Friday, July 27, 2012

Hitchens on missionaries

I've been returning to Christopher Hitchens' famous takedown of Mother Teresa this week. In his discussions of her behavior in Calcutta, I'm finding words that help clarify what's wrong with recent depictions of my own neighborhood.

This past couple of years, we've seen impressions given repeatedly in corporate PR and the business press that western South of Market was a benighted wasteland until tech businesses came to save us. As if long-term residents like us were all desperately in need of handouts. In fact our neighborhood includes professionals, hippies, artists, business owners, service workers, mechanics, stock investors, retirees, academics, unemployed people who serve the community in ways that don't make money -- a full range of human beings. Many of whom do not feel personally affected by the tech industry at all except by its effect on the quality of local restaurants.

After a long break from Hitchens' book, I got hold of a copy and, yes, it kind of confirms that we're getting the Calcutta treatment here.

In The Missionary Position, Hitchens argues that Mother Teresa and her earliest celebrity promoter, Malcolm Muggeridge, needed to project an image of powerless, pathetic neediness onto the people of Calcutta in order to prove her saintliness:
"Essential to Muggeridge's project, essential indeed to the whole Mother Teresa cult, is the impression that Calcutta is a hellhole..."
"...The pleasant surprise that awaits the visitor to Calcutta is this: it is poor and crowded and dirty, in ways which are hard to exaggerate, but it is anything but abject. Its people are neither inert nor cringing. They work and they struggle, and as a general rule (especially as compared with ostensibly richer cities such as Bombay) they do not beg..."
 and, a chapter later:
"As ever, the true address of the missionary is to the self-satisfaction of the sponsor and the donor, and not the needs of the downtrodden. Helpless infants, abandoned derelicts, lepers and the terminally ill are the raw material for demonstrations of compassion. They are in no position to complain, and their passivity and abjection is consdered a sterling trait."
That's Pages 22, 23 and 53 in The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice.

For all his many sins, Hitchens was brilliant at skewering others' self-serving pieties. I've tried to say some of this about SoMa before now, more clumsily, here and here. But he gets to the central point much better.

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