Thursday, February 26, 2009

Economic Hit Man - Ch8

Jesus, Seen Differently

The memory of that dalang stuck with me. So did the words of the beautiful English major. That night in Bandung catapulted me to a new level of thinking and feeling . While I had not exactly ignored the implications of what we were doing in Indonesia, my reactions had been ruled by emotions, and I usually had been able to calm my feelings by calling on reason, on the example of history, and on the biological imperative. I had justified our involvement as part of the human condition, convincing myself that Einar, Charlie, and the rest of us were simply acting as men always have : taking care of ourselves and our families.

My discussion with those young Indonesians, however, forced me to see another aspect of the issue . Through their eyes, I realized that a selfish approach to foreign policy does not serve or protect future generations anywhere . It is myopic, like the annual reports of the corporations and the election strategies of the politicians who formulate that foreign policy.

As it turned out, the data I needed for my economic forecasts required frequent visits to Jakarta . I took advantage of my time alone there to ponder these matters and to write about them in a journal . I wandered the streets of that city, handed money to beggars, and attempted to engage lepers, prostitutes, and street urchins in conversation.

Meanwhile, I pondered the nature of foreign aid, and I considered the legitimate role that developed countries (DCs, in World Bank jargon) might play in helping alleviate poverty and misery in less-developed countries (LDCs) . I began to wonder when foreign aid is genuine and when it is only greedy and self-serving . Indeed, I began to question whether such aid is ever altruistic, and if not, whether that could be changed . I was certain that countries like my own should take decisive action to help the sick and starving of the world, but I was equally certain that this was seldom — if ever —the prime motivation for our intervention.

I kept coming back to one main question : if the objective of foreign aid is imperialism, is that so wrong? I often found myself envying people like Charlie who believed so strongly in our system that they wanted to force it on the rest of the world . I doubted whether limited resources would allow the whole world to live the opulent life of the United States, when even the United States had millions of citizens living in poverty. In addition, it wasn't entirely clear to me that people in other nations actually want to live like us . Our own statistics about violence, depression, drug abuse, divorce, and crime indicated that although ours was one of the wealthiest societies in history, it may also be one of the least happy societies . Why would we want others to emulate us?

Perhaps Claudine had warned me of all this . I was no longer sure what it was she had been trying to tell me . In any case, intellectual arguments aside, it had now become painfully clear that my days of innocence were gone. I wrote in my journal:

Is anyone in the U.S. innocent? Although those at the very pinnacle of the economic pyramid gain the most , millions of us depend — either directly or indirectly—on the exploitation of the LDCs for our livelihoods. The resources and cheap labor that feed nearly all our businesses come from places like Indonesia, and very little ever makes its way back . The loans of foreign aid ensure that today's children and their grandchildren will be held hostage. They will have to allow our corporations to ravage their natural resources and will have to forego education, health, and other social services merely to pay us back. The fact that our own companies already received most of this money to build the power plants, airports, and industrial parks does not factor into this formula . Does the excuse that most Americans are unaware of this constitute innocence? Uninformed and intentionally misinformed , yes — but innocent ?

Of course, I had to face the fact that I was now numbered among those who actively misinform.

The concept of a worldwide holy war was a disturbing one, but the longer I contemplated it, the more convinced I became of its possibility. It seemed to me, however, that if this jihad were to occur it would be less about Muslims versus Christians than it would be about LDCs versus DCs, perhaps with Muslims at the forefront . We in the DCs were the users of resources ; those in the LDCs were the suppliers. It was the colonial mercantile system all over again, set up to make it easy for those with power and limited natural resources to exploit those with resources but no power.

I did not have a copy of Toynbee with me, but I knew enough history to understand that suppliers who are exploited long enough will rebel. I only had to return to the American Revolution and Tom Paine for a model . I recalled that Britain justified its taxes by claiming that England was providing aid to the colonies in the form of military protection against the French and the Indians. The colonists had a very different interpretation.

What Paine offered to his countrymen in the brilliant Common Sense was the soul that my young Indonesian friends had referred to — an idea, a faith in the justice of a higher power, and a religion of freedom and equality that was diametrically opposed to the British monarchy and its elitist class systems . What Muslims offered was similar : faith in a higher power and a belief that developed countries have no right to subjugate and exploit the rest of the world . Like colonial minutemen, Muslims were threatening to fight for their rights, and like the British in the 1770s, we classified such actions as terrorism . History appeared to be repeating itself.

I wondered what sort of a world we might have if the United States and its allies diverted all the monies expended in colonial wars — like the one in Vietnam — to eradicating world hunger or to making education and basic health care available to all people, including our own . I wondered how future generations would be affected if we committed to alleviating the sources of misery and to protecting watersheds, forests, and other natural areas that ensure clean water, air, and the things that feed our spirits as well as our bodies. I could not believe that our Founding Fathers had envisioned the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness to exist only for Americans, so why were we now implementing strategies that promoted the imperialist values they had fought against?

On my last night in Indonesia, I awoke from a dream, sat up in bed, and switched on the light . I had the feeling that someone was in the room with me. I peered around at the familiar Hotel Inter - Continental furniture, the batik tapestries, and the framed shadow puppets hanging on the walls . Then the dream came back.

I had seen Christ standing in front of me . He seemed like the same Jesus I had talked with every night when, as a young boy, I shared my thoughts with him after saying my formal prayers . Except that the Jesus of my childhood was fair-skinned and blond, while this one had curly black hair and a dark complexion . He bent down and heaved something up to his shoulder . I expected a cross . Instead, I saw the axle of a car with the attached wheel rim protruding above his head, forming a metallic halo . Grease dripped like blood down his forehead. He straightened, peered into my eyes, and said , "If I were to come now, you would see me differently." I asked him why. "Because," he answered, "the world has changed."

The clock told me it was nearly daylight . I knew I could not go back to sleep, so I dressed, took the elevator to the empty lobby, and wandered into the gardens around the swimming pool. The moon was bright ; the sweet smell of orchids filled the air . I sat down in a lounge chair and wondered what I was doing here, why the coincidences of my life had taken me along this path, why Indonesia . I knew my life had changed, but I had no idea how drastically.

Ann and I met in Paris on my way home, to attempt reconciliation. Even during this French vacation, however, we continued to quarrel. Although there were many special and beautiful moments, I think we both came to the realization that our long history of anger and resentment was too large an obstacle . Besides, there was so much I could not tell her. The only person I could share such things with was Claudine, and I thought about her constantly . Ann and I landed at Boston's Logan Airport and took a taxi to our separate apartments in the Back Bay.

- pages 47-51, Confessions of an Economic Hit Man, by John Perkins

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