Transcript

126:

Do-Gooders
Transcript

Originally aired 04.09.1999

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/126

Prologue.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago and Public Radio International, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass.

Brigid

Start from the top? I needed a driver. I couldn't drive. The problem was I wanted to have my same life, my same nice little suburban, get in the car and drive everywhere life.

Ira Glass

Brigid was going blind in mid-life with a kid. She had stuff to do. So she took out an ad in the paper and hired somebody to drive her around, a guy named Harry. Nice guy. The first day, he picks her up in a van, takes her to her daughter's school at the end of the school day. They wait In line with the other parents.

Brigid

And Harry jumped out and started with his whisk broom. Opened up the van, opened up on both sides and whisk brooming and tidying it up.

Ira Glass

On errands, Harry would park in the handicapped space. Or if that wasn't available, he'd park on the grass to save Brigid a few steps. She asked him to take her to the grocery store.

Brigid

Anyway, so then we get out and always he'd be wanting to help me up by the elbows. He wanted to help. And he says to me as we went into the grocery, here, let me get the basket for you. Let me carry your-- and I said, no, no no. I'm fine. And oh, he says, please. Oh, let me. I'm here to be of service for you. And he kind of shadowed me throughout the grocery store. And it was just very, again, a lot of that roar-roar fight back. And then this awful feeling of that he's just trying to help me. What I he really wanted was to help somebody out.

Ira Glass

When you do something for somebody else, it always seems so simple. You just want to help. But in fact, you're forming a relationship with that person. And it's just as complicated as any relationship you can have. And like any other relationship, if you're not attentive to what the person actually wants, it's easy to blunder, which is why doing good for others is so difficult. In certain religions, the question of how to do good is a kind of obsession. Among my people, your Jews, it was traditionally a very big deal. In fact, one way to understand all Jewish law is as a set of instructions for doing good in the world. A set of instructions, I should say, so complicated, spanning so many centuries and thinkers, that in the 12th century, a philosopher named Maimonides actually made a crib sheet summarizing it all by listing the eight different ways that a person can do good for others.

He listed in order of preference, from least desirable to the most. The lowest level of doing for others is giving grudgingly. Then there's giving less than you should but giving it cheerfully. Then giving after being asked. Then giving before being asked. And it continues on up through the most meritorious way to give, which is, tellingly, enabling the person you're helping to become self-sufficient so they don't need the help anymore.

Today on our program, stories of people trying to do good and why they often fail and why they occasionally succeed. Our program today in just two acts.

Act One, You Can't Go Home Again, the story of two people trying to restore a small town to its former splendor and how the biggest obstacle turned out to be the people whose lives they wanted to improve.

Act Two, Humanitarians. I chat with writer Philip Gourevitch about his encounters with international do-gooders, about Rwanda and Kosovo, about genocidal murders, and about Rick in Casablanca. Stay with us.

Act One. You Can't Go Home Again.

Ira Glass

Act One. You Can't Go Home Again. You drive through cotton fields to get here, down old Highway 61 through Southeast Missouri. The nearest big town is Sikeston, population 18,000, 20 minutes away. When you drive into Canalou, Missouri, there's a sign that says, "population 319." And then just beyond it, another sign saying, "pavement ends." Then it's mostly gravel roads and trailer homes. The businesses on Main Street aren't just closed, they're gone, torn down decades ago. The movie theater, the restaurants, the grocery stores. People used to come here from all the surrounding towns. And when Kenny Wharton and his wife Jackie talk about what it was like in Canalou when they were kids, it's like they're describing a dream, a town in an old, black and white Hollywood film.

Kenny Wharton

This was the place on a Saturday. You had a hard time finding a place to park if you had a car. And we had everything in this little town. And people would come to town to visit. Old men would be playing Checkers up and down the streets. And the women would be visiting and kids would be playing. We played until 2:00 in the morning, we'd play.

Jackie Wharton

And us younger kids would be asleep in the back seat of the car because we would give out.

Ira Glass

When I pulled into Canalou to talk to the Whartons, a four year old who lives next door to them, in a muddy shirt, mud on his face, no shoes in the cold, was playing in the drainage ditch. These ditches line both sides of every street in town because there's no sewage system here. Most people live in trailers not regular houses, and some people empty their septic tanks straight into the ditches where kids play.

The day I arrived, it had rained. The ground was soft, muddy everywhere. An adult who had let this four year old touch her face a few weeks back had gotten a rash on her face that even the doctors up in St. Louis couldn't identify or cure. This is the town that Kenny and Jackie couldn't wait to get back to.

Kenny Wharton

Anyway, this town was a good little town to grow up in. But we got married and we went away, went to the big city of St. Louis. And we've been gone, I guess we were gone about 40 years.

Jackie Wharton

And this has been a dream, to come back and build a home here.

Ira Glass

In St. Louis, Kenny had been a supervisor at McDonnell Douglas. The Whartons lived in a house in the suburbs, raised two kids, active with neighborhood associations and the Board of Ed. And they thought, once they moved back to Canalou, they would try to bring back some of the spirit that they remembered growing up here in the '50s and '60s. Maybe start a little league, build a public park with swings and trees, put up a gym where kids could play ball, the kinds of straightforward, innocent improvements it's hard to imagine that anybody would oppose anywhere.

This is the story of why they failed, of why people did turn their backs on the Whartons, why three years of using every skill they have, devoting energy, devoting hope, only proved to them that Canalou did not want to be improved, and that something had changed in this small town that would take a lot more than two do-gooders to reverse.

Susan Drake

I don't know if we can climb over the rubble, or we should walk around.

Rachel Drake

I can. I can. I know how.

Susan Drake

No, baby. You fall, see all this glass and this rock? Fall and hurt yourself.

Rachel Drake

I didn't do that 'afore. I didn't do that. It's OK.

Ira Glass

Directly across the street from the Whartons is a trailer where Susan Drake lives with her five-year-old daughter Rachel, her eight-month-old son David, and her boyfriend Brad. Next to their trailer, one house down, is a lot that used to be an auto repair shop. The shop burned down 10 years ago, and nobody has cleaned up the site. It's a mess of broken glass, twisted, rusted out tin from the roof, concrete blocks from the walls, a stack of old tires. In short, an irresistible place for any small child, including Rachel and her friends. Susan and Brad and Rachel take me on a tour.

Brad

You've got an open refrigerator standing here. Well, the door's standing wide open. There. Right there.

Rachel Drake

You can't get in here.

Susan Drake

Well, the shelves are in there. But if you really wanted in there, you could get in there. But that's dangerous baby. When you get inside there and that door shuts, you can't open it from the inside. You're stuck in there and you could die, suffocate.

Ira Glass

Rachael considers a diplomatic response.

Rachel Drake

Well, we went in the cars, though. We went in the cars. Not here. We didn't went here. We got in the cars.

Ira Glass

The cars where Rachel likes to play are just a few feet back from the building, nearly two dozen old Impalas and Malibus and Chevys sitting in a yard, no fence, lots of rust, broken glass. Brad chooses this day, the day with visitors watching, to do some child proofing-- knock the refrigerator face down so no kid can climb in, push over a dangerously crumbling wall, shove a car to the ground that looks like it's about to fall over on any kid who leans on it.

Rachael, meanwhile, tells her mom about the new swing the kids are all using. It is a dead power line that hangs from the top of a telephone pole behind the abandoned school. As the kids swing, the pole quietly wobbles back and forth. We walk through the rubble. And it turns out that this lot, which will be cleaned up in most places-- not necessarily out of civic pride but at least out of fear that somebody would get hurt and sue the owner or the city-- this property belongs to Susan's cousin, little Jim. And Susan and Brad say that all the town has to do is threaten him with a ticket or a citation or a fine.

Brad

He would clean it up.

Susan Drake

Right. Yeah, he would.

Brad

The fact of the matter is--

Susan Drake

But he's never been pressured.

Brad

--who's going to spend money they don't have to spend? Who's going to spend money they don't have to spend? And nobody's told him to spend any money.

Susan Drake

Basically why he's not cleaned it up. Nobody's pressured him to clean it up.

Rachel Drake

Sweep it up.

Brad

It's just ridiculous is what it is.

Susan Drake

Laziness, yeah.

Brad

Canalou's a hole in the wall. That's all it is. It's a mud hole that they ought to bulldoze.

Susan Drake

There's nothing here.

Brad

There's no store. There's no bank. There's nothing for kids to do. There's one soda machine in town, and it's in a guy's driveway.

Jackie Wharton

When we lived here, the rules were strictly enforced. You kept your place maintained. If a car was broke down on the streets, you had 24 hours to get it fixed. It didn't sit there.

Ira Glass

That's Jackie Wharton again. She and Kenny moved back to Canalou in October of 1995. And it wasn't long before Jackie started a ladies auxiliary to begin with some little community projects. It was three ladies at first. It got to over a dozen. To raise money, they sold stuff at flea markets, delivered hearts and flowers on Valentine's Day, threw fundraiser dinners. And after a few months, they had earned $2,000 in profits, enough to start a softball league, throw a neighborhood party. And at this point, the saga of good intentions gone wrong began.

Jackie Wharton

We started several projects and boy, we just met opposition at every corner because they just couldn't understand why. The ladies auxiliary gave out free Christmas baskets to every home in town. We had fruit and candy and cookies, homemade cookies in them. We gave out 133 baskets. We did not get one thank you call. But we got five negative calls, and we considered it a success because that's all we got.

They were angry, some people, because we left the baskets hanging on their door. And some didn't like us knocking on the doors after dark. And oh, we got one lady's dogs upset and she didn't like that because her dogs got upset.

Ira Glass

What did you say to them?

Jackie Wharton

I said, well, we're sorry. We apologize. What can you say? We're sorry. We're sorry it wasn't good enough. We're sorry your dogs were upset. We're sorry. No ma'am, we won't leave anything hanging on your door again. And what can you say? You handle it.

Ira Glass

Meanwhile, Kenny tried to get a grant to blacktop the streets, started things in motion to get a sewer system finally constructed. He tried to get junk cleared off yards. He talked to his neighbors about bringing a restaurant or a grocery store back to Main Street, maybe get the hat factory down in Oran to set up some of their subcontracting work out of Canalou, generate some jobs. And before long, this 65-year-old retiree, who looks a lot like a youthful Lyndon Johnson, found himself running for mayor.

Kenny Wharton

I just told him I was interested in cleaning up the town and making it nice. And everybody that I talked to said, well, I'm not registered to vote. But I'm sure going to vote for you. We sure need that. And I got them over to register to vote, and they voted for the other guy. Sure did.

Jackie Wharton

This is true.

Ira Glass

To understand why Kenny lost, I visited Charles and Kay Southard. Like Kenny, they grew up in a sharecropper's family. Charles' people were farmers and laborers. Like most of the older people in town, he picked cotton as a kid.

Charles Southard

The hand-picking stopped about 15 years ago, and they all went to machines. And that's where the world messed up, by going to the machines.

Kay Southard

Then a bunch of Mexicans came down here and took everybody's job working.

Charles Southard

Yeah, there's a bunch of them immigrants in here. What they ought to do is just pack them up and send them back to Mexico where they belong. That way, American citizens will have more jobs instead of giving it to them.

Ira Glass

The Southards run a live bait business from their house, a double-wide trailer with additions built on. In the living room is a big tank with over-sized goldfish in it, which they sell as pets and as bait. It's Charles Southard's driveway that has the town's one soda machine, but there's lots of other junk in the yard too, an old wagon, broken tables, cans, bottles, and a wide assortment of nondescript rusted out pieces of machinery. There are lots of yards like this around town. I sat in the kitchen with Charles and Kay and asked what people thought of Kenny, why he lost the election.

Charles Southard

You want the truth or you want a lie?

Ira Glass

I want the truth.

Charles Southard

Because he was going around trying to run this town, telling everybody how to do things and how it was going to be done. He was saying, you're going to keep your yard clean, you weren't going to have no toys, you weren't going to have no garbage, no trash, and no junk cars in this-- if he's going to do that, he better go back to where he come from, from down around Memphis. Because you don't come into a little town like that and try to take over and run everything. Because this town's been this way ever since it was built. And one guy ain't going to change it. That's the reason he made so many enemies and couldn't get elected. If he would have just played it smart and went along with everybody, then after he got elected tried to do his thing, he might have won it.

Ira Glass

In a sense, Kenny made exactly the kind of political error that professional politicians always try to avoid. He told voters that they were going to have to make changes themselves. They were going to have to sacrifice. They were going to have to get off their butts if change was going to come. What made this especially hard to listen to was the fact that Kenny made a lot more money, even retired, than most people in town. Many Canalou families get food stamps or SSI.

Besides Kenny's retirement checks, Jackie had won $286,644.54 on a quarter slot machine back in 1984. Jackie and Kenny were the talk of the town for a while when they actually built a garage for their cars with an electric garage door opener, the first and only one in Canalou. These were the people who were going around telling people what to do? City people with their city ideas? Yankees, really? No wonder so many people did not believe that Kenny was even from Canalou.

Add to that the rumors that floated through town, that Kenny was going to make it illegal to own more than two cars, that Kenny was going to force people to give up older model trailers, or trailers on Main Street, or trailers completely, that Kenny made a man get rid of a goat that he kept in his yard. Rumors that were all untrue.

Charles Southard

I know he came up here and told me my yard is junky. He said, well, you've got to clean this stuff up. Says, you don't, we're going to give you a ticket and you're going to pay a fine. Like you, if you were out here in these old tires, and I know you've seen them, that people plant flowers in. Well, he had enough galls to come up here and tell me, I've got four of them out there, that I had to get rid of them.

I told him, naw, man, that's my flower pots. I don't get rid of them. Well, you got to. Says, that's pollution. Says, that's cluttering up the ground. I says, I don't care. It's my ground, my property, if I want to clutter it up, I clutter it up. You just stay outside the fence here. You need to just shut up and leave them alone.

Ira Glass

In a place like Canalou, where people have so little, they're naturally kind of protective about the little they have. In talking to Charles Southard, it's hard not to wonder if Kenny couldn't have just presented his ideas differently and won more people over. Because if you ask Charles and Kay what changes they'd like to see in Canalou, their list actually matches a lot of the things on Kenny's list.

Charles Southard

They need somebody to keep these roads in shape. They need a trash truck to pick the trash up.

Kay Southard

They need to put a grocery store in here.

Ira Glass

Put a what?

Kay Southard

A grocery store. And a game room for these kids.

Ira Glass

A typical mayoral election in Canalou, I was told, brings out 50, maybe 60 voters. This one turned into a referendum on Kenny Wharton. And people felt so strongly that nearly 200 voted. Kenny got 89 votes. His opponent, the current mayor, Charles Joyce, 98. Kenny lost by nine votes.

Rick Foraker is an outsider who spent a lot of time in Canalou the last 11 years, ever since he started dating his wife, Lavanna, who grew up here, who likes it here. Rick's job is a strange one. He works for companies that do disaster relief. He's kind of a mercenary do-gooder, a professional humanitarian. Though he just calls himself a vulture. He flies to places where there have been floods or hurricanes, works five, six months, seven days a week, 12 hours a day, makes a lot of money, and comes home, spends months doing nothing.

Rick Foraker

Every November and September, you can find my butt glued to the TV set, to the Weather Channel watching for the hurricanes.

Ira Glass

I didn't know that such a job existed.

Rick Foraker

Very few people do. That's why it pays good.

Ira Glass

As an outsider to this town who's observed Canalou for a decade, Rick has an entire theory of how the town works and why Kenny and Jackie would do so badly here.

Rick Foraker

Downtown, this town used to thrive and party more than Sikeston, up until the mid-'60s. And it's like everything else. It was a railroad town. The railroad closed down, so the cotton mills closed down. So the cotton mills closed down, no jobs. People left with the jobs. Businesses didn't have any more money. People weren't spending money in businesses so the businesses closed. And voila, you have a ghost town. It's just a typical ghost town story.

And now what you've got left here are the die hards, the people that just won't move out because they're afraid to go anywhere else, they can't afford to go anywhere else. And they keep them at a poverty level. People down here, they don't make any money. That's my main bitch about being here. The jobs that they've got down here for $6 and $7 an hour are jobs I'm used to making $12, $15 at home.

Ira Glass

What kind of jobs are you talking about?

Rick Foraker

Well, it's just like driving the tan dump truck. I go home, I make $14, $15, I've made as high as $17 an hour.

Ira Glass

This is back home in Springfield, Illinois.

Rick Foraker

Yeah. Springfield, Illinois. Down here, it's $7 an hour, and they expect you to be on call seven days a week, 24 hours a day. They don't want to pay up any kind of an overtime situation. An when they hand you this paycheck, they've just got this attitude like they own you. They're doing you a large favor. I've personally got some really bad news for them. It's no favor.

Most of these people who are in this town have been in this town. So they figure they're here, what they got's what they're going to get, they just get depressed and upset and aggravated and look around, the hell with it.

Ira Glass

And so people don't try to fix things, Rick says, or make their lives better. People have given up. And they stay because it's cheap. Rick's property taxes are $27 a year. Picture then, into this setting come Kenny and Jackie Wharton, like people from another America, an America of people on the go, of self-help seminars, of motivational speakers. Jackie used to be a motivational speaker.

Jackie and Kenny arrive in Canalou and it was like a collision of two different visions of what it means to live in this country. Is Canalou a small town where people have pride and self-reliance, where neighbors band together to build civic institutions? Or is Canalou a place full of people who simply cannot get it together to improve their lives?

Rick Foraker

I'd like to say, once again, the sewer system. God, it'd be so nice to be able to go out in the yards in the summertime and not smell somebody's septic tank. Or look out across somebody's yard after rain and not see black water running to the ditches. But they're so scared. Well, I guess it's because they don't have the money. They're so scared that this is going to cost them everything they've got that they don't want nothing to do with it.

Ira Glass

And so it came to pass that in this town where people do not want to clean their yards, where nobody wants to be bothered, the democratic process worked pretty much as well as you could imagine. The mayor they chose instead of Kenny is, in a certain sense, the perfect representative of people.

Rick Foraker

One of the biggest and junkiest people in town is the mayor.

Ira Glass

Describe what his house is like.

Rick Foraker

Well, I really can't. I could kind of show it to you.

Ira Glass

We walk to Rick's back window.

Rick Foraker

Well, you can get kind of a view. The two houses right straight through, those two houses there, all that pipe and stuff sitting over there on the ground, that's his.

Ira Glass

You say pipes, each one longer than a car.

Rick Foraker

Twenty foot. That's irrigation pipe.

Ira Glass

That's his yard?

Rick Foraker

Yeah, that's part of it. That's one lot. He's got two big lots there. That's where he keeps all of his junk. He's got all kinds of junk farm equipment, trucks, tractor trailers, semis and stuff in the yard.

Charles Joyce

I've been mayor for a long time. People pretty well know what's going to happen.

Ira Glass

Charles Joyce is such a successful politician that he does not actually remember how many times he's been reelected since the early 1980s. When I visit, it's just before dinner. He's a farmer in his 60s, sat on a couch in his smallish living room, TV playing, one of those little TV tray tables next to him with some iced tea on it. I've been warned by the gossip line in Canalou that Mr. Joyce had somehow absconded the beautiful cypress floors of the old gymnasium that was torn down and used them for his own living room. This was nowhere near true. If anything, Canalou was a town too poor even to steal from. Mr. Joyce says there's no money to pay for a full-time policeman, for a judge, for a prosecutor. In short, there is no money to enforce any ordinances of any kind that they might have.

Charles Joyce

I'm telling you, property taxes is nothing. That's what I've been telling you. See, we've got lots that bring in $0.50 and stamps is $0.35, right?

Ira Glass

So you're saying, basically, your hands are tied.

Charles Joyce

Well, do you know what the mayor can do in a 4 Class city?

Ira Glass

I don't. What?

Charles Joyce

Well, he can't do very much.

Ira Glass

Total budget of the Canalou general fund, $10,000 to $12,000. People don't want to pay more in taxes, Mayor Joyce told me, so that limits services. I ask him about the hazardous junk that any child could get hurt on and sue the city. He said that it would take money to enforce the law or money to clean it up. That is money they do not have for a cleanup that people do not want.

Charles Joyce

See, what's junk to me may be your treasure. There's a couple over here that I understood was told that they had to get rid of a bus that they had in their backyard. That's the only storage building they've got. But that bus has got a good coat of paint on it. It's jacked up. It's on blocks. And they're not really bothering me. They're on his property. See, we're not Sikeston. We ain't never been, we'll never be.

And this is one of the few things, privileges we've got, that we don't have a bunch of young storm troopers running around here saying, we're going to write you a ticket. I've got a [UNINTELLIGIBLE] here. They were going to write him a ticket because his kids had broke toys. That was the only toys that they had.

Ira Glass

Broken toys just sitting out in the yard, you mean?

Charles Joyce

Yeah. They were out in the yard, because that's where they played with him, was in the yard. Well, the toys were broke. But those were the best toys the kids had. If we had to get rid of them, then they would have no toys at all. I don't agree. I don't agree. And I've been elected mayor a bunch of times.

Ira Glass

A lot of people do like it here. One night I stopped by Rick's when his wife Lavanna and their 13-year-old nephew Jason were there. My producer Julie Snyder was there, and Mary Wilternburg, who knew her way around Canalou and was helping with this story. We all talked for a long time. It was fun.

Jason

I might be able to call my mom and I can stay till 9:30. Can I call?

Rick Foraker

Call.

Jason

OK, because--

Ira Glass

Jason did his impressions for us and then gave us permission to broadcast them, a fact which will surely horrify him three or four years from now when he's in high school. He did Ace Ventura.

Jason

Hi there, nice to see you. Bumblebee Tuna.

Ira Glass

The guy from Sling Blade.

Jason

Well, I was sitting out in my garage one day, mm-hmm. I heard my mama screaming, and so I walked out there and I saw that Kaiser blade. I call it a sling blade. So I picked it up, mm-hmm.

Ira Glass

Forrest Gump.

Jason

I'm a little rusty on this, but I'm OK. Hi. My name's Forrest, Forrest Gump. People call me Forrest Gump. That-that-that's all I got to say about that.

[LAUGHTER]

Ira Glass

Rick teased Lavanna about Canalou, the town that she made him move to. People here are fighting modernization, he says. She just laughs at him.

Lavanna

Oh, they are not. Get off of that.

Ira Glass

Then I ask her the question that Rick says he's been asking for eight years, since they got married. Why does she want to stay in Canalou?

Lavanna

I knew you were going to ask me that. You know, honest to god, I don't know why. There's no reason to live here except for if you've got friends or relatives. Well, it's like when I lived across the street, that big porch out there. Every morning I just loved that porch. I'd go outside and drink my coffee. And I'd dream about when I grow old sitting on the porch with my buddy-- my buddy lives across the street-- just sitting on my porch just swinging and gossiping about this one and gossiping about that one. Not mean, nasty things, just boring old, oh, did you see what she did to her hair? You know, just [BLEEP] like that. I don't know, that'd probably just bore the socks off y'all. But to me, that's just one of my dreams, is just to sit and grow old with my friends.

Ira Glass

In her various projects to improve Canalou, Jackie had her successes and her failures. The big successes mostly came in this last year, her third year in town. The ladies auxiliary through a big 4th of July cookout that actually drew a crowd with booths and games, a petting zoo for the little kids, a fireworks display that everybody said was even better than Sikeston's, a Country/Western band for the adults. Some people even danced. The only problem was most of the crowd was from the surrounding towns, perhaps only a third from Canalou.

That finally changed last Halloween. The ladies auxiliary held a costume contest with a weenie roast and a big bonfire. Finally, they drew 50 or 60 people from within Canalou, people of all ages.

Jackie Wharton

That, to me, was the most heartwarming experience I've done here. It was a whole different group of people that came out. There's something about a bonfire.

Ira Glass

After that party, Jackie finally felt comfortable enough in town to start going to church in Canalou. Every now and then, people started telling her they appreciated what the ladies auxiliary was doing in town. This is also during the period that Kenny was running for mayor, going door to door. And talking face to face, most people were encouraging. He thought he was a shoe-in.

Jackie Wharton

I was feeling elated. I was feeling like, oh boy, everything is going to work. We're going to be-- the community is coming together.

Ira Glass

And then what happened next? What changed?

Jackie Wharton

Then we started getting threatening calls, and people telling us get out or die, or leave this time, you-- awfully bad words. And we don't want you here. You're not wanted here.

Ira Glass

People threw eggs and bottles at their house. The threatening phone calls continued. Some people avoided them on the street. One day, their car windows were broken. And then on a day in December--

Jackie Wharton

We were shot at, OK? The detectives out of Jeff City said it wasn't kids, that we were shot at from the top of the school with a rifle. And it came through our bedroom wall.

Ira Glass

Jackie showed me the bullet hole, big enough to put her thumb in. The timing was so strange. Jackie and Kenny are not sure why somebody would take a shot at them at that point in their time in Canalou. Maybe, Jackie thinks, somebody saw that they were finally having some success and just couldn't stand it. In any case, the bullet was the beginning of the end.

Kenny Wharton

There's nothing. There's just nothing left. I guess we had hopes of building it back, getting some of that back it used to have. But it's impossible because them people's gone. You just can't go back. And I guess we thought we could. And now we're ready to sell out and move on.

Ira Glass

Really?

Kenny Wharton

Just go on down the road. I am. I'm tired of trying to build something back, I guess.

Ira Glass

At that point in our interview, Jackie waved to me to turn off my tape recorder, tears in her eyes. She ran out of the room to get some tissues, came back, took a minute, and then let me turn the tape recorder back on.

Jackie Wharton

That's the first time, that's the first time I've heard him, I guess, really sound defeated.

Ira Glass

The two of you must have talked about, well, should we go, right?

Jackie Wharton

Oh, yes. I've said, I'm through. I can't take anymore. And then I say, oh, well, maybe this project will make a difference. And we've had three pretty rough years here, where we've been-- just people don't like us here. And that's hard to accept when you're not wanted and you're just not liked. That's really hard to give in to, you know.

Ira Glass

Kenny had never actually said to her before this moment that he was ready to move away.

Ira Glass

You ever hear this phrase, "no good deed goes unpunished?"

Kenny Wharton

Of what?

Jackie Wharton

No good deed goes unpunished, yeah.

Kenny Wharton

Well, probably not. But anyway, maybe we hadn't done such a good deed for these people around here. It's not what they wanted that's for sure. Maybe it's more what we wanted than what they wanted. I'd have to think about it. They get it the way they want it. They've had it this way before we come here. And it'll be this way after we leave.

Ira Glass

In order to do good of any kind, you have to have a vision of the way that you want things. There is a ruthlessness to changing the world, to imposing your will on what the world is. And the danger of having a vision, of course, is that your vision can cloud your eyes about what is really there. Often when I talked to Jackie, I was struck with her vision of Canalou, with how alive the past was to her. People who stayed in town for 40 years saw a change from what it was back then to what it is now. But without the advantage of watching the daily erosion of this town, Jackie can still see it as it was. And when she talked about it, it was always a version of the past that had the quality of a fairy tale, of something barely sounding real.

One day I was walking through an old abandoned house on the town's west side, one of the buildings that the kids called their clubhouses. The roof's broken through, the floor is torn up, walls crumbling. Jason, Rick and Lavanna's nephew, took me there in the rain.

Jason

There's lumber everywhere, insulation from the ceiling. And then there's a rope where that chimney used to be. And they nailed the rope up here, and we'll just every once in a while climb up it. It's not really safe, but we ain't got nothing to do. Whatever we can find around here is what we do. It's not much.

Ira Glass

The day after Jason and I stood there, I was driving by this very house with Kenny and Jackie Wharton. When Jackie looks at this house, she doesn't just see a dangerous wreck of a place that she thinks should be torn down right now in the here and now. She also sees what it was back when, the home of her school teacher, Mrs. Powell.

Jackie Wharton

The one thing I remember about it-- she had a lot of doilies, white, starched, crocheted doilies, like right in the middle of her coffee table. And right in the middle of that, she had a candy dish. And she would always offer you a piece of candy. And you were allowed to take it if they offered. And that was the main thing.

And she had a glass slipper on her dresser that I used to just love to look at. Somehow when the light would come through the bedroom window, it would hit this glass slipper. And it would just shimmer. And I thought probably it was made of diamonds. Yeah, she was probably the richest lady in town and nobody knew.

Ira Glass

It's the clarity of Jackie's vision, her vision of the town that was-- or the town that seemed to be there anyway, when she was a kid-- combined with her sheer willfulness, her effectiveness in making things happen. This is the combination that led her and her husband down the path that they've taken for these last three years. It's only now that a rifle shot provided her with a different vision of what Canalou is, a second vision of the town to replace that first one that she started with. It's only that that made her and her husband able to move away.

[MUSIC - "HIGHWAY 61 REVISITED" BY BOB DYLAN]

Coming up, do-gooders with $1 million a day in their pockets to spend and plane tickets overseas. That's in a minute from Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program, of course, we choose a theme, bring you a variety of different stories on that theme. Today's program, Do-Gooders, why they often fail, why they sometimes succeed. We have arrived at act two of our program.

Act Two. Humanitarians.

Ira Glass

Act Two. Humanitarians. In 1994, in the African country of Rwanda, the Hutu government instructed its people to go out and kill their neighbors, co-workers, friends, fellow church members who happen to be Tutsi. At least 800,000 people were murdered. And although there were several different moments when international action could have conceivably stopped or slowed the killing, the world did nothing, held back, in fact, at various points by the United States government.

But after the biggest part of the genocide was over, the international community did finally intervene. Philip Gourevitch has written about all this in his book We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda.

Philip Gourevitch

Finally, the killing was brought to a halt by a rebel army within Rwanda. And the command that had been going out over the government radio to the Hutu majority had been previously, "kill all the Tutsis, join in the killing." Now it was, "flee, join in the exodus." And really close to a million and a half or 2 million people fled Rwanda in the largest, fastest mass exodus in modern recorded history, across the borders into Tanzania, but primarily also into what was then Zaire, the Congo, under Mobutu.

And this enormous out-rush of people was perceived broadly as an exodus from the genocide. In other words, we in the world beyond had been told, my goodness, there's a lot of killing going on inside Rwanda. And then we're told there are a lot of people fleeing. And the obvious assumption was that these people must in some way be fleeing the atrocities. In fact--

Ira Glass

Right. That these people were potential victims.

Philip Gourevitch

In some sense that they were victims. By virtue of displacement, the image of a refugee is the image of a victim. And many of the people who were fleeing were people who were essentially civilians caught up in the turmoil and displacement of this conflict. On the other hand, a very great many of them were also people who had been active as either ordinary killers, as they're called in Rwanda, or as the organizers of the killers, the militia, the military, the civic leaders, the church leaders, the school teachers, and doctors, and so forth-- the so-called intellectuals who presided over the population when it was at home. And who essentially were leading this population into exile to create a rump genocidal state.

It was then that you had this incredibly large humanitarian influx into the Congo in particular-- into Zaire, particularly into the towns of Goma and Bukavu, the border towns-- as vast airlifts and an enormous outpouring of international aid went to establish massive refugee camps and essentially cater to this huge refugee outpouring.

Ira Glass

And some of the organizations that were going at that point-- I think at one point you say it was $1 million a day that was being spent.

Philip Gourevitch

At that point, it was much more than $1 million a day. $1 million a day was what it came to be averaged out as over a three-year period. So you can imagine that at that point, when they were bringing in transport planes around the clock, these transport planes would touch down on this runway, drop the back door, and fleets of white Land Cruisers would pour out with aid workers. They were bringing in water sanitation and vast plumbing systems. They were bringing in every known kind of sanitation engineer from all over the world.

Ira Glass

And this is the International Red Cross, some of the groups were--

Philip Gourevitch

Literally there were scores, perhaps more than 100, private organizations. There were many smaller Christian organizations and church-based organizations. You had Caritas from six or seven different countries. You had World Vision. They all come in with their flags. It was a traffic jam.

Ira Glass

One of the things that you write is that very quickly Hutu power, which had conducted the genocide, took over the camps and established itself.

Philip Gourevitch

Well, that's the terrible thing. What appeared to be a humanitarian disaster was, of course, really a political disaster. It was the consequences of a government that had sought to exterminate much of its people. And that government fled and presided over the camps. The same civic structures and political structures immediately replicated themselves, and there was enormous violence in the camps very quickly.

These camps were set up within a mile of the Rwandan border, so they were like terrorist bases right on the border.

Ira Glass

And in fact, the Hutu powers were staging raids from those bases.

Philip Gourevitch

Regularly. There was killing going on wherever there were camps. There was a very, very high murder rate surrounding them, basically, murder by the same militias who'd carried out the genocide. It was really quite an extraordinarily brilliant public relations move, frankly, by which the forces that had committed genocide almost immediately that they finished killing, managed to convert themselves in the public imagination into the victims of the catastrophe by becoming refugees, by exploiting our generosity with humanitarian aid, and by basically buffaloing our imaginations to the degree that we just imagined, oh, those poor people. We're giving them help. Thank goodness we're doing something.

And the terrible thing I found, Ira, was whenever I'd go to visit these camps, I'd meet people who were more like me. Which is to say college educated, Western, nice European and American and North American men and women in their 20s who came over basically with the idea, I will do something that is simple and straightforward and good. There will be suffering. I will learn how to get clean water to these people, how to dole out food to these people, how to help them dig trenches to dispose of their waste in a way that's safe for them. I will do good, it will be unambiguous, and I will get some satisfaction from that. And I will also feel like I'm not a passive witness to the horrors of the world. And in fact, what they were doing is they were catering the horrors of the world.

Ira Glass

There's a place on page 166 in your book. If I could ask you to read.

Philip Gourevitch

"In this regime, the humanitarians were treated rather like the service staff at a seedy, mafia-occupied hotel. They were there to provide food, medicine, housewares, an aura of respectability. If at times they were pandered to, it was only because they were being set up to be cheated. If they needed to be brow-beaten, a mob quickly surrounded them. And if they were essentially the dupes of their criminal guests, there were not unwitting about it. And with time, their service effectively made them accessories to the Hutu power syndicate."

Ira Glass

And essentially they were keeping the whole thing going by providing the food and the blankets and all that for the Hutu powers.

Philip Gourevitch

Through that entire period, it was this really self-evident thing that as long as those camps existed, there was an effort by the militias in the camps, by the Hutu power militias in the camps from Rwanda to start to ethnically cleanse regions around the camps. In case one day those camps were closed, they could create a rear base. So they started massacring people in the mountains. They started massacring the people in their host countries. It created tremendous turmoil.

And there was a complete unwillingness to confront this. And sometimes they would say, well, you know, like a doctor who takes an oath to treat somebody whether he's a murderer or a good man, we, too, operate on the principle that one should give aid to people and leave the political questions to political people. But there's a very big difference between neutrality and ignorance. And it's one thing to say, well, I'm going to feed this guy even if somebody else tells me he's a criminal because my job is simply to feed people. But it's another to say, I don't want to know he's a murderer because that, in some way, taints my experience here. And I found that that was quite often what I heard. And that was very disturbing.

Ira Glass

Now, in your book, you also talk about ordinary Rwandans who try to help out and save people in ways that they can. And one of the people who you talk about is the manager of a hotel named-- I'm not sure I can pronounce his last name-- Paul Rusesabagina?

Philip Gourevitch

Yeah. In Kigali, there's one basically world-class hotel, sort of the best hotel in town, the Hotel des Mille Collines. And it turned out that Paul, who had been put in charge of the hotel, had used all of his considerable human resources, as well as his liquor cabinet, and all of his connections to the ruling, military, and political elite, to continuously buy the security of his guests for as long as he could, until eventually they were saved by a prisoner exchange.

Ira Glass

The way you describe him, he comes off like Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca.

Philip Gourevitch

He was a very reserved man.

Ira Glass

But one of the things he tells you is that one of his main weapons is that he always had alcohol. No matter how long into the crisis it was, he saw that they had alcohol in the hotel. And everybody wanted it, and he would serve the Hutu leaders, and apparently he would bribe people when he needed to.

Philip Gourevitch

Oh, yeah. He described how he would give out these gifts of alcohol to people who would come by. And in that way, they would be almost like it was the goose with the golden egg. You didn't want to kill him because then the supply would dry up. He had set up a whole elaborate commerce. And so the leaders would come to the hotel and he'd give them a little bit to drink. And his condition was you leave my hotel alone.

And he'd negotiate for the things he wanted. He also used alcohol to buy food so that his people wouldn't starve. The water had been cut to the hotel, and the guests were forced to drink the swimming pool. But he managed to keep them going.

Ira Glass

You describe a number of times when the phone rings. I'll take one in particular. A phone rings and wakes him up. And a lieutenant says to him, have everyone out of the hotel in 30 minutes. They're being rounded up.

Philip Gourevitch

Yeah. This was about 6:30 in the morning one day. And he's being told to relinquish all of the guests in his hotel. In many ways, his principle was that of a man who believed in the ethic of hospitality. They're my guests, I must protect them. He told this lieutenant, look, give me half an hour to get up, get washed, and I'll deal with you then.

And in that half hour, one thing that he had that was one of his weapons was a phone line. And he used it to call all over the world. And he immediately called to Europe, he called to the French foreign ministry. Now, France was the primary political patron of the genocidal regime at that time. He called there and he spoke to people there. He called Belgium. Within about 25 minutes, one of the top commanders of the military-- in other words, this lieutenant's superior-- and also somebody from the UN, showed up at the hotel. And they came and they assured him that his guests would be OK. No foreign lives were risked. This wasn't a massive military intervention, but lives were saved.

Ira Glass

A lot of times, the kind of measures it took were just the smallest human response. There's this story that you write about where this hotel manager, Paul, in the middle of May in sort of the worst of days, he is out running errands, I think trying to get alcohol for the hotel. And he comes back to the hotel. And he sees that the Interahamwe have broken in, the thugs have broken in. And they're looking for his family, they're going through his own personal apartment. And explain how he deters them. What happens?

Philip Gourevitch

Well, he realized that these were some pretty uneducated militiamen. And he ran into some of them on the stairs. And he was dressed in a t-shirt and jeans or something. And he realized that they must assume that a manager would be a man in a necktie or a suit. So when they said, have you seen the manager, he said, oh, yeah, the manager. He just went that-a-way. And it was really almost like a classic Hollywood gag. He said he just went upstairs as he ran downstairs. And as he's running downstairs, he runs into another group. And he tells them the manager must have gone the other way. So he sends them all off spiraling in different directions.

Ira Glass

And that's what saves their lives.

Philip Gourevitch

Yeah, the most basic, immediate wits. But I think the key to Paul, in some ways, was his instinct that everything is negotiable. And it struck me how in some very basic way, he had simply refused to relinquish free will and relinquish judgment, which I think is the part that ties him to these other humanitarians who think that in the name of neutrality and humanitarianism they have to relinquish judgment. He thought that it was because of judgment that he could be a decent man.

Ira Glass

It's interesting that the people who tend to come through well in the book are the people like Paul who are pragmatists, they're not idealists.

Philip Gourevitch

Many of the do-gooders I met, or many of the people I felt who, in one way of another, conducted themselves well in these extraordinary times of extremity, were both pragmatic and shockable. They still remained sort of indignant at wrongdoing. They were not deeply cynical. And they thought that making distinctions really mattered. They were people who simply insisted on going on as if the world were upright and normal. And in that way, they helped to make sure that it would be.

Ira Glass

As you watch the United States mobilize itself in its bombings of Kosovo, what are you thinking as you see that, given the US inaction during the genocide in Rwanda?

Philip Gourevitch

I think that sadly, the situation in Kosovo reflects the kind of institutionalization and bastardization of the concept of humanitarian action that we saw in a very different form in the response to the refugee camps after the Rwandan genocide. We're claiming that we're bombing Yugoslavia as a humanitarian action. But it's not. It's a war. We're fighting against an army. We're trying to destroy an army.

If our first objective was really, as we claim in the first week of this war, to protect the people of Kosovo, it's clear that we've actually put them in greater jeopardy at first, that their protection isn't the issue. And the language of humanitarianism has increasingly become a masquerade for a variety of different forms of action or inaction in the international community to disguise political conflicts, as if our only concern were for the loss of human life. And in that way, we end up with a series of muddled discourses and muddled motives that make it sound like if we're doing it, it must be good and often make it very hard for us to keep track of what, in fact, we are doing. The other thing that one just has to look at is how completely calculating those who conduct wars these days are.

Ira Glass

Well, this is the thing I was just going to say, is one of the things that comes through in the book is that the Hutu militia in the camps were very canny about exploiting Western attitudes towards them.

Philip Gourevitch

Absolutely. If I were right now trying to run a good insurrection somewhere in the world, the first thing I would do is I would appoint a commander or a minister or a general in charge of humanitarian manipulation. Look at how it was used in the Yugoslav conflict during the Bosnia War. You repeatedly saw safe havens being created, generals using them to corral people, and then going in and slaughtering them knowing that the UN wouldn't defend them.

And then in many ways, I think this isn't always the humanitarians' fault. I think that the political decision-makers, the policymakers and leaders who conduct our foreign policy often use humanitarian aid to hide behind. They use it as a screen to mask their own indecision and their own unwillingness to act. And it's essentially a way of making the gestures of concern without really seeking to resolve in any meaningful way the catastrophe.

Ira Glass

Philip Gourevitch. His great, great book is called We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With our Families: Stories from Rwanda. We spoke on the second day of the NATO bombing of Kosovo.

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Alix Spiegel and Julie Snyder. Contributing editors Paul Tough, Jack Hitt, Margy Rochlin, and Consigliere Sarah Vowell. Production help from Jorge Just, Todd Bachmann, Sylvia Lemus, and Mickey Greenberg. Our story about Canalou was produced by Julie Snyder with help from Mary Wiltenburg.

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Ira Glass

I'm Ira Glass. Back next week with more stories of This American Life.

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