Philip Weiss (HarperCollins 2004)
The missionary impulse is central to the American character. From the Puritans who intended Massachusetts to be a beacon of spirituality, moral probity, and perfected society for the folks back home in England to the Marines currently tasked with distributing frisbees to Iraqi youth in between shooting other, more fanatical, Iraqi youths, the history of the United States has been shaped by missionaries. These missionary projects are not always religious in nature, either; they just as often arise from a secular impulse, grounded in altruism, vaguely Judeo-Christian morality, and Enlightenment virtues.
Examples abound throughout American history. The original seal of the Massachusetts Bay Colony dating from 1629 featured the image of a Native American with a speech balloon reading "Come Over and Help Us." The first contacts between natives and Europeans on the frontier were generally either by priests (spiritual missionaries), or traders (secular missionaries). In the 19th century, the missionary urge was codified in policy as the Monroe Doctrine and the notion of “manifest destiny” asserted that to rule over the entire continent from Atlantic to Pacific was America's God-given duty (the literal meaning of “manifest destiny”). Soon afterward, the uniquely American fondness for evangelical Protestantism embraced once again the spiritual side of missionary work, a tradition still carried on by Mormon missionaries worldwide. The late 19th century enthusiasm for Settlement Houses, urban welfare leagues, Native American reform, and the like aimed to “uplift” populations at home much as American ventures in explicit and casual empire, from Cuba and Puerto Rico to China and the Philippines, tried to do outside its borders.
Today, the same missionary impulse lies at the heart of America's strategy of fighting the war on terrorism by spreading the Enlightenment virtues of individual liberty, individual rights, and democracy to the Middle East and beyond. Of course, as a thorough look at any one of the foregoing examples will show, even the most high-minded of goals can be tainted with baser stuff; racism, pettiness, arrogance, cruelty, indifference to the suffering of others.
Philip Weiss new book, American Taboo: A Murder in the Peace Corps is the story of the American missionary spirit and its limits. Weiss tells the story of Deborah Gardner, a young Peace Corps volunteer who was murdered in Tonga in 1976 by another volunteer, a man named Dennis Priven. Despite a confession, Priven was ultimately found not guilty in Tongan court by way of insanity and returned home to the United States a free man. The murder became a flashpoint: many Peace Corps volunteers and Corps administration rallied around Priven, while the Tongan judicial system viewed his rights and privileges as a confessed murder in a much less favorable light. Relying on Peace Corps documents obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests, research in Tonga and the USA, and numerous interviews, Weiss uses the murder and its aftermath to explore a set of heavy themes: The American drive to win "hearts and minds" worldwide as seen througth the Peace Corps and its mission; the nature of interactions between missionaries and local populations; the tensions that result when the American do-good spirit runs into real-world complexities; and a meditation on provinciality and cultural difference. Along the way, Weiss spins a fascinating tale that encompasses the history of the Peace Corps, the niceties of Tongan politics and culture, the queerness of expatriate society, and the mortal perils of bureaucratic inefficiency.