Students Against Sweatshops By Liza Featherstone and United Students Against Sweatshops

Review by Susan Chenelle

In this worthy primer on one of the major players in the anti-sweatshop movement, journalist Liza Featherstone does a very good job of distilling the history of United Students Against Sweatshops and the conflicts and tensions that have challenged it along the way, both from within and without. Perhaps best of all, she supplements her very readable narrative with poignant accounts contributed by both student and worker activists, documenting particular campaigns and tactics, some even written from within occupied campus buildings, corporate megastores and Mexican maquiladoras.

While recognizing the significant impact USAS has had on corporations and colleges across the country and around the world, Featherstone, a frequent contributor to The Nation, Newsday and the Washington Post, also forthrightly addresses the serious obstacles that have threatened the movement’s development. USAS and other groups have come under fire for fighting on behalf of workers in sweatshops thousands of miles away while neglecting those at home. Many critics have also pointed out that the social justice movement is largely comprised of white, highly privileged college students, who tend to marginalize issues concerning race, class and gender and fail to realize that all forms of repression and exploitation are integrally connected. Featherstone correctly acknowledges that USAS and its counterparts have taken strides to remedy these weaknesses, particularly by adding living wage campaigns to their focus, but she often seems willing to interpret any initiative, however isolated, as a sign that such barriers are being overcome. While such hopefulness is welcome, and necessary, it could be construed not only as overly optimistic, but also as an example of the dismissiveness toward race, class and gender issues that the movement itself is often accused of. In any case, it reveals how fragile the ties of solidarity that are critical to future of the global justice movement still are.

Overall, the tone throughout this slim volume is very measured and journalistic, neither too dire or desperate nor too hopeful or ambitious. While the absence of impassioned rhetoric is generally quite refreshing, it is also frustrating, as larger considerations, such as what’s at stake and the state of the global justice movement at large, are left untouched. The realities of the post-September 11 world are not even mentioned until the conclusion, and then only given cursory speculation. This omission seems rather odd, since the implications of activism and dissent after September 11 will deeply impact the future of USAS and similar organizations. But a thorough discussion of this new, rapidly changing, reality, while crucial, is understandably beyond the scope of this book. “Students Against Sweatshops,” though an important testament to the accomplishments of an extraordinary organization, is only the first chapter. More significantly, it’s a reminder that “keeping our eyes on the prize” means not only watching where we’re going, but also remembering where we’ve been.

(Originally published in the November/December 2002 issue of Clamor Magazine.)

On Globalization by George Soros

Review by Susan Chenelle

In his new book, mega-philanthropist George Soros says he was spurred to set down his thoughts on globalization by what he calls the “unwitting alliance” between antiglobalization activists on the Left and market fundamentalists on the far Right. The fact that he opens with this reductive and ill-informed premise is almost enough cause to dismiss the book altogether. However, if one presses on, there are some ideas and insights worth the effort.

First, Soros argues that international institutions like the IMF and the WTO can be fixed, and should be supplemented with other far-reaching arrangements that would facilitate the more equitable distribution of wealth around the world. He contends that globalization has exacerbated the inequities between the world’s rich and poor because “[t]he development of our international institutions has not kept pace with the development of international financial markets and our political arrangements have lagged behind the globalization of the economy.” Furthermore, Soros insists that when projects funded by international aid and philanthropic initiatives like those of his Open Society foundations fail, it is largely due to weak and corrupt governments or poorly conceived or executed projects, i.e., nothing worth questioning the legitimacy of global capitalism itself about.

To sidestep these pitfalls, he proposes a system of international aid where all countries would be allocated “special drawing rights” or SDRs. Rich countries could donate their SDRs to poor countries, which could then apply those funds to pre-approved projects and organizations that have met certain quality control standards. Poor countries could use their own SDRs to stabilize their money supply. Amid all of Soros’s economic jargon, complete with charts and graphs, the most difficult concept for the non-economist to grasp is that SDRs are essentially money created out of thin air. The powers that be collectively decide that there is money, and there is money. The fact that this is so and yet poverty exists on the scale that it does today is baffling.

For those of us on the global justice left, the real reason to consider Soros’s concise treatise is that it offers insight into what happens inside those international forums, when they manage to occur, while we’re protesting outside. According to Soros, when he suggests his modest proposals to his fellow elite, he is scoffed at. The idea that we should let anything but the market govern the distribution of wealth is still anathema among many, an arrogant and selfish narrow-mindedness that Soros condems.

In the end, however, he still argues that, thanks in part to the questions raised by those concerned with global justice, changes have been made to international institutions like the IMF and WTO that will make them kinder and gentler; we just have to be patient and allow them to work. Likewise, Soros admits that the projects he and his society of benevolent billionaires fund will sometimes go awry from time to time, as they did so catastrophically in Russia. That’s to be expected of any experimental attempt addressing so many complicated factors, he says. The bottom line, however, is that in the meantime, people die. Millions of men, women, and children go without adequate food, clean water, quality education, accessible medical care, and a safe place to live every day. This is unacceptable, and while it’s nice to see that someone with great wealth and good intentions has dedicated himself to doing something about it, it’s our job to keep telling him and his fellow elite that their efforts thus far are not remotely good enough.

(Originally published in the November/December 2002 issue of Clamor Magazine.)

Jerusalem Calliing: A Homeless Conscience in a Post-Everything World

by Joel Schalit (Akashic Books; $14.95)

“American by birth, Israeli by association, and homeless by conscience,” 34-year-old Joel Schalit is a poster child for the post-modern world. However, the purpose of his new collection of essays, Jerusalem Calling: A Homeless Conscience in a Post-Everything World (Akashic Books), is not to flaunt the Punk Planet and Bad Subjects editor’s leftist punk street cred, nor to wallow in the angst of his experience. Instead, Jerusalem Calling delivers thoughtful, passionate analyses of subjects including the religious fundamentalism of American cultural politics, the failures of the left, the inner conflicts of punk, and the past, present, and future of the Arab-Israeli conflict.

As a “homeless conscience,” Schalit presents his views as those of an outsider. However, what makes this book so compelling is that he grounds his arguments in his own engagements with history and the development of his personal beliefs. This approach not only lends contextual support and accessibility to his ideas, but also underscores the timely conviction implicit throughout the book that, whatever countries or cultures we belong to, as citizens of this planet, we are all connected by our humanity and implicated in what happens throughout the world. He argues that, “[w]hen there are no finer distinctions than ‘us’ versus ‘them,’ it becomes almost impossible to inspire meaningful action in a real world where each of us is both ‘us’ and ‘them.'” Schalit’s meditations on a recent journey to Israel are more refreshingly insightful than most any other current writing on the Middle East.

The only dissatisfying part of Jerusalem Calling is Schalit’s essay on music. As he meanders through the rise and fall of the early ’90s Seattle rock scene, and the crimes and punishments of working in the music industry, he eloquently articulates the dissonance between the DIY anarchy of punk in the ’90s and the narcissism and conservative, capitalistically-oriented politics it often became mired in. However, Schalit also condemns the fact that our political culture is so bankrupt that we seek “new heroes to magically transform our frustrated political ambitions into useless cultural capital.” Given that statement, the discussion of the crisis of faith that almost caused Schalit to stop making music doesn’t quite work.

After seven years of culling Christian radio shows for song material, he began to fear he was becoming numb to the exploitation that he and his fellow Christal Methodists were trying to draw attention to. The inspiration that resolves his dilemma is to record a song using a speech by former Harlem congressman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. He concludes that he has “finally found a way to have my punk and play it, too.” Has he really? Sure, he’s found a more creatively and politically satisfying way to express himself, but for the rest of us, isn’t it just more “useless cultural capital” to consume? Or, are we simply supposed to be inspired to find our own ways of merging our political convictions with our creative impulses? Is that enough?

Perhaps we shouldn’t look to Schalit the musician to lead us to political nirvana. However, Schalit the essayist provokes so many important questions, and brings so much insight to the table, it’s hard not to ask for more.

(Originally published in the May/June 2002 issue of Clamor Magazine.)

The Entertainment Economy: How Mega-Media Forces Are Transforming Our Lives

by Michael J. Wolf
Times Books
$25.00; 314 pages

Eras are defined by the materials that revolutionized the way people built and rebuilt the world around themóthe Iron Age, the Bronze Age. While our current state of civilization is often dubbed the information age, as Michael J. Wolf demonstrates in “The Entertainment Economy,” the driving force of our increasingly global society is entertainmentóthe E-Factor. A management consultant at Booz-Allen & Hamilton, Wolf delivers a well-packaged, easy-to-read insider’s view of the deals, the moguls, and the motives behind corporate synergy. However, like the Hollywood blockbusters and media phenomena Wolf and his clients manufacture, “The Entertainment Economy” offers a palatable product that engages the reader, but deftly avoids provoking or answering any difficult questions.

Wolf asserts that what today’s modern individual wants most is more leisure time and new and better ways to spend it. As evidence, he outlines the rise of the mega-mall, no longer just a convenient repository for all shopping needs, but a multimedia entertainment experience. However, in answer to the naysayers of suburban sprawl and consumer culture, Wolf elides any serious analysis of its detriments by offering this piece of fuzzy logic: “Maybe the next step is to put housing next to the stores and megaplexes and call it a small town. People living, working, shopping, and consuming entertainment in one place. What a concept!” However, hidden in this vision is the assumption that everyone’s kind of entertainment is compatible with everyone else’s. Anyone who has witnessed the Disneyfication of Times Square and Giuliani’s “quality of life” campaign, and has felt left out of the party, knows that isn’t true.

There are two sides to the E-Factor revolution. On the one hand, entertainment corporations are merging left and right, coordinating one-night-stand and long-term synergistic relationships, and leveraging distribution through as many media outlets as possible. On the other, the power of the E-Factor is blurring the line between entertainment and non-entertainment industries. From computer chip manufacturers to online trading services to pharmaceutical companies, non-entertainment businesses are cutting more and more into show business’ action. Today’s CEOs are realizing that making a product stand out in a crowd is all about putting on a show, creating a buzz, and reinventing the company brand to stay abreast of the leading edge of taste.

This has created a glut in the entertainment market, which means that the bar is being constantly raised. As consumers have more choices, companies have to do more on ever bigger and grander scales in order to attract the eyes and dollars of prospective customers. To Wolf, the relationship between entertainment and advertising is a chicken-and-egg question. This easy conflation of the two underlines his perception of creative integrity. While he equates creative talent with gold, and professes that hype can’t take the place of a quality product, he disingenuously ignores the fact that hype does cover a lot of flaws for awhile, and long enough for it to get noticed. He acknowledges advertising campaigns that have been inappropriate, but only because they didn’t work in the marketplace. When he speaks of creative integrity, he refers not to the constant battle to keep marketing strategies from corrupting content, but to the importance of enforceable copyright laws.

What is of value to the reader, and to Wolf’s clients most certainly, is his comprehensive understanding of how the entertainment economy works: the commercials that rock the cultural landscape, the brands that become phenomena by capitalizing on the charisma of a personality or the desires of a certain demographic, and the moguls that make it all happen. And Wolf delivers this analysis in bite-sized, easy-to-read chunks. As MTV president Judy McGrath praises on the back cover, “[H]e takes you on a pop-culture tour, uncovering the lessons of Michael Jordan, Madonna, Viagra, e-commerce, sports utility vehicles, and finally the mystery of how you get to create the next cultural phenomenon. I laughed, I cried, I took notes.” While McGrath and other executives might be taking notes, others might feel compelled to hide under the bed. —Susan Chenelle

[Originally published on]

Return of the Newsreel: News From Iraq Not Seen on TV