Sunday, March 14, 2004

The Odd Man Out

Some days I feel totally schitzophrenic. Like today: I was surfing the web toiling away in search of stories to amuse and irritate you, my dear readers, when I came across two articles which analyzed the ways in which the United States stands out of the crowd of other Western nations, and these ways are not pretty. Yet only a couple of hours earlier I had scintillated at a local block party with lots of very nice American humans, and not one evil power-broker or fundamentalist among them (I'm not counting me, of course). What is a goddess to think? Mainly that it's time for all good, normal Americans to get off their asses to vote so that I can hold my head up in international meetings of the supernatural. Should you think of no other reason to do so.

The first of these two stories is a tale on morality, the Right Way and the sin of sex. We've heard this one before, of course, but repetition doesn't make it any less weird. The events took place at a hemispheric health conference of the Americas which was held in Santiago, Chile. Forty countries participated in this conference, and all but one agreed on the importance of family planning programs. Guess which country disagreed? Right:

By acclamation, the more than 300 participants at the Santiago Health Conference added language over U.S. objections that reaffirmed and expanded the so-called "Cairo Consensus," the program of action endorsed by 179 countries, including the U.S., at the 1994 International Conference on Population and Development (ICPD). The Consensus asserts that promoting women's reproductive and sexual rights and services is central to reducing poverty and promoting economic development.

The U.S. wanted all language to 'reproductive health services' to be removed as it naturally means abortion, and it also wanted to insert language asserting parental rights over all teenagers' sexual and health decisions. I smell a fundamentalist Christian here, somewhere in the room.

Given that the majority of South American countries are quite traditional in their values and strongly affected by the Roman Catholic church, the isolation of the United States stance is all the more remarkable. But an empire doesn't need to think like others, of course, not even like most of its citizens.

And it doesn't even have to worry about the equality of the majority of its citizens. During the last week the United States has also decided to renege on its commitment to the 1995 Beijing Platform of Action, "a program adopted by a UN conference to promote the advancement of women throughout the world". So American women don't need any more promotion, I guess. Twelve percent is an acceptable number of women in the Congress, and the Bible never said anything different. What's next, I wonder? A change to the female voting rights would seem like the logical next step. The next elections might be a good time to use them or to lose them.

The second story of the odd man out concerns the worldly goods, greed and the ever free markets. This is where my schitzophrenia again rears its ugly head, for the U.S. in this story is a totally different bunch of people than the ones who went to Santiago. No Old Testament values are touted here; rather, the tale is about the religion of markets and the god of globalization. My bard is Joseph Stiglitz, a respectable economist, and the events take place at an International Labor Organization committee about the negatives of globalization. Stiglitz says:

A new report, issued by the International Labor Organization's commission on the social dimensions of globalization, reminds us how far the Bush administration is out of line with the global consensus. The ILO is a tripartite Organization's with representatives of Labor, government and business. The commission, chaired by the presidents of Finland and Tanzania, has 24 members (of whom I was one) drawn from different nationalities, interest groups and intellectual persuasions, including members as diverse as the head of Toshiba and the leader of the American Federation of Labor Congress of Industrial Organizations. Yet this very heterogeneous group was able to crystallize the emerging consensus, that globalization - despite its positive potential - has not only failed to live up to that potential, but has actually contributed to social distress.

This consensus, and a rather moderate one at that, as what people agree about is that globalization is not all roses and wine, is not shared by the United States. Stiglitz gives two examples of the U.S. rigidity in dealing with globalization: the Americans insistence on the liberalization of capital markets at an early stage of economic development, despite the fact that this has been shown to result in crises, the disappearance of the middle class and increased poverty, and a similar insistence on strong intellectual property rights in areas such as pharmaceutical patents, which seriously hampers the poor countries' access to drugs that are needed to combat AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria. Only reluctantly did the U.S. agree to allow genetic (and cheaper) equivalents to be marketed in these countries, and only when an epidemic or other emergency was taking place.

What these two tales share is the impression of American heartlessness and rigid fanaticism. These are not the values of the Americans that I know and love, and it makes me very angry that a bunch of people in one itsy-bitsy town, Washington D.C., can so ruin the reputation of nice, hospitable folk with a lot of common sense.