Educational institutions are very good at keeping track of their alumni. Since my kids have passed through many such ateliers — or do I mean usines? — we get a good deal of correspondence from these worthies, all tending to demonstrate what worthy recipients they would be of our generosity, should we happen to be feeling generous, and in a position to indulge the feeling. Little do they know.
I have before me one of these productions. The cover story is about an alum who has been spending her time lately enlightening the poor heathen. Let’s call her Diotima:
Diotima played soccer in high school…. When she was working… for the Harvard Summer School in Zanzibar… she noticed that many people viewed women’s soccer as immoral due to cultural gender norms….
To abridge the tedious and cliche-ridden tale, Diotima made a documentary film about a women’s soccer team in Zanzibar, and got a grant to go screen it there —
…to show other girls that they could be Muslims and soccer players at the same time… and to offer soccer clinics for women… [H]er screenings and clinics sparked debate, changed minds, and empowered women.
(You see what I mean about the cliches, right? Believe me, it’s all like that.)
There’s a conversion story about a village ‘chief’ — this is the word they use, ‘chief’ — who ends up proclaiming that ‘Soccer is a sport, and religion is something inside you.’ Clearly a good candidate, now, for the first Rotary Club in Zanzibar — a mainstream middle-class American Protestant Muslim.
What strikes me about stories like this — and we hear them all the time, if not in alumni bulletins, then on NPR — is how identical they are with 19th-century missionary testimonials. There is the same absolute assurance that we know what’s what; that the objects of our missionary activities do not; and that we have a plain duty to drag them to enlightenment, which they really want, whether they know it or not:
From Greenland’s icy mountains, From India’s coral strand, Where Afric’s sunny fountains Roll down their golden sand, From many an ancient river, From many a palmy plain, They call us to deliver Their land from error’s chain!
We actually sang this hymn — a lot! — when I was a wee choirboy, back in the Pleistocene. I always liked it, not so much for the moral as the imagery. Sunny fountains! Golden sand! Ancient rivers! Bring it on!
The image up top shows an “artist’s conception” of the death of the Revd John Williams at the hands of ‘cannibals’ in the South Seas. Here is another image of the reverend gentleman, at a more propitious phase of his ministry:
Note the chap behind the padre offering trade goods — a mirror; machine-spun and -woven cloth; and of course the inevitable beads(*). You can be sure the un-enlightened will get the short end of the trade, once the padre has retired to his evangelical bed. Quite apart from the sinful self-assurance of the missionary himself, the fact that the entrepreneur is always his companion ought to give him pause.
The funny part is that the churches now get it, but the secularists don’t.
The churches that used to send missionaries out to preach the gospel of trousers and shirts to the naked heathen are now deeply embarrassed about this history. But the secularists, or perhaps I should say the soccularists, are still True Believers.
Of course they’ve reversed the sign on all their great-grandparents’ obsessions. The older missionaries were all about covering up. The new missionaries are all about uncovering.
But the underlying impulse, I think, is the same.
(*) It occurs to me that this triad might conceal an allegory: A manufactured self-image, labor time arbitrage, and of course the ample category of things that are utterly useless but bright and shiny, and therefore irresistible.