of service and sacrifice is going to fail? Hence, we have to trust in the free market, or at most, in some egalitarian taxing and re-arranging of it, and hope that charity takes care of the rest. It's a strong point...but one that, as Dr. Farmer's constant, unending scrambling for funds and his unceasing labors in the field both make clear, still leaves millions of people dying from treatable diseases every year. (You want statistics? How about this: in 1995, "UNICEF estimated that the total cost of providing basic social services in the developing countries, including health, education, family planning, and clean water, would cost $30 to $40 billion per year. At the time the rich of the world were spending more than this on golf each year" [Ronald J. Sider, Rich Christians in an Age of Hunger: Moving From Affluence to Generosity, pg. 17].) Dr. Farmer's story--his life--teaches, in my view at least, a central truth about serving the poor: that a commitment to social justice will, and probably should, hurt. Indeed, being sensitive to that hurt is what can make you aware of, and willing to do something for, the society around you in the first place:

"If you're making sacrifices [Farmer once said], unless you're automatically following some rule, it stands to reason that you're trying to lessen some psychic discomfort. So, for example, if I took steps to be a doctor for those who don't have medical care, it could be regarded as a sacrifice, but it could also be regarded as a way to deal with ambivalence." He went on, and his voice changed a little. He didn't bristle, but his tone had an edge: "I feel ambivalent about selling my services in a world where some can't buy them. You can feel ambivalent about that, because you should feel ambivalent." [MBM, pg. 24]

Farmer was raised a Christian believer, but only became truly committed during his years of going back and forth between Harvard and Haiti: "The fact that any sort of religious faith was so disdained at Harvard and so important to the poor--not just in Haiti but elsewhere too--made me even more convinced that faith must be something good" [MBM, pg. 85]. He became a fierce advocate of that element of Catholic social justice teaching that emphasizes giving preference to the poor, or the "option for the poor." For Farmer, this has meant liberation theology, and a thoroughgoing critique of the failures of the rich capitalist nations of the world to attend to the manifest and desperate needs of the poorest of the poor. Socialism? Farmer's not an economist, nor is he a theorist: he is, in his own words, "an action kind of guy" [MBM, pg. 79], and so he likes the untheoretical pragmatism of social justice in the context of a place like Haiti: socialism simply means prioritizing social goods, such as those support mechanisms whereby the poor do not necessarily die when they might be easily saved, and that means regularly providing sufficient for the poor to receive the service and remediation they require. Figuring out what role the state should have to do with it all comes along later, and probably would need to change as the times do.

Ambivalence--and the properly conservative understanding that, over the long haul, even one's best efforts in this fallen world won't add up to very much--ought to keep those who dream of perfect liberation and justice from trying to harden their revolutionary plans into a rigorous dogma. It is a hopeful, yet chastened, appreciation of what it means to be a Christian or just a decent human being, and thus feel obligated (to feel "oppressed," as I once put it) and serve the poor; an appreciation driven by ambivalence, and a sense of limits and of the tragic, and most importantly one focused on the personal and the local alongside the social and economic, rather than scampering off in search of easy ideological solutions. Those so-called "conservatives" who write off his vision as "abominable," as well as those "white liberals" who admire him from a safe suburban distance while they write him a check, don't get it. I can't say I fully get it...at least, not yet. But I'm trying.


Anonymous said...

Yo, you quote conservatives who think Pauly's vision "abominable." Which conservatives are you quoting, dawg? Or are you simply stereotyping all conservatives, the way some conservatives stereotype all Muslims as theocratic fascists? Dawg. get real yo...

Russell Arben Fox said...

Yo, Anonymous,

(Is that you, Scott? If so, your hip-hop voice is rusty; you need more practice, dawg.)

Which "conservatives" am I quoting? Well, a couple here at Friends University who responded pretty poorly to the selection of the book about Farmer (not "Pauly," yo, show some respect), as it included, in their view, quoting here, some "abominably stupid" criticisms of Western capitalism. Are they representative of conservative thought, generally? Don't know, don't care; that wasn't my point. Though you will also note, of course, that I called such people "so-called conservatives." I seriously doubt there's anything properly "conservative" about a dismissal of an effort to feed or provide medical care to the poor of the world, just because it sounds socialistic. But hey, that's just me.