Beware of being trendy when saving the world

September 13, 2000|By Mark Kawar

ATLANTA -- As we head into another academic year, I offer this warning for all new freshmen.

Although it applies to all students, I'm afraid it might be too late for many. As your college careers begin, you're going to hear about a lot of causes. Some will ask for your time on the picket line. Some for your parents' money. Most for your sympathy. Unfortunately, few are even worthy of this.

Be skeptical.

One of the wonderful things about being young and in college is the lure of unorthodoxy and the separation from consequences that comes with the sheltered atmosphere of campus and your parents' money.

Don't get me wrong, I think it's a wonderful thing that American college students have the time, energy, money and freedom to spend their Saturdays questing to save the world.

It's just unfortunate that the trendy ways of chasing this worthy goal are more likely to cause harm than good. Modern campus activism has for quite some time been hijacked by socialists, or their less coherent brethren on the political left. To paraphrase Winston Churchill, a young person who is not a leftist is seen as having no soul. This may be unavoidable. All of these misguided causes have sexy slogans and worthy aims. But call me an idealist. I'm not as pessimistic for my generation as was Churchill.

So here they are, in a nutshell, the greatest and most popular myths among politically active university students:

"Sweatshops" exploit the poor. I've never heard an actual definition of the term "sweatshop." To most people, it probably calls to mind some sort of Dickensian workhouse where children are coerced into working in squalid conditions. But in reality, real slave labor is a relic of the past.

The places that modern leftists would call sweatshops are usually those that employ unskilled laborers for low wages. Shutting these places down puts poor people out of work. So does forcing them to change their operating procedures. Let workers and unions decide if conditions are acceptable. Don't presume you know what's best for them.

We need to free [fill in the blank]. While many places throughout the world are, indeed, horribly repressive, the commonly offered solutions are usually worse than the problems. If student activists merely want to show their solidarity with the people of East Timor or Tibet, more power to them. But, as is often the case, if they are advocating sanctions or military involvement, they should think again. Neither work, and both make things worse.

Sanctions don't change regimes. They only make people poorer, and dictators stronger. Just ask Fidel Castro or Saddam Hussein. Bombs aren't a pleasant prospect either. For all the thousands of tons of ordinance that America's military dropped on Vietnam and Iraq, the people of these countries are not living in freedom or prosperity.

We should abolish the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization. When I meet an activist who can tell me exactly what these organizations do, and what he wants to change, I promise to take him seriously.

Mark Kawar, a freelance writer from Atlanta, is editorial page editor of the Emory Wheel, the campus newspaper of Emory University. This article first appeared as an editorial in that paper.

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