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Culture

All Messed Up

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October 2nd, 2009

When I first started hanging around in ghettos, I thought that if I worked really hard I could make them go away. Years later, after I knew better, I thought that if I worked really hard, I could at least figure out where they come from in the first place.

Frankly, even that smaller mission is starting to seem impossible to me. The longer I follow the long chain of causation, the farther I get from my base of knowledge. I hate to admit it, but when an urban youth worker like me winds up searching for clues in Jared Diamond’s GunsGerms, and Steel, a major work of biological anthropology which traces the ongoing international, economic, and social repercussions of worldwide seed distribution following the last Ice Age…well, the game’s probably over.

And yet, at the most basic level, the answer to my question is both simple and obvious. Ghettos are as old as sin, which means they’re as old as humanity itself. In Biblical terms, the unspoken corollary to Jesus’ statement that the poor will always be with us is that they’ve always been as well.

Ghetto Production

Still, there’s a great difference between the simple poverty of history and the complicated social pathologies I see at work in today’s American inner-cities, and there’s an ever greater difference between even the worst of our ghettos and the kind of utterly overwhelming human degradation that’s increasingly common in the rest of the world. Somehow, I don’t think the Badlands of North Philadelphia where abandoned junkies with AIDS literally rot to death in crack houses are what Jesus had in mind, let alone the sex markets of Bombay, where an eight year old girl or boy can be purchased, violated, and disposed of for the price of a Happy Meal.

Even if the old and new poverties are the same, even if there’s literally nothing new under the sun, clearly the evil which produces such places is moving faster and with greater efficiency than ever before. From Africa to the former Soviet Union to the Southside of Chicago, more people are being born or driven into more misery more quickly than at any time in history. Globally speaking, ghetto production is way up.

Understanding It

So now, having accepted that I can’t make them go away or figure out where they came from in the first place, I’m simply trying to understand how that ghetto-producing evil works in this present day and age, and why it’s working so much more efficiently. I’m trying to understand globalization, which is why the book in my hands these days is The Lexus and the Olive Tree, by New York Times foreign affairs columnist Thomas Friedman. And, oh my goodness, is that book messing me up.

At first, I thought Friedman was pro-globalization because of the breathless excitement with which he describes the end of the Cold War, the triumph of free-market capitalism, and the increasingly rapid integration and democratization of capital, technology, and information across national borders that’s transforming the world. Given my prejudices as a bleeding-heart, ultra-liberal, Christian revolutionary, I steeled myself to utterly refute and rebuke him.

However, as he moved on to detail the cultural and environmental destruction being propagated worldwide by unregulated corporations and market values run amok, I reversed course and decided that Friedman was actually anti-globalization, like me and all my left-wing, onion-reading, urban ministry friends. I began to draft for him my personal letter of congratulations, on recycled paper self-righteously purchased anywhere but Wal-Mart. Only now, as I read the final sections of the book, I’m slowly coming to realize that Friedman is neither for nor against globalization. He’s a reporter, after all, seeking to help readers like me understand our world. Certainly he has a bias, but basically he just wants us all to face up to what’s going on.

“I feel about globalization a lot like I feel about the dawn,” he explains. “Generally speaking, I think it’s a good thing that the sun comes up each morning. It does more good than harm, especially if you wear sunscreen and sunglasses. But even if I didn’t much care for the dawn, there isn’t much I could do about it. I didn’t start globalization, I can’t stop it, and I’m not going to waste time trying.”

Messed Up

That attitude, and the fact that it quite literally makes all the sense in the world, is what has messed me up. At the very core of my being, I feel certain that all this internationally-integrated, technology-fueled, unrestrained free-market capitalism is the ultimate engine of evil. I’m horrified by corporate greed impoverishing the masses and enriching the elite while homogenizing culture according to shallow, dehumanizing market values. With all my heart I want to rage and protest and revolt against globalization in the name of Jesus, but (and here’s the tricky part) only if there’s at least some chance of defeating it. And now, on the basis of this one very persuasive book, I don’t think there is.

I’m not skilled enough to explain Friedman’s arguments as to why globalization is an irresistible force, but suffice to say that they’ve convinced me beyond question, even though I know they represent the destruction of almost everything I’ve believed and stood for my entire life. (The previous sentence, by the way, is my definition of messed up.)

Now What?

What I’m wondering now is, where do I go from here? How do I keep from despairing at my work in ghettoes when I know the forces that produce them are multiplying far faster than the resources necessary to transform them? Why should I even bother fighting for justice when, humanly speaking, the battle is lost? What am I to do now that I no longer believe that the Church or anything else on Earth can stop globalization from consuming everything I hold dear? Lie down and wait for the second coming?

What you may be wondering now is whether or not I’m really as far around the bend as I seem, to which the answer is, yes and no. Yes, I’m really worried and confused by my sudden sense of the magnitude of the impact of globalization. But no, I haven’t really given up yet. I’m having to go back to the drawing board, however, to try and explain to myself why not. You see, even though I’ve always preached that God, and God alone, could and would bring about the kingdom, it turns out that I was betting on humanity all along.

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Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in the YS Blog are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the opinion or position of YS.

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