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Chomsky: What America's 'Crisis' Means to the Rest of the World

The way we perceive "crises" here in the U.S. is a profound symbol of how we don't understand them internationally.
 
 
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Perhaps I may begin with a few words about the title. There is too much nuance and variety to make such sharp distinctions as theirs-and-ours, them-and-us. And neither I nor anyone can presume to speak for “us.” But I will pretend it is possible.

There is also a problem with the term “crisis.” Which one? There are numerous very severe crises, interwoven in ways that preclude any clear separation. But again I will pretend otherwise, for simplicity.

One way to enter this morass is offered by the June 11 issue of the New York Review of Books. The front-cover headline reads “How to Deal With the Crisis”; the issue features a symposium of specialists on how to do so. It is very much worth reading, but with attention to the definite article. For the West the phrase “the crisis” has a clear enough meaning: the financial crisis that hit the rich countries with great impact, and is therefore of supreme importance. But even for the rich and privileged that is by no means the only crisis, nor even the most severe. And others see the world quite differently. For example, in the October 26, 2008 edition of the Bangladeshi newspaper The New Nation, we read:
It’s very telling that trillions have already been spent to patch up leading world financial institutions, while out of the comparatively small sum of $12.3 billion pledged in Rome earlier this year, to offset the food crisis, only $1 billion has been delivered. The hope that at least extreme poverty can be eradicated by the end of 2015, as stipulated in the UN’s Millennium Development Goals, seems as unrealistic as ever, not due to lack of resources but a lack of true concern for the world’s poor.

The article goes on to predict that World Food Day in October 2009 “will bring . . . devastating news about the plight of the world’s poor . . . which is likely to remain that: mere ‘news’ that requires little action, if any at all.” Western leaders seem determined to fulfill these grim predictions. On June 11 the Financial Times reported, “the United Nations’ World Food Programme is cutting food aid rations and shutting down some operations as donor countries that face a fiscal crunch at home slash contributions to its funding.” Victims include Ethiopia, Rwanda, Uganda, and others. The sharp budget cut comes as the toll of hunger passes a billion—with over one hundred million added in the past six months—while food prices rise, and remittances decline as a result of the economic crisis in the West.

As The New Nation anticipated, the “devastating news” released by the World Food Programme barely even reached the level of “mere ‘news.’” In The New York Times, the WFP report of the reduction in the meager Western efforts to deal with this growing “human catastrophe” merited 150 words on page ten under “World Briefing.” That is not in the least unusual. The United Nations also released an estimate that desertification is endangering the lives of up to a billion people, while announcing World Desertification Day. Its goal, according to the Nigerian newspaper THISDAY, is “to combat desertification and drought worldwide by promoting public awareness and the implementation of conventions dealing with desertification in member countries.” The effort to raise public awareness passed without mention in the national U.S. press. Such neglect is all too common.

It may be instructive to recall that when they landed in what today is Bangladesh, the British invaders were stunned by its wealth and splendor. It was soon on its way to becoming the very symbol of misery, and not by an act of God.

 
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