One Man, Under Attack

So I’m taking a lot of flack for my critique of Gates, some of it less than entirely civil. Stephen Bates, who I responded to earlier, gets me, I think, but now I’m coming under fire from new quarters that aren’t quite so forgiving as the Yellow Doggerel Democrat. Mac Diva finds my position via-à-vis Gates lacking in “realism”, which is fair enough, but then Elayne Riggs at Pen-Elayne on the Web (permanent link bloggered; scroll down to “Opening up the FloodGates”) said my posts remind her of “some fanboys’ reaction to an issue of a comic that didn’t read the way they expected it to regardless of whether the story worked”, which I am reading as un-complimentary. (An aside: both make note of my nom de blog, “OneMan”, and it seems perhaps time to clear that up–the name was originally part of the joke: a site called “One Man’s Opinion” was clearly the home of a “OneMan” whose opinions they were; plus, it played on my assertion, in my about page, that I am just one man, that I’m not trying to speak for everybody or even anybody else. But it seems to arouse suspicion in the way that names like “Atrios” and “Jeanne d’Arc” don’t, so for the record, my name is Dustin and I’m not a transsexual. Yet. So far as I know.)

Now, I don’t feel I have to be “right” about this (or that there even is a “right” in this matter–or if there is, there’s an awful lot of lee-way before “wrong” is reached) and I don’t necessarily care that Mac Diva and Elayne Riggs disagree with me (though being agreed with is so much nicer, don’t you agree?), but I do want to be understood, and if I haven’t been, than I am obviously not being clear enough in my objections.

I agree with all comers that we live in an era of savage capitalism and that, for better of worse, Bill Gates has a bank account that boggles the mind. I also agree with those who say that it is a Good Thing that Gates is giving that money away, although I would prefer if he simply gave it en masse to the UN, a la Ted Turner, to apply to areas that are widely agreed upon as most in need of cash flow. A lot would still go towards health issues, which international organizations repeatedly point to as the most pressing issues in today’s world, but some would also go to emergency humanitarian relief, slavery/trafficking issues, child labour prevention, and so on. Still, bully on Bill for at least stepping up–a lot of the obscenely rich, especially in the tech field, see no need to bother.

This does not change the fact that we are in drastic need of a systemic change in the way we allow business to be done. Gates has been rewarded for the most heinous of business practices, including his wielding of monopoly power, but also, and to my mind worse because of the human rights issues involved, using prison labour. In the human rights field, he joins other rich folk who have made fortunes while (by?) inciting genocidal attacks on native populations in Nigeria, Ecuador, and East Timor; creating massive pollution wastelands in those same countries as well as along the US-Mexico border, along the Alaskan and Spanish coastlines, in the African copper-belts, and elsewhere; undermining or attempting to undermine democratically elected governments in Chile, Venezuela, and elsewhere (the US?); supporting and probably shaping structural readjustment and austerity programs that have led to rioting and worse in Argentina, Brazil, Haiti, and just about everywhere else they’ve been applied, as well as causing drastic shortages of food and medicines in many of those countries; used patent laws and other restrictions to restrict the availability of medicines and medical aid to the people most in need of it; undermined local subsistence patterns in countries like India, Haiti, and elsewhere by forcing greater amounts of land to be used for export crops and thus limiting the ability to grow food for local needs and increasing dependence on imported and more expensive foodstuffs; and so on. As I said, Bill Gates is not responsible for all of this, but he is representative of those who are, those to whom I am supposed to feel grateful for their decision to return some of that “ill-gotten” gain in the way they choose to the people they choose.

Elayne Riggs characterizes my objections as saying “how dare this rich person do things out of enlightened self-interest[?]”. It is not so much the “self-interest” I object to, but the idea that, in acting according to such interests, Gates and other philanthropists are somehow to be considered “enlightened”. Gates is investing in making the world more like the way he imagines it should be, pure and simple. Some of those goals I agree with–a world free of the suffering and death caused by malaria, tuberculosis, AIDS, and so on is certainly something I can get behind–but big parts of Gates’ world-view I cannot agree with–increasing corporate power, for instance–and with a bankroll as big as Gates’, it’s difficult to take the good stuff and leave the bad. It’s more of a package deal. And, as I’ve said before, Gates is investing in short-term gains in the health field–by not addressing the underlying system, he is simply making it easier to exploit the same people he is allegedly helping. So more children will be free of infectious diseases so they can work in African mines or Indonesian sweatshops; more young women will have access to reproductive health services (and ostensibly abortion) so they can control their fertility and devote more of their 5-10 prime working years (employers in the Free Trade and Export Processing Zones like their women laborers young–they rarely last to 25, hardly ever to 30) to the factory instead of to carrying and raising children.

Now, my skeptical readers might ask if this is a “choice” I would deny to them, and inasmuch as I can agree that it is a choice, I have to say “No”. Obviously I would rather have people healthy and alive and able to “choose” to work under such conditions than sickly or dead. But, again, I’m not going to thank Bill and his rich co-philanthropists for investing in future sweatshop labour, not to mention the other uses to which healthy, young, and non-infectious persons might be put. And I certainly am not going to thank them for making that those the only “choices” available to a large and growing percentage of the world’s population.

Finally, there’s the personal swipe: “I suppose it’s nice to have luxury enough to sit around and debate these philosophical issues rather than, you know, fighting for survival and accepting charity graciously from one of the too few people inclined to give same.” Although I am far from wealthy–I’m not even employed, much to my chagrin, and the coffee can is running low–I guess it is a “luxury” to question the inequities of the world we live in and hope for–work for–change. As I wrote privately to Mac Diva, I realize there is a great deal of idealism in what I have written on this subject, but without idealism how are we supposed to move forward? Realism is fine for slowing down, maybe occasionally even stopping, regressive policies, but it is idealism that makes for progress. If idealism is a luxury, fine–but it’s a luxury I think we can all wish would be available to everyone.

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