Friday, February 5, 2010
The Curious Case of Idaho's Identity By now most of the world able to access the Internet, buy a newspaper or listen to the BBC knows that a group of Idaho missionaries is behind bars in Haiti. Just what has happened is - and likely will remain for some time - a mystery. You know, if you have been following the world-wide story, that the eight Idahoans and the two others have been accused of coming dangerously close to trafficking in the shattered lives of the children of earthquake ravaged Haiti. I have no idea what really happened in this troubling case, and I'm suspecting that the generally incompetent government of Haiti has about the same level of understanding. Perhaps the best that can be said is that a group of well-intentioned folks took well-intentioned actions that, when examined in the clear light of day, look pretty unsophisticated, naive, or even in the language of the Third World - imperial, or perhaps imperious. I've been in New York the last couple of days and the Haiti missionary/human trafficking story has been all over the place. [Perhaps as a testament to how much New Yorkers - at least public radio-listening New Yorkers - desire to understand the Haiti-Idaho connection, I appeared this morning on WNYU's "The Takeaway," to provide an "Idaho perspective" on this international story. I had at least a moment's pause speaking for the entire state, but when in New York, hey someone has to speak for us.] Here is one takeaway from the missionary story, and it is all about the curious mindset some of our fellow Americans on the east coast and elsewhere in this diverse land have when they read a headline that says: "Idaho missionaries charged with bad stuff in Haiti..." These fellow citizens wonder just what is it about that strangely shaped western state, home to good potatoes, formerly home to a bunch of crackpot, white supremacists, and headquarters of a growing football dynasty, that such a story could emanate from there? It will come as little surprise to anyone who has traveled the country a bit that Idaho is about as well understood as the rules of cricket to most of our fellow countrymen. It is not so much that the state has a bad image as that it has almost no image at all. Or, perhaps more correctly, some folks assume the worst given a generally blank slate to draw upon. In one sense, Idahoans (you could have said the same of Montana in the days of the Unibomber) might say, who cares what others think or the conclusions to which they jump? We have a sense of ourselves. We know what we are about. But, in life and in the "reality" of the 24 hour news cycle, perception matters. There is a perception that Idaho fosters, well, strange things. I wish the world's perception of the state I have called home for 35 years now was more in keeping with reality. For example, I talked at length with a concerned Idahoan last week who was about to leave for his second extended trip to Haiti to see what he can do to improve the availability of clean water and evaluate how to mitigate earthquake damage to prevent long-term environmental degradition to an already badly degraded landscape. I know, I know, man bites dog is news. A narrative of out of control missionaries, fueled by something in the water in Idaho, fits the all-too-common preception of the Gem State. Sad that is, but also true.