After a long time of wondering who exactly my audience might be, I decided to take the advice I used to give my writing students: start by writing what you need to tell yourself. This blog is about what I don’t know and want to know. I see suffering in so many forms as I go through the day and I want to understand the systems which create it.
This is just me talking to myself, at long last, about some things I need to connect. You’re welcome to eavesdrop, whoever you are. But I can’t promise it will make sense to anyone but me (if that). I’m putting aside my need to make sense or please anyone for the sake of just getting some things written.
Where to begin? Might as well start with the tomatoes.
I can’t eat tomatoes anymore without thinking about the workers of Immokalee, Florida and elsewhere, who live practically like slaves and do the work of picking and processing them. If you ate more than ten tomatoes in the last year, at least one was picked by the hand of a slave. I know, there are semantics about what actual “slavery” is and whether migrant workers in this country are ever technically owned.
I guess we need a word for people whose freedom is constricted by having their passports taken and held, by having no legal protection because the only way to come here to work is as an undocumented worker, by being women who can’t report a rape or ask for protection from it, who have to take whatever pay they can get because they have no way of organizing to demand more—a half century after Cesar Chavez fought for those rights.
Do I avoid tomatoes? No. Nor lettuce or other foods, even though I know that there’s probably a touch of evil in the process that got them to my plate. Well, actually, I do avoid lettuce. It’s a pointless vegetable. A whole lot of chewing for nothing. Some foods come from thousands of miles away and I think about their carbon footprint. But what are we going to do? Stop eating foods that are out of season where we live? Trying to eat cruelty-free is just too hard for most of us, and that’s part of the cruelty.
You see, it’s a vast web of injustice and cruelty and each of us is both a victim and perpetrator in it. We eat the tomatoes. And in turn, we get forced to eat tasteless tomatoes which aren’t actually ripened, but picked green and then turned red on the truck during transport by being exposed to benzene gas. Grow a tomato yourself if you never have and taste it. It’s like hearing a symphony after years of silence. But most of us will never eat a real tomato. Not in school lunch, not in fast food. This is what we get in return for allowing slave labor in our country.
Did we really expect better in return for allowing slave labor in our country? No, we expected cheaper. And cheaper comes at a price. We’re all part of the problem, so no sense giving yourself a headache over it. I want to work the problem. I think there’s joy and purpose to be found in working these problems. In fact, I think the key to bettering the economy lies there, since a lot of us could use more joy and purpose in our lives.
If I did give myself a headache, though, in this country I’d find it easy to get prescribed an opioid, like Vicodin or Oxycontin, to ease the pain. Overdoses of opioids now kill more people than guns or traffic accidents. And we have three 9/11s a year in gun deaths in the US. I learned from HBO’s new documentary that it started when the pharmaceutical industry, led by Purdue Pharma, put out the lie that opioids were not addictive and were safe for long-term use. No one in the government stopped them; I wonder why.
That was in the mid-90s. In 2007 they finally pled guilty to lying and paid a fine. But the fine was a tiny fraction of the profits they and other firms had made and continue to make. The old myth was that marijuana was the gateway drug to heroin, which it is not. Now it’s clear the bigger gateway is your doctor. How do you fight a lie that big and bold? That’s another question I’m puzzling over.
And how much did Purdue and their friends end up helping the drug cartels causing so much harm in Mexico and Guatemala? Not to mention the Taliban and others who sell opium to the very people they are fighting. I know it’s a complex web, but from the point of view of an addict’s wallet it’s simple: they first paid money to a pharmaceutical firm based in the US (sort of). Then they paid money to a heroin dealer who sent it into a network that ultimately pays people like the Sinaloa cartel, the Taliban, and the Russian mafia.
I just read about a new heroin problem: young women in Afghanistan. Their reasons for desperation, for wanting to self-medicate and escape, are not much different from those of heroin users in Illinois. As hard as it is to get treatment in the US, try getting it in Kabul. As badly as the US government persecutes black people using its War on Drugs as a cover, imagine how the Taliban treats a woman on heroin.
Such a vast web: the easy availability of guns even to crazy people, the use of student loans to exploit young people and cripple them, the endless use of war to control oil, the lie that climate change isn’t real. And the tomatoes and the opioids. The common thread is that somebody is getting paid very well to let and even make these things happen. They aren’t inevitable or natural. Poverty and humiliation are artificial creations.
It’s easy and dangerous to just say that the someone is the rich, the elites, the 1%, the system. Blaming them means failing to identify the other links in the chain. The rich who get rich by exploitation only do so because we cooperate and help. We elect people who help in our exploitation. We buy the products, buy the campaign lies, and buy the collateral damage that factories and bottling plants and misprescribed drugs leave behind.
That’s what the Communists and Fascists get wrong. Overthrowing the elites, especially with violence, won’t change the system that created them. It’ll just put new people into the old roles. Mubarak gets forced out, Morsi is elected. Then Morsi starts acting all Mubaraky. So el-Sisi gets on TV and lies straight-faced that he is restoring democracy with his coup.
The Arab Spring wasn’t wrong to think that the people can nonviolently install a democratic government that respects everyone. They were absolutely right. They just need to follow through. You need to plan ahead for the installation of the inclusive, democratic institutions that keep a free society going.
By 1776, for example, the American colonies already had postal services, local law enforcement, land regulation, and courts that were prepared to work with the new constitutional government. India was similar and the long, nonviolent revolution from 1915 to 1947 gave the Indians time to develop institutions that would be democratic from day one. They didn’t just replace British elites with Indian ones who would continue the exploitation. (I know, I’m speaking in generalities. Of course there was and is exploitation, but it wasn’t hard-coded into the system the way it was in British colonies like Sierra Leone or Iraq or Pakistan.)
So that’s some of what I want to explore here. I’ve been reading the marvelous Why Nations Fail, by James Robinson and Daron Acemoglu, about how nations which fail generally do so because they develop extractive economic or political institutions (or both) which serve the needs of a small elite, but in turn make that elite suppress the things which make nations prosper, like innovation, creative destruction, and investment in education, health, and infrastructure. It’s like taking the Matrix red pill for me. I see extractive institutions and systems everywhere and I’m starting to get how people create suffering not because they decide to be evil, but because they enjoy the benefits and fear what will happen to them if they let change happen.