Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Today's Apartheids

  1. The Anchorage International Film Festival is getting all my attention this week, at least here on the blog, and I haven't commented on other important issues or events.  I think good art (even bad art)  tells us about everything that's important, so covering the festival isn't trivial, but still I feel pulled in different directions.
  2. This blog covers a wide array of topics, because, as I told someone this week, "everything is related."  And I hope that's clear below

The Boycott

The Boycott of South Africa is getting lots of attention this week in the wake of all the memorials for Nelson Mandela.  But at the time a boycott was considered completely radical, anti-business, anti-American, harmful to the US economy, and it wouldn't have the desired effect anyway.

People knew that Aparteid was fundamentally wrong and they persisted - mainly younger folks who got their universities to divest from companies doing business in South Africa.  Legislation was passed and the conservatives' hero Ronald Reagan vetoed it.  But the Boycott movement had worked hard and effectively and Reagan's veto was overridden.  

Why Divest?

The basic point is that companies should not be making money by supporting oppression or other things that cause serious harm to humans or to the planet they live on.   We have laws against prostitution and drugs basically for the same reason - some moral values trumps the capitalist goal of making as much money as possible.  Even conservatives in the US have pushed hard to get a boycott against doing business with Iran and in Alaska very conservative legislators wanted to divest the state's funds - like the Permanent Fund - of companies doing business with Iran.

The underlying principle is that we value certain things above money.  Slavery was abolished even though it hurt slave owners economically (not to mention morally and spiritually.)

Corporations' appropriate goals, according to an old Michigan Supreme Court decision and supported by Milton Friedman, and quite probably today's US Supreme Court, but challenged by others, is to maximize shareholder profit.

They do this by taking resources and creating products or services they can sell.  Degradation of the environment - so long as it doesn't hurt their bottom line - is acceptable.  Exploitation of workers is not an issue as long as it doesn't hurt their bottom line.  The same with exploiting customers.  (Think banking late fees and punishing interest rates or airline fees for changing reservations.  Think of 'pre-existing conditions' clauses in health insurance policies. Think the housing crisis.)

When companies make big profits while violating more important human values, they have to pay their employees well to keep them doing their damaging work.  'Well' is a relative term.  They don't have to pay much to get very poor people to work, even in jobs that put the employees at risk.  Much higher salaries and benefits than the prevailing salaries get professionals to sell their souls for morally questionable business. 

We know that people are able to believe any stories that justify their right to get what they want, even when it is morally reprehensible.  German soldiers justified their work at concentration camps with stories of Jews undermining pure German culture.  Slaveowners used the bible and their beliefs that Africans werea lesser form of human.  Roosevelt allowed internment camps for Japanese-Americans because American prejudices saw them as threats to our security.  Communists tolerated, at first, Stalin's purges because they were necessary for the revolution.  Civil Rights leaders discriminated against women in their movement. Often short term benefits and costs are cited as trumping long term and uncertain benefits. 

Today's Apartheids

In hindsight, it's relatively easy to see who was right and who was wrong (though there are still Nazis in Germany and white supremacists in the US.)   To figure out where action needs to be taken today, we should look at situations where important values are being compromised  to make money.

1.  Future human survival as global climate change causes more severe weather events, shifts in geographic ranges of flora and fauna leading to diseases to spread to new areas and crop destabilization and drought.  Those are just a few of the impacts we are already starting to see. 

Fighting this with the same sort of arguments used to fight the Aparteid boycotts are the biggest traditional energy corporations - mainly oil, gas, and coal.  Alternative energy sources can't fill our energy needs, they tell us.  Business would be crippled.  If we don't produce these fuels, others will.  And, by the way, there is no such thing as global warming, and if there were, it wouldn't be caused by humans, just natural climate cycles.  In Alaska, their well paid employees, somehow justify their contribution to the future degradation of the planet, by buying into those specious arguments    When we have public  hearings on oil taxes in Alaska, nearly all the people testifying for the oil companies are people working for the industry, claiming their livelihoods and standard of living would be gone if the oil companies were taxed at current levels. The standard of living of the next generation must take care of itself is the implication. 

2.  Privatization and Chemicalization of Our Food.   Large corporations destroy our long term food growing environments through factory agriculture - high fertilizer and pesticide use - in the name of shareholder profit.  They systematically destroy small local farmers, introduce GMO food, and fight against labeling because GMO's are perfectly safe and labeling them would harm their business.  And patent seeds to gain a monopoly on food. 

Continued Manufacture and Profiting From Weapons.  Why are we responsible to bring peace around the world?  As humans, we have an obligation to help those who can't help themselves.  We help babies and children, we help victims of storms and earthquakes, it's a basic value of every religion.  But there's yet another reason - much of the death around the world is caused by weapons manufactured by the US and other nations, for war and acquired by anyone with money and connections.  If Second Amendment extremists feel they need protection, then we need to raise a society where people have fulfilling lives and don't need to steal from others to live decently.  And then if people persist with personal arsenals, we can give them the mental health care they obviously need. 

4.  Corporatized media, used not as watchdogs, but as attack dogs.  Our ability to know about and understand how well or poorly governments, corporations, and other institutions of great power operate, is dependent on getting accurate information about their performance.  It also requires an ability to understand what they report.  So education that raises free and thinking citizens needs to replace education that produces obedient consumers and employees.  Instead our media and corporate culture distract us from the real problems with sports, celebrities, and other trivia. Even movies, some, but not all.  Not film festival movies.:)

Everything is Related

American consumerism fuels our need for oil that is destroying our environment and making the pursuit of money or credit our paramount reason for living.  Our failures to earn enough to feed this insatiable consumption leads to crime, addictions (besides consumption), family break ups, and the justification to work for companies and industries we should all be boycotting.  It's all related.

And the film festival gives us a different way to see how these things interact.  Films take us into the lives of people we otherwise would never know.  Here is a list of just a few films at the festival that raise the issues to greater or lesser degrees.  All give us one more piece of the puzzle to understand the interconnections among us all.  OK, I realize that each of us will see these movies with our own filters and many will come away with far different conclusions than do I.

  • Tales of the Organ Trade looks at the illegal buying and selling of human kidneys. 
  • Fatigued was filmed by soldiers in Afghanistan who told us they were there for different reasons, but mostly to get things like health insurance or to escape unemployment and poverty. All they could think about, they tell us, is  'getting out of this shithole and back home." (I'm not sure what message they intended to send, but I was closer in reaction to a contractor quoted in the movie, "They are a bunch of whiners."  But the movie didn't mention the huge disparity in pay between the soldiers and the contract employees which allowed this contractor to pay off her house, car, and all other debts.)  
  • Gold Star Children talked about the tens of thousands of US children who have lost a parent in the Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan wars, and how little attention is given to their huge losses.  
  • Lion Ark looks at the mistreatment of animals in illegal Bolivian circuses and the rescue of 27 lions.   
  • We Can't Eat Gold - looks at the tradeoff between the Pebble Mine and the great salmon runs.
  •  Not By Sight - looks at how one woman's group takes offshore oil to task.
  • Backyard - looks at how the world view of a conservative couple was changed when their neighborhood was fracked. 
  • De Nieuwe Wereld (The New World) looks at one tiny part of the human disruption caused by economic exploitation and the arms industry, by looking at asylum seekers in a detention center in Amsterdam.
  • Detroit Unleaded shows us the deadening life running a gas station/store in a high crime neighborhood in Detroit. 
  • Everything Is Fine Here - shows us the impact of rape on a young Iranian woman. 

We will never have perfect, problem-free societies.  But I believe we can do significantly better than what we have now.  Go see a movie at the film festival - not to be distracted from the world's problems - but to be energized into taking them on. 

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