Walls Topped with Broken Glass

March 22, 1994|By BEN BARBER

WASHINGTON — Washington. -- Twenty-five years ago, when I walked inside the ancient ocher walls of the medina of Marrakesh or the teeming back alleys of Lahore, things seemed clear-cut: Intellectuals and political leaders saw Westerners as unpleasant reminders of Third World poverty and disorganization while ordinary people admired our prosperity, freedom and equality -- which they were likely to be denied for as long as they lived.

This mixture of envy, love and hate has long dominated the U.N. General Assembly and the way in which Westerners and the Third World approach each other on key issues: freedom of the press, foreign aid, trade, immigration and human rights.

A sick fruit of this debate was Secretary of State Warren Christopher's embarrassing and unproductive encounter with Chinese sensitivities over human rights this month.

To understand the current impasse in efforts to inject Western values into our dealings with ancient and often corrupt societies it is necessary to examine the roots of our relations. They grew up in the decade after decolonization -- the 1960s, euphorically heralded by President John Kennedy's welcome of robed African leaders to his Camelot court days.

It was a time when Third World cultural values of meditation, simplicity and spirituality captured the attention of many Western young people. But Third World leaders did their best to see that the reverse did not happen. Moroccans, Pakistanis, Indians and Chinese who sought freedom, equality and prosperity were squelched by their own political, caste and military elites. They tried to convince their peoples that the siren song of the West was empty materialism that would destroy their cultures.

The continuing stream of millions hoping to move to the United States and Western Europe indicates that anti-Western rhetoric of the elites in Africa and Asia has not been believed.

That is why Islamic fundamentalists in Algeria and Egypt threaten to kill foreigners and Saudi Arabia bans private satellite dishes. Having failed to extinguish the intellectual appeal of Western values, they try to stamp out its physical body and eliminate its broadcasts.

Since the mid-1960s, I had been forced to deal -- sometimes when surrounded by hostile mobs in a bazaar or a crowded bus -- with anti-Western inferiority-superiority syndrome behavior. Typical remarks I heard were: You guys are doing much better than we are even though your country is but 200 years old and ours is 1,000 (or 5,000) years old. So you must be cheating. Controlling the world media. The trade terms. The world banks.

Some said we had set loose AIDS to wipe out Africa. A Pakistani taxi driver told me that the CIA, by controlling senior Pakistani government officials, was responsible for all evils in Pakistan ranging from ethnic violence and defeats by India at war to

poverty and social problems.

When West-Third World relations are not governed by paranoia, they often reflect wounded pride: At a recent press conference in Guinea, President Lansana Conte told a Voice of America correspondent that he did not need Americans to tell him what to do. Russia, while not a Third World country, also seethes with resentment at Western meddling and advice. And China has just told America what it can do with its ideas about human rights.

Indeed, Western values may not always be appropriate. Western-style democracy has opened the door to ethnic politics and tribal violence in South Africa, Ethiopia, Guinea, Burundi, Kenya and other countries without Western traditions of tolerating minority views.

Perhaps two upper-class college students were right years ago when they told me on a walk in Lahore: ''Don't drink at that water tap. It's for sweepers.'' I was revolted at their jim-crow customs and I made a point of drinking at that tap. Now I understand that we do live in different traditions.

At my home in the suburbs, neat lawns extend unfenced from our front doors to the sidewalks. But in Dakar, Bangkok and Caracas, glistening shards of broken glass top the walls surrounding every yard.

When I have a dispute with a neighbor, a store, a cop or a government official, no one will threaten me, beat me up or bribe the judge if I go to court. My Third World colleagues do not enjoy those certainties.

In the 60s and 70s. Third World elites often scorned the West as decadent and soulless, empty of real values, where the young don't respect their elders but dump them in nursing homes.

But many Third World societies are based on a pyramid of far greater injustices: landless laborers, sharecroppers, illiteracy, women sold as slaves, caste barriers and servants. That fabled consensus, hailed as village democracy more pure than the secret ballot, is a device to intimidate and eliminate dissent.

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