March 4th, 2005

Voted for Dean

America Can't Become a Third World Country. Banana Republic, Maybe.

I see a lot of journalism and essay writing by liberals who worry that the Republicans are turning America into a third-world country. The best example I've seen yet is an article in this week's Minneapolis/St. Paul City Times entitled, "America by the Numbers: Number 1?" It does a great job of running through a couple of decades of statistics that show that America is not number one in a lot of things, contrary to the self-image of most of us. Some of them you've probably seen before, like the fact that the US ranks only 37th in the world in overall health, and 54th in health fairness. Some of them probably come as news to most of you, like the fact that the US is 49th world-wide in literacy rate. But do these things make us a third-world country?

No, they don't, because they can't. The term "third world" gets thrown around a lot, but most people never had it defined for them. It doesn't get covered in history classes until you get to college, for a whole bunch of reasons. So I constantly get people asking me (because they figure I'd know) who are the first world and the second world? The answer is that there is no such thing. The actual list of "worlds" is Old World, New World, Third World. By Old World they mean Europe; if they're feeling generous they include Russia and maybe China and Japan. By the New World they mean the western hemisphere, the first region large-scale colonized by Europeans. The Third World, therefore, consists of the second-wave colonies, especially by France and Belgium, in sub-Saharan Africa and in southeast Asia. So technically, there are no "third-world countries" in South or Central America. No, the New World perjorative equivalent of "third-world" is "banana republic." And officially, there no longer is such a thing as either a third-world country or a banana republic. Officially, diplomats have fessed up that there were people in the rest of the world before the Europeans got there. Instead, the official euphemism for a dirt-poor hellhole in either hemisphere is "lesser developed nation" or just "developing nation." (The impolite term that applies to both is "ceiling fan country.")

So what do liberals mean when they complain that America is becoming a third-world country? Well, what they mean is that the US is acquiring the traits of a 20th century decolonized third-world country or banana republic. The key to understanding this is to be found in those countries' collective history under European rule. What is so hard for Americans to understand is that while England sent mostly her poor and middle class to America, and by the tens of thousands, the rest of Europe sent much smaller numbers, roughly equally split between the rich, the military, and the professional class. Their goal wasn't to duplicate or improve on the home country experience in a new land. Their goal was to create new feudal estates, to enslave the population. In the new world, the feudalism was literal at first. In the third world, which was colonized after the beginning of the industrial era, the goal was to reduce the local population to slave labor and steal their resources not so much for noble families but for shareholder corporations (that just happened to be majority held by wealth noble families back in the home country). Then President Wilson, and later Truman, used the US Marine Corps to copy the third world model in as many countries in Central America as we wanted to conquer.

Americans nearly all think of themselves as middle class. As I've commented before, everybody from the single mother working 30 hour a weeks as a sales clerk at Wal-Mart making $7.98 an hour up to families making $400,000 a year thinks of themself as middle class. Even George Bush, President of the US and born in an old-money wealthy family, thinks of himself as middle class. As industrialization, then post-industrialism spread across Europe, most Europeans do, too. What distinguishes a "third world country" or a "banana republic" from the US or the Old World is that the overwhelming majority of those countries know absolutely well, beyond all shadow of a doubt, two things that no loyal American (and few Europeans) would believe: that the overwhelming majority of people in their country are poor, and that realistically speaking there isn't anything a poor person can do to climb out of poverty, not for themselves of their children, because they're basically property of the rich.

If middle class lifestyle slipped far enough, through increased costs, increased unemployment, and decreased real wages, we could end up with a country where the overwhelming majority lived no better than the overwhelming majority in a third-world nation or a banana republic. We're in the wrong hemisphere to be called a third-world nation, though. And the climate's wrong for growing bananas; if foreign countries end up owning us through their corporations, it won't be to enslave us to work on fruit plantations like Dole did in Central America. But the real reason we'd never end up really being called a third-world nation or a banana republic is psychological: no matter how badly we live, no matter how far life expectancy slips, no matter how many of us are hungry or homeless, no matter how many of us die in our homes of easily cured diseases for lack of health care, no matter how far our educational system falls behind Europe and Asia, and no matter how concentrated wealth and power get in this country, America's vast numbers of poor will still think of themselves as middle class, and they'll still believe that they live in freedom and enjoy the possibility of social mobility.
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