Merchants of Morality
April 21, 2002 3:06 PM   Subscribe

Merchants of Morality Which global injustices gain your sympathy, attention, and money? Rarely the most deserving. For every Tibetan monk or Central American indigenous activist you see on the evening news, countless other worthy causes languish in obscurity. The groups that reach the global limelight often do so at dear cost—by distorting their principles and alienating their constituencies for the sake of appealing to self-interested donors in rich nations.
posted by Rastafari (8 comments total)
Great article...though it may prove to be a bit too long for a forum like this.

Not directly related:
The 10 Most Underreported Humanitarian Crises of 2001: a special report by Doctors Without Borders makes you wonder how much goes on in the world that you have no clue about.
posted by justlooking at 6:43 PM on April 21, 2002

Sometimes it's clear why one cause makes the A-list and another doesn't. The Tibetans' Buddhism provided a popular hook in parts of the West; the Uighurs' Islam did not. Also, many prominent Tibetans fled to nearby India while the Uighurs were more landlocked, hemmed in by the Soviets on the other side. East Timor provides an instructive example of an oppressive situation that provides a political hook for the Chomsky left, because of their virulent opposition to what they see as the role there of realpolitik imperialism. The Irian Jaya oppression was just as violent, just as horrible, but did not provide a hook to indict Henry Kissinger.

What I find most interesting in this article is the Zapatista discussion, particularly the contention that not just their Western fund/awareness-raising arms, but the movement itself has been affected by the acceptability of their agenda abroad.

Nevertheless, the quote as referenced in the FPP is a rather arguable point. Is it always laudable to pursue principles at the cost of alienating your non-indigenous support? True politics should always have an element of pragmatism, otherwise it's doomed to fad-disillusionment cycles or permanent obscurity. Taken to an extreme we can imagine the Dan Hartung Party, whose unshaking principles are founded on the idea that the rest of the world should give me all its money. Should I be surprised when I find there's scant support for my party?
posted by dhartung at 7:46 PM on April 21, 2002

Dhartung: Your explanation for the popularity of Tibetan Buddhism makes sense. Though I am sure that Dalai Lama's charisma and the mystique of Lhasa contributed considerably towards the popularity of that cause.

I think the take away is that "an open and democratic global civil society remains a myth" to a large extent.

The world has always been a harsh place. The nations have always trampled on human rights. The majority has in many instances persecuted the minorities. Minorities have almost always suffered from persecution complexes. And the tradition continues ....

The Western world has managed to give its citizens a large measure of equality and protection of basic rights. Seen through that prism, one tends to perceive that interventions towards the protection of human rights (I use that word very broadly here) elsewhere is fuled by the same value system.

Also, we as people have started to believe that
1. We as a global community can and do make a difference.
2. Our aid goes to the needy per se and there is no hierarchy amongst the needy.

The fact that the reality is a lot more complex (i.e. charismatic leadership, good marketing, comon aims etc.) help makes it very similar to conventional politics and should really come as no surprise to us. But I must say that I was vaguely disappointed.

...The article is more interesting than the quote. The writer was probably using that quote following the same principle - use a sensational introduction to draw people in! But I must say - if it were not published in Foreign Affairs, I probably wouldn't have bothered to read it after such an intro!
posted by justlooking at 11:03 PM on April 21, 2002

Oh, you're absolutely right. A charismatic leader is at least as important. It especially helps if that leader easily Westernizes, speaks excellent English, and being a fan of Star Trek can't hurt either. But I think there was a particular bubble of Buddhist popularity in the 60s and 70s and in places like California that created a fifth column someone like the Dalai Lama could readily exploit.

Also, this wasn't Foreign Affairs, the official journal of the center-right establishment; this was Foreign Policy, which is coming from more of a center-left viewpoint.

Anyway, this reminded me of the time I attended the New York Marxist School for a class on Hegelian dialectic. We had a discussion forum after class, and one night things went in a certain direction and I ventured that I'd like to see a good book that put the development of Marxism in the context of the other utopian movements of the 19th century; did anyone know of such a book? The reaction, much to my surprise, was as if I'd farted. Loudly. Even though I'm sure there were a variety of leftist views in that room that would have trouble agreeing on everything, nobody wanted to question the basic roots. To them, desiring seizure of the means of production wasn't a natural outgrowth of the dehumanization of Victorian industrialization, that would have trouble adapting itself to agrarian cultures and responsible governance, but a moral, nearly religious imperative. (And of course, nobody there seemed to see the irony, because most of the other utopian movements had a religious component.)

The beginning of my disillusionment. I really expected a much more open debate. In any case I've tried never to be wholly blinded by idealism. This guy reminded me of that.
posted by dhartung at 12:19 AM on April 22, 2002

dhartung, I think the book you're requesting is Commitment and Community; Communes and Utopias in Sociological Perspective, by Rosabeth Moss Kanter.
You would also like the literature of the "Junge Deutschland" period; I suspect that much of what you requested on the origins of Marxism is more accessible in the original German and French. Current comparison of Marxism with other cults: Captive Hearts, Captive Minds. (The latter is survival strategy reading for anyone dealing with extremists, political or religious fanatics, and other variants of overly possessive significant others!) /digression

What I find most interesting in this article is the Zapatista discussion, particularly the contention that not just their Western fund/awareness-raising arms, but the movement itself has been affected by the acceptability of their agenda abroad.

John Arquilla has a lot to say about "swarming", on the RAND site, in his books, and in Wired Magazine. (sorry, no time to fetch links!) There's also a great piece on this from the Naval War College that I can't find again either, which describes a similar networked approach to warfighting strategy.

Although actually, all of this is just adding modern communications technologies to the old idea of "Internationalists" from back in the days of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and the Spanish Civil War; or, alternatively, using secular organizational structures to augment / replace the traditional work of the Christian churches overseas.

What is the business model of the movement? Who adds today's meal to the begging bowls of those who attempt to renounce the world as it exists in order to work for something better? Perhaps groups like the Environmental Careers Organization will eventually turn up some new alternatives to patronage.
posted by sheauga at 6:28 AM on April 22, 2002

(PS: dhartung - if you're based out of Chicago, you might enjoy looking into the life of Carl Schurz, a rather forgotten and obscure midwestern historical figure, who left Germany due to political involvement in that origins-of-marxism / revolution of 1848 period.)
posted by sheauga at 6:37 AM on April 22, 2002

sheauga, thanks for the interesting links. No one who lives on the Upper East Side of Manhattan will ever forget Carl Schurz, thanks to the park which bears his name at 86th and East End, with its delightful curving promenade, and breathtaking view of the always turbulent Hell's Gate. Schurz, it appears, was an undistinguished general in the Civil War, who's most important contribution (if I'm not mistaken), was to enlist ethnic German support for the Lincoln administration in the conflict's dark early days.
posted by Faze at 6:56 AM on April 22, 2002

sheauga: thanks for those links and pointers; I've put the book(s) on my wish list. I actually believe my Dad has some stuff on Schurz (he's an historian of the upper midwest).

My own German roots go back about two generations earlier, and one of the things I've been interested in lately is putting that emigration in context of the political situation in pre-Bismarck Germany.

Faze: wow, I knew the park existed, from my time in NYC; I'll have to try visiting next time. Thanks for the delightful description.
posted by dhartung at 11:24 PM on April 23, 2002

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