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A few years ago, I took an introductory course in differential equations. I can't really say I found much challenge in it; a few hours of study were sufficient for me to master the rote problems that inevitably appeared on the exams. As is typical for an intro course, no serious understanding of the theory was required, and I'm fairly sure I was one of only two students in the forty-chair room actually paying attention to the derivations. We weren't expected to understand anything. The content of the course was watered down enough that even a student of below-average ability should have been able to pass by memorizing and mechanically applying a few fairly simple procedures. Nonetheless, many of my classmates struggled, infuriating an instructor who claimed to have been doing this "child's play" in his early adolescence.

He was a balding, middle aged Indian mathematician with an accent even thicker than his ample midsection. Despite having published more than a hundred papers, he wouldn't have seemed out of place among the schizophrenic homeless lining up outside a soup kitchen. His ill-fitting polyester apparel looked like it might have been sitting at the Salvation Army for decades, silently waiting for disco and lava lamps to make a comeback. His thinning hair was inadequately combed over the barren, Patagonian hilltop of his head, and his overall appearance made Bobcat Goldthwait look like a GQ model. But he knew his stuff, and seemed baffled and frustrated that a bunch of spoiled American kids couldn't absorb the most rudimentary aspects of it.

About midway through the semester he stopped in the middle of a lecture and tried to put things in perspective.

We study differential equations, he said, because they allow us to make models of things, to understand them and make them work better. There are so many people in the world and soon there will not be enough food or space and then there will be a nuclear war and everyone will die. So we study the growth of populations and resources to try to solve the problem. In India, there are more than a billion people and the population grows too fast so everyone is poor and close to starving. We work toward a solution so that people around the world can have places like Wal-Mart to buy groceries and not starve.

Most of my classmates just snickered to themselves over that last remark, but I was shocked in a way I didn't fully understand at the time. I'd never seen anyone so enthusiastic about something most educated Americans regard as a menace. Wal-Mart destroys small businesses, exploits its employees, and reduces entire towns to slavish dependence. I don't need to go into further details here - read the Wal-Mart node (Inyo's writeup in particular) if you're unfamiliar with the company's practices.

But for those already destitute or nearly so, the immediate benefits of this monstrosity might outweigh its not always obvious costs. Wal-Mart is extraordinarily efficient, distributing huge quantities of mass-produced goods inexpensively by way of a continent-spanning network of warehouses and gargantuan retail outlets. Of course, it's overgrown, ugly corporate imperialism, but nobody starves. America can afford to fight it. India would gladly embrace it.

We residents of the industrialized world (a description which I must assume applies to everyone with the means to read this) have little excuse to tolerate Wal-Mart and its ilk. A few dollars off a cartful of merchandise simply just doesn't justify the destruction of economic opportunity and personal choice that goes along with it. Protest doesn't even have to amount to active vocalization - a simple boycott is all it really takes, before it's too late and Wal-Mart engulfs its competition like some mindless, smileyface-emblazoned protozoan. Fifty cents more for a carton of orange juice won't break your budget, and in the long run, isn't your freedom worth it?

Protest is a luxury which most Third World inhabitants don't have; not when the're struggling merely to subsist. As my old Differential Equations professor noted, Indians are starving, and lofty notions of freedom and progress don't look so important when a full stomach of anything is a rare treat. It's Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs at work here: you've got to take care of your most basic, animal needs before you can concern yourself with improving your world.

Nobody here's really poor anymore, at least not in the dire, risk-of-immediate-starvation sense that Third Worlders are. Throw out your self-righteous "victimization" politics for a moment and consider that the poorest among you could live like kings in India. Nationalism, fascism, and fundamentalism always arise in times and places of greatest despair. Think of the post-World War I rise of the Nazi regime in Germany, or even the current Taliban that gave refuge to Osama bin Laden and his terrorist army. Those too poor to care for their own freedom won't give a damn about yours, either. A billion Indians who'd gladly surrender any real hope of self-sufficiency for the availability of Wal-Mart's cheap goods would probably also support a military junta promising victory in a bloody war against the wealthy enemies of their nation. And India has weapons a lot scarier than a few explosive-stuffed airliners.

If we don't change the world for the better, then sooner or later someone will change it for the worse.

While I very much appreciated the good Anark's engaging and thoughtful write-up, and felt great sympathy with the sentiments behind it, I found myself shaking my head in disagreement over a few points.

Anark implies that all people in the industrialized world can afford to pay more for things than Wal-Mart charges. "Fifty cents more for a carton of orange juice won't break your budget," s/he reasons. I wish that, for all of us, that were true. But the truth is that many many North Americans live at, or well below, the poverty line, and a savings of fifty cents is a major savings, particularly when multiplied by many fifty cent savings on many items. I know that it's only through heinous practices that Wal-Mart is able to have such low prices, but they do have low prices, and for people who are barely able to make ends meet, low prices are the bottom line. Give my kids orange juice every day or take the high moral road? I'll go for the orange juice.

Then there's the statement that "educated Americans" regard Wal-Mart as a menace. The unstated implication is that people who don't regard Wal-Mart as a menace are uneducated. That's better than saying they're stupid, but it's still a little insulting. And the fact is that even if all people knew everything Anark knows, they still might make different choices about how to live their lives than s/he would. In fact, I'm sure some of them would. Some of them would choose Wal-Mart. Some people are just like that, and no amount of "education" will make them behave the way Anark (or I) might want them to. This is, in fact, the essence of freedom, isn't it? To allow people to make their own choices, no matter how wrong-headed it might appear to you.

Many people decry the fact that McDonald's is in Beijing, Pizza Hut in Bangkok. They bemoan the loss of indigenous cultures and the relentless steamroller of capitalist consumerism. While I have great sympathy with this argument, it seems to me that we must assume that the Chinese, the Thai - indeed all people, as I've been arguing - have the capacity to think. And that means that they're going to have all kinds of different views and all kinds of different practices. Some are going to go for the Big Macs, and some are not. Hey, those are the choices we have here in the industrialized world; why shouldn't others?

Finally, from how it looks to me up here in Canada, there are some pretty nasty fundamentalist Christians down there in the United States who'd like nothing better than to take away many Americans' freedom: women's ability to get an abortion, say, or Muslim people's freedom to worship in peace. So let's not jump from despair and poverty to fascism and fundamentalism too quickly. Plenty of fascistic nonsense gets spouted in the free world too.

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