06 September 2008

Do Americans live in an alternative reality?

Perhaps I should have got used to it by now, but I am still sometimes astonished by American arrogance and ignorance.

An apparently serious article, in an apparently serious publication, has the heading "Russia is still Third World". How can one take seriously anything written by anyone who displays such appalling ignorance?

Today in Investor's Business Daily stock analysis and business news:

In Long Run, Russia Is Still Third World


Posted 9/5/2008

I was in Moscow just before the collapse of the Soviet Union and spent most of three days at the Russian Parliament building, watching as Boris Yeltsin, standing atop a tank, rallied thousands of fellow Russians to defend their emerging democracy against a then-in-progress coup attempt by Soviet hard-liners.

One can only assume that the writer arrived in Russia from another planet, from another galaxy, another universe, or an alternative reality.

Russia was never a Third World country.

The author witnessed one of the events that marked the end of the Cold War, but seems to be unaware of what the Cold War was all about.

The Cold War was between the West (First World) on the one side, and the East (Second World) on the other.

The "Third World" comprised those countries that were neutral in the Cold War. They refused to take sides, and were prepared to do business with both sides (sometimes playing one against the other to gain the advantage). The Third World, also known as the Non-aligned Movement (NAM) or the Afro-Asian Bloc, was founded by India, Indonesia and Yugoslavia.

Russia, on the other hand, was at that time part of the USSR, and was in fact the dominant country in the USSR, which was the leader of the Second World.

Now it seems that the media in both Russia and the USA are determined to fan the embers of the Cold War into a flame again, and so perhaps people like Ebeling are not so much ignorant as disingenuous, and are simply writing to confuse people about recent history in order to pave the way for another nuclear stand-off.

So perhaps it is time to recall the Cold War. Do we really want to return to those days?

The day God gave thee, man, is ending
The darkness falls at thy behest
Who spent thy little life defending
From conquest by the East, the West.

The sun that bids us live is waking
Behind the cloud that bids us die
And in the murk fresh minds are making
New plans to blow us all sky-high.


Fr. Andrew said...

I share many of your criticisms of my countrymen, their media and their government. Alas.

In any event, the term "Third World," despite its origins, is not used in the technical sense you describe here in the US. It's usually used in a socio-economic sense, i.e., the "standard of living" (Wikipedia's entry on the term has it as "underdeveloped economically"). That seems to be the sense used in the article you link.

In any event, it's probably accurate for parts of Russia, but certainly not others. Russia is, to be sure, a rather big place.

I'm probably a bit better-read and better-informed than most Americans (or so I like to believe), and I must confess never to have heard the term "Third World" used in its Cold War context. I've only ever heard it to refer to a certain level of economic modernization/development. It's really easy for the vast majority of Americans never to encounter any media which originate outside our country. It takes extra work even to become aware of anything else.

Steve Hayes said...

Fr Andrew

Since the end of the Cold War the term "Third World" has drifted to the meaning you suggest, but retains enough of its origins to look very incongruous when applied to Russia.

The terms "First World" and "Second World" were in fact back-formations from Third World, and were not used much. People spoke of the "East" and the "West", and it was only when trying to come up with a term for the nations that weren't ideologically aligned to either that some journalist (I think French) came up with "Third World".

The East and the West were industrialised, while the Third World was not, and people in the West who were concerned about economic injustice began using "First World" more frequently, because they believed that the First World was keeping the Third World underdeveloped, and had a responsibility towards Third-World countries. Western propagandists preferred to call the First World the "Free World".

But the fact remains that Russia was never, in any sense, a Third World country, and the write of the article was being either ignorant or disingenu0us (ie deliberately trying to mislead readers) in suggesting that it was.

During the Cold War Russia and the US were in competition to try to provide (or appear to provide) development aid to Third World countries to win them over to their side in the Cold War.

Cori said...

Thanks for this helpful blog post which brings a lot of clarity to some world politics issues. The Wiki article fr.Andrew refers to in fact well supports your view: "The name Third World arose during the Cold War to refer to nations that did not belong to the First and Second Worlds." The article goes on to describe how the Second World referred to the Soviet Bloc.

This link gives a nice, user friendly overview of where the terms were coined and what it all means: http://www.nationsonline.org/oneworld/third_world_countries.htm

Thanks for some thought provoking posts!

Bad Alice said...

This was an education for me, I blush to say. I may have learned this in school, but indeed the term is used almost exclusively to mean economically underdeveloped over here. It is so frequently used that way, that we think it automatically. I think we have a way of cutting terms off from their moorings. Also history education over here seems to be consistently poor.

Jedi Pastor Ken said...

It would only be a fault of education if it failed to teach us to learn and seek wisdom. What someone chooses to do (or choose not to do) is more a failing of the individual.

I think in this instance and a host of others, yes, some USAmericans live, at times in an alternative reality. To make a generalization of such magnitude, is a bit reaching.

Like others, I learned from this post and I thank you for that. My school education did not clarify this point nor has anything called me to question the "third world" as something other than a socio-economic term. I stand corrected (and the wiser). Great post and comments!

Steve Hayes said...


Thanks very much for that useful link; that site explains the term "Third World" and its history very well, and I've bookmarked it for future reference.

One advantage of the terms First, Second and Third Worlds over "East" and "West" is that the Cold War divide was more ideological than geographical. Japan was part of the "West" and Cuba was part of the "East". To say that Japan belonged to the First World and Cuba to the Second World was less confusing.

But as Samuel Huntington has pointed out, since the end of the Cold War the three worlds model is becoming less and less appropriate as an interpretive framework for geopolitics. His nine civilizations model may not be perfect, but it's generally a lot more helpful than the increasingly irrelevant three worlds one.


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