Commentary, Politics, Uncategorized

How do we prioritize good deeds?

and not just good deeds, but ethics?

It seems like everyone has a cause, and I’ve been thinking about this a lot: not all causes are created equal.

Some people put a lot of money, blood, sweat, and tears, into a cause that amounts to a lot of nothing. And it isn’t just the thought that counts. Having good intentions is a good place to start, but it’s not enough. People want to feel good about themselves for doing good, and don’t necessarily wonder how running a half marathon actually affects Cancer. The idea that they’re doing a good thing and that other people see them doing a good thing, and their genuine desire to help is enough.

I’m skeptical of everything, I guess its just how I was raised. My parents gave to charity, but there was sometimes a discussion about where the money really went, and an acknowledgement that some charities are better than others. It’s very important to me that if I do give to charity or champion a cause that I can be sure it’s really doing something and that it isn’t just an empty gesture to make me feel good about myself. At least if you give money to a homeless person, you can be sure that he is getting the money, and not some CEO.

I tend to err on the side of not giving, which I guess is pretty shitty. I can’t stand the way that breast cancer has been commercialized into a trend, and I’m still not sure if the way that we aid foreign countries is really helping them.

I’ve written a little bit about this before, but I have been thinking about slavery and human trafficking recently. Last month, on Facebook, I was invited to the page “END IT: Shine a Light on Slavery,” an event taking place on February 27. As far as I could tell, participation consisted of drawing red X’s on your hands. On the website it states, “This February 27th, join us and other Freedom Fighters from around the world as we SHINE A LIGHT ON SLAVERY. Draw a RED X on your hand. Tell your world that slavery still exists and YOU WON’T STAND FOR IT. Just use your influence any way you can to help us carry the message of FREEDOM so even more people know. Let’s make this SHINE A LIGHT ON SLAVERY DAY even brighter than ever.” Unfortunately, that’s the end of it. They don’t actually tell you what steps you can take to end slavery. They just tell you how to spread the word that we should be ending slavery, to get more people to seemingly spread the word. It’s a good message, and a good way to spread it, but without any plan on how to actually do anything about it, once people are aware of it.

You see, most people don’t outwardly support slavery. Slavery is bad, and we supposedly have known this for like 150 years. Most of us thought that it was done with. Well, it’s not. Although the End It campaign fell short, it did get me thinking about slavery, which was a good thing. I thought about what I personally can do to stop it, that is buying products made by slaves. It seemed like a long shot, but the more I thought about it, the more I realized that it was something that I had to do. It’s something that anyone can do, really. It isn’t going to be easy to end slavery, when it’s something that already isn’t accepted. It isn’t out in the open. But we can stop supporting it. We can stop buying cheap products made through exploitation. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s something that a lot of people will need to do for it to make a difference. I never thought about the fact that most of the clothing that I purchase is made in sweatshops. Nice, fashionable clothing, is manufactured in dangerous conditions, by underpaid workers, at best. Sometimes the workers are trafficked in. Sometimes they are abused. Sometimes they are children. I feel disgusted with myself for ever contributing to another person’s misery in such a way.

I’ve been looking online to try and find good places to buy ethically made clothing. What I’ve found really interesting is that a lot of these websites bulk ethics together. Some of what they sell is fairtrade, sweatshop free, etc. Some of it is eco-friendly. Some of it is vegan. But a lot of it is not all of the above. Here is something about the hierarchy of ethics that baffles me–you can buy an animal-friendly Vegan handbag that is made in a sweatshop in China. Someone is actually feeling good about themselves for not killing a cow, essentially at the cost of another human being’s human rights. Where does that fall on the scale of ethical?

Here’s the thing: when it comes to picking causes, I’m always going to choose humans. Animals are helpless, and they do need champions, but so do people being forced to work 15 hours a day. It would be great if we could eliminate all cruelty, certainly. I guess what I’m saying though is that if it came to choosing one or the other, I’m picking humans.

It’s been a few weeks since I decided to be a more conscientious shopper, and I haven’t bought a single item of clothing. I’ve made a wish list on pinterest, and when I really need a new items of clothes, I’ve found some great ethical manufacturers. At this point I have enough to keep me clothed.  I feel good about buying clothing with real value, stuff that’s well made, by people who aren’t being exploited. I won’t be able to buy as much clothing as I have in the past, but I think that the stuff I do buy will be better made and last longer. That’s the practical side of it. I also don’t have to feel bad about myself.


90 Days a Slave

As a part of his Oscar acceptance speech, Steve McQueen, the Director of 12 Years a Slave, dedicated the award to “all the people who have endured slavery. And the 21 million people who still suffer slavery today.”

I grew up learning about slavery, in relation to the way that Americans enslaved Africans, Abraham Lincoln, and the Civil War. When I was in Third Grade, going to a primarily black Elementary School, we went on a field trip to Baltimore, and made a stop at the Great Blacks in Wax Museum. This is wildly inappropriate for a bunch of 8-year-olds, and I imagine would still be unsettling to visit today. They showed us wax replicas of torture chambers employed on slave ships, in which they would trap rowdy slaves, to “set an example,” replete with wax blood.

In my head, I treat slavery like the Holocaust… it’s something that I know happened, but that I don’t want to think about very much or very often, because it’s really really grim and really depressing. I think of those things as something in the past, and it’s easy to forget that slavery still exists.

What can we do about it? How can we changes things, besides not owning slaves ourselves?

I find it interesting sometimes to think about the delicate balance of good and evil inside every person. When evil things are socially acceptable, who among us is strong enough to know the difference? Who among us is an opportunist who will take advantage whenever possible? Many of us tread a fine line, not to mention that as a society we en masse take advantage of countries that source us with products made by slaves.

There’s a movie, The Experiment, starring Adrien Brody, which is a remake of the German film, Das Experiment, which is based on the Stanford Prison Experiment of 1971. The idea is that any average person, if presented with the right conditions, can be unthinkably evil. There’s also an interesting National Geographic documentary, Science of Evil, that explores the same concept. It’s pretty terrible to think of, mainly because it challenges our perceptions of ourselves as good people. I like to think that people are intelligent beings, capable of rising above our surroundings.

Nevertheless, if slavery exists in the Western world, where it certainly is no longer socially acceptable, then evil is living among us. It’s a troubling thought–there are people in our communities who have slaves. The idea of it seems so wrong, outdated, and ridiculous. A lot of the stories fit a particular mould: someone immigrates from another country with the prospect of a job and a new life, and end up trapped in servitude. What kind of person can do that to another person? I’ll tell you.

I was working for a European company in America for two years.  Two of the senior employees came from the European office, and were married with two children. Living in the expensive DC suburbs, they managed to find a nanny who would work for them for free, in exchange for a free room. She worked a government job as well, and minded the children in her free time. That doesn’t seem so bad, right? However, when they moved back to Europe, they were used to having free help. Why pay for something when you can get it for free, right? The US office had closed down, and they found a girl, a friend of mine, who had a college degree and a lot of experience nannying. The deal was that she would move over for 3 months (that’s how long a tourist visa is), she would live with them, they would help her find a job, and she would watch the kids for a few hours, twice a week. These people were her friends. She was excited about the opportunity of spending more time in Europe. If things went well, she would go home and then come back for another three months on a new visa.

In principle, it didn’t seem like such a bad idea. In reality, they never helped her find another job, and in fact reminded her that she couldn’t really get one with only a tourist visa. The few hours twice a week turned into mom and dad going away for a week at a time, leaving her with the kids, and only €50 for expenses. Even when they were both home, they were happy to sleep in while their “nanny” drove the kids to school. Their “what’s mine is yours” attitude changed very quickly when she drank a €10 bottle of wine that turned out to be the last one in the house. They provided her with a room, and not much else. Even food was limited to what they provided for the kids, i.e., chicken fingers and spaghetti. When they went out for drinks with her, they split the tab. Still, they were shocked when she didn’t want to return after her visa was up. In fact, they had the gall to say that they felt as if she was taking advantage of them.

There are no shackles, no whips, and no dark damp basements, but it sounds an awful lot like slavery. So who are the modern slave owners? People who feel entitled to have help because of their status in life. People who could afford to pay for help, if it didn’t cut into their budget for botox and holidays. People who will do whatever they can get away with. People who will take advantage of the naive and trusting. Well-respected members of society.

Although it helps if you treat your slave well, having someone do work for you for which they are not paid still amounts to slavery. It’s sickening to see what people will do to preserve their lifestyle–and to see how they can rationalize it. We do something similar every day when we buy items made by underpaid or unpaid workers in foreign countries. Why Italian luxury brands like Prada and Dolce & Gabbana can’t pay the people who make their clothes a decent wage is beyond me, they certainly have the profit margin. It’s a disgusting reality, that we are complicit in creating. Is it really necessary to exploit others to improve our quality of life? It’s so easy to turn a blind eye, especially when we really want a new dress. I found a great website ( with information about lots of brands and their policies towards employees and also the environment if you’re into that sort of thing. More transparency about where our clothes and other goods are coming from would be great. Boycotting companies that refuse to outline their employee’s work conditions will help too. I think we can do more than just not own slaves. We can make a point of not benefiting from slavery.