03 February 2002

The Rich and the Poor

John Maxwell

There are two huge international conferences taking place this week: one, in New York is called the World Economic Forum and is attended by most of the richest and most powerful men in the world. There may, actually, be some women at this conference, but most of them are somebody's aide or spokesperson.

Half a world away, across the Equator in Porto Alegre, Brazil, another international meeting, The World Social Forum, is happening, attended probably by as many women as men, representing rich and poor people from all over the world.

As stark as the contrasts are between the two conferences, they are both discussing the same thing: the future of humanity. In New York, the main discussions centre on how to make capitalism palatable to the people of the world. Perhaps, I state the thing crassly. The real title is "Building a coalition for a stable world".

One of the speakers at the WEF meeting was Mr Paul O'Neill, US secretary of the treasury who warned poor nations of the dangers of debt. He should know, since he is the former head of Alcoa which pleads that it can't do business in Jamaica unless we give up the bauxite levy, which was some recompense for the enormous and unsightly craters bequeathed to us by Alcoa and its brethren.

The prime minister of Australia, Mr John Howard, told the WEF. "It's essential to slow the spread of terrorism around the world to stop violence and let diplomacy spread." As diplomacy spreads, so, no doubt, will the impact of AIDS be reduced.

Also addressing the WEF was Mr Niall FitzGerald, head of Unilever, who was at least aware that a billion of the world's people live on less than $1 a day. His recipe: "We must open markets," he said, making the claim that capitalism empowers people and reduces the possibility that they would seek violence as a solution to resolve problems.

Meanwhile, President George Bush has drawn a bead on everybody who does not seem to toe the American line, and caused consternation in Europe and elsewhere when he lumped together Korea, Iran and Iraq as probable targets -- since they constitute according to him, "an axis of evil".

The anti-Americans

American nationalism has now reached such a pitch that 85% of Americans approve of Mr Bush's presidency. In other places, commentators are so nervous of appearing to be anti-American that some are making declarations that they are not, before they express themselves.

Why should any journalist have to make such a declaration? It is shaming both to the journalist and to those he is afraid of. If one cannot safely criticise one's friend, who can one criticise?

Even such a distinguished academic such as Susan George, of the Transnational Institute, has felt the heat.

In an article to be published in the next issue of the American magazine, The Nation, she says inter alia:
"While the prestigious French daily Le Monde headlined 'We Are All Americans', others felt that this assertion very much depended on 'which' Americans. Yes, without question, if it meant mourning for the victims and their families; no, if it meant unqualified support for the corporate, financial and government elites, and for business as usual."
Nor were we surprised when these same elites in Europe, our neoliberal corporate adversaries and their domestics, instantly seized upon the atrocities to advance their cause. By the morning of the 12th they had already sharpened their sticks. Using crude, faulty but sometimes effective logic in an attempt to intimidate and criminalize the citizens' movement, they declared, "You're antiglobalization, therefore you're anti-American, therefore you're on the side of the terrorists." For weeks, the media gleefully and unrelentingly framed their coverage and their questions in that light alone.

The fact is that it now feels increasingly dangerous to say anything which could be thought to be disapproving of American actions. When Mr Bush and his administration declared that the terrorists would win if they changed the way Americans felt about freedom, they obviously were not thinking about people who did not agree with them.

A friend of mine in academia in North America sent my column of January 20 to several of his friends. Many were sympathetic to my views, but one professor was thoroughly outraged by my column which he thought, was full of "it". Fair enough. In that column I reported a metaphorical remark by an American general, to the effect that the Al Qaeda prisoners were so fanatical that they would try to chew through hydraulic lines on a C-17. According to this professor, that was no metaphor, but documented fact!

The power of the Press

Since I have not been able to find any story about anyone chewing through hydraulic lines, I trust that my original belief was correct. If anyone can steer me to the facts, please do.

If my surmise was correct, the fact that a professor can be so convinced of a palpable (I think) piece of hyperbole, says something about the media to which he has been exposed. It is quite obvious that war sells, and the media have set up their war-rooms and other grandly titled facilities to sell the war. These "war-rooms" bring to the American people the latest about this strangest war of all; one in which one side sustains almost no casualties because the hostilities are conducted either from the stratosphere, or by proxies.

Which is exactly why a Wall Street Journal reporter, going about his lawful business, one supposes, is captured by fanatics who want to use him as a bargaining chip with the US. It is also why Mr Bush's State of the Union address is so dangerous. In an instant crafted no doubt by speechwriters rather than politicians or generals, Mr Bush has destabilised the Middle East, throwing Iran into the lap of Iraq or vice versa, and emboldening those who want to overthrow the American-backed regimes in Egypt and Saudi Arabia, to name just two. The King of Jordan, a mere youth in age, is wise enough to try to moderate the American tone, and we are now told that the United States has no immediate intention to attack either Iraq, Iran or North Korea. Ironically, the latter two had been inching painfully toward some kind of accommodation with the United States.

It is no surprise, either, to read of Afghan warlords fighting among themselves and usurping the positions officially allotted to them by their "government". One essential thing about governments is that they, in most states, retain a monopoly on the use of force. It is quite clear that by this definition, the government of Mr Karzai is not a government as most of us understand it.

This unstable situation was foreseen in a general way by some commentators, who early on warned against a scattershot approach to the problem of terrorism.

The American approach has done exactly what some of us feared: it has scattered Al Qaeda to the four winds -- bin Laden's bees, I called them in an earlier column. What was needed in October and is still needed, is a criminal investigation into the events of September 11. We already understand how it was done, but we still don't know who really was responsible. It may very well have been bin Laden, but there still is no proof. The latest video makes it clear that he is fully in agreement with the terrorists, but he never comes out and claims paternity, in contrast to the video broadcast some time ago.

A war against an identifiable foe may be bloody and nasty; but at least the enemy forces can either be destroyed or made to surrender, after which he can be sanctioned to be of good behaviour. Identifiable enemies have identifiable aims, which can be dealt with, one way or another.

The motives of terrorists, on the other hand, are as infinitely variable as the motives of those teenagers who from time to time, blow away their classmates and teachers in American schools.

When that happens? We don't set out to exterminate teenagers: We ask -- WHY?

We recognise that something is wrong with the system, with the milieu, with the way things are. And hopefully, we try to ensure that other teenagers are not forced into similar destructive behaviour.

If we are all to continue inhabiting this earth, we need to recognise each other's humanity.

Perhaps, that is too simple.


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