Eat, Pray, Militate: Study Abroad and the Military-Industrial Complex

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If you were at the helm of a growing segment of both the private and public sectors, what would you consider to be the key to future growth? A poor (and therefore cheap) labor force, directed by a debt-laden (and therefore pliable) management class? Or the unconditional political support of every sector of your market, from the consumers to your government to the laborers? What if you could get it all on a silver platter?

That’s the function of study abroad programs in the United States.

Although the number of study abroad participants is still only 1% of all college students in the country, this percentage is slated to rise tremendously, if we can take seriously the Lincoln Commission’s stated goal of quintupling participation to 1 million students by 2017, with an even higher number studying in places like Africa instead of England, Spain, France, and other locations more or less full of white people and legacies of imperial conquest. Fun!

But as an industry big enough to merit its own lobby, study abroad has come under a lot of criticism in recent years for its corrupt backroom deals (between universities, government, and corporations) – in short, for playing the game set by our highly regulated system which, as in healthcare, promotes the use of third-party for-profit players over individual compensation and mutual aid groups. Most of the money forked over for study abroad, whether from banks or taxpayers, “goes directly to colleges, not always to the students who take the trips.”

I can vouch for this point personally. When applying to different programs in Dakar, Senegal, where I studied the Fall of 2013, I specifically sought out the best-priced option to make sure that my financial aid would cover my costs. Unthinkingly, I admit, I hadn’t expected that the cost didn’t matter – my college paid the (piddling) price and then billed me for the cost of a full semester…in America. I ended up paying tuition plus travel expenses, the third-party institution got paid a miniscule amount, and my college pocketed the difference.

No matter, I told myself. So what if I’d been ripped off for the sake of my college’s stamp of approval on my transcripts? I would still be broadening my horizons, expanding my experience, learning to appreciate my privilege, et cetera and ad nauseum. But what I found was something else, something disturbing, something much less Hallmark-card. At my third-party institution (funded primarily, it turns out, by the State Department), I found that study abroad, as an industry and a commercial service, is sponsored by a neoconservative establishment to reinforce the ideological foundations of an imperialist agenda. The liberal veneer of these programs masks a propaganda machine that plays on the humanitarian sensibilities (and saviour complexes) of their primary consumers, affluent white college students.

This is, of course, ground that’s been covered before: the evil straight white men are in the government, which is in Africa, in women’s bodies, and in your brain. While I agree with an aspect of that argument, it’s not a conversation I feel inclined to engage with right now. Instead, I think it’d be more fruitful to look at how two other classes of people have slid under the critical radar when it comes to empire-building and cultural domination: (straight) white women, and gay (white) men.

Women’s Rights, Gay Rights, America’s Right to Dominate

Study abroad appeals to a certain liberal American identity, an identity which is rooted in a highly affective self-image. Humanitarian concerns, empathy for the underprivileged (or the unwashed masses), and a simultaneous sense of both being privileged oneself (as a First-Worlder) and a martyr or victim (as an American in Africa, a woman, a gay man) – these are the pillars of 21st-century American liberalhood. To be liberal, in this sense of the word, is to care – and to be cared for/about. It is to “buy into” the system, quite literally if you are, say, a gay man who donates to the Human Rights Campaign, or a woman who buys a shirt from NOW or NARAL.

That’s not to say that these organizations are “bad.” They each do good work, as far as lobbying goes. But there’s a reason they’ve become as successful as they have. As Steven Thrasher wrote in Gawker last year apropos of the corporate sell-out/buy-out (depending on point of view) of the LGBT rights movement:

Since there are so many homos in positions of power on congressional staffs, buying a seat at their gay table was a solid financial investment. If a legislative chief of staff is a power bottom, a quick way for a lobbyist to get access to his boss is to lube him up by schmoozing him at a fundraising gala for his favorite cause.

This kind of analysis is anathema to liberal sensibilities: gay men are intrinsically incapable of being victimizers, because they are victims themselves. But why are the only causes addressed by the gay establishment (and its useful idiots, Thrasher’s “Professional Homosexuals”) those which also happen to promote the interests of a militarized and heteronormative state? The long and short of it is: because the establishment knows not to bite the hand that feeds it. The same can easily be said of the white feminist establishment, which has long thrown queer women and women of color under the bus for the sake of gaining “equality” with men in the all-American corporate rat race. Who is being represented by these movements? It’s not everyone, that much is clear. But it is people like me – and the many white (and straight or straight-presenting) women and other gay (white) men I went to Africa with.

Maybe it seems strange for a bunch of women and some openly gay men to choose to go to Senegal, where homosexuality and other “acts against nature” are illegal, and female genital excision is a widely accepted cultural practice. But with the mainstream victories of feminism and gay rights, and the formation of a popular 21st-century liberal identity centered around constantly proving one’s compassion and broad-mindedness, industries have adapted and discovered (created?) a new niche market. Study abroad is one such industry.

The gender gap in SA participants is much-documented and little-understood. To talk straight, it’s possible, even likely, that middle-class white womanhood as it’s constructed in the United States – with simultaneous emphases on emotionality, maternal feeling, and (most recently) careerism – leads many white women to actively pursue and dominate any field, educational or corporate, that has to do with humanitarian work. The female missionary lives and breathes today in the figure of the Development Studies major. And the standard feminist refrain – “We’re all oppressed, we’re all women” – isn’t enough to erase the racial disparities here.

In the same way that there’s a gender gap, might there also be a (male) sexuality gap, as more white gay men look to establish themselves as global citizens on an equal playing field with their straight-male and female compatriots? Might homonationalism have a part to play in turning more and more gay men into missionaries for a particular kind of Western sexual identity, over and above some imagined African and Middle Eastern sexual depravity? So the appeal to some kind of common liberal identity is pitched primarily to the people who’ve already been trained to think of themselves as sentimental and altruistic – or as universal victims tasked with the responsibility (and the right) to promote a universal gay identity.

Girl Exploited

This is all hardly speculative, particularly in light of Thrasher’s and others’ work on gay miltarism and colonial feminism, nor is it insignificant. How much money went into producing, for instance, Girl Rising, a film put out by my own study abroad institution and screened (among other locations) at a local Dakar business school? I recall sitting and laughing, peevishly I’m sure, at the movie’s cheap emotional tactics used to draw in potential donors, volunteers, and future employees. Girl Rising deploys the image most likely to inspire maternal protectiveness in white women and gay men, socially programmed as hyper-affective care-crusaders: the defenseless, vulnerable, adorable girl.

Maybe the producers, writers, and director were unaware of all the criticism that such ploys have garnered lately. Maybe they were unaware of the academic discourse, ongoing since at least the 80s, about the subaltern – the socially powerless figure – and her inability to speak freely in a system which uses her own vulnerability as justification to control her. If the Third-World woman, as some have argued, is the epitome of the subaltern, who could deny that the figure of the young girl surpasses even her older counterpart in vulnerability to exploitation? Isn’t anyone at these institutions asking the question: Are we helping these girls – or using their images to support empire-building and profit-making?

Let’s take one part of this film: a segment which takes place in Afghanistan, following the fortunes of girls under the ultra-conservative Taliban. This portion concludes with a sequence of young women triumphantly pulling off their burqas, à la Buffy, thanks to the displacement of the oppressive regime. But nowhere is mention made of the deplorable state of women’s rights under the American-imposed transitional government. Why leave out that detail? Maybe because the film’s primary backers have no interest in how women actually fare in the Middle East – though they do have a lot riding on the continual support of American-installed regimes.

Yet the general response to the movie was unadulterated praise for its compassion and promotion of a feminist cause. I was criticized for criticizing it. No reflection on its strengths and flaws was provoked by the faculty and staff of our institution. (The women on staff were, conveniently, not invited to watch. They were instead charged with setting up the refreshments.)

World Citizens or Emotional Tourists?

Without critical thinking, students only reconfirm their own biases, engaging in a kind of emotional tourism, complete with Julia Roberts and camel-riding. (“Critical thinking” in this case means reflection on how your political situation can affect your judgment, and understanding the impact of economic and political privilege on your interactions with locals.)

The Third World exists for such programs as the scene of their students’ collective catharsis and consequent acceptance of interventionism (“How wonderful we’ve deposed that awful Taliban”) and economic interference in the form of NGOs and multinationals with special trade privileges. Understanding this helped me to grasp why a Peace Corps volunteer I stayed with for a week told me that he actually supported high legal barriers to native Senegalese starting businesses, coupled with trade privileges for multinationals. Africans cannot help themselves, in this view, and so we must prevent them from hurting themselves…while, of course, making a healthy profit. This is little more than a 21st century white man’s burden, but (once again) formulated as the work of women, and, for somewhat different reasons, of gay men. And it’s a burden propagandized by the U.S. government via the supposedly liberal institution of study abroad.

End the Educational-Military-Industrial Complex

Sure, it’s not as catchy as “End the Fed” and you can’t make a hashtag out of it, but it’s got to end. Government involvement in study abroad does little more than transform what should be an educational experience into a propaganda machine. This is not in the interest of the taxpayers who partially subsidize these programs; nor of the students who attend them, presumably seeking to broaden their worldviews and not just to have their prejudices confirmed; and least of all the economically underdeveloped populations they claim to bring Americans in productive contact with. Instead, it leads to even more support for the American military-industrial complex by tacitly endorsing neoconservative policies which reduce the freedom of local peoples to manage their own lives, politically and economically. These students are the future employees of NGOs, the U.S. State Department, and other powerful institutions. They are the management class, indebted to the system, and willing to please it. They are men and women getting their humanitarian fix.

And they are not learning. In part, they are being thrown into foreign contexts with few critical thinking skills, leading to a large propensity for finding fault with their environment and bringing that judgment back home, unmediated by reflection and serious discussion of the dynamics of power in an international, postcolonial context. As one example: what is a student to make of their host father telling them, “Africans are born corrupt”? Without reflection on the position of the speaker (middle-class, Westernized to the point of volunteering to host an American student) and the invisible impact of his audience on how he expresses his opinion, that student might go home with the idea that interventionism isn’t so bad. After all, “Africans” (which?) support it. “Africans” (which?) agree that they’re incapable of surviving on their own. “Africans” (now it’s clear: all Africans) need Americans.

But when my host father said this exact sentence to me, I had to pause. I had to reflect. I had to remind myself not to repeat this particular anecdote out of context to conservative relatives at a Christmas party. I had to think – and refuse to be an emotional tourist.

1. There are, in fact, not many “gay” men or women in Africa, if identities can be measured. The terms more often used, aside from local words which have existed much longer than the words “gay” and “lesbian” as sexual and gender labels, are men who have sex with men [MSM] and women who have sex with women [WSW]. These acknowledge that few people in most African cultures surveyed engage only in same-sex sexual interactions. The fact that this almost never enters into discussions of “gay rights” in Africa is one clear result of the hegemony of American identity politics.

Brendan Moore is an undergrad studying English and French. He lives all over the place. He enjoys a good beer and subversive feminist stand-up. Both at the same time.



    • Brendan Moore

      The “end” is a footnote. The real ending of the article is at “Emotional tourist” in the previous paragraph. Poor Cathy has to contend with figuring out how to deal with my bizarre use of footnotes in a blog format and I give her props for putting up with both me and WordPress. 😉

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