Tuesday, February 21, 2006

We're all neighbors now

I can't help but feeling that there is something rotten … no not in the Kingdom of Denmark … but in the entire world. As much as I want to, I cannot put all the blame for the ugly state of the world on George W. Bush, or Dick Cheney, or for that matter Osama bin-Laden. Contrast our current malaise with the world at the end of the Cold War. Do you remember how good we felt when the wall came down? There was hope in the air, where today, there seems to be mostly smoke after bombs and disasters. It as if the only bright spot in the world is China, which is very sad, as it is a repressive authoritarian regime.

What happened to hope? The current outrage among fundamentalist Muslims is a sign of what is wrong with our time, but it also points to the underlying causes that makes people on one side of the world explode in fury over a set of cartoons published on the other side. Technology has brought the world together and released the economic forces of globalization. Hence we are now much closer to each other than anybody thought was possible, rendering us not only benefits of trade, but the whole shebang. Mankind has rather unwittingly entered into a global wedding, for better or worse. The honeymoon was quick and sweet, and then came the fight over the dishes, and fear of our new neighbors, who are watching those strange movies on their satellite-TV system.

We are so close now, so close that we care for each other the way people care for each other across ethnic and micro-geographic borders. It used to be that neighbors hated each other, like the Germans and the French, the British and the Irish, the Khmers and the Vietnamese, the Indians and the Pakistanis, the Hutus and the Tutsis, the Iranians and the Iraqis, and once also the Danes and the Swedes – Remember the Bloodbath in Stockholm 1520? (I guess, there were not enough good fences to go around.)

You don't hate people who you don't see. It's when you see them you realize how different they are, and how scary the thought is that your kids may want to play with their kids, and that your daughter may one day fall in love with one of them, one of THEM!

Greed and progress brings us all together, but coming back from the market with the short end of the stick, you are upset. Fear and suspicion undermines the marketplace and breeds resentment, which is why the scale is not just a symbol for justice, but a peacemaker. Some people are not ready for the marketplace, while others seems to have grown up there… It is easy to throw blame around, but deep down you know that it was your own weakness that made you into a victim. What are you going to do? Sharpen your knives or your skills?

It is always easier to blame someone else. Who wants to go tell the chief or the elder council that our age-old traditions and accumulated collective wisdom doesn't work anymore? For all of its poetic beauty, it doesn't do the trick. The priest, the rabbi, the mufti or the medicine man may be great comforters, telling us what we want to hear so badly, but they don't heal bleeding wounds, nor do they fill empty stomachs.

Adam Smith was right. You don't expect the baker to give you a loaf of bread out of charity, or the baker will go out of business. You have to bring something to the market in order to bring something back.

It was probably easier when roads were short and markets small. You knew whom you were dealing with, and you would meet him or her during the week. But who knows where that pair of sneakers are made (except that they were assembled in China, by a subsidiary of a company whose shares are traded in New York.) Marx called that feeling alienation. You don't know your producer anymore, and feel estranged from the product and the world behind it. You have lost control; you depend on others. That is why trade breeds fear. There is a lack of trust.

During the Cold War, there were at least two rivals caring for us out of fear that we would turn to the other. When the wall came down, and the Kremlin crumbled, they stopped caring. The new U.S. president, George W. Bush, looked at the Middle East back in the beginning of 2001 and told the world that he didn't care. It took the terror attacks of September 11 to make him change his mind. No, I'm not saying that 9/11 was his fault, but his initial pullback from the world – remember his dizzing of the Kyoto Protocol and the International Court? – gave the world the impression that America doesn't care, which played into the hands of the reactionary mullahs of Iran, the Talibans of Afghanistan and the bitter Osama bin-Laden. America's walkout was their big chance.

Globalization pulls the world together economically, while at the same time pulling it apart emotionally. It's time to focus more on what our neighbors say and think, rather than to focus on what they look like.

Hans Sandberg
21 feb 2006

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