While I enjoy my super-sized fries and time-saving appliances as much as the next American, I also recognize that the United States is far from being the exemplary society to which all others should aspire. Many Americans still struggle to make ends meet, and we have the largest per capita prison population of any nation in the world. People of colour are over-represented in both of these groups. The Americans who do “make it” often find that their material success doesn’t translate into happiness or even contentment. Most Americans are unhealthily overweight, which is symbolic of the fact that although we make up 5% of the world’s population, we consume 30% of its resources. It’s simply not possible or prudent for the “developing” world to copy the American way of life—the world simply doesn’t have enough gasoline, plastic wrap, or Prozac.
There is no linear trajectory of development, with Africa on one end and the United States on the other. This illusion of progress and American superiority has been maintained by rewriting history to make the past look worse than the present, and associating present-day non-American societies with this dark past. All of us well-intentioned people who live, work, or go to school in the so-called “developed” world need to be very careful to avoid this kind of thinking if we want to “help” those on the African end of the continuum. We’ve all been somewhat indoctrinated with Hegel’s imperialist delusion, which is fast becoming a very real nightmare for the postcolonial poor. But we can only really help the poor and destitute of the world after we’ve rid ourselves of the ideology that makes them destitute and poor.
Every society has its own dynamic history of progress or regress that must be considered on its own terms. Living on less than a dollar a day isn’t so bad if your cost of living is much lower or you’re living in a place where dollars don’t mean that much. There are several “primitive” societies in India and Western and Southern Africa that have achieved infant mortality and life expectancy rates comparable to the United States, and residents of many so-called “developing” nations such as Nigeria consistently score higher on polls of happiness, contentedness, and optimism than citizens of the US, Canada, and even the Scandanavian socialist wonderlands.
It’s no accident that many Americans have turned to Buddhist meditation, African dance classes, yoga, and soul-searching service-vacations in Latin America. Perhaps without realizing it, they’re turning Hegel’s continuum on its head, suggesting that the “developed” world, in some ways, should be progressing towards the Third World.