Vanity Fair and Globalization

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Cavanaugh’s third chapter, on the global and the local, contains a lot of good discussion of the problem of the one and the many. Keying off the work of Roman Catholic Hans Urs von Balthasar, Cavanaugh offers the kind of insights that I am more accustomed to hear from Cornelius Van Til and Rousas Rushdoony. Good stuff either way.

The chapter as a whole was a lot of educated and intelligent discussion, but the problem is that it doesn’t amount to what Cavanaugh thinks it amounts to. When it comes time to cash it out, his applications are brief, assumed to be self-evident, and still screwy. He doesn’t show the connection between the 95% cool stuff that he lays out for us, and the 5% “obvious ethical choices” that would be the consensus of the patrons of virtually any Starbucks near you.

However, on the basis of one comment Cavanaugh made in a footnote, I am fully prepared to forgive a great deal.

“On a recent bleary-eyed Saturday morning, the public television show I was watching with my three-year-old son treated us to children singing a peppy song that went: ‘We’re all different but we’re all the same.’ Another song proclaimed, ‘Everybody’s special.’ It made me nostalgic for watching Wile E. Coyote get an anvil dropped on his head” (p. 71).

Globalization does offer us a faux-catholicity. The Lord’s Supper does provide us with alternative approach to consumption. The Incarnation does show us that in Christ we find the universal particular. But none of this will make economic fallacies disappear. None of this means that mistakes in economic reasoning can be just waved away.

Just a quick response to one of those to illustrate the problems Cavanaugh has — and then a few additional comments of my own about the Christian faith and globalization.

Cavanaugh points to a toy company that had a factory in China. When Chinese government officials objected the laborers having to work for 14 hours a day, 7 days a week (and things have to get pretty bad when your corporate culture is appalling the Chinese commies), the company responded that if China didn’t like them apples, the company could just move the factory down the road to Thailand.

“The willingness and ability of capital to abandon any particular location at any time has played a crucial role in subduing wages worldwide” (p. 62).

Okay, but the reason this kind of threat works at all is because the factory being there, problems and all, represents a better state of affairs that what would be if the factory were gone. If a criminal thug is sitting on me in a dark alley and is punching my head, and I were remonstrating with him about his treatment of me, what would happen if he said, “If you don’t stop complaining about this, I will have to move three blocks south to Thailand street and do this to somebody else”? If that happened, I would probably say something along the lines of, “Okay. Sounds good.” But if his threat of leaving caused me to shut right up, then that means that I had to know that something worse would happen to me if he left. This is the thing that is usually left out of Third World disparity calculations.

This company’s heavy-handedness is obviously not saintly, not admirable, not godly, not compassionate, and not generous. I am not approving of it. I am simply saying that when carnal men do this kind of thing, the threat can only work if life without the factory is significantly worse than life with it. A mugger can’t get to hand over my wallet by threatening to pelt me with wadded up Kleenex. And please note that when I say this, I am not praising muggers with guns.

Another suggestion Cavanaugh makes is that we personalize our food. Buy goods produced on local farms, and these farms are virtuous places — “most of whom organically and practice environmentally sustainable methods” (p. 87). But as I have argued on the blog before, buying food this way is a rich man’s game. And I have no problem with it, just so long as you have the honesty to admit that this is what you are doing. Call luxuries luxuries, and let us not have some Balthasian smoke about meeting the universal particular of Christ in the personalized farmer at the farmer’s market, the one with the four dollar tomato. Some people go in for high-end automobiles, others for high-end stereo equipment, still others for high-end tomatoes. Fine with me. But don’t pretend that your tomato represents any kind of solidarity with the global poor. I don’t buy a Rolex to show my connection to the street urchins of Calcutta.

But returning to the bulk of this chapter, which was quite good, I have to add that there is nothing we are dealing with here that John Bunyan didn’t set in Vanity Fair for us. God’s people have always been called to live holy and separated lives, and an essential part of this is teaching your children how to tell the American woman to “sparkle someone else’s eyes.” This is wisdom we certainly have to learn, as Cavanaugh sees, but it is wisdom that God’s people have always had to learn. But there is at least one twist.

Scriptures are full of warnings to the rich. We are cautioned regularly not to set our hope on riches, which are so easily destroyed. We are to lay up treasures in heaven, where moth and rust do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. But these warnings were given to churches that had less than five percent of their members in that category. But I am a pastor of a congregation called out from the richest people in the history of the world. The scriptural warnings apply to one hundred percent of my people. And the process of globalization means that the warning applies to a much greater percentage of the population internationally than it did twenty-five years ago.

When I look at the standard of living enjoyed by my grandchildren growing up, and compare it to the standard of living enjoyed by my father when he was growing up, it is hard to recognize that they live in the same country. Take someone laboring in some gosh-awful Third World factory (and I am not disputing that it is gosh-awful), and make the same comparison. What was life like for his great-grandfather? And such questions ought not to be answered by some agrarian romantic with no sense of what the medical care was like, the sewage, the mortality rates, the length of laboring days, and so on. This world is a screwed up place, and living here never has been a picnic. But one of the temptations that rich people have, along with people who are in the process of growing into unaccustomed wealth, is that of complaining all the time. This complaining is one of the attributes of globalization. It is one of the new characteristics of our economic life.

But before we complain, or listen to complaints, we have to learn to ask our questions with the phrase compared to what? attached. Hard-hearted? I really don’t believe so. And I believe it represents a better application of the theological points that Cavanaugh lays out than he suggests.

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