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From the Sahara to Germany: What Does "Progress" Mean?

By Bernard Weiner, The Crisis Papers


Going from wealthy, solidly infrastructered Germany to poor, developing
Morocco stimulates culture shock in major proportions. I was in Deutschland to
address a meeting of Democrats Abroad-Germany, and to join the celebration for my
mother-in-law's 90th birthday; though the German economy, along with most of
the rest of the world these days, is sluggish, still the country exudes
enormous financial strength and stability, with a huge middle class doing relatively
well.

The kingdom of Morocco, on the other hand, while much better off than a good
many Arab states, is still struggling to find its way to faster economic and
social growth while remaining true to its ethnic, tribal and Islamic character.
The middle-class, so important in economic and cultural/political
development, is slowly growing, but probably not fast enough to really help the situation
in a major way.

Neither nomadic shepherding of camels, goats and sheep, nor agricultural and
mineral exports, nor tourism can be expected to do it all, though Morocco is
attracting more and more international tourist attention, with low prices,
friendly people, exotic locales, beautiful landscapes and oases, little worry
about Islamist extremists. We rode camels into the Sahara and slept either on the
dunes or in Berber tents -- which, I can verify, leak like sieves during
sandstorms. In the southern part of the country where I was, there was no animosity
toward Westerners, indeed many locals (most of whom speak French, based on
the many decades of French-protectorate influence) voiced great sympathy for
Americans living under George Bush.

THE RIPTIDE OF ALIEN CULTURE

This disparity between rich and poor countries reflects a social/political
phenomenon with which I've become all too familiar in my trips abroad in the
past several years. In the rural areas of mainland Greece and Crete, in the
Southeast Asia countries of Thailand, Laos and Cambodia, in North Africa's Morocco,
and probably equally true in many ways for Asia's emerging
industrial/technological giants China and India, the same dilemma confronts these nations:

That is, how can one reach "first-world" status without being sucked totally
into the undertow that is the prevailing international culture sweeping across
the globe -- largely Western/America-based, aided greatly by the ubiquity of
cell-phones and satellite dishes -- and without having to go through the worst
excesses of the industrialization cycle?

This desire for modernity and status -- symbolized by the desire for
big-ticket technological items such as cars, for example -- brings with it the toxic
pollution that seems to certify for them a developing culture on its way to
someday playing in the same league with the advanced nations of the world.

Is there a way to leapfrog over the worst of industrial/technological
development -- the pollution, the corruption, the social cruelty -- without having to
repeat the mistakes and unfolding history of the developed world? So far, I
see little evidence of such a positive pattern, as each region and developing
nation rushes headlong into its own industrial revolution, in order to get to
the 21st-century dream of riches and world status as quickly as possible. In
doing so, it pays a heavy social, political and environmental price.

RAMIFICATIONS OF "PROGRESS"

Many of these developing countries and regions repeat the pattern of
chokingly-polluted urban/rural areas: filthy, particulate-filled air that can't be
breathed healthfully, water that often is undrinkable without boiling (if even
available), the dumping of garbage and sewage everywhere and anywhere, streets
that are constantly clogged with vehicles, many of them emitting noxious and
toxic diesel fumes. But all this tends to be regarded by officials as a
perhaps-regrettable but necessary stage in the development process that leads to
modern "progress" and world-class status.

Friends who visited China recently reported that even in the countryside, far
from the big cities, they rarely were able to see the sun, so choked was the
sky with smog and particulate matter; but the Chinese citizens they met, even
the most "enlightened liberals," couldn't wait to get a car of their own. It
is often the same syndrome at work in Bangkok and Chiang Mai and Hanoi and on
and on.

The geopolitical implications of such attitudes are many and scary: Where
will the oil come from to fuel those millions of new vehicles? And who will
control those energy sources, and at what war-cost? Is the U.S., assuming it can
secure the oil/gas fields of the Greater Middle East and Caucuses, prepared to
take on China in a military showdown over energy?

I don't know the answers to those questions about the developmental dilemmas
facing these struggling countries and the policy/military ramifications of
energy control. But those major problem areas need to be dealt with rationally,
and rationality is not much in evidence in the Bush Administration, which aims
to straddle the globe like an arrogant Colossus, grabbing what it can get. And
woe be unto those who get in their way: they might well sic mad-dog John
Bolton on you, a fate worse than death.

-------------------

DEMOCRATS ABROAD

Millions of Americans are living and working in foreign countries -- and
desirous of voting absentee in their home states in the general elections. The
Bush Administration, with bureaucratic overkill, made it very difficult to
register and vote abroad in 2004, as it did with targeted populations inside the
U.S. as well.

But hundreds of thousands in Germany, maybe more than a million, waded
through the required paperwork and managed to cast their ballots for Bush or Kerry.
To date, there still has not been a breakdown of those votes. Nearly six
months after the election (!), we still have no idea if those votes were counted,
how many ballots were cast, and the actual totals for each candidate. This is
intolerable inefficiency, or worse.

I was here to talk to the Munich chapter of Democrats Abroad. The group,
comprised of about 300 activists during the runup to the November election --
merging with the larger, bipartisan Overseas Vote Foundation at that point -- is
significantly smaller now, in the post-election depression that set in after
Bush was declared the victor. But the meeting room was packed with savvy Dem
activists, still determined to fight the Bush Administration's reckless foreign
and domestic agenda and anxious to reform the Party from within to make sure
that the next time out, the Democratic candidate would emerge victorious.

Actually, they agreed with my supposition that the Democratic candidate
probably was victorious in 2004, but that election fraud, made oh so easy by the
lack of verifiable ballots in so many computer-voting precincts, may well have
led to Kerry's supposed defeat. Indeed, statisticians have determined that Bush
had only a milliion-in-one chance to defeat Kerry in a honest vote, given the
numbers and exit polls in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. See co-editor
Ernest Partridge's "Means, Motive, Opportunity" (
www.crisispapers.org/essays-p /means-motive.htm ).

The point I was making to the DA group is that it doesn't matter how much the
Party is reformed and how many new voters they can register this year or how
many Dem issues resonate with the citizenry -- none of that matters if the
voting and vote-counting systems continue on in their present state of
corruptibility, controlled by far-right Republican corporations with a lock on the
secret software that tallies the ballots.

I told them about having sat the previous week in the Sahara dunes with two
professional New Zealanders, well-versed in international politics but appalled
and almost unbelieving when I described the current voting system in the
States. "How can you Americans let that happen?," they asked, as I described how,
under the so-called Help Americans Vote Act, Congress had approved the
easily-tamperable voting procedures.

The DA group seemed eager to take up my suggestion that the first priority
right now is to get out from under that our currently-mandated voting and
vote-counting system by calling for paper ballots counted by hand, as is done in so
many other first-world countries, most notably Canada and France, with few if
any problems.

Movements are afoot along these lines in America, but you barely hear about
them in the corporate-controlled mass media, and there appears to be lethargy
on this issue among leading Democrats and ordinary citizens. Certainly, the
Republicans are quite happy to do nothing in the way of electoral reform, since
they benefit by the current cooked system.

LIGHTING THE ELECTORAL-INTEGRITY KINDLING

The key is to build up the fire of indignation in the citizenry through
constant repetition of how backward and corrupted our voting system is, more worthy
of Mugabe's Zimbabwe than of the supposed leader of the free world, and get
this issue on the front pages and into the TV news cycle. We desperately need
to get the situation corrected at least by the time of the 2006 midterm
election, when Democrats, given a free and honest vote-counting, easily could take
back the House. (When I left the States several weeks ago, Bush's rating were
down in the low-40s.)

The Democrats Abroad -- led in Munich by such stalwarts as Jeffrey Ely, Susan
Diezduszycka-Suinat and Kimberly Kistler-Grobholz -- also were eager to take
the long view about what it would take to counteract the decades of
infrastructure-building by far-right Republicans. It's important, they agreed, that
Democrats spend their time and money and energy on setting up opposing media
outlets, think tanks, and so on to counter those funded by rightwing billionaires
over the past several decades.

We simply must have our infrastructure in place, both to help swing the
population away from the so-called "conservative" (read: extremist) point of view
that tends to dominate our political discourse these days, and to help build
the cadres of savvy politicos from the grassroots up ready to take over when
critical mass is achieved and the far-right Republican machine crumbles.

It's a massive project, one that will take great dedication and resources,
but we have no other choice but to begin that heavy lifting now, if we have any
hope of extricating our party and the country from the grip of avarice and
corruption and power-hunger that currently dominates the Republican Party.

------------------------------ --

HITLER BOOK AND MOVIE

I recommended to the Democrats Abroad that they get ahold of Sebastian
Haffner's illuminating book "Defying Hitler," written in the '30s inside the country
about how the Nazis came to achieve full power in Germany. Here's my review
of it, "Germany in 1933: The Easy Slide Into Fascism." (
www.crisispapers.org/Editorial s/germany-1933.htm )

Obviously, America 2005 is not Germany 1933, and Bush is not Hitler, but the
history of how the Nazis slowly sliced away the freedoms and rights of the
German population, to the point of total dictatorial rule, has lessons to teach
us as the U.S. extremists of the far-right take us further down the road to an
American brand of effective one-party, authoritarian domination.

I wish I had seen the German film "Downfall," the movie about Hitler's final
days in the bunker, before I gave my DA talk. There are even more scary
parallels in that film, which I saw upon my return to San Francisco.

What we are shown in the film, which is based on documented fact, is a
megalomaniacal leader (played brilliantly by Bruno Ganz) who is incapable of
accepting any blame or responsibility for failed policy, and who is delusionally
bereft of any sense of reality, preferring his grandiose fantasies of changing the
world by force of will and exercise of military might.

He pretends to represent, and care for, Germany's people, but he's willing to
take the whole country down with him when he goes -- even blaming the
citizens at the end ("they elected me") for buying into the whole
militarist/patriotic belief-system that led to such ruin.

Sound like the behavior of anyone you know?

------------------------------ ------------------------------ ------------

Bernard Weiner, Ph.D. in government & international relations, has taught at
various universities, worked as a writer/editor for the San Francisco
Chronicle, and currently co-edits The Crisis Papers ( www.crisispapers.org ).Send
comments to [email protected] .

First published at The Crisis Papers and Democratic Underground 4/19/05.

Copyright 2005 by Bernard Weiner

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