Anne's Diary

Should We Feel Guilty?

In the past few weeks, our TV screens have been filled with Muslim fanatics telling us that America should feel guilty for exploiting the peoples of Islamic and third-world countries. Now, there's no question about whether we deserved what happened to our nation on September 11: We didn't. No one "deserves" a terrorist attack. But do we have anything to feel guilty about when it comes to the rest of the world?

Some people say it's unpatriotic to even ask this question. But I think Americans should always be cautious when we're told what we should and shouldn't say, because our country is based on freedom of thought and speech. If we censor ourselves, then what are we fighting for?

Most of the evil deeds we're accused by Muslim fundamentalists of committing make no sense if you don't share their slanted point of view. For instance, they accuse us of occupying Muslim soil by having troops in Saudi Arabia, as if it were a sin for non-Muslim soldiers to set foot in any Muslim country, even if we're there as an ally of that nation, to help protect its citizens.

Dividing the world into the categories of Muslim and non- Muslim states makes no sense anyway. Many countries that currently have a high proportion of Muslims were once Christian countries and vice-versa. Our country and our military are made up of people of all faiths and backgrounds, including Muslims.

Also, Muslims make up the largest category of recent immigrants in most European countries. If there are strict divisions to be observed between Muslim and non-Muslim countries, then why are all those Muslims raising families in places like England, Germany and France?

When we see stark scenes of deprivation in television documentaries about places like India and Afghanistan, we begin to look around us at all that we have and start to feel twinges of guilt. We have a nice house, but we want a bigger house; we have a fine car but we want a newer one. We have plenty of clothes but desire this year's fashions; we function just fine but still yearn for more gadgets.

Capitalism--that is, buying and selling stuff--is one of the things that makes this country so rich, because it's the way we pass the dollars around, providing jobs and incomes for everyone. In third world countries, where a small number of people control all the wealth and mostly spend it abroad, the poor stay that way.

But sometimes it's hard to have so much when everyone else has so little. Should we feel guilty for simply being rich? I think that's up to each person?s individual conscience. If you feel you have too much, there are plenty of charities who will gladly accept some of it, thus relieving your guilt. The truth is, most of us struggle every month to pay the mortgage and the car payment and keep our kids in school.

But in a larger sense, I think America is guilty of exploiting poorer countries. U.S. businesses have discovered there is cheap labor abroad, and this is not necessarily a bad thing, because it gives the people of these countries a change to partake in capitalism, which is their only chance to build a middle class. The people in these countries need our manufacturing jobs and they are willing to do the work more cheaply, because the things they need cost less there.

So it should be a win-win situation, but too often it isn't. It becomes exploitation when First-world businesses take advantage of these workers and pay them too little to live decent lives in their own countries, according to their own standards of living. When that happens, families encourage their children to leave school and go to work to contribute to the family finances. At that point, not only are individual workers not earning enough to live comfortably, the country stops producing enough educated citizens to ensure a journey out of poverty for the next generation.

It would be ideal if our government could enact some sort of legislation mandating that companies pay a living wage to their workers abroad. We have laws against union-busting here in the U.S.--why not extend them to companies that want to import goods into our country? Alas, I doubt if such a law will be passed anytime soon, since our congress is made up of politicians who depend on donations from private business to finance their reelection campaigns.

So can anything be done? An article in the October 8 New York Times gives me hope. It tells about 900 workers at Mexmode, a factory in Mexico that produces products for Nike and Reebok. When they went on strike, they were fired (standard procedure in those sweatshops), then suddenly they found themselves supported by the Workers Rights Consortium, a group made up of students and administrators from 85 U.S. colleges and universities, who sent representatives to Mexico to investigate the situation.

The WRC members heard complaints about low wages, verbal abuse, inedible food, child labor and union corruption and put pressure on the U.S. companies to make changes. According to the Times, "As a result, workers at Mexmode, most of them single mothers in their 20s with elementary school educations and no prior work experience, have received two raises this year. The cafeteria food now seems safe for human consumption. Some employees even say it tastes good."

The article goes on to quote a Mexican university official. "This fight showed that globalization has another face," said Huberto Juarez Nunez, a labor expert at the Autonomous University of Puebla. "Companies are going to be required to do more than abide by weak regional laws. Their codes of conduct must set global standards that treat workers as world citizens and guarantee them certain levels of dignity and respect."

We cannot expect the rest of the world to love us if we are represented by greedy companies that pay their CEOs huge salaries while they exploit workers in poor countries. But if we bring needed jobs that pay decent wages to areas where people need work, we may find that we are beginning to enjoy the popularity that we want and need.

We've exported our culture, through music, movies and McDonald's. While people all over the world eat our hamburgers and watch Bruce Willis, these exports don't seem to have won us a lot of friends. And people like the Islamic fundamentalist terrorists will never love us, not matter what we do, because to gain their favor we would have to give up our freedoms and our beliefs. But we can show the world we're willing to fight for what we believe in if we refuse to allow the poor to be exploited--either inside or outside of the U.S.

We shouldn't listen to anyone who tells us we somehow deserved the recent terrorist attacks. These are the kind of accusations bullies always make in order to justify the evil things they do.

But we must not allow greedy companies to exploit people outside our borders while we live a comfortable, insulated life here at home.

NOTE: This Diary entry, previously published on our old site, will have any links removed.


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