Connecting a Few Dots
illustration by A.J. Garces
What does it mean when an educated American knows only scattered bits of information? It means you can't elect a representative to express your political will; you must content yourself with voting for agents who do what they please on global issues of which you know zip. Call that "democracy" if you want to. What you call it doesn't matter since, without knowledge, it's utterly out of your hands.
Where can you get the knowledge? Most American dailies and all its so-called "alternative" weeklies leave global analysis to CNN, Time, Newsweek, The Washington Post, The New York Times -- all of whom treat global matters the same. It's "news" if there's a juicy crisis, or if an American official visits a foreign capital. The Post and Times bury more contextual coverage deep in their pages. None run regular features that attempt to show the relationship of one bit of information to another.
Without context, a piece of information is just a dot. It floats in your brain with a lot of other dots and doesn't mean a damn thing. Knowledge is information-in-context -- connecting the dots. Making your own map. Otherwise we become dots, floating in a global soup. It is difficult to imagine a dot being free.
Here, then, for purposes of discussion, is a contextual map of the globe. Crude indeed, but it may serve to make a point. Country by country, area by area:
Russia. The government can't collect taxes -- most people and businesses don't pay them, and there's no enforcement. Scant taxes mean scant services and an army that's poorly clothed, housed, and fed. Thus all those nukes are barely protected and up for grabs. Urban economies are mostly black market, controlled by a fragmented and warring underworld. In other words, the idea that "the former Soviet Union" is a country -- is a fiction. It's in a state of near anarchy, with no central organization. All those stories about Yeltsin? In these circumstances, they mean next to nothing.
China. The coastal regions are booming, but there's dire poverty in much of the interior -- and, as the CEO of General Motors says, "the roads are currently missing." Pause at that: A nuclear power without roads. How can a country without roads become the commercial giant of the 21st century? Locally, power is corrupt and unregulated -- ask anyone who's tried to do business there. Warlords are reasserting themselves where the government is hesitant or afraid to deploy the army. Yet headlines speak of China as a coherent, purposeful power.
United States. Stocks boom while the middle-class works two or three jobs to make do. Roughly 1% of the people own most of the resources. A higher percentage of the population is incarcerated than in the Soviet Union and South Africa during their worst days. Nobody gets elected without the backing of the very rich, and politicians are brazenly refusing to change that. Race relations are so bad that a grotesque and absurd trial is enough to polarize everyone. While a fifth of its economy is spent on "defense" (against whom?), its citizens are snowed into paying for a system of information through which most of their input will soon be transmitted into their homes through one "line" or outlet -- an outlet under the control of executives whom they don't elect and barely know the names of.
So much for the most "powerful" nations. They are unable to regulate (much less control) the three most profitable enterprises on earth: the global traffic in arms, drugs, and oil. Arms facilitate our constant wars; drugs are the catalyst of most violent crime; and oil is the fuel, the root, of modern life. All three are beyond the reach of any individual or collective political franchise. It is absurd to speak of "freedom" in this context. The "great powers" are in control of little but their ability to make "news." Their citizens control even less.
Swiftly, the rest of the world:
Africa. Except for South Africa, it's a continent of famine, plague, and war, where countries have names but no central organization and no central culture. No power on earth has the resources to intervene or even supply sufficient food and medicine. In a word: Hell.
Europe. France... wracked by factionalism and strikes, but with a solid culture underlying all. Several eastern countries ... tens and hundreds of thousands in the streets for the last several months, all their issues still unresolved. Germany... economically huge, but reeling from unification and unable to exert itself on the world stage. (Considering Germany's history, that's not so bad.) The northern states... keeping to themselves, as usual and very sanely. Italy... 50 governments in 50 years, but somehow it's become the fifth largest industrial force in the world; always chaotic (because it's Italian), yet peaceful; a mysterious, marvelous anomaly. England... little to show for a lot of noise. So after spending 500 years ruining the world, savvy and sinister old Europe is trying to tend its own garden, trusting the so-called great powers (China, Russia, America) to ruin themselves and leave Europe to step into the vacuum.
Japan. A strong central government and economy, but still in the position that moved it to war in 1941 -- dependent on resources far beyond its borders and control.
India. It's India, not Hollywood, that has the largest movie industry in the world. It's India, not China, that has the densest population per acre. Indescribable poverty. Corrupt government. Nuclear capability. Unable to assert itself within itself, much less to the world. Again: chaos, barely under wraps, with nukes for sale.
The Pacific Rim. Most of its governments are bought and paid for by American and European corporations, leading their people into the deathly life of barely paid wage slavery, manufacturing First World products. Will those peoples rise and demand their rights? There are many Op-Ed pieces to that effect, but they don't say that if those people demand what's theirs, our prices go will go up -- with a ripple effect that would devastate the American economy. (Yes: We are again living off slavery.)
Mexico. Mexico City, not Hollywood, is the world's largest producer of television programming. But otherwise Mexico is an enormous resource for the United States. Cheap labor. Easy and profitable trade. Drugs. Its officials are corrupt beyond description (its drug czar has been jailed for working for a drug gang). There are at least two openly revolutionary movements that can neither be suppressed nor negotiated with. A boil ready to burst.
South America. Even Brazil, the largest and most resourceful of its countries, can't control its poverty or sufficiently organize its capacities. Many of its other countries (especially Colombia) are in effect ruled by drug gangs and/or North American industries and/or are wracked by factions. There is no sign of continental leadership or coherence -- which means continued subservience to the so-called First World, a world which can't control itself.
The Middle East. The relentless round of essentially tribal wars have lasted centuries, demeaning everyone concerned. They'd be throwing sand at each other if not for our arms dealers. A sure headline-grabber, but how important to anyone except themselves? The not-so-very-great powers secretly know their own weakness, so they keep this region unstable in order to prevent its oil interests from calling the shots. Otherwise: a petty religious war that goes against the tenets of all the concerned religions.
Our media reports all this as though each crisis is a separate aberration in a normal state of affairs. Actually, we're witnessing a state of chaos and helplessness such as has not existed since the Middle Ages. Some dreamers are saying computers are going to change all this. Do you know how to spell "fat chance"?
We have entered a new Middle Ages, a time of plagues, famines, violence, extreme class disparity, and religious fanaticism -- and also (as in the late Middle Ages) a time of profound discovery and change. A time when it is terribly important, and often dangerous, to preserve values and knowledge -- to stand up for visions that most of this crazed world often can't comprehend or tolerate.
The value of having an inner map of the world as it is (not as it's broadcasted) is this: It allows you to know that your task is larger than yourself. For if you choose, just by virtue of being a decent person you are entrusted with passing on something of value through a dark crazy time -- preserving your integrity, in your way, by your acts and your very breathing, for those who will build again when this chaos exhausts itself. People who assume the burden of their own integrity are free -- because integrity is freedom, and (as Nelson Mandela proved) its force can't be quelled even when jailed. The future lives in our individual, often lonely, and certainly unprofitable acts of integrity, or it doesn't live at all.