Clutching a plane ticket out of the country on Inauguration Day last month, I felt like the luckiest lefty in the Divided States. A whole two weeks in Brazil for a conference of international activist movements, I thought to myself — what better way to escape political disillusionment on the home front?
A few days later, surrounded by marchers swarming the streets of Porto Alegre, Brazil, with a megaphone blasting cries of “Fora Bushie!” (“Get out, Bush!”) in Portuguese, I realized, of course, that I’d been mistaken about the possibility of escapism from home politics, even thousands of miles to the south in a country whose relations with the United States rarely make the evening news. I, along with three other students from the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, was a delegate at the World Social Forum, an annual gathering of tens of thousands of representatives of progressive social causes — people who struggle for things like peace and human rights and against things like capitalist globalization, discrimination, corporations, war and Coca-Cola. But as much as I wanted to immerse myself in the struggles of people around the world, their stories always seemed to be about my own country.
The only common position all the world’s activists could agree on, indeed, was their antipathy to the United States. Street vendors sold T-shirts with giant “U.S.A.” letters crossed out in red; at a huge amphitheater concert, international rock star Manu Chao declared, “Bush, you are the terrorist!” to thousands of cheering youth. Feeling uncomfortable even identifying myself with my home country, I wrote “California” as my nationality on my conference name tag. I spent the week offering choppy Spanish condolences to people who genuinely wanted to know how “Bushie” — who to them was so clearly just another evil dictator, replete with his torture chambers and his corrupt cronies in lucrative industries — had been democratically elected to a second term.
What impressed me most was how versed many Latin Americans were in North American politics. How many U.S. residents could even name the president of a single country in Latin America? Yet the people I met in Brazil knew about red and blue states; they knew about John Kerry; they knew about the CIA. And their anti-United States rage was not just an expression of sympathy with the Iraqi people; activists from all over the world understood U.S. politics not just out of curiosity, but out of necessity. Legions of peasant activists presented talks against U.S.-dominated trade policies, which throughout the hemisphere are threatening the livelihoods of Latin American small farmers who are forced to compete with cheap imports of U.S. foodstuffs. People from around the world decried the U.S.-driven policies of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, which entice developing countries to take out foreign loans, but then, when the loans come due, force countries to pry open their markets to currency speculation, sell off natural resources, weaken social and environmental laws and privatize national industries into the hands of foreign companies — all the while remaining on the loan-and-debt treadmill. These are patterns that folks from Brazil to Ecuador to Indonesia to Ethiopia recognize and lay the blame for at the U.S. doorstep.
These topics were part of common conversation at the Forum. But how many North Americans know what the IMF and World Bank even do in poor countries? Or know how free-trade agreements like NAFTA have already forced Mexican farmers to abandon the countryside in economic ruin? Or know what the FTAA even stands for (Free Trade Area of the Americas — a pending agreement, favored by the United States, which would extend this type of “free” trade to 34 countries in the hemisphere)? How many North Americans would even understand why many from Central and South America take offense when U.S. citizens call ourselves “Americans,” neglecting the fact that “America” consists not of one country but two continents?
Now, in the midst of international conflict, U.S. newspapers publish names of U.S. soldiers fallen in Iraq but do not even publish a body count of Iraqis. North America has become near-sighted. It frightens me that the people of the world’s most powerful country are among the least internationally aware.
As Yale students, many of us have the great fortune to travel the world. As activists, many of us are tempted to flee the country right now. It’s an understandable impulse from a mental-health perspective. Go for it. But once you’ve gotten home and unpacked your backpack, do something more than just show photo albums to your friends. In the past, anthropologists sought out remote cultures untouched by outside influence and tried to capture their stories. We need to do something slightly different: to go learn the world’s stories in places that have been touched by U.S. influence, and then come home and pass on those stories, widely and creatively, in a way that people in our own country will understand. I make this plea for both altruistic and selfish reasons: because U.S. policies will not change until U.S. understanding of the world changes — and because I’d like one day not to feel sheepish when I visit other countries, writing the name of my own country on my name tag.
Rebecca Reider is a second-year Masters student in the School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.