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.)

Advertisements

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 Citysearch.com.]

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

Backwards Christian Soldiers: Religious Progressives Take on the Christian Far Right

BY SUSAN CHENELLE

Less than a week after religious conservatives held “Justice Sunday,” a nationally televised rally featuring Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, more than 500 activists, academics, clergy, journalists and other concerned individuals gathered at CUNY Graduate Center for a conference co-sponsored by the New York Open Center called “Examining the Real Agenda of the Religious Far Right.”

On April 29 and 30, presenters offered insights into the rise of the Christian far right, explanations of its agenda and ideas on how to organize against it.

The current battle over federal court nominees, as Chip Berlet of Political Research Associates told The Indypendent, “will seem like mild-mannered, civil discourse” when a Supreme Court justice retires. The religious right, he said, “Started planning to take over the Republican Party 30 years ago. They’re ready. If they get to appoint Supreme Court justices, they can control the direction of a lot of policy for the next 20 years.”

Frederick Clarkson, an independent journalist, explained in his presentation that, during his 1991 undercover investigation of the Christian Coalition, he observed that the group had decided to become a “values-based electoral organization, working within the Republican Party, but not of the party.” They began “building for power,” working across election cycles, becoming organized about organizing and thinking long-term. “Nobody else does this,” he argued.

To combat these trends, Clarkson urged progressives to reclaim not only faith, but history and citizenship as well. Far right Christian leaders often claim that the United States was founded as a Christian nation and that liberals and their “activist” judges thwart the will of the founding fathers by allowing things like abortion and same-sex marriage. Not so, says Clarkson. When the framers of the Constitution gathered, they were faced with the challenge of creating a nation out of 13 Christian theocracies, each with its own denomination with other sects outlawed. To do so they made the radical decision to separate church and state. This outraged many religious leaders. “The Christian right didn’t like the Constitution when it was written,” said Clarkson, “and they don’t like it now.”

Though many conference speakers denounced the right’s claim to represent all people of faith, several identified the perceived disdain for religion on the part of much of the left as a significant obstacle in organizing against the right’s march toward dominion.

Berlet insisted on the importance of not labeling and lumping together all religious people. He chided the left for using meaningless, inflammatory terms like “religious political extremists,” noting that they alienated many religious people. However, he didn’t simply call upon the left to watch its language; in order to reach the religious people with relatively progressive social values, Berlet said, the secular left must think about what attracts people to religion and what they get from it. Progressives must also take the right’s demands and concerns seriously, he argued, and confront them head-on, directly challenging the morals of conservative policies on issues like health care and welfare, and their outcomes.

The term Dominionism itself, Berlet said, “gets away from the kind of labeling that tends to treat Christian Conservatives like they’re either stupid or crazy. Dominion is what they want. It’s what most political movements want. But in the sense of biblical passages, it’s related to the text in Genesis, which they understand to mean that they should get to run things.” Clarkson echoed the idea: “The most mobilized force in our democracy is dedicated to ending it. If we don’t know how to elect officials, we are ceding the turf to those who do. The scariest thing is not the agenda of the Christian right. The scariest thing is that we have to change.” The concluding panel discussion, titled “Where Do We Go From Here?” reflected this ambivalence. While some called for a mass occupation of Washington, D.C. if the Senate should do away with the filibuster, others stressed the need to find ways to dialogue with religious middle America. NYU professor and author of The Bush Dyslexicon Mark Crispin Miller called for a revival of the “sense of the common good” that has become so denigrated by the twin assault by the Christian and capitalist right. Miller acknowledged that it’s going to require a lot of hard work and a “recommitment to democracy,” but he insisted, “If you believe in it, you can win.”

strong>ONE REASON TO TAKE DOMINIONISM SERIOUSLY
BY SUSAN CHENELLE

The ill-named Constitution Restoration Act of 2005 is a prime example of the Dominionist intent to remake the Constitution in the bible’s image. The bill declares that, “The Supreme Court shall not have jurisdiction to review, by appeal, writ of certiorari, or otherwise, any matter to the extent that relief is sought against an entity of Federal, State, or local government, or against an officer or agent of Federal, State, or local government (whether or not acting in official or personal capacity), concerning that entity’s, officer’s, or agent’s acknowledgment of God as the sovereign source of law, liberty, or government.” In plain English, the bill would enshrine religious beliefs above the Constitution. Previously introduced in 2004, it was reintroduced in the House (H.R. 1070) and Senate (S.520) on March 3, and has been referred to the two legislative bodies’ respective judiciary committees.

If enacted, this provision would attempt to prevent judicial review by the Supreme Court of any decision by any government official or agent made based on his or her religious beliefs. It currently has five co-sponsors in the Senate and 30 in the House. Though its supporters claim that the bill is simply meant to apply to cases like the display of the Ten Commandments or a Nativity scene in a government building, it is so broadly worded that, as Katherine Yurica notes on Yuricareport.com, “if it becomes law, [it] may allow any judge to institute biblical punishments without being subject to review by the Supreme Court or the federal court system.”

Originally published in MAY 11-25, 2005 THE INDYPENDENT

Portland Gives Joint Terrorism Task Force the Boot

BY SUSAN CHENELLE

City Is The First In U.S. To Withdraw

On April 28 the Portland, Ore. City Council voted 4-1 to withdraw its police officers from the Joint Terrorism Task Force with the FBI, making Portland the first U.S. city to do so. The decision brought joy to most of those in the city council gallery, marking a victory in a long battle to protect the civil liberties of all Portland citizens.

The resolution calls for the two officers currently assigned to the JTTF to be withdrawn within 90 days and reassigned to the Portland Police Bureau’s Criminal Intelligence Unit. It also lays out protocols for responding to emergency situations. For five years, a coalition of groups, including the ACLU of Oregon and Copwatch of Portland, repeatedly raised concerns about the Portland Police Bureau’s participation in the JTTF. As Dan Handelman of Copwatch and Peace and Justice Works told The Indypendent, they began organizing among those likely to be targeted—labor, faith, civil rights, and peace and justice groups—and met with them to strategize on how to testify before the city council.

Oregon state law prohibits state and local police from collecting and maintaining files on the political, religious and social activities of individuals or organizations unless there is evidence of criminal activity. The city’s open government laws also require that overtime for the officers assigned to the JTTF couldn’t be approved without going through the city council. The coalition asked that the officers be pulled from the JTTF and the Memorandum of Understanding between the city and the FBI be publicly reviewed.

The turning point came with the election of Mayor Tom Potter, a former Portland police chief. After weeks of negotiations with the FBI, he decided to support the resolution, as the bureau refused to give him the same top-secret clearance the two officers serving on the task force had. With insufficient oversight, Potter understood it would be impossible to ensure that the Portland officers adhered to Oregon law.

“When we look at our history, we see examples that when we blindly give people power, that sometimes the power is misused,” Potter said during the hearing.

Portland citizens had good reason to be wary of the JTTF’s actions. Last year the FBI wrongly detained Brandon Mayfield, a Muslim resident of a Portland suburb, for 14 days in connection with the Madrid bombings, and later apologized.

Handelman himself has had his own run-ins with the JTTF. During 1998 criminal hearings for protesters arrested during a demonstration, a “Criminal Intelligence Report” identified him as the leader of the Peace and Justice Works Iraq Affinity Group, and as a “non-criminal” who had “been very active in calling for, arranging, and sponsoring these demonstrations concerning U.S. involvement with Iraq.” Because none of Handelman’s activities were criminal, the report was in violation of state law and a previous judgment against the city for spying on another Copwatch member.

The danger of these reports, according to Handelman, is that “who knows how far they are disseminated.” He urged activists, particularly those participating in Critical Mass demonstrations, to submit requests to find out if the FBI has files on them.

In December, the ACLU of Oregon submitted a Freedom of Information Act request on behalf of 17 organizations and individuals, including Handelman. As Andrea Meyer, Legislative Director of the ACLU of Oregon told The Indypendent, the FBI says it has files on nine of the 17. The ACLU is still waiting to receive the files.

WHAT IS A JTTF?

A Joint Terrorism Task Force is an on-going arrangement through which participating federal, state and local law enforcement agencies share information and resources related to terrorism. The number of JTTFs has nearly doubled since September 11, 2001, at least 66 JTTFs nationwide, consisting of more than 2,300 personnel. In 2002, the FBI established a National Joint Terrorism Task Force involving nearly 30 law enforcement agencies. JTTFs have been widely criticized for targeting environmental, animal-rights and anti-war activists around the country. One New York Times report revealed that a classified FBI memo advised local police agencies “to report any suspicious activity at protests.” The ACLU has filed FOIA requests in 10 states to try to find out if JTTFs are being used to spy on people.

DOES NEW YORK HAVE A JTTF?

Yes. The concept of sharing resources among law enforcement agencies was first implemented in New York City in 1979 with the first JTTF formed in 1980. More than 130 NYPD officers currently serve on New York’s JTTF. It came under serious scrutiny during the Sept. 11 hearings for failing to prevent the attacks on the World Trade Center despite numerous warnings. The Handschu Consent Decree had provided some protections for New Yorkers against the monitoring of legitimate political activity similar to those in Oregon, until it was rescinded in 2003. Many observers fear the JTTFs are updated versions of police “Red Squads” and the FBI’S Cointelpro, used to suppress domestic dissent in recent history. —S.C.

Originally published in MAY 11-25, 2005 THE INDYPENDENT