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Thursday, March 3, 2011 01:49 pm

Our clothes reveal the story

I washed two loads of laundry one weekend while trying to follow the unfolding events in Egypt, Bahrain and Wisconsin.

A label on my running shorts – “Made in Egypt” – caught my attention, so I checked the rest of the labels.

At the top of one stack, my Nike sweatpants from Pakistan covered underwear from India. Both geographical proximity and geopolitical realities somehow are captured within that simple fact.

I found a button shirt and a fleecy sweatshirt from Sri Lanka, a cotton towel from Pakistan, two fleeces from Cambodia, one from Thailand, a sweatshirt from Guatemala, Champion sweatpants from Mexico, and khaki pants from China.

Judging from public discourse and my conversations with other teachers and students, I suspect that many U.S. citizens finally are awakening to a worry about our society’s pervasive lack of global knowledge.

When democracy-seeking people totally surprised our spies and diplomats by toppling two dictators in Tunisia and Egypt, surely many of us realized how little we really know about either country.

But our clothing could be our non-threatening gateway to learning about the world. Teachers could ask their students simply to spend a few minutes looking at clothing labels to teach them how much we rely on the globalized economy to meet our needs. Teachers also could require the students in their classes to use the Internet, a wonderful and woefully underutilized research tool, to learn about one of those countries. Such a curricular reform does not require a single penny of new funding; it requires only a shift in mindset and priorities.

I’m currently wearing a fleece distributed by the Canadiana Clothing Co. Its label reads “Made in China” and “Designed in Canada.” Students could learn about global supply chains and economics just by studying my fleece’s origins.

While reading about the revolution in Egypt, I remembered that a Palestinian peace-and-reconciliation activist observed at one of my college’s convocations that USA-made teargas canisters were fired at young protestors by Tunisia’s and Egypt’s (and Israel’s) security forces.

According to a CNN article, you can purchase these canisters from Combined Systems, Inc. The company is located in Pennsylvania, and on its website (www.combinedsystems.com), if you click through the “CSI Products,” “Combined Tactical Systems – A Force for Order,” “Chemical Munitions,” “40mm Munitions,” and “Outdoor Projectiles,” you can see a picture of a “40mm Riot CS Smoke Projectile.”

Clicking around on one useful government website (www.foreignassistance.gov), I discovered that in 2010 we gave Egypt $1,038,730,000 for “Stabilization Operations and Security Sector Reform.” In other words, we give U.S. tax revenue to dictators so they can brutalize pro-democracy protestors. Some argue that this money flows back to us and stimulates our economy; others point out that doing business with ruthless dictators eventually results in foreign-policy disasters.

Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain – when you look at the unfolding events in these countries, you cannot help but notice that these rebellions against cruel dictators also are rebellions against callous U.S. foreign policy. These revolutions, in part, are judgments of the U.S.A.’s moral fiber, and in the eyes of these protestors, we are found to be wanting.

You almost can see the ideas racing across all borders and through all barricades. We have a right to be free, the people are saying. The United States will never help us. We will have to achieve our liberty ourselves. So we will.

America’s shame, a painful legacy whose consequences we will suffer for decades, is that through our actions and inaction, we caused billions of people around the world to lose faith in our idealism. We did not help the person on the street win her freedom. Instead, we and our corporations helped ourselves.

The author is an associate professor of English at Illinois College. Contact him at ncapo@ic.edu; 217-243-9301.


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