Printer-friendly versionSend by emailPDF version

Heroic efforts by individuals and NGOs may have beneficial outcomes and in very poor countries may be a prime option for dealing with social ills. But African leaders are advised against the wholesale adoption of Western ideals of “personal responsibility.”

Symbolism of the hero is dominant in Western, in particular American, culture. The rugged individual who overcomes all trials and tribulations to defeat a seemingly invincible foe is virtually the embodiment of an underlying sense of who Americans are. We worship outstanding athletes, movie stars, celebrities, the glitterati, occasionally even real-life heroes in the finest sense—persons who perform selfless acts in the cause of social justice, as in CNN’s annual Heroes TV show, which aired recently. In the actions of such persons (and innumerable unsung others) the archetypal theme is enacted in highly positive ways, having direct impact on people’s lives as well as inspiring the rest of us to strive toward achievement and greatness. But as renowned Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung noted, archetypes may play out in negative ways too, to the point of seizing the psyche and precipitating dangerous, even fatal, consequences, at the collective as well as the individual level. Is this all a bunch of psychological gobbledygook or does it have real meaning in the world, and Africa, today?

In emphasizing the individual, one correspondingly de-emphasizes the various larger communities—local, state, federal, etc—of which the individual is a part. This zero-sum relationship holds, generally, if we broaden the concept of hero to include heroic groups of individuals, such as non-governmental organizations, or NGOs. Arundhati Roy has argued against the “NGO-ization” of social programs to promote the common good, in that she sees the shunting of the task of dealing with social ills onto the shoulders of NGOs as an abnegation of governmental responsibility [Democracy Now, 8/23/2004">. The universal human rights stipulated by the United Nations, for example, are not to be left to the vagaries of charitable entities.

In America, governmental responsibility for the wellbeing of citizens is enshrined in the Preamble to the Constitution in the explicit wish of the founding fathers to “promote the general welfare.” This was 200¬-some-odd years before “welfare” became the dirty word it is today. The venerated icons of the American way of life recognized that hardships that were nobody’s fault were likely to arise from time to time. Winter might be unduly harsh. Crops might fail, locusts swarm. The levees could burst. Beavers might chew away the dam. The family breadwinner might suffer debilitating illness. Such unwelcome events were likely to occur quite at random, affecting the “general welfare.” The wise and humane thing to do was to establish a means for helping each other in time of trouble; metaphorically, to establish a kind of social safety net that would protect everybody (at least everybody that mattered to them, i.e., white male property owners of substance). The founding elders wished to “establish a more perfect union,” an in-this-togetherness that gave strength in numbers, collective identification and communal bonding to citizens of the young nation. It was good to be in with the in-crowd.

Life these days continues to present challenges. When demographic data reveal patterns of social problems among segments of the larger population—e.g. minority districts in America, much of sub-Saharan Africa, etc.—there are two radically different types of conclusions that might be drawn. The first attributes the inequities, the pockets of poverty, crime, incarceration and other social ills, to characteristics of the people involved. The afflicted groups are populated by lazy “welfare queens” or “irresponsible manipulators of the system,” and so on. The second, and proper, type of conclusion recognizes that some failing of the society itself is at fault. Note that when it is ethnicity which is the defining characteristic of the suffering populations, conclusions of the first type—particularly given their disengagement from the historical background and lack of scientific confirmation—come very close to being racist, if not qualifying outright. They violate the basic axiom that no race is superior to any other and the philosophical truth that “there but for fortune go you and I.”

This type of racist statement often falls under the philosophical shield of the dogma of “personal responsibility,” i.e., that the essence of the matter is in pulling oneself up by the bootstraps, that failures of effort and initiative are the all-important causes of people’s woes, and that accordingly there no longer remains any need for social safety nets. As these statements typically come from persons living privileged lives—whether American, European or African—it takes no great perspicacity to discern the self-serving bias of their rhetoric. The tangling-up of such statements with an “Ayn Randian” loathing of “losers” as biological or evolutionary misfits adds an element of hateful bile to the racism. Note the extension of the argument, on the global stage, to the tendency of wealthy nations to dismiss the struggles of the Third World, even while promoting policies that weaken poor countries.

Which brings us back to Roy’s point: that promoting the common welfare is properly the work of society and should not be left to the vagaries of charitable institutions and individuals, whose ability to help may be a pittance in comparison to the resources of the state. The American founding fathers, if we can take them at their word, agreed—they considered promoting the common welfare of such importance that they enshrined it in the Preamble to the Constitution. Nowadays we are urged instead to heed those who, having reached the mountaintop—often boosted by public aid or family fortune—would cut the safety ropes by which those at the bottom might struggle up and from their cozy perches preach the virtues of “tough love” and doing for oneself.

Jung argued that any archetype that seizes control of the psyche may wield deleterious, even disastrous, results. In the West, the hero archetype dominates our collective psychology. Even the CNN show, as wonderful and inspiring as it is, by its very nature reinforces this dominant paradigm in the cultural Zeitgeist. Promoting personal responsibility is all well and good, but clinging blindly to the heroic ideal at the expense of failing to recognize and value the importance of wise and studied governmental intervention invites social decline and ruin.

The “hero” is a deep element of human psychology, some would say mythic and archetypal. Heroic actions accomplish much good and inspire individuals to do their fair share and more. But let us not make a leap of illogic and fall in line with ideologues endorsing the shifting of society’s role in promoting the common welfare onto the shoulders of heroic individuals and NGOs. Obviously this applies particularly to wealthy nations and less so to poor ones that have little choice but to open up to outside sources of wealth. Still, African leaders would do well to guard against the glib and superficial proselytizing of anti-government crusaders.


* Please do not take Pambazuka for granted! Become a Friend of Pambazuka and make a donation NOW to help keep Pambazuka FREE and INDEPENDENT!

* Please send comments to editor[at]pambazuka[dot]org or comment online at Pambazuka News.

* David Cupples, Ph. D., is the author of Stir It Up: The CIA Targets Jamaica, Bob Marley and the Progressive Manley Government (a novel). He can be reached by email at [email protected] or through his Facebook page