On last night’s broadcast, Conan did a really funny faux-awards show for his audience. When the ridiculous Journey tribute band started singing about 6-year-old Chinese factory workers, the first thing I thought was, “okay, that shit is real and shouldn’t be joked about.” Then I thought, “well, actually, the fact that it’s real maybe means it should be joked about.” Then Larry the Cable Guy said he was glad the band mentioned child labor in China because yesterday was, in fact, a big holiday there: Solstice? No. Take Your Parents To Work Day. And so of course people laughed, but were they laughing because they thought the satirizing of Chinese practices (which produce most of our everyday goods at Wal-Mart prices) was good and funny or because of how gruesomely incongruous these things are with the values we claim to uphold? It’s our nature to laugh at things that aren’t funny, to meet uncomfortable, damning juxtapositions precisely in this way. Some people laugh at funerals. Some people laugh when they’re nervous or afraid or just unsure about what’s coming next.
On the artist’s side of this equation, is there a fine line between exploitative comedy and satire, or is that line bold and clear? And do jokes like these make audiences more sympathetic or callous towards the people suffering injustice? I don’t have an answer for that. Conan is very smart and, by all accounts, a man with great integrity. I’m going to assume his staff was aiming for some critical thinking with the bit, but are they at fault for culling low-brow guffaws as well? I don’t know, but the conversation about the ethics of comedy is worth having.
Speaking of China and gruesome incongruity: it was in the news yesterday that police in Shenzhen are beginning to enforce a ban on electric bicycles because they’ve been deemed a public safety hazard. As Evan Osnos wrote on The New Yorker’s blog yesterday: “The bikes, which are dangerously silent, have thrived in a regulatory netherworld between bicycles and cars, and they are said to have caused more than fifteen per cent of the traffic accidents in Shenzhen last year, in which sixty-four people died and two hundred and thirty-three were injured.”
Fine, Shenzen. Take away the People’s Democratic Modes of Transportation And Hence Livelihood. Wait, what? Shenzhen sounds familiar, doesn’t it? Yes, that’s right! That’s the same region where working conditions in the factories producing most of our electronic devices are notoriously egregious, isn’t it? Yes, yes it.
If you’re keeping score:
Dangerous Bikes: Bad
Inhumane Conditions so Westerns Can Have Cheap Goods: Yeah, we’ll allow it.
I wrote a post a few months ago about writer and storyteller Mike Daisey’s work on this issue. I urged folks to go read and listen to Mike’s personal experiences with Shenzhen workers as shared on TechCrunch, here. I’ll urge it again.
Three Pillars Trading Company is a client of mine. I’m producing blog articles for this fair-trade, sustainable import business, and from time to time, I’ll be sharing pieces of them here. My first post at Three Pillars is about the disgusting conditions that factory workers in Shenzhen, China endure while they put together our computers and hand-held devices. Yes, as fellow Apple fanboy Mike Daisey exposes, even our MacBooks and iPhones.
Monologist and raconteur Mike Daisey recently spent hundreds of hours exploring the treatment of industrial workers in the Shenzhen region of China. His findings are nothing short of chilling, and he’s taking to the stage (and Internet) to get the message out. Mike makes the stunningly simple observation that while most justice-minded people work very hard to integrate their ethics and consumer choices when buying socks and sneakers, very few of us ever really stop think about the fabrication and delivery chains that produce our favorite hand-held devices.
Continue reading here. Whatever you do, be sure to click through and watch the video interviews TechCrunch conducts with Daisey. They’ll make you angry, sad, and sick. The fact that people like Mike Daisey exist might also make you feel some hope. As I’ve said before, if I ever link to anything I’ve been paid to produce, I’ll say so. That’s the case here, but, as you might know, I only take jobs from organizations I can get behind. It would be great if you surfed from here to my cool new client, but much more important to me and to Three Pillars is that you please, please, please hear what Mike Daisey has to say. In fact, here’s a direct link right to the TechCrunch article with three video segments. They are worth your time.
As for Three Pillars, one of the chief goals of their blog is to provide a place of interest and information gathering around the the kinds of issues that people interested in fair-trade goods are likely to also care about. If you do make your way there, I know the Three Pillars folks would appreciate any feedback or comments you might have about how to make the blogging experience on their site all it can be. My job is strictly on the content side and I get to pick the issues I blog about there. If you have suggestions, please let me know.
While we’re on the subject of sustainability, and since I used “hell” in the title (that’s just a figure of speech, Rob Bell), I’ll also say this: after watching Daisey speak, I’m seriously worried about the state of the Western soul. Most of us don’t know that a company as seemingly with it as Apple is party to the things happening in Shenzen. We get great products for low Western prices, but at an unknown human cost to people with even less access to power than most of our own unemployed homeless.
I’ll be honest. This makes me feel like shit. Since I read Karl Rahner in div school (Savvy Sister, are you a fan of his? I am.), I’ve always thought his take on original sin made the most sense: everyday, we’re part of sinful, evil systems that we don’t even know about. Doing something as simple as buying a banana (let alone an gallon of gas or an iPod) might end up supporting unspeakable evil. The same goes for your retirement funds. Unless you’re in a socially aware mutual fund, chances are your IRAs are funding weapons and Chinese petro companies with dirty hands in Darfur. Shit, when I worked in finance, even the so-called “socially responsible funds” invested in Big Pharmaceuticals and Big Banks because after taking out cigarette makers, arms makers, gambling companies, pornographers and environmentally destructive firms, Banking and Medicine were the only two industries left. If you want a brief rundown on how powerful those industries are, consider if this is true where you live like it is here: most of the most consistent new construction going on prior to the banking crisis and even after was and is for new banks and new drugstores. I’m not saying prescription drugs aren’t legit or that there’s something wrong with taking medicine as directed, but we all know that on the R&D and supply ends, opportunity for corporate abuse is rife. I don’t think I need to say anything at all about banks and financial institutions. You know where I’m going.
Where does all this bullshit evil come from in the first place? I know the following:
everyone we meet is fighting a great war.
Karl Barth, (Karl Rahner’s Protestant Number) said that evil is the aggregation of humankind’s repeated choice of Das Nichtige (very basically: choosing “Not God” (aka “Nothingness”) instead of God, who is life) played out in history. He’s not very far from Rahner here when it comes down to it: Evil is a given, and it gets amplified as we continue to choose it (or, finally, participate it in unknowingly because it’s so entrenched). Its the manifestation of everything that isn’t God, actualized by aggregate choices and non-choices framed by the earlier actions of others (which, in fact, may not have been truly free choices, given #1).
be kind, because (see #1).
A dear friend of mine, wry with a sort of common-sense Pennsylvania German-Lutheran fatalism would say this leaves us pretty screwed. But I’m not so sure about that in the end. Shortly after I got out of the mutual fund industry, another friend of mine with many years in the retirement-planning business told me that it was impossible to invest with your conscience. As you might expect, I disagree. You probably do, too. Whether you’re a person a faith or simply a person of faithful ethics, you already know that voting with your dollars, so to speak, requires certain sacrifices. I’m due for a phone upgrade this month. Oh, how I want an iPhone. But maybe I won’t get anything. I know the phone I would have bought will still be made in shit-hole conditions and will still be sold. I know it will be the best looking chunk of original sin on the market. How funny that it’s made by a company who’s logo is a piece of bitten fruit. Well, not funny ha ha. Funny strange. Actually, not so funny at all.
If you’re not regular Huffington Post reader, you might not notice the changes in the masthead design evident below. The AOL-HuffPost merger became official official this week (they’re, like, totally listed as “married” on Facebook), and the changes are rolling out.
A few days ago, Andrew Breitbart ran a piece on Huffington about the the liberal bias of NPR and the MSM (that’s mainstream media, in case your blogging IQ remains fixed in the pre-Swift Boat-era) with regards to the Tea Party. I’ve said all along that HuffPo has been positioning itself as a “beyond left and right” general interest portal/magazine for some time now, and that the AOL purchase wouldn’t mean the watering down of some hard-left new media beacon. But even I didn’t expect to see a piece like Brietbart’s just yet. Eventually, yes. Just not yet. But the more I think about it, the more sense it seems to make to make these changes sooner rather than later.
Speaking of changes, the first thing regular Huff readers will notice is the change in font, style, and organization of the section (vertical) links in the banners of the home page and each vertical. The entire presentation is streamlined, and some verticals have been bumped off the main masthead’s real-estate and issued a spot on drop-down menus. (Religion, for example, is now a drop-down under “Living.”) You’ll also note that some of the drop-down items link directly to other AOL properties. While I understand the need for integration, this aspect does feel rather patchworked (no pun intended). As a placeholder for some sort of unified branding across platforms and sites, I suppose it’s fine. It achieves goal #1 for AOL in this stage of the merger: show Huffington readers links to AOL’s other content sources. But loading TechCrunch via a drop-down link from the HuffPost Tech box is clunky, and the style disparities between sites could be jarring for people expecting to stay on huffingtonpost.com.
I’m sure, in time, AOL and the newly-formed Huffington Post Media Group therein will iron these things out. But for right now, this first phase of integration feels less like an upgrade of the “The Internet Newspaper” and more like its portalization. I don’t mean to be down on you, AOL-Huff (that is, I sure do want you to hire me for full-time winning analysis), and I want you to know that I’ve been pulling for you, AOL, ever since the mid-90s when all my techie friends were total ISP snobs. Where are their precious BBSes now, old friend? Exactly.