Thinking of voting for Ralph Nader but wondering what the point is beyond keeping your conscience clean? To galvanize your disgust with the Establishment, you could do no better than to read “Upside Down: A Primer for the Looking-Glass World,” Eduardo Galeano’s ferocious, poetic, mischievous and chilling survey of political and economic systems of control around the world. The eminent Uruguayan author’s anecdotes and parables address globally rampant pollution, poverty, vice and violence; the ever vaster gap between the powerful and powerless; and, above all, the tortuous public rhetoric that fails to disguise governmental and corporate culpability for these crises.
“Twin totalitarianisms plague the world,” Galeano writes balefully, “the dictatorships of consumer society and obligatory injustice.” Morality and memory have been displaced by misery and the palliative of TV:
Consumer culture, a culture of disconnectedness, trains us to believe things just happen. Incapable of recalling its origins, the present paints the future as a repetition of itself; tomorrow is just another name for today. The unequal organization of the world, which beggars the human condition, is part of eternity, and injustice is a fact of life we have no choice but to accept.
Galeano discusses patterns of abuse, not only of the poor by the rich within individual countries but of “developing” countries (in Galeano’s shorthand, the South) by the industrial powers (the North) — the same issue that drew angry thousands into the streets in Seattle and Prague. Although as many economic statistics can be brandished to support globalization as to condemn it, Galeano’s dire analysis of specific large problems is still scarily persuasive.
Take the environment: “Each inhabitant of the North consumes ten times as much energy, nineteen times as much aluminum, fourteen times as much paper, and thirteen times as much iron and steel as someone in the South.” But the United States assumes no responsibility for the environmental disasters wrought by all that consumption. “Explaining why the United States refused to sign the Convention on Biodiversity at the Rio summit in 1992,” Galeano writes, “President George Bush was unequivocal: ‘It is important to protect our rights, our business rights.’” In short, Galeano asserts with fitting exasperation, the chemical companies, oil companies and car companies dictate U.S. environmental policy. Of course, this is a truism that remains too subtle for the American masses, like the notion that wrecking nature is not just an accidental side effect of these industries but central to their interdependent existences.
Galeano makes a similar point about international peacekeeping initiatives and the arms trade:
Statistics compiled by the International Institute of Strategic Studies show the largest weapons dealers to be the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Russia. China figures on the list as well, a few places back. And these five countries, by some odd coincidence, are the very ones that can exercise vetoes in the U.N. Security Council … In other words, world peace lies in the hands of the five powers that profit most from the big business of war.
And who are we arming? “The armed forces that most systematically violate human rights, like Colombia’s, are those that receive the most U.S. aid in weapons and technical support.”
“Upside Down” isn’t anti-American per se; what it rails against is hypocrisy, showing by reams of interwoven examples that governments in general, in the first world and the third, are not in the business of ethical integrity. Galeano focuses on corruption, human rights abuses and exploding poverty in Latin America: Police death squads in Brazil and Argentina, for instance, gun down homeless children by the hundreds each year. He makes me feel very, very lucky to live on the fat side of the Rio Grande — not proud but lucky, and profoundly depressed.
Analyzing the global free market by its effects on the global populace, most of whom, Galeano says, keep getting poorer and more desperate (“Every year poverty kills more people than the entire Second World War, which killed quite a few”), the author offers little hope for change, though he does support those who challenge the intolerable status quo, like the Indians of Chiapas, Mexico. He writes as neither oracle nor guide, but as furious witness:
There are successful countries and people and there are failed countries and people because the efficient deserve rewards and the useless deserve punishment. To turn infamies into feats, the memory of the North is divorced from the memory of the South, accumulation is detached from despoliation, opulence has nothing to do with plunder. Broken memory leads us to believe that wealth is innocent of poverty. Wealth and poverty emerge from eternity and toward eternity they march, and that’s the way things are because God or custom prefers it that way.
Mark Fried, the translator of “Upside Down,” has rendered Galeano’s acidly humorous text into exceptionally graceful English, and the accompanying century-old engravings by Mexican artist Josi Guadalupe Posada — lots of shrieking skeletons and bloodthirsty goblins — provide exactly the right macabre ambience. The lesson of this primer? Galeano’s excoriating vision might make the most cynical realpolitiko wonder whether the strength of the dollar is, in the end, worth our racing the world to hell.