Back in 1992, a ten year old Bangladeshi girl named Moyna was one of 50,000 children who lost their jobs in the wake of protectionist legislation sponsored by the execrable union-backed Senator Tom Harkin of Iowa. How does Moyna feel about Americans now? “They loathe us, don’t they?”, she says. “We are poor and not well educated, so they simply despise us. That is why they shut the factories down.” (The quote is from this report by the Bangladeshi activist Shahidul Alam.)
Probably Moyna’s only half right. Tom Harkin doesn’t loathe her; he just doesn’t give a damn about her. Ditto for the union goons and the American business owners who tout their made-in-America, untouched-by-Third-World-hands product lines. Those people (by and large) aren’t hateful; they’re just mercenary and callous. It’s their customers–the ones who would cheerfully pay extra for the privilege of supporting a $30-an-hour middle class American instead of a struggling $1-an-hour Bangladeshi—who are motivated by something like hate.
If hate is too strong a word, then let’s just call it bigotry, which is, after all, what it is. Not all favoritism is bigotry; it is natural and unobjectionable to care more about family than your friends, more about your friends than your neighbors, and more about your neighbors than a stranger in the next town. Unfortunately, it is perhaps equally natural to care more about strangers who happen to speak your language and share your skin color than strangers who look and sound a little, well, strange. So bigotry is natural. All the more reason to resist it.
If bigotry isn’t the culprit, what is? Misguided concern for Moyna? Maybe so, though it’s hard for me to imagine concern quite that misguided. As Moyna could tell you, poverty sucks. As any historian could tell you, no society has every pulled itself out of poverty without putting its children to work. Back in the early 19th century, when Americans were as poor as Bangladeshis are now, we were sending out children to work at about the same rate as the Bangladeshis are today. Having had the good fortune to get rich first, Americans can afford to give Bangladeshis a helping hand, and there are plenty of good ways for us to do that. Denying Third Worlders the very opportunities our ancestors embraced, whether through fullfledged boycotts or by insisting on health and safety standards they can’t afford to meet, is not one of those ways.
A hat tip to my favorite ninth grader, who learned about Moyna in school, and cared.