Tuesday, August 19, 2008

learning to live in the second world

Once in a long while, I read a meaty, educational nonfiction book. A few years back, No Logo by Naomi Klein rocked my world with its connections between labor issues, advertising, identity politics and postmodernism. For a very brief time, I tried to do a little small-scale ad-jamming by going to the mall and putting notes in the pockets of pants at Banana Republic and Pacific Sunwear:

Hello Mr. Or Ms. Pants-Purchaser!

Did you know that these pants were made in a SWEATSHOP? If you think sweatshops are BAD, here are some options:

  • Put these back on the rack (I know they’re cute, but you can do it!)
  • Don’t get any pants today—the ones you’re wearing are very nice. Or, your skirt is nice.
  • Get some pants at a THRIFT STORE. They’ll be FUNKY, ORIGINAL, & the money won’t go to BAD CORPORATIONS that use sweatshop labor.
  • Visit www.sweatshopwatch.org to learn more.

Thank you!

So maybe it’s ironic that my most recent meaty, educational read was The Second World by Parag Khanna, which is sort of all about how China has already achieved world domination, sweatshop boycotts be damned.

More specifically, the book is about how the three major world powers (the U.S., EU and China) exert their influence on “second world” or partially developed countries. Not to give too much away, but the U.S. is basically a global bully who’d better figure out fast that that shit doesn’t work after junior high; the EU is the wholesomely popular ASB president whom everyone will bend over backwards to please; and China is the school whore who will open her legs for anyone willing to engage in a little “free trade” behind the bleachers.

There’s a lot of not-so-vaguely-racist, anti-China talk these days, so let me clarify that I don’t mean whore in a bad way. She’s getting more action than anyone else on the playground, and she’s going to use that money to put herself through med school.

Although some of the Facebook reviews I read (because I’m literary like that) knocked The Second World for trying to cover so much territory, its breadth is one of my favorite qualities. Where else am I going to read about Kiribati and Azerbaijan?

Also, Khanna’s thesis is not just that the Big Three have to make good decisions, but that the Medium Many hold the future in their hands: They can decide which models to follow, who to trade with and how to spend the money they make from selling their goods and labor to first world countries.

It’s fascinating to read who’s headed for the first world (shout-out to Kazakhstan and Chile!) and who is squandering the possibilities (I’m talking to you, Uzbekistan). And although this is a very asshole-American thing to say, it gives me some ideas about where I might want to travel next by actually differentiating between countries where the dollar buys you more than a fourth of a Coke (or whatever a buck gets you in Europe these days).

And why is the dollar suffering? See the whole “playground bully” thing. The book ends on a hopeful but nevertheless mournful note, positing that the U.S. is already well on its way to being a second-world country if you look at defining characteristics such as income disparity.

I hope Barack Obama has read this book. I hope it’s not too late. But it’s also inspiring to read about all the second-world countries and realize that, contrary to American popular belief, not living in the U.S. (or in the U.S. as we used to know it) does not mean destitution or despair. In other words, people survive all kinds of crazy shit.

I think this will be an interesting book to have knocking around in my head as I knock around in Oaxaca, the second-world home of lots of old-fashioned Indian-slaughtering (back in the day, and maybe in an economic kind of way more recently?) and lots of Indians who managed not to get slaughtered, not to mention a booming art scene (so I read) and fabulous mole sauce.


Peter Varvel said...

Overwhelming! I've never even heard of Kiribati and Azerbaijan, I'm a little ashamed to admit.
To bounce off of the whore metaphor, this post makes me think about how we spend too much time expanding and fililng the wrong holes, instead of the ones in our heads.

Cheryl said...

Reading this book certainly helped diminish the number of times I said, "What? Where's that?" during the Olympic opening ceremonies. I still said it, though.

Peter Varvel said...

Cheryl, a former coworker of mine (she is now an instructor at UCLA) thought that this post was written by me. She may have thought my link to your blog was one of my entries . . . As much as I would love to take the credit, I linked Bread and Bread in my response to her so as to give due credit.
This is her response to your post:

Peter my friend. I just read your blog about globalization. You are not going to believe this, but your metaphor about the schoolyard..... That is the EXACT same metaphor I have been using as part of my first day of World Regional Geography class lecture.
In fact, I was just reviewing the lecture this morning. This makes me so excited. The world is just one giant sandbox. The popular kids, the bullies and the loners. No one likes the bullies, but will join the bullies for protection... then immediately run away as soon as there's trouble.
Safety in numbers. Many individuals joining together are safer and more influential. The most charismatic is the most influential.
I am so excited its not just some random thought I've been spouting...

The other recurring theme of my course is....
The history of the world is based on the simple principle of who has the best/most stuff.
Resources, territory, technology, people.... all stuff.
I have a lot of stuff, I want your stuff, I'm going to take your stuff. My stuff is better than your stuff, you can't have my stuff.

The three things that have started every war in the history of the world: Religion, Resources, Region.

;-) You've made me so happy!

Cheryl said...

Wow! I'm excited to know that someone with an official degree in such things thought of the same analogy. Now I can pretend that great minds think alike, not just that I'm still mentally stuck in high school. I would love to take your friend's class!

Don Cummings said...

I keep going to Europe...I've been to France, Ireland and Germany, all pretty recently, and I want to move to Europe--because I LOATHE this country's politics. But then, I'm this big loud American and Europe won't have me. So, I'm stuck here. For now. But while I'm here--I'm just going to have to make a lot of noise. Sadly, I believe the right wing propaganda machine has won in the U.S. And our education system is so destroyed, people don't have the developed brain power to believe they can live differently--instead of a life that's about endless competition and acquisition, they could live in greater balance with others, with the earth, etc. Refreshing company at dinner: I ate with Socialists who made no apology.

Cheryl said...

Socialism has gotten such a bad rap in this country. But I'm all for it--I mean, it has "social" in it, so why can't we just think of it as a big party where we all support each other and hold each other's hair when we've had too much to drink?

Um, okay, that might not really be a selling point with many conservatives. But it's Friday, and my metaphors are weak.