A group of teachers in Chicago recently started an initiative to inform college and high school students about critical global issues. The initiative deals with young people who have a wide range of academic skills, who are generally hard-working and eager to find a suitable career, and whose savvy about modern culture makes up for their lack of life experience. But they know almost nothing about their country's relationship with the world. They know there's a war going on, they've heard about genocide in Africa, they suspect that Iran is a threat to the United States. But ask them to provide some details and they return a blank stare.
It is understandable that today's youth, with so many entertainment options and electronic distractions, and with the pursuit of good times high on their list of priorities, can't be sufficiently aware of world issues. But they do read newspaper headlines and occasionally watch the news. They simply don't get enough information from these sources. If they hear at all about controversial issues, the information is oversimplified, incomplete, and often one-sided.
They need to know that the U.S. is responsible for almost half of the world's total military expenditures, that nearly half of the arms sales to developing countries (in 2005) came from the United States, and that 20 of the top 25 recipients of U.S. arms sales in the developing world were declared undemocratic or human rights abusers by the U.S. State Department's own Human Rights Report.
They need to know that the U.S. attempted to overthrow more than 40 foreign governments from the end of WW2 to the turn of the century, many of them populist and democratic movements that were battling oppressive regimes.
They need to know that the U.S. went to war with Iraq in 2003 because of erroneous claims that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and had ties to Al Qaeda.
They need to know that studies by 16 U.S. intelligence agencies, including the CIA, the FBI, the State Dept., and all four branches of the armed forces, revealed that the occupation of Iraq has contributed to an increase in the overall terrorist threat. And that studies by the University of Chicago, the Hoover Digest, the Cato Institute, Iraq Body Count, and the 2005 Human Security Report support these findings.
They need to know that the U.S. opposed United Nations votes on the right to food, the rights of women, the rights of children, and the right to freedom of people forcibly deprived of that right. That the U.S. opposed the banning of landmines. That the UN has accused the U.S. of repeatedly violating the World Convention against Torture, and that the UN voted the U.S. off the U.N. Human Rights Commission in 2001. And that at the end of 2006, 80% of the UN's unpaid dues were owed by the United States.
They need to know that only eight corporations -- Time Warner, Disney, Murdoch's News Corporation, Viacom (formerly CBS), General Electric, Yahoo, Google, and MSN -- now control most of the U.S. media, and that some of them have close connections to companies making weaponry for the U.S. military.
They need to know that while 3,000 Americans died in the horrible terrorist attack on September 11, 2001, every DAY of the year 30,000 children die of hunger and preventable diseases around the world. That the United Nations Human Development Report 2005 concluded that "The gap between the average citizen in the richest and in the poorest countries is wide and getting wider." That the World Bank's World Development Report 2006 stated that inequality in the U.S. is the worst in the developed world. That corporate income has risen much faster than workers' wages, while the corporate tax rate has dropped dramatically over the past 50 years.
They need to know that U.S. foreign aid, based on percentage of income, is one of the lowest in the developed world. That most of our aid goes to relatively wealthy Israel and another ally, Egypt. That 70% of U.S. aid is 'tied,' which means that the recipient must use it to purchase U.S. goods and services. That even our impressive level of private aid is mostly confined to donations within the U.S., and in the form of remittances (money sent back to the home countries of people working in the United States).
They need to know that "free trade" is often skewed in favor of wealthy countries. That we give more economic aid to our own multinational companies than foreign aid to poor countries. That U.S. tariffs on countries like Viet Nam and Bangladesh are 10 times higher than on European Union countries. That according to Christian Aid, trade liberalization in the past 20 years has cost sub-Saharan Africa more than $272 billion, a staggering sum that could have erased all its debts while paying for vaccination and school for every child. That the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank, the New Economics Foundation, and the United Nations Report on the World Social Situation 2005 all reported that free trade has not helped the world's poor.
Is it unpatriotic to criticize the behavior of one's own country? It depends on the meaning of patriotism. Socrates angered people by challenging them in public and exposing their ignorance. But he felt he was acting as a patriot by encouraging thoughtfulness over blind acceptance and celebration of government policies. In words attributed to him, "The unexamined life is not worth living." Like Socrates, Henry David Thoreau believed that citizens should tolerate nothing less from their government than the highest standards of behavior. He said, "Those who, while they disapprove of the character and measures of a government, yield to it their allegiance and support are undoubtedly its most conscientious supporters, and so frequently the most serious obstacles to reform." Martin Luther King talked about moving "beyond the prophesying of smooth patriotism to the high grounds of a firm dissent based upon the mandates of conscience."
But how do we know what's true and what isn't? Opinions derived from any one source may be inaccurate, or biased, or simply wrong. Our students in the Global Initiative are taught to research the issues, to seek multiple sources if there is any question about the truth. It can be hard work. Their job would be a lot easier if the newspapers and TV news shows would take on the big issues and make a realistic effort to provide balanced coverage.
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33 Jeffrey D. Sachs, "The End of Poverty" (Penguin Press, 2005)
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75 "A Time to Break Silence," By Martin Luther King Jr., April 4th, 1967