Pur Autre Vie

I'm not wrong, I'm just an asshole

Monday, December 02, 2013

Worse Than A Crime

Dave Gottlieb's latest effort, Worse Than A Crime, can perhaps best be described as utopian political satire.  The novel opens bluntly, describing a press conference given by Secretary of State John Kerry while on a visit to Japan.  A college student asks Secretary Kerry how the U.S. can justify its huge military budget while billions of people lack access to clean drinking water.  Kerry briefly hems and haws before settling on a clever response:  the U.S. would happily cut its defense budget by 10% if China and Russia were willing to match the cuts.  "And we could spend the money on clean water, living wages, free ponies for everyone—whatever you'd like!" Kerry smirks, before moving on to the next question.

But Kerry's ordeal is far from over.  China and Russia almost immediately accept Kerry's "offer," putting Kerry in the difficult (but by now familiar) position of having made policy while trying to make a reductio ad absurdum.  To make matters worse, China and Russia don't equivocate:  each of them immediately slashes its military budget by more than 10% and launches an ambitious program of financial aid and technical support.  The countries jointly declare that the true measure of a country's economic, technical, and administrative capacity (as well as diplomatic clout) is its ability to eliminate waterborne diseases wherever it chooses to do so.  Providing clean drinking water thus becomes not just a humanitarian project but an arms race of epic proportions, with the U.S.'s status as the sole superpower hanging in the balance.

Gottlieb is careful not to portray the resulting flood of money into clean-water infrastructure as an entirely positive development.  The U.S. is forced to twist elbows, and worse, in its diplomatic effort to get the job done.  When Bangladesh refuses to allow outside contractors to bid for key infrastructure jobs, the U.S. threatens to take away the Bangladeshi military's lucrative peacekeeping contract with the United Nations, nearly instigating a coup.  Meanwhile China uses southeast Asia's lingering resentment against Japan to stir up nationalist fervor, hoping to channel it into political support for massive water projects.  The results are, unsurprisingly, not exactly what China intended, and soon Japan abandons its longstanding neutrality and plows headlong into the global clean-water arms race.  Great Britain can't long resist joining the fight, especially when France announces that all of its former colonies will have clean drinking water long before Britain's.  Germany, while not directly participating in the struggle, deploys a vast fleet of u-boats that help install undersea pipes and cables for coastal cities such as Lagos and Manila.

Before long, old resentments resurface, and countries across Asia, Africa, and Latin America are forced to pick sides in an increasingly acrimonious "cold peace."  Developing countries shrewdly play the great powers against each other, demanding not just physical infrastructure but large-scale social and economic changes that will make it possible to deliver clean, affordable drinking water in a sustainable manner without further assistance.  The results are devastating to the world's water-borne pathogens, which are the true victims of the superpowers' insatiable zeal.

Worse Than A Crime subtly suggests that, even as vast resources are devoted to clean water and other public health initiatives in a mad game of geopolitical one-upmanship, the real madness is that this didn't happen sooner.  If the world depicted by the novel is not an entirely realistic one, the moral question that Gottlieb presents is no less urgent:  just what, exactly, will it take for technology developed in the 19th century to become available to all humans who live on this earth?  Just when, exactly, will the last person die of cholera, an eminently preventable disease?  And why should we tolerate any delay whatsoever?


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