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Trump Axes the Peace Corps

March 20, 2020

Me, in Tunis, Tunisia. February, 1967 in the Peace Corps. On Ave de la Liberte across the street from the Monoprix. I still have the same blanket, a gift from my mother. My father had gifted to her on a trip to Canada before they married in 1942 or so the story goes.. It sits on my bed today in Denver.

 

Peace Corps isn’t just bringing home 7,300 volunteers, because of the Coronavirus. It’s firing them. 

Well, I didn’t know it was coming but actually thought it might – ie, that Trumpty-Dumpty would get rid of Peace Corps… Creative, using the Coronavirus as a pretext to axe one of the few remaining humane elements of U.S. foreign policy. Have no mistake, the 7,300 volunteers “fired” – will not be rehired or replaced. This is it, it’s gone, another victim of Trumpian global politics and its xenophobic content. Done in the name of “cost savings?” It would have been safer for those volunteers to stay in one place rather than travel. My hunch is that there is far less danger of contracting Coronavirus in the kind of small rural settings Peace Corps volunteers frequently call home, than traveling internationally to return to the USA. (1)
No, the “problem” is elsewhere. Too many of those PC volunteers come home from wherever more liberal or radical than they were when they signed up in the first place. Besides, the Special forces – AFRICOM and the like, when they are killing people or training others to do so, are now digging wells, teaching, providing local medical care as a part of their public relations activities.
I’ve never given up on Peace Corps, nor have been cynical about it… the idea that it was some kind of CIA operation always struck me as nonsense, ludicrous… Not that I put it past the government to try to use the organization in some nefarious manner. Overwhelmingly we did no harm, occasionally served our own nation and the country we were assigned to. Most of the time we learned more than we taught, and in many cases were humbled of our own white skin privilege and racist attitudes, the cultural/ideological baggage we could not help bringing along with us – conscious or unconscious.
It didn’t take long to realize that regardless of where we were in the world that 1. the people we were dealing with were, in every way, our equals 2. that regardless of the country or the place, that we were getting in touch with a rich cultural tradition and a way of life far different from our own – the complete opposite of Trump’s description of “shithole countries” … a profoundly ugly and racist description. Among the vile comments this president has made, that one is up there among the worst.

Here and there it actually contributed to the countries where there were volunteers.
What it did do was to expose sixty years of American youth to the Third World for two years. For some of us, many of us, it was nothing short of a life-changing experience and of a positive nature. At a grassroots level, some genuine educational and technical assistance was provided. I might add that lifetime friendships, connections were made among those who served together. More than half a century – actually 53 years – after leaving Tunis, I am still in regular contact with many of the volunteers with whom I served. This is not unique. Lifetime bonds were made, endured and have flourished.
I did my “service” more than half a century ago during the Vietnam War years in Tunisia, in North Africa. We, those in my group, thought it would be more constructive to build bridges than blow them up. After a short time “in country” most of us lost the illusions that we were some kind of secular missionaries, relaxed and tried to learn as much as possible about the peoples and culture we found ourselves in. What resulted was a lifetime of friendships, connections with another country – important for Americans who are so isolated for the most part.

Me again, at the entrance to the same apartment 48 years later

I cannot count the number of former students whom I encouraged to join the Peace Corps and how many of them did, and with very few exceptions were the better for it. I have a friend here in Denver, Helen Miles – I think she spent more than twenty years in the Peace Corps – in China, Africa and I don’t remember where – can’t stop doing good for people. There are others I know who have signed up three, four times… a friend who in her seventies first went to Burkina Faso and more recently with her husband to Tanzania.

So ironic as it might seem – I mourn the closing down of this institution. Coming from the same neighborhood as such “luminaries” as Harvey Weinstein (he was raised in Flushing, NY – myself in neighboring Jamaica) and Donald Trump (he grew up less than a mile from our home near Jamaica High School and is about my age – didn’t know him then; he went to private school, me to public high school) I’d hate to think of the kind of person I’d be. Of course who knows? Bottom line: Peace Corps helped me be a better human being – and I know it had the same effect on thousands of others, probably tens of thousands.
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1. added a few hours later. It is true that the Peace Corps is not formally dissolved as of yet. If it is not, however, given the record of the Trump Administration, I would be greatly surprised. From where I sit, it’s a gonna and that is a sad fact, a kind of footnote on the collapse of that which was wholesome in U.S. foreign policy…
4 Comments leave one →
  1. Sarge Cheever permalink
    March 20, 2020 4:42 pm

    Nice on the Peace Corps.  Thanks.  Sarge

  2. debbiefairvazquez permalink
    March 20, 2020 7:06 pm

    This is so sad. An agency meant to help these villages , these people and just thrown aside for politics.

  3. March 20, 2020 10:04 pm

    from RJP – this came as an anonymous email… seems credible enough so I post it. Thank you whomever you are:

    “Very eloquent, heartfelt. It will come back. Boy do I want Trump to become unbearingly constipated. I did know someone who served in Colombia who was asked to report the names of village leaders and later learned they had been assassinated. He himself became a Dean Wittier veep because of parental money and used the position to exploit people, including my elderly mother who had been his mother’s best friend and remembered when he was born. I knew other great people in the Peace Corps, but this schmuck rises to the top as a so-called family friend.”

  4. March 21, 2020 8:37 am

    Rob, thanks for your homage to the PC. My son spent his PC years in a large village in one of the homelands in SA. Remarkable experience for him and us. We still have friends there from several visits. John

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