March 16, 2012

Dependence on Chinese Production Deserves Factual Storytelling

This American Life logoToday, This American Life announced that it is retracting Mike Daisey's monologue on Apple in China. This weekend a new episode dedicated entirely to factual coverage of Apple's suppliers in China and revealing Daisey's lies will air.

Daisey's response? His only regret is allowing This American Life to air excerpts of his monologue as factual journalism. Never mind the fact that he knew before the piece aired that the program was fact-checking his work. Never mind that he knew that the most poignant vignettes of his monologue were entirely fictional.

There are two things that need to be said about this debacle. First, not every story on This American Life is factual. Am I the only one sick of David Sedaris talking as a mouse? But they're pretty good about differentiating between story telling and telling the story of life. Daisey, on the other hand, claimed that his entire monologue was based on meeting actual people.

The second thing I must admit is that fiction can deepen people's understanding of current events and history to a much greater degree than fact. The classic example is Grapes of Wrath. A more recent, and more flawed, example is Acts of Faith. There is deep power is story telling. Characters drawn by an expert hand can deepen our understanding of The Other and help us grapple with the shades of grey created by the human condition.

Nevertheless, Westerners, especially white males, need to get over themselves in their great attempt to decipher humanity. I'm not just angry that Daisey lied to This American Life producers and thinks his theatrical focus should justify his lies. Here is an excerpt from the press release:

Daisey's interpreter Cathy also disputes two of the most dramatic moments in Daisey's story: that he met underage workers at Foxconn, and that a man with a mangled hand was injured at Foxconn making iPads (and that Daisey's iPad was the first one he ever saw in operation). Daisey says in his monologue:
He's never actually seen one on, this thing that took his hand. I turn it on, unlock the screen, and pass it to him. He takes it. The icons flare into view, and he strokes the screen with his ruined hand, and the icons slide back and forth. And he says something to Cathy, and Cathy says, "he says it's a kind of magic.
Cathy Lee tells Schmitz that nothing of the sort occurred.
Let me be clear: putting words in the mouths of workers injured in the production of your prized technology, making them claim to appreciate the majesty of your toy, is not and will never be acceptable appropriation of another human being.

Exploiting people, especially people whose language and culture you don't even pretend to try to understand, is worse than paying them to work for your company. Daisey does admit one thing in his monologue - that he knew nothing about China before starting on his journey to find out where his Apple products come from. From where I sit, putting words in the mouths of victims is more heinous than not letting them speak for themselves. Why do white people do this over and over again? It really isn't that hard to honestly translate people's reactions to the world around them. And if you don't think that's dramatic enough to hold an urban audience's attention for 90 minutes, then maybe you haven't done enough research.

I am glad the NY Times reported factually on the manufacturing of Apple products and I'm glad global consumers are challenging Apple to maintain higher standards in the production of their products.

Let's just be clear on a few things: if you can't speak a Chinese language, if you haven't studied modern China, and if your one experience of China involved paying an interpreter to help you see one urban area then you are in no position to speak for Chinese people. Whether presented as fact or fiction, the idea that a white man with zero understanding of China can speak for a man mangled in the production of iPads is ludicrous.

The best fictional indictments of economic problems are based on factual reporting. Steinbeck wrote newspaper accounts from migrant farm camps in California before starting his book. The accuracy of his depictions is why his book was burned when it was originally published - the 1% never want to admit they're exploiting the 99%. But for goodness sake, don't think neocolonial crusades are going to change global manufacturing.

I'm excited about the technological improvements in the new iPad. And I'm hopeful that the public will be holding Apple more accountable for its production process. I also worry about the environmental, health, and cultural damage done to China by its rapid modernization. I worry about the Chinese government's denial of individual human rights in pursuit of collective progress. Though my husband is Chinese and I've read The Joy Luck Club, I wouldn't attempt to write Chinese characters without extensive additional research. It's time US storytellers learn the limit of their gifts. The human experience may be universal, but each person's story deserves to do more than justify your material consumption.

Posted by cj at 12:00 PM | Comments (0)

April 16, 2011

Clarifying My Core Political Principles

I shared this video on Facebook and started an extremely long discussion.

Since the conversation included people across the political spectrum, I laid out my core political beliefs as a starting place:

I know corporations / business have one reason for existing: to create profit. They do not support human or environmental needs - they make money for their shareholders. When corporations were first invented, they had to prove that they were supporting the welfare of the nation/colony/state they were incoporated in, but no more.

The gap between the rich and the poor, in the US and globally, is larger than it has ever been. There is no real middle class in the US. Fairness in taxation means that the people who profit the most should pay the most. Otherwise, government will end up imposing more sales taxes, which affect the poor far more than the rich. The Bush tax cuts were unpaid for and unsustainable. Reagonomics DID NOT WORK. And it did not create a magical, growing, healthy economy. It simply exacerbated the gap between the rich and the poor.

Individuals create governments to increase their own freedom. Government protects citizens by imposing regulations on business, enacting laws that protect people, animals, and the environment. Civil society and government institutions are the only pathways to a more just world.

I am not willing to sacrifice my freedom to the whim of corporations. The problem in DC is the corporatacracy. Government paychecks are red herrings - contractors make far more than any govt employee. The problem is politicians rely on Big Money and Big Business to get elected and re-elected. Until we have public financing in our elections, it will remain difficult for the majority of the people to have their opinions heard and enacted by government.

The majority of the people isn't the same as the decisions made in individual races in a midterm election. Too many people are turned off by politics in this country. Even the president isn't chosen by a simple majority vote - giving people in Omaha a larger voice in national politics than people in LA.

Government job bills are the only things that truly get us out of a recession - it was the Works Progress Administration that finally got people back to work after the Great Depression. And yes, it was also the military industrial economy. We're addicted to war. It's the largest form of welfare in this country - the military, or a military contractor, exists in every single Congressional district in this country. Can't say that about any other federal program.

The world I want to see has a culture of peace and human security as its core principles, rather than this culture of war and humans being disposable. Those great corporations refuse to hire people who have been unemployed 2+ years - are you really willing to sacrifice millions of Americans for a political ideology?

In addition to ending US wars, we need to slash the military budget and spend more on creating jobs and social services. By the way - it doesn't matter how much intelligence POTUS, SecDef, or SecState have: the bottom line is that if your primary form of diplomacy is depleted uranium bombs, your country will never be at peace. Terrorism cannot be defeated with terrorism. Only skillful diplomacy, robust international institutions, pathways to peace and economic prosperity will make us truly safe.

Posted by cj at 11:09 PM | Comments (0)

January 30, 2011

Uncloak the Kochs: Eyewitness Account of the Rally

As an unknown blogger, I find it interesting to watch well-known bloggers treated as members of the media, with everything from priority seating at a panel discussion to multiple quotes in mainstream press.

I also find it interesting that the entire day in Rancho Mirage was created for consciousness raising. Here's one of my tweets from today:

[from @socialupheaval] Feels lacking a real plan beyond today Answers to what action to take lacking @ #UncloakKoch panel

Here's the response I got:

[from @CommonCause] @socialupheaval there is a plan; as @VanJones68 says, 1st step is lifting consciousness. That's today. Tmrw we go forward together.
Actually, what Van Jones said was that he was caught off guard being given the microphone to answer the question what action steps are next for the event. He said he didn't plan the event, Common Cause did, but if he had to answer the question, we should connect with our neighbors and increase awareness of the issues.

See here's the thing: 1,000 people show up in Rancho Mirage. Most of them traveled long distances to get to the rally. Did they not know why they were traveling out of their way for a rally?

We who spent 4+ hours traveling to and fro on Common Cause buses; we who were told we are the leaders we are waiting for - we were looking for concrete action we could take to implement the values expressed by the panelists and rally speakers. We could have formed action groups: meeting up with people from our local areas to develop plans. If Common Cause had a plan for grassroots, cross-organization movement building, their staffers who rode the buses with us could have engaged us in that vision, and helped us find a way to contribute to those clear local steps forward. Instead, we're told to enjoy our consciousness raising.

To be clear: I've been involved in progressive activism for 20 years. I still get a thrill from gathering with like-minded activists. I love that I came on a bus to the desert and met up with two different Wellesley sisters (who don't know each other). I was truly inspired by Van Jones.

But, I'm still wondering: what's next? Where do we go from here?

Posted by cj at 9:05 PM | Comments (1)

October 17, 2010

Inside Job: Pieces Explained, Now What?

Fundamentally, I agree with Nora Lee Mandel that for people who have listened to Planet Money or read books about the Great Recession, Inside Job will not provide new information on how the financial meltdown was created.

But since I've been getting most of my news consumption through the radio and podcasts, it was important to add the visual element, to put a face to the names, as it were. It's interesting that most reviews on Rotten Tomato are positive. I appreciate that Kenneth Turan in the LAT explained the director's academic origins:

Neither a film school graduate nor an ideologue, Ferguson is rather a well-connected academic who has a doctorate in political science from MIT, was a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution and has been a consultant for high-tech firms such as Apple, Intel and Xerox.
This explains a lot: from Ferguson's level-headed definitions, to his desire to damn the study of economics, rather than focusing heavily on government's collusion or ways that ordinary citizens can change the system.

To be clear, Ferguson's critique of economics was probably my favorite aspect of the film. It felt like a justification for my inability to "get with the program" in my International Relations courses, why I bristled at the idea that I needed to take economic courses to understand how humans, governments and corporations interact globally. The reality is that pretending that human interactions can be best explained by science is a terrible fallacy. Social sciences should put more emphasis on the social aspect of their disciplines and less faith in mathematical formulas.

For me, this documentary was another piece of evidence in an already over-flowing mountain. The US economy is rigged. Capitalism does not represent a fair playing field any more than any other economic system. Until we figure out a way to use political leagues, labor unions, and our governments to regulate corporations and support human needs, we will continue to be pawns in someone else's game.

It was frustrating to me that in an after movie discussion, a disgruntled union member challenged me to prove her union dues weren't going to election-related expenditures, rather than contacting her union local to explain where her dues are going. The bitterness on the left - the belief that the organizations we have to protect individuals are as corrupt as the rest of the system leaves people staring into their ice cream bowls, blaming the uneducated masses in the middle of the country.

Enough is enough. No organization is perfect, but I'd much rather be a union member than an at-will employee like I am currently. And while I care about the mid-term elections, while I am incredulous that people actually believe the results will be the same regardless of which political party wins, I don't think voting is the only responsibility of citizens. To create real democracy, we must be vigilant every day of the year. We must find ways to gather our voices, to be heard collectively.

That's why I'm a life member of Women's International League for Peace and Freedom. I know that locally, nationally, and globally my beliefs are shared and that together we can make a difference. While our coffers will never be as filled as those of multi-national corporations, we have the moral and political will to create a world where the needs of all people are met in a fair and equitable manner.

Do I need a Poli Sci Ph.D or Matt Damon to explain to me how to challenge the financial system? No. I'd rather every person who was angered by the documentary to do something about it: to encourage their friends to see the movie, to give money to an organization she believes is fighting the system, to volunteer for such an organization, and ultimately, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has. " - Margaret Mead

Other Reviews
To read how the other half thinks, check out Kyle Smith's review in the NY Post. Because, you see, morality does not apply to business.

Even the WSJ recommends the movie, though they falsely equate the anger you'll experience from viewing the evidence as a reason to join the Tea Party.

Wesley Morris at the Boston Globe really liked it, though I can't say I share his completely unfettered enthusiasm for the film. There were times I noticed I was watching a two hour movie, but I'm not sure that's entirely the movie's fault since I was sitting next to a woman who kept hitting me with her leg and her date who kept adding unhelpful commentary like "he's an Orthodox Jew."

I like Michael Phillips description of the movie as a funnel in the Tribune.

Predictably, Ebert loved the film. I enjoyed his personal elevator commentary.

Posted by cj at 1:16 PM | Comments (0)

August 7, 2010

The Economy, The Poor, and Our Responsibilities

Jack and Jill Politics embedded a fascinating interview with Dr. Cornel West:

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy


I find it incredibly important to think deeply about Dr. West's message. It adds to the conversation that A Mohit began on Technorati recently on the systematic destruction of the middle class in the U.S.

This week's Torah portion, Re'eh (Deuteronomy 11:26-16:17), includes the commandment to take care of the needy. Some may say this means a community should provide the poor with the bare minimum of food, shelter, and health care. For me, it is an entry point to question the great disparity between the rich and the poor.

It is not enough to simply ameliorate suffering. Rather, we must determine the root of the problem: is the wealth of the rich created on the backs of the poor?

I believe there are fundamental problems with the U.S. economy, a system that is tilted in favor of the few, with constant bailouts and tax breaks for the wealthy, while the middle class disappears and the poor are kept docile through credit cards, mass entertainment, and the delusional myth of "the American dream."

I look forward toward fundamental policy changes that support human growth and allow all citizens equal opportunity.

Posted by cj at 6:51 PM | Comments (0)

July 4, 2010

Independence, Nationalism, the American Experience

Plenty of people can't fathom criticizing nationalism. If you don't accept that we live in the greatest country in the world, why not leave? If you can't appreciate your freedom, just leave!

My wariness of nationalism stems from its historical roots. By creating an identity larger than your community, but separate from people beyond a border, Us vs. Them becomes easier to swallow. In a world connected by the interwebs, it can be depressing that more people aren't more closely connected with a global perspective.

Regardless of your feelings about Independence Day, "The Great Rupture," by Peter Goodman in the NYT should be required reading today. The profound disconnect between economic reality and policy is laid bare in vignettes from across the country. The US government provided billions to bail out the "financial system," ensuring bonuses and hefty salaries for the charlatans who got us into this mess, yet "fiscally conservative" politicians refuse to extend unemployment benefits for the millions of people devastated by the economic collapse caused by the geniuses of Wall Street legal gambling.

It's time to take a stand. Declare your independence from group think. Reach out to your neighbors, next door and across the world. Learn about your history. Learn about your neighbor's history. And let's work together to create the nonviolent paradigm shift desperately needed to convince politicians that Public Works is more effective than Corporate Bailouts. That diplomacy should be led by the State Department, not the DOD.

Social upheaval: it's closer than you think.

Posted by cj at 11:54 AM | Comments (1)

April 8, 2009

Understanding the Global Economic Crisis

From an entry in the Dollars and Sense blog, I found this article by James Galbraith, "Policy and Security Implications of the Financial Crisis, A Plan for America" (pdf)

This paper gives me hope for the future. My doubt lingers because the Obama administration has largely ignored its suggestions.

Instead of tightening the regulation of financial and credit markets, the administration has poured more money into unstable and useless institutions like AIG. Instead of forcing hedge funds to acknowledge their losses, the USG wants to prop them up - using tax payer money to create private profit.

At what point will the American people rise up and denounce their government's monetary policy? Welfare for the rich, home losses for the poor is not the path to peace and security.

How do we expose the reality of the crimes perpetuated by financial institutions in collusion with the federal government? At what point will US residents wake up from their consumer stupor and realize they're being screwed? A few billion for infrastructure spending is pointless if the government continues to refuse to regulate and hold accountable the pariahs who created the mess. Forget AIG bonuses; the real crime is the USG bailout of AIG.

Posted by cj at 6:43 AM | Comments (0)

December 22, 2008

The More the World Changes, the More it Stays the Same...

The NYT ran a long story yesterday on the utterly mundane work of bribery at Siemens. Or at least, the average reader is expected to believe it was mundane and feel bad for the poor schmuck who ended up the fall guy because he was too "ethical" to sign an oath stating he wasn't responsible for moving around millions of dollars in bribery. Apparently, the fact that he never physically handed the money to corrupt dignitaries (in far off places like Italy and Israel) is supposed to make his corruption okay.

Somewhat shockingly, bribing foreign countries wasn't outlawed in Germany until 1999. That's right, ladies and gents - a mere 9 frickin years ago. Still don't believe the tales in Confessions of an Economic Hit Man?

Then perhaps you may need a refresher course in the history of transnational bribery. Strangely, the passing of another hustler was not included in the NYT obits yesterday. But the LAT managed to wax poetically about the life of Archibald Carl Kotchian. Poor Archibald was the fall guy when the USG decided to pretend to care that US corporations were bribing foreign countries back in the 70s. Check this out:


In a memoir published only in Japan, Kotchian said Lockheed was a scapegoat and that the payoffs -- common throughout the 1960s and early 1970s -- were part of the way the "game" was played overseas. He maintained that no payoffs were made to American officials and no American laws were violated.

"If we were back in those times, I'd do it again," Kotchian said in an interview with the Associated Press in 1978. "In present times, with the change in attitude and standards that are being applied now, I don't think that I would."

Ya see, ladies and gents, there is no need for individual responsibility when the whole world is built on a pile of crap. Blame your own unethical behavior on societal mores. Strangely, that defense continues to work for the capitans of industry.

Here's why I get so angry about the murky lack of morality underpinning free-trade capitalism: Integrity and Honesty are Really Important Virtues. I'm honest to a fault and I can't fathom getting ahead by playing dirty. I also can't understand how the foundation for our entire economic system is dirty politicians and hustling businessmen. No wonder the good die young - criminals seem to be running the world!

Consider these other tid-bits of news: Walmart's growth plan is buying up foreign grocery chains. It already owns the biggest chain in Central America and is on its way to purchasing the biggest chain in Chile. (Inexplicably, the WSJ thinks Chile has a recession-proof economy for reasons not explained in the article describing the buyout offer.) As an aside, the chain may need to lose part of its current name if it wants to stay honest - D&S stands for Distribucion & Servicio...but since we've already determined that dishonesty pays, may as well remake the retail chain with Orwellian glee.

Retail developers want their own handout from the fumbling government. That's right, the people who paved over paradise and put up a parking lot think it's unfair they may have to lose some money in this economic downturn. And let's face it, if bankers can get fungible money to pay millions in salary while hard-working union employees have to beg to maintain their modest incomes (at both US auto plants and government offices - where brilliant Republicans like the Cali governator want to force employees to take 24 days of unpaid vacation a year to help balance the budget!), why shouldn't the paradise pavers get in on raping the taxpayer?

I want to be clear: I'm not anti-corporation. I'm anti-corruption. And yes, I do think there is something fundamentally wrong with the corporate governance system when big wigs can honestly say that bribery was the only way to keep people in their jobs. Gone is the race to the bottom. We've already reached the zenith of human morality, now we're reaching into pure, unadulterated depravity.

If this post hasn't already pushed all the holiday cheer out of you, take a gander at this history of the Shrub administration's handling of the mortgage meltdown. My favorite passage:

A soft-spoken Texan, Mr. Falcon ran the Office of Federal Housing Enterprise Oversight, a tiny government agency that oversaw Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two pillars of the American housing industry. In February 2003, he was finishing a blockbuster report that warned the pillars could crumble.

[...]Today, the White House cites that report---and its subsequent effort to better regulate Fannie and Freddie---as evidence that it foresaw the crisis and tried to avert it. Bush officials recently wrote up a talking points memo headlined "G.S.E.'s ---We Told You So."

But the back story is more complicated. To begin with, on the day Mr. Falcon issued his report, the White House tried to fire him.

An inconvenient truth was told by a government regulator. Shrub tried to replace him with "Mark C. Brickell, a leader in the derivatives industry that Mr. Falcon’s report had flagged." Alas, a pesky accounting scandal (you know, tied to that liars' game of derivatives) forced Shrub to embrace Falcon and back off his nomination of Brickell. Thankfully, for Shrub's corporate cronies, he was eventually able to replace Falcon with James Lockhart, who managed to lift the restraints on Freddie and Fannie imposed by Falcon in time to allow them to implode on the taxpayers' dime.

Amidst all this corruption, unregulated greed, misuse of shareholder and government funds, I'm supposed to believe that changing the name in front of POTUS will change the world? Sorry, Charlie, but 20 years ago was the last time I was that gullible (and then only because I thought I'd be related to the first family)...

End note conveniently missing from the printed Siemens story, but found online: the article was a joint report of ProPublica, Frontline, and the NYT. ProPublica is the investigative journalism newsroom that employs Paul Kiel who coherently explained the Madoff Ponzi scheme on Democracy Now! last week.

Posted by cj at 9:01 PM | Comments (0)