Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism

Strangers Drowning: Grappling with Impossible Idealism, Drastic Choices, and the Overpowering Urge to Help

Larissa MacFarquhar, New York: Penguin Press, 2015

This is a strange book about an unusual kind of “strangers”, people endowed with impossible idealism and overpowered by the urge to help other “strangers”, those who do not belong to their families. The Indian Hindu family Amtes rescues many people from the ills of leprosy, builds several villages, and stick at its many helping missions over four generations of doctors and social workers under very harsh conditions. The Canadian-American family Badeau raises 22 children including three severely handicapped boys who live well beyond their normal life expectancy.

The merit of the book lies in the stories it tells its reader, and the journalist MacFarquhar excels at this. She narrates the stories of “do-gooders” on four continents although the majority are North Americans. She has little to say, however, about the incredible physical resilience of such do-gooders, especially the women, some of whom manage to combine extremely demanding forms of engagement toward the stranger with birthing and mothering their own children. Not many would manage this, including this author, just for physical reasons.

What fails to convince is the way the author inserts rather shallow “abstract” arguments at various points in her book, without weaving them into her stories. She asserts at the outset that caring for strangers’ children seems “unnatural, even monstrous” (8). Her repeated argument that altruism excites hate, or at best rejection, stretches credibility. There are few examples of this in the book’s stories. The attack on a missionary in Mozambique, which she relates, seems due more to the wretched and violent living conditions of that country than to any protest against altruism. The same can be said about the suffering experienced by the midwife working for decades in Nicaragua and whose patients suffer much more. MacFarquhar cites relevant social scientists, Darwin, Smith, Comte, Nietzsche, and some fiction writers such as Ayn Rand and Baldwin who protested against absolute goodness. But there is no way to do justice to such important thinkers in a few lines, and to add insult to injury, the citations are not footnoted.

MacFarquhar writes that do-gooders act on their own, and this is why they seem so “strange” (296). Yet her stories are a testimony of the opposite. None of the do-gooders have acted alone although they did make their own rules initially. But the book is written from a very American point of view, stressing individual efforts, rather than collective attempt to make long term changes to unjust structures. Thus the usual heroes do not feature here, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mandela. Assuredly these figures are well known and this would have been redundant. But the lack of attention to people who have tackled structural injustices in order to alleviate human suffering is a disappointment. This is a well written, interesting and yet strangely flawed book.

About Catherine Guisan

Catherine Guisan is Visiting Associate Professor at the University of Minnesota, Minneapolis, USA. She has also taught at Utrecht University and Amsterdam University College, Netherlands, at Science Po, University Pierre Mendès-France in Grenoble, France; and, as a Fulbright Scholar at European University, Saint Petersburg, Russia. She is the author of two books A Political Theory of Identity: memory and policies (London and New York: Routledge 2011) and Un sens à l’Europe: Gagner la paix 1950-2003 (Paris: Odile Jacob 2003). The books discuss the ethical foundations of European integration and its interface with the thinking of great contemporary political theorists such as Hannah Arendt, Jürgen Habermas, Paul Ricoeur and Charles Taylor. Catherine Guisan has also published on the American political culture of international relations, the transatlantic relationship, political reconciliation, and cosmopolitan politics in academic journals, including Constellations, The Journal of Common Market Studies, and in several edited volumes. She is occasionally available to give lectures related to the content of her research in Europe and the US. Topics include: Civic Understanding: Why Memory Matters to the European Union’s Democratic Deficit The Greek Crisis and Direct Democracy (after July 2012) US Influences on European Integration 1947-50 and post 2001 EU borders and the “Enlarged Mentality” The recognition of the Other and EU Enlargements: The Case of Turkey Remembering the Principle of Reconciliation, 1945-2010.
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