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February 2, 2001
I Don't Have To Write This One


A Davos dispatch from the Washington Post, Jan. 31:

For the past six days
the world's political, academic and business luminaries
who gathered in this Swiss mountain resort struggled
-- between bites of lobster tail and
sips of Louis Roederer champagne --
to comprehend the reasons behind growing
populist backlash against globalization.

At seminars and panel discussions held in
a fortress-like conference center
surrounded by armed guards and barbed wire,
they were confronted by a
staccato burst
of statistics
depicting the monstrous inequalities of our age:
that more than a billion people live on less than $1 a day,
that half of humanity has never made or received a phone call
and that Manhattan has more Internet connections
than all of Africa.

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Slums in the shadow of one of the world's longest suspension span bridges, Istanbul, 1990.
Slums in the shadow of one of the world's longest suspension span bridges, Istanbul, 1990.

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All right, maybe I do need to write something. I suppose this makes me think of where I fit in the scheme, which I write about from time to time. It should, shouldn't it? I mean, I may struggle to pay bills and save money (and fail) year after year, but the fact remains I'm living comfortably, to make a colossal understatement, compared to the folks mentioned above. I can go on a ski trip. I can buy books and CDs once in a while. I buy scanners. I know what good wine tastes like. I know that the two black dots flashing in the bottom right corner of a movie signal an upcoming editing cut. As I write this I happen to have $60 in my pocket, which I understand is a teacher's annual salary in Outer Elbonia.

There's something obviously wrong about the way this equation is set up and that goes beyond changing one's own lifestyle. As a fellow college paper columnist wrote some years ago, you may recycle 14 Coke cans a month and feel good about yourself while the corporation down the road beats you by a billion tons of waste in the opposite direction. So in other words, you need change that goes beyond your immediate sphere. No-brainer, that one. (A reasonable person and I can disagree about what to do about this problem; but if you deny that there's a problem and your ideal system leaves no room for helping the disenfranchised, you're either stupid, uninformed, or callous, or George Will, and obviously we have nothing to talk about. You better monitor closely the battery level of that burglar alarm, though.)

The more difficult question has centered around the means to effect that change, and observations that voting based on the "lesser of evils" does little good and that the people who pillage will never give up their battle gains without, well, a battle, have in the past led to a tendency to kill a bunch of people (and the wrong people at that) in the name of one revolution or another.

At one point in my life (when I was 13, perhaps) I think did believe a revolution could achive something; shortly thereafter I must have realized the sheer destruction inherent in the belief that you can change an entire society in your own lifetime. (You can start, indeed you must start, but you must acknowledge it's just like planting a tree.) I never stopped believing in socialism as a more advanced step in our evolutionary journey, but I think it has to be just that: evolutionary, and voluntary. What the latter means is there'll come a point when the tide will turn in the collective human brain and we will naturally think that compared to making sure nobody is left hungry, homeless, and so on, it's not the better path to focus on excelling in business, merging with people like you and then laying off thousands of people for a healthier bottom line. There will come a point when that won't be the bottom line at all.

Just as today we are unable to revise our cost estimate of a car to include the burden of recycling its environmentaly destructive carcass, and yet tomorrow we will have to do that in the face of dwindling resources, someday we'll have to take the future of the "rest of the world" into account when coming up with our perfect, isolated little business plans.

But unless that understanding, and actions based upon it (i.e., a socialist, collectivist movement), come voluntarily, they will be beaten handily by stronger forces of self-interest, on individual and collective levels, as the history of the last half century or so shows us. It turns out a simply worker- or peasant-based movement is not inclusive enough, and the risk of it turning into a massive slaughter of innocents is too big to ignore. It's just not acceptable, not in my book.

The question is, how do you "evolve" a middle class that votes for a decidedly dumbed-down presidential candidate because it's a guy they "can have a beer with"? [And as a friend pointed out yesterday, you can't even do that with him because the man's a recovering alcoholic! but I digress.] I can't claim to know the answer to that, but Michael Moore seemed to have a good clue when he wrote in The Nation about leaving one's ivory tower and finding common ground with people who have much to gain from social change. "Finding common ground," you see, not "reaching out," which implies a position of superiority, and if you haven't been able to shake that off you might as well go home.

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