Oh, I knew that we had a lot to answer for. But until he enlightened me, I didn’t grasp how much. “Look at our aboriginals,” he said. I looked at them. “We took their lands,” he continued, “and tried to replace their culture with ours. Thanks to our policies, they’re poor today and likely to be poor tomorrow.”
“What about yesterday?” I asked. “They were poor before our culture existed.”
“Yes,” he said, “and we should be ashamed of ourselves.”
“The effects of our policies are so toxic, they’re retroactive.”
Now why hadn’t I seen that? I guess I didn’t look deeply enough. I’ve always been curious about their lack of a written language and having to hunt and fish just to survive. I’ve often wondered why they had to make do with stone weapons and utensils and get by without horses to ride or wheeled vehicles to ride in. Now I know. It’s our fault.
“Aboriginals aren’t our only disadvantaged minority,” he said. “Look at the Blacks and Hispanics.”
I looked at them.
“They’re poorer than we are because we’ve discriminated against them,” he said.
“I know we have.” I replied. “I’ve seen us doing it.”
But I was curious about our Jewish and Japanese minorities. Although we’ve also discriminated against them, they’re doing better economically than we are. Have they also discriminated against us? If so, I haven’t seen them doing it. Maybe they’re sneakier than we are. Before I could ask, he had moved on, leaving me wondering why we’re a disadvantaged majority.
“Much of the world is poor and oppressed,” he said, “because we in the West are rich and free.”
“Our wealth causes their poverty?”
“The political and economic structures we put in place are to blame,” he said.
Was I naïve. I used to think everyone was born poor. I thought poverty came natural to us. I didn’t think we had to explain it. I thought we had to explain wealth. How did we create it?
“We stole it,” he said, when I voiced the question.
“From people who didn’t have it?” I inquired.
“We stole the natural resources to produce it.”
“The spoils of political and economic imperialism,” I replied, acknowledging the awful truth.
“Plus the fruits of manipulating the terms of trade,” he said. “Long after gaining independence, countries we colonized in Africa, South America and Asia are still struggling economically. Look at Uganda, Bolivia and Myanmar.”
I looked at them.
“They’re among the world’s least developed nations,” he said.
So, I remembered, are Ethiopia and Afghanistan, which we didn’t colonize. But I decided not to mention it and appear ignorant. Maybe colonization was so debilitating that it radiated toxicity, even holding back nations that didn’t experience it. I did, however, ask about South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore, which grew wealthy despite having been colonies and Hong Kong, which did the same while still a colony. The terms of trade didn’t seem to matter.
“A rare variant of the Stockholm syndrome,” he replied, “in which the oppressed identify with their oppressors and mimic them. Very sad.”
“What about Japan and Brazil?” I asked
“What about them?”
“Despite having few natural resources, Japan became one of the richest of the developed nations.”
“We didn’t colonize it,” he said.
“Even though rich in natural resources, Brazil is still a developing nation.”
“We colonized it.”
“But we destroyed much of Japan’s industry and infrastructure in World War II,” I noted, “whereas Brazil has been independent almost as long as the colonies that became the United States. How do you account for the difference in prosperity?”
“We like Japanese oranges better than Brazil nuts,” he said.
“Of course,” I replied. “I should have known we’re responsible.”
I was trying to figure out where Switzerland fits in. Despite not having colonies, it grew wealthy. It has done better, in fact, than Spain and Portugal, two of the leading colonial powers.
“Swiss banks,” he said, darkly, when I pointed out the apparent contradiction.
“Or Swiss cheese,” I suggested. “We like that almost as much as Japanese oranges.”
I was relieved when he told me that nomads and pygmies are among the world’s poorest.
“Since we’ve had virtually no commercial relations with them,” I said, “we’re not to blame.”
“I wouldn’t count on it?”
“We didn’t do anything to make them poor,” I protested.
“Ah, but we did,” he said. “We ignored them.”