Ivan's Place
In honor of the greatest moralist who never lived
Copyright © 2004 by Bill Becker

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"We've talked a lot about how you entice the middle or upper classes into [Southern California], but we sort of ignored the poor classes. We need them ... if you just look at it very selfishly and pragmatically, to support our wonderful ways of life." 1

Copyright © 1993, 2004 by Bill Becker

(An updated version of a talk I presented at Emerson Unitarian Universalist Church, Canoga Park, CA, July 18, 1993.)

This talk is about the unthinkable.

It doesn't take much imagination to realize that the world is not a happy place, and that even here in America, we have not been in a happy mood for a long time. Studies have shown that even young children are very concerned about the effects that violence, increasing levels of pollution, and diminishing resources will have on their futures. Clouds have darkened the American Dream, and The American Way of Life itself seems under attack. The world is much more chaotic and violent now than it was even a few years ago, and less hospitable to our ambitions.

Worse yet, scarcity has appeared on our doorstep, and threatens to become a permanent resident. Whereas before scarcity was the prerogative of the poor, now even the well-to-do must pay more for the goods and services they once took for granted. There is an "us-against-them" feeling in the air as global competition for the world's labor and material resources intensifies. In a game where America was once the dominant player, we now sense that we are playing for survival itself.

But not survival as in the Third World, where a family counts itself lucky if all of the children live through the day. Rather survival according to our birthright as Americans—the unfettered ability to purchase the material goods we desire. Or, to put it another way, the right to satisfy unfettered desires for material goods.

Many Americans, though, are thanking whatever gods may be for an avenue of hope. Our immediate past president, George Herbert Walker Bush, in an effort to recover the national happiness, conceived of and promoted something called the North American Free Trade Agreement, commonly called NAFTA. If approved by Congress, NAFTA will eliminate most trade and entrepreneurial barriers between Canada, the U.S., and Mexico, thus creating an integrated economic bloc on the scale of the European Economic Community. NAFTA supporters expect that U.S., Canadian, and Mexican entrepreneurs will cooperate on an unprecedented scale, and that profits will soar on all sides of our borders. They say also that a sizeable portion of these profits, in the form of wages and new jobs, will trickle down to the average folk for a net gain in each nation's overall happiness index.


On the other hand, there is strong opposition to NAFTA, which seems to be hardening. One claim is that NAFTA will lead to a massive loss of American jobs. Another claim is that NAFTA will add to Mexico's already serious environmental problems. Many people fear that toxic chemicals released in Mexico will spread to the U.S., either directly, as through smokestack emissions carried on the winds, or indirectly, as when pesticides banned in the U.S.—but sold to Mexican farmers by the U.S. chemical industry—return to us on produce grown in Mexico for our consumption.

These concerns are realistic. According to the Environmental Protection Agency and the General Accounting Office, "U.S.-owned plants in Mexico often do not obey Mexico's environmental laws."3 "They can increase profits 200 percent by not complying with environmental law. ... and NAFTA, as it's written, now does nothing to address this," says Andrea Durbin, a policy analyst for Friends of the Earth.4

So as to force the adoption of a cleaner, more user-friendly NAFTA, the Sierra Club, Friends of the Earth, and Public Citizen filed a suit against the government, demanding an environmental impact study. Federal judge Charles Richey, to everyone's surprise, decided that the coalition's claims had merit, and ordered the Clinton administration to prepare such a study before submitting NAFTA to Congress for approval. Richey agreed with the coalition's claim that NAFTA could actually preempt health and environmental laws. He noted that the existing limited free trade zone along the U.S.-Mexican border "has resulted in grave environmental problems to those people living on either side of the border. These problems are so severe that the area has been called a 'virtual cesspool and breeding ground for infectious diseases.'"5

Residents of Brownsville, Texas, live across the border from Matamoros, Mexico, for 10 years the home of highly polluting maquiladora and manufacturing operations. Three years ago, Brownsville began to experience an unusually high number of babies born with the rare birth defect called anencephaly, meaning that the babies were born absent a portion of their skulls and brains. Sixteen plaintiffs filed a lawsuit against eighty-eight U.S. and Mexican owned industries located in Matamoros, charging that the birth defects resulted from toxic emissions from the plants. Toxic fumes from plastics burning at the Matamoros dump are carried by the wind to Brownsville. (In all fairness, however, environmental activists also charge the friendly Texas farmer with contributing to one of the nation's highest concentrations of the banned pesticide DDT and its breakdown products.6)

Richey's ruling threatens to delay NAFTA's implementation by up to a year or more, and the Clinton adminstration has filed an appeal.7 The administration considers its own "side agreement" on the environment to be adequate, but environmentalists say it is rife with "omissions and ambiguities" on such important issues as funding for environmental cleanup, product and manufacturing standards.8

As regards jobs, NAFTA supporters say that the charge of future huge job losses to Mexico "is as false as it is emotionally charged."9 Not to worry, they say. The Clinton administration's supplemental agreements should "allay any lingering fears about southward job migration as a result of NAFTA."10

In spite of the abundance of material being written about NAFTA, it seems clear to me that we cannot predict whether the trade agreement will be beneficial overall, as its supporters claim, or whether the darker predictions of environmentalists and labor activists will ultimately come true. So, before moving on to the unthinkable regarding NAFTA, let me at least express my own opinion.

I frankly doubt that NAFTA has anything at all to do with improving the lot of even the average American, to say nothing about the poor Mexican. Rather, I suggest without apology that NAFTA has everything to do with further concentration of the world's wealth in the hands of fewer people, where more of these fewer people are Americans. I accept John Kenneth Galbraith's wry comment: "People of privilege will always risk their complete destruction rather than surrender any material part of their advantage."11 Bernard Shaw noted that the Romans were masters at making robbery of the poor appear "seemly and honest." The history of U.S. relations with the Third World more than justifies my suspicion that NAFTA is in this spirit


One way to identify the unthinkable is by a process of elimination. Notice what is thinkable, and the unthinkable is what's left over, sort of. Moises Naim, of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, says that NAFTA is "not a jobs issue." Instead, "it's a growth issue, a competitiveness issue." Roni Lieberman of the Sierra Club felt the need to defend the environmental movement against the charge that they want to scuttle NAFTA altogether. "We are pro-trade," she said, "We believe in trade, but it's got to be with environmental protection."12

So we have jobs, we have trade, we have growth, we have competitiveness, and we have the environment. What's left over here—the unthinkable—is human rights. Human rights just doesn't count in any economic equation, and it appears that this will be the case for a long time to come. Yet for some of us, it is the major issue.

The U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights affirms everyone's right to the basic necessities of life. These naturally include food, housing and the right to personal safety. Thus, almost by definition, the human rights of the world's poor are violated every moment. These violations are most often by default, as the unconsidered result of broad economic forces. To illustrate, let us take a look at how NAFTA might affect Mexico's poor.


For decades, much of Mexico's land has been held by "colonias"—communities of poor people who exercised their constitutional right to communal title to abandoned land after five years of occupancy. Thus have vast sectors of the Mexican poor had access to land they could not afford to rent. But, in anticipation of NAFTA, Mexico's land has increased in value. Fifteen months ago, under pressure from U.S. corporations to provide for clear title to land, Mexican President Salinas changed the constitution and eliminated land occupancy. Each resident of communally held land was given title to the plot he or she occupied. Critics of the new policy say it will inevitably lead to the concentration of Mexico's land into fewer hands, as poor plotholders are either bought out or forced off their land. Indeed, an example of violence against the poor expected by NAFTA's critics was recently perpetrated against "La Huizachera," a colonia of 300 residents formed before the Constitution was changed.13

On the morning of January 27, according to testimony from some of La Huizachera's residents, masked thugs attacked the colonia, and drove them out. Those who moved too slowly were beaten, they say, and one pregnant woman is said to have lost her baby as a result. The thugs who remained behind looted the resident's possessions, and then burned the colonia to the ground. Residents also say that an infant boy died in the fire.

The next day, there was a demonstration at the city hall by some 2000 residents of other colonias, who demanded justice and reparations for the huizacheranos. The demonstration was broken up by thugs, and one man almost died. The local government did nothing to help the residents who were violently evicted. In late March, some of them returned to begin rebuilding their huts. They are certain that the violence was promoted by local employers and their extended families who wanted the land for themselves.

There is no solid evidence for this charge, but it is well-documented that many poor Mexicans have suffered just such indignities. In its September, 1991, report, UNCEASING ABUSES, Americas Watch noted that "Rural violence, in particular unannounced forced evictions of peasants from their homes by police working in cooperation with local rural bosses, is ongoing."14 So there is a long-established history of this kind of violence against Mexico's poor, and I suggest that it is eminently reasonable to expect an increase in such violence as a direct result of NAFTA. And, even though the story of the infant burning to death in La Huizachera has not been confirmed even to my satisfaction, it is of a piece with similar events that have taken place in Latin America for many years. For example, the government of Guatemala has for over 30 years perpetrated hideous atrocities against its own Mayan Indian population, which constitute the majority in Guatemala. In one case, all the residents of a village were burned to death after being herded into the church, which was then set on fire. "Anti-communism" was the time-honored excuse, but attacks by the army against the Indians continue long after the end of the cold war. Thus, relying on the endemic nature of violence against the poor in Latin America, I suggest that it is a certainty that poor Mexicans will die directly on account of NAFTA, and that children will be among the victims.


To understand the unthinkability of conditioning NAFTA on the Mexican government improving protection of its own poor, we can look to China and Indonesia. Mexico's human rights record is arguably better than China's, and China is deemed by many to merit Most Favored Nation trade status (MFN). A recent Christian Science Monitor editorial argued "the best way to help change a rigid xenophobic system was through free market engagement," suggesting that China's small improvements in a dismal human rights record resulted just because the U.S. renewed its MFN status. Thus, continues the Monitor, "the argument of engagement plus American corporate interests makes human rights a tough sell."15

The bald fact of the matter is, of course, that American corporate interests alone have always sufficed to make human rights a tough sell. Another case in point is the genocidal program against the indigenous people of East Timor, launched by the Suharto government of Indonesia in 1975, and continuing to the present moment. Indonesia has resources that we need, so even our human rights president, Jimmy Carter, followed the lure of economic enrichment and directed U.N. Ambassador Daniel Patrick Moynihan to scotch any censure of Indonesia by the U.N. Moynihan carried out his orders successfully, and with gusto. Recently, in a speech to the Export-Import Bank, President Clinton specifically used our ties with the Indonesian dictatorship as a signal to other non-aligned nations that "the U.S. wants to be their partner." The message is that human rights issues will not be an obstacle.16

Human rights advocates often call for U.S. economic sanctions or boycotts against human rights violators, but in fact these governments don't believe that we, the American people, care more about human rights than we do about the goods that they plan to sell us on the cheap. Thus they stand firm on their national sovereignty—meaning their right to abuse their own people—and make only the minimum concessions needed to quell the human rights tempest of the moment. They are confident that when their products appear on our store shelves with low price tags, we will be happy as clams. They count on us to dismiss their human rights records as being outside our purview of concerns. And, we would be hard pressed to argue the point.

Such is my brief, modern-day sketch of human rights and happiness. As it happens, one of the world's greatest moralists put a different "spin," as our media types might put it, on the exact same issue over a century ago.


Many of you have read Dostoevsky's Brothers Karamazov, and may have some recollection of the eldest brother Ivan. You may recall that he lives in intense and constant anguish over the injustices and cruelties we inflict upon each other. You may remember, too, Ivan's youngest brother, Alyosha, who represents an ideal saintliness untouched by the violence and pain of the world. At one point, Ivan decides to challenge his little brother, to see if he really is as saintly as he appears. My guess, too, is that Ivan really wants Alyosha to shed at least part of this beatific mantle of saintliness, and come to know and understand evil as he does. Perhaps then Ivan will not feel so alone.

So, during a rare moment alone with Alyosha, Ivan begins his challenge by confessing that he doesn't understand how one can love one's neighbor, as Jesus commanded. Indeed, "it is just one's neighbor that one cannot love," he says, "though one might love those at a distance." Ivan reckons that the world's grown-ups have all eaten the apple, and are thereby unworthy of sympathy or pity for the trouble they bring on themselves. But grown-ups are not his concern here. Ivan really wants to talk about children.

Children are different, Ivan says. Children are inherently innocent and loveable, and nothing can justify the evil that adults do to them. It is just that ubiquitous evil, in all its myriad forms, that has driven him to the brink of insanity.

Ivan then proceeds with a litany of documented horrors committed by adults against children—some by soldiers during wartime, others by people indistinguishable from their neighbors except for the private hell they created for the children in their power. This litany is grotesque, and with each account, Alyosha becomes more subdued.

Ivan tells of a case of severe child-beating, which, "by some diabolical unseemly chance was brought into court." The parents' lawyer considered the matter "an everyday domestic event," which "to our shame" was brought to court.

In another case, he says, a child of five, who had also been routinely beaten by her parents, soiled her nightclothes in her sleep. Along with other cruelties, she was put into a freezing outhouse for the night by her mother as punishment.

"Do you understand why a little creature, who can't even understand what's being done to her, should beat her little aching heart with her tiny fists and pray to dear kind God to protect her?" Ivan asks Alyosha.

Ivan closes his catalogue of horrors with the fate of a serf child at the hands of his master, a retired Russian general. While at play, this boy of 8 years threw a rock and accidentally injured the paw of the general's favorite hunting dog. I will not describe the punishment in detail, except to say that the child died as intended. For this action, the general was deemed by the authorities to be incapable of administering his estates.

"But," Ivan asks: "what did he deserve? To be shot?"

"To be shot." answers Alyosha, barely able to speak.

"Bravo!" says a delighted Ivan. "So there is a little devil sitting in your heart after all. You're a pretty monk."

He then tells Alyosha that he cannot accept the unatoned for agony of children, in spite of the biblical promise that the Lord's plan will someday become manifest, and all the world's people will live in harmony. The child's mother will forgive the general, and they will cry together "Thou art just O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed."

In fact, Ivan renounces this higher harmony altogether, saying that it would not be worth the suffering of a single child. Harmony bought at such cost is incomprehensible, he says. And, as an honest man, he reckons that he is duty bound to return his entrance ticket to God as soon as possible—most respectfully, of course, for Ivan is a believer. Here Alyosha accuses him of rebellion, and in response, Ivan issues his final challenge:

"Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature—that baby beating its breast with its fists, for instance—and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears. Would you consent to be the architect on those conditions?"

"No, I wouldn't consent" Alyosha says.

"And can you admit the idea that those for whom you are building the edifice would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim. And accepting it would remain happy forever?"

"No, I can't admit it." says Alyosha.

The strain finally is too much for Alyosha, and he fights back. He accuses Ivan of forgetting Jesus as the One upon whom the edifice of human happiness will rest. Ivan replies that he has not forgotten Jesus at all, and asks Alyosha to listen to a story he made up about Jesus. This story Ivan calls The Grand Inquisitor, and here we leave the two brothers to themselves.


There are strong parallels between Ivan's hypothetical scenario, wherein happiness and harmony for all humankind is purchased at the cost of a child's life, and such panels in the fabric of our own destiny as NAFTA, which make a few people very happy, but which also lead to certain misery and death for the poor. Without question, Third World children who die unnecessarily of malnutrition and disease bear many of the hallmarks of Ivan's proposed torture.

NAFTA was America's first serious gambit in the modern globalization process, conceived of and led by America's market worshippers, and to be enforced primarily for America's benefit by America's overwhelming military power. This "market" — a bizarre amalgam of economic theory, folk psychology, and magical thinking — is decidedly not the economic system described by the Scottish economist Adam Smith, who is usually cited as its founding theorist. Smith, a kindly ethical theorist, believed that the general prosperity depended on the equal interaction between the three major components of any economy: labor, land, and capital.

In Smith's scheme, masterfully explained in Wealth Of Nations, each sector pursues its own interests unfettered by artificial restraints, and a naturally occurring equilibrium between the three will produce the maximim social benefit. This is often referred to as the "invisible hand," although Smith used the term only once in the book, in arguing that "every individual, therefore endeavours as much as he can both to employ his capital in the support of domestic industry, and so to direct that industry that its produce may be of the greatest value ..." (See Restraints on Importation of Goods, in Wealth of Nations.) In Smith's day, the theory made a lot of sense, although Smith himself was keenly aware of the capitalists' irrepressible urge toward monopoly. Today's modern transnational capitalist would find Smith's view quaint, to say the least.

Thus, the "invisible hand" is nowhere to be found in the "market" as we know it today. Here, no sector except capital is to have a decisive role in either the national or international economy, and capital flows across borders as freely as the wind.

Today's market worshippers are as fervently religious as the most devout Muslim suicide bomber. The only difference in the degree of devotion is that the suicide bomber believes in Allah enough to die for Him, whereas the American market worshipper insists that only others die in the name of eternal human happiness. In any case, we can be sure that whatever nation presumes to challenge U.S. economic hegemony will suffer swift and painful punishment. We can also imagine that should conditions here in the U.S. become severe enough to generate serious domestic protest, the reaction of capital will also be swift and painful.

But everywhere, with protest or without, more of Ivan's beloved children will certainly die in the name of the eternal happiness promised by America's market worshippers. And if that eternal happiness continues to elude humankind, in spite of the deaths of all these children, will America's market worshippers be deemed incapable of administering the global economy? After Baghdad is rebuilt, with a MacDonald's on every corner, and Halliburton's oil rigs on every horizon, will Iraqi parents whose children became collateral damage in President Bush Jr.'s unnecessary war cry out to the next President of the United States: "Thou art just O America, for Thy ways are revealed?"

"The only aim that is at all peculiar to me is my disregard of warm feelings. They are quite well able to take care of themselves. What I want are people who can be kind in cold blood. Anybody can be kind in emotional moments."
— George Bernard Shaw17


Following are three excerpts from a letter by U.S. Representative Nancy Kaptur (D-Ohio) to the Christian Science Monitor, printed Friday, October 8, 1993. Kaptur opposes NAFTA.

1. "NAFTA would open all of Mexico to job transplants. The government of the state of Yucatan has already placed ads in the US boasting that companies can save $15,000 per employee annually by relocating."

2. "Mexico's program for development is based on exploiting workers. The buying power of the minimum wage dropped 67 percent between 1976 and 1992. Health and safety safeguards are almost unknown. Meanwhile, the richest 30 families in Mexico now control over 60 percent of Mexico's GDP."

3. "Corporate interests and the government of Mexico have no intention of allowing wages in Mexico to rise with productivity. That's why they teamed up to get protection for worker's rights out of the Labor Side Agreements. Nothing in NAFTA will stop the government-sponsored harassment and intimidation of independent unions."


      1.    Businessman Richard Riordan, speaking as a member of a panel discussion of the economy, December, 1988. Riordan was later elected Mayor of Los Angeles.
Los Angeles Daily News, Business section, p.1., July 4, 1993

      2.    Endnote 2 was deleted from the text without re-sequencing the other endnotes.

      3.   Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 1993, p.4. (Reference to GAO and EPA findings.)

      4.   ibid., p.4.

      5.   ibid., p.4.

      6.   POINTS OF THE COMPASS, Christian Science Monitor, Wednesday, July 14, 1993, p. 9.

      7.   Editorial: NAFTA AND THE ENVIRONMENT, ibid., p. 18.

      8.   ibid., p.4.

      9.   Christian Science Monitor, June 25, 1993, p.18.

     10.   ibid., p.18.

     11.   Los Angeles Daily News, Oct or Nov '88

     12.   Christian Science Monitor, July 2, 1993, p.4.

     13.   National Catholic Reporter, April 16, 1993, pp. 10-13.

     14.   UNCEASING ABUSES, Human Rights in Mexico One Year After the Introduction of Reform, Septemeber 1991, p.1. Americas Watch is a member of Human Rights Watch, a gobal coalition of private human rights monitoring agencies.

     15.   Christian Science Monitor, CLINTON, CHINA, AND MFN, Thursday May 27, 1993, editorial p. 18

     16.   "Money speaking louder than cries of oppressed," Mary McGrory, Daily News, p.13, June 16, 1993.

     17.   BERNARD SHAW, Vol. 1, p. 395. Michael Holroyd, Random House, 1988.

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March 7, 2004