Friday, March 14, 2008

Who will liberate them from us? Who will liberate us from ourselves?

Many bloggers who are citizens of the United States of America, in particular those who are/like to think they are sympathetic to human rights violations such as illegal detention and torture, or to the impact of development strategies on "poor" nations and on the environment, may have links and banners up which talk about the cost of the occupation of Iraq, or the plight of the people of the Sudan, or Burma, or Tibet. But the one thing I keep wondering when I see this stuff is - who is going to liberate the world from our greed, our selfishness, our arrogance, and our indifference? From our views about what is "best" for other societies and cultures when it comes to concepts like "modernization"?

Globalization is complex. If you change one thing here, it could have drastic consequences there. So it can be confusing and disheartening when evaluating domestic and foreign policy. But that doesn't excuse us from trying, and from trying to see what the bottom line is that drives certain policy goals. For example, for the past 60 years it has been the opinion of many Western, industrialized nations that modernization, i.e. becoming more like "us", is the best path to take. This is not rooted in an evil outlook - many good-hearted people genuinely believe that such economic development will lead to improvements in infrastructure, increased availability of jobs, better health care, and other aspects we cherish about our own way of life. This tends to be measured by factors such as nation's Gross National Product, consumer spending, and employment rates. But these indicators can be misleading and do not necessarily reflect a higher quality of life for many of the poorest people in these places.

And all of this is connected to trade policies, loans to nations that want to "develop", global health crises, environmental degradation, and local and regional conflicts. It's like a game of Jenga - how many times can you pull a piece out before the whole edifice collapses? If you "fix" one problem on one area, have you considered what effect it will have somewhere else? Anthropologists, sociologists, political scientists, economists, historians, and others continue studying these questions and attempting to to advise policy makers about the impact of trade agreements, foreign aid, and other attempts to manipulate and manage world concerns.

Yet most U.S. citizens are, understandably, neither aware of nor would many be concerned with the loss of a traditional native culture in some "remote" location, or the impact of development efforts on the survival of many primates, our remaining evolutionary cousins on our branch of the bush of Life. Some U.S. citizens are vaguely aware that the path that modernization and globalization have taken and are taking creates massive disparities in access to health care, nutrition, safety, and the capacity for a meaning and fulfilling life in many regions of the world. They may have heard about contemporary slavery (and it's bastard child, wage slavery), but the impact of this revelation for many is relatively small. Many more U.S. citizens have been told or heard that the rich around the world are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer, and that in some way buying cheap imported goods is helping to drive this division, but a good number may also feel that they can't afford the extra time and cost to hunt down fair trade items and would rather sign a petition online or even make the "major" effort to go to a local rally or other awareness-raising event.

But I suspect that the majority of Americans are not really cognizant of the fact that problems such as the massive increase in (illegal) immigration from poorer, peripheral nations to the richer, industrialized nations has many of the same root causes that are destroying the rainforests and encouraging international corporations to move much of their operations out of the core nations. Those that do look into these matters must weave through a minefield of political rhetoric and are virtually always dependent on the summary and conclusions of someone else's analysis. And naturally you can find a report that appears to demonstrate whatever one wants to believe about our policies and the effects of our way of life on the rest of humanity and on the planet itself.

Hence, vaguely unaware yet troubled by what we have glimpsed, we do what humans tend to do. We become accustomed to how things are. We rationalize our behaviors. After all, it is exceedingly unlikely that most people who lived through socially/state sanctioned slavery weren't evil, and may have been troubled to some degree by the practice, but it was just how things were. And slavery was everywhere - and it was so central to the economy and to trade. How could you fight it? Unless of course you were one of those trouble-making kooks, those malcontent abolitionists. The same is true of many other injustices we now abhor but which were once considered generally acceptable. Better not rock the boat, you know, just be glad you have what you have. Even going to a rally might be a little too radical - I mean, standing with a sign for a couple of hours - that's so hard core. What will people think?

So then the dilemma - what difference does voting your conscience, signing an online petition, and walking in a rally actually make if it isn't part of a large and highly visible movement that can motivate our leaders? And who has the time to sift through all the spin, and figure out who to buy what from? After all, it seems sometimes like in the corporate world practically everyone is financially "in bed" with everyone else, so again, what difference is the effort going to make? After all, even for those of us having rough times, we are generally still addicted to the dominant cultural images of a successful and happy life and committed to achieving it. I mean, slaves are mining a component used to make cell phones and lap tops, but it's time to grab your own electronic gadgets and go to work. Children are being poisoned and suffering birth defects from environmental degradation, but you are late picking up your own child from soccer practice. It's a shame that political prisoners are being tortured and killed, but that new show is coming on next. And after all - what can you do about it anyway? What I can really do about that?

Why can't we live our own lives and let other people worry about their own (and hope that somehow things improve because of other people's efforts or that at the very least we don't have to think about this stuff anymore)? No one asked us if we wanted to have this politico-economic system (so it is unfair to ask me to consider how I am benefiting in so many ways from the obscene way this system is rigged). It isn't our fault we won the geographic lottery when we were born (and if we are not directly confronted with the suffering and destruction we implicitly or explicitly condone it doesn't actually seem that real or compelling anyway). We're just making the best out of the situation and we do what we can (do within the limits of what we are willing to risk on behalf of our principles and values compared to our comfort and security). It is unfair to blame or judge me for what is being done in my name on behalf of the bottom line of corrupt governments and immoral business concerns (and I am not going to want to keep listening to your concerns if all you do is make me feel bad about myself). It's not that I like the Empire; I hate it. But there's nothing I can do about it right now... It's all such a long way from here (oops, that's a line from Star Wars).

So how do we navigate the naive idealism and worse, the naive cynicism, that exists throughout the political and social spectra of our society? How do we break through the commercials and ads and busy schedules and other distractions that help people "look the other way" when it comes to our own nation and society's successes and failures in trying to "help" others? What about the international aid programs that do work and the corporations that are ethical and successful? I have heard it said that often people who work for "causes" love humanity but can't stand individuals. What does that say about how such causes are going to be championed and presented to the public? Should we only associate and work with people who we deem to be "ideologically pure"? And how might a focus on learning to love the individual work as part of a bottom-up model of grass-roots change? Didn't that work for Siddhartha Guatama (the Buddha) and Joshua-ben Joseph (the Christ)? Is the new trend in some Christian/evangelical circles towards raising awareness of/confronting the global problems being addressed here an opportunity and a sign of things to come? Could the (frequently) secular "left" accept working with such groups in order to change to face of politics and global trade? Might such a movement alter people's perceptions about what matters and embolden ordinary citizens to live up to their professed values and challenge the conventional view of the power and role of governments and corporations?

I cannot really say - but I do think there is cause for hope. However, I should confess that I am one of those selfish clods who, even aware of some small sliver of what is happening outside the financial and personal concerns of my own life, tends to be content with slapping up a banner or occasionally giving a shout out to some socially-conscious organization. I suffer from the same moral paralysis that plagues many of my fellow citizens. Like the smoker who continues to light up after a tracheotomy and having a cancerous lung removed, or an obese individual who continues to eat large quantities of fatty, salty foods after suffering a heart attack and developing diabetes, I am simultaneously aware and unaware of the consequences of my failure to change course and live a better way. How about you?

postscript: I have discovered a similar (but shorter and blunter) kind of reflection recently posted over at Peacebang. How serendipitous.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent insight, points and post. Many of us in the supposed "more developed" countries have so much:

    money, homes, personal transportation, freedom of speech, etc. and yet we are still unhappy.

    We put all our hope for happiness in those external factors and yet wonder in amazement how we can't be happy with them.

    Thanks for raising this issue so that we don't forget our own suffering while focusing on others.

    Perhaps sometimes we focus on others because we are afraid to face our own suffering.


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