I am ashamed to say that, on a cruise down the Nile in Egypt a quarter of a century ago, I once walked alone through a village on the edge of the river, my route not usually one taken by tourists. Tiny mud huts lined a narrow walkway on both sides. My memory of that day is hazy, except for what I saw there, and how I reacted, and how I viewed my reaction years later.
A number of very very skinny women with slight, even sullen frowns on their faces, apparently not wanting to look me in the eye or greet me in any way, sat together on tiny steps along with their tiny children with staring eyes, filthy faces and bloated stomachs. And what I saw was “romantic,” a vision of primitive “village life” that I envied.
Since that time, I have often contemplated that experience, and especially my response to it. How I maintained my ignorance in the face of reality. Yes, I am ashamed, appalled at my attitude, my refusal to pick up on the near-desperate poverty and starvation.
A similar experience in India, at the gate of a Buddhist wat in Bodh Gaya, greeted me a few years ago, where tiny children and their mothers swarmed, hoping for hand-outs. We were staying inside the wat, and had to steel ourselves for the encounter each time we opened the gate to go in or out. I had brought ballpoint pens along from the U.S., thinking they would be good to give to children. On the final day, I took my pens and distributed them after going through the gate. Instantly a huge flood of townspeople, not just tiny children, materialized all around me with hands out, all wanting pens. I had brought not nearly enough.
There was no way I could maintain my former ignorance. It was gone.
Now we have, on television, a reality show that might just be real. Perhaps it will help us entitled westerners pay closer attention to the ways in which we encourage — with our consumer habits — abject slavery elsewhere. Just today, I was registering the warranty on a new toaster oven (of course the old one broke within the first year), and noticed that it was made in China. At least I winced, at the thought of just who made my toaster oven, of what endless repetitive motions went into thousands of these little machines that travel across the sea in enormous ships spewing smoke to make my life more “comfortable;” just how many skinny hands had handled its component parts, all of them desperate, clinging to whatever they can get after being driven by capitalist “market forces” out of their villages and into soulless factories on the outskirts of polluted cities.
Does this series mark the beginning of actual empathy? And if so, will this empathy shift not only our attitudes, but our way of life? Will we begin to insist on social equality, no matter what the cost to ourselves?
January 28, 2015
by Robert Barsocchini
This series, “Sweatshop: Dead Cheap Fashion”, consists of four episodes, ten to twelve minutes each, and is well worth watching. It chronicles the reactions of three young Norwegian fashion bloggers when they go to Cambodia to see who is making the clothing they love to buy and talk about.
They are initially shocked and uncomfortable with the poverty, but fall back to the position that it is normal for Cambodians, so it is therefore fine and the workers are happy (or so the kids assume). And at least, the Norwegians say, they have jobs.
But as the bloggers spend more time with the workers, talking to them and living just one short day in their shoes, things change fairly dramatically.
Along the way, the Norwegian kids get a firsthand look at the dynamic the USA worked to create in Indochina a few decades earlier: when starving workers try to organize protests for living wages, they are beaten by shock troops working de facto for international oligarchs.
The thinking behind such ideas as living-wages was the “virus”, the “rot”, that the USA went to great lengths to try to inoculate, dropping more bombs on Cambodia alone than the US side dropped in all of World War II combined.
The Yale University website documents that the bombing was begun by Johnson and escalated by Nixon, with Nixon’s lackey Henry Kissinger relaying, down the chain of command, Nixon’s call for genocide: “He wants a massive bombing campaign in Cambodia. He doesn’t want to hear anything. It’s an order, it’s to be done. Anything that flies, on anything that moves. You got that?” To this day, Kissinger, as is said of petty criminals who pale in comparison, is out there walking the streets.
The US thus planted and detonated “2,756,941 tons” of bombs in Cambodia, a terrorist operation perhaps unprecedented in history, as Yale notes:
To put 2,756,941 tons into perspective, the [US side] dropped just over 2 million tons of bombs during all of World War II. Cambodia may be the most heavily bombed country in history.
It was initially “estimated that between 50,000 and 150,000 Cambodian civilians were killed” by the US terror campaign. However, that was when the tonnage of bombs detonated was thought to be five times less than it was later discovered to be. It follows that the actual “number of casualties is surely higher”, perhaps, as logic might suggest, five or more times higher.
Mr. Kissinger’s most significant historical act was executing Richard Nixon’s orders to conduct the most massive bombing campaign, largely of civilian targets, in world history. He dropped 3.7 million tons of bombs between January 1969 and January 1973 – nearly twice the two million dropped on all of Europe and the Pacific in World War II. He secretly and illegally devastated villages throughout areas of Cambodia inhabited by a U.S. Embassy-estimated two million people…
His aerial slaughter helped kill, wound or make homeless an officially-estimated six million human beings…
The Yale website further documents that the US bombing led directly to the rise of the Khmer Rouge regime:
…the bombs drove ordinary Cambodians into the arms of the Khmer Rouge, a group that seemed initially to have slim prospects of revolutionary success. Pol Pot himself described the Khmer Rouge during that period as “fewer than five thousand
poorly armed guerrillas . . . scattered across the Cambodian landscape, uncertain
about their strategy, tactics, loyalty, and leaders.”
And a former Khmer Rouge officer reported (depicting a scenario being created constantly by Obama’s executions of suspects by cruel and unusual means):
The ordinary people sometimes literally shit in their pants when the big bombs and shells came. Their minds just froze up and they would wander around mute for three or four days. Terrified and half crazy, the people were ready to believe what they were told. It was because of their dissatisfaction with the bombing that they kept on co-operating with the Khmer Rouge, joining up with the Khmer Rouge, sending their children off to go with them…. Sometimes the bombs fell and hit little children, and their fathers would be all for the Khmer Rouge.
Once the Khmer Rouge seized power, Vietnam intervened to try to stop them, but the US teamed up with the Khmer Rouge. Henry Kissinger called the Khmer Rouge “murderous thugs”, and said the US “will be friends with them.”
The general problem in Indochina (specifically Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos) was that indigenous movements with overwhelming popular support (Ch. 18) would not “cede control to the local oligarchy”.
The “rot” of such thinking had to be, and was, inoculated, with results the Norwegian kids encountered, to their shock.
If only on a visceral and not an historical level (one of the bloggers deftly notes that “we are rich because they are poor”), the kids learn that the comfortable beds on which they sleep in the West, surrounded by luxuries, lie on the rotting corpses and hunched, aching backs of unknown millions of people with “as much value” as them.
Contractors for Fruit of the Loom, Hanes and Levi’s worked in close concert with the US Embassy when they aggressively moved to block a minimum wage increase for Haitian assembly zone workers, the lowest-paid in the hemisphere, according to secret State Department cables.
The US and West developed by radically violating the arrangements they force on others. These arrangements de-develop, drain, and hold down the victim countries as the dominant countries profit off them. For example, India, before the British de-developed and set it up as a cheap labor/resource camp, was more developed and prosperous than Britain (271). The victim countries finally begin to re-develop once they are able to throw off the yoke.
As The Guardian reports:
…the US lost most of its influence in Latin America over the past 15 years, and the region has done quite well, with a sharp reduction in poverty for the first time in decades. The Washington-based International Monetary Fund has also lost most of its influence over the middle-income countries of the world, and these have also done remarkably better in the 2000s.
Robert Barsocchini is an internationally published researcher and writer who focuses on global force dynamics and writes professionally for the film industry. He is a regular contributor to Washington’s Blog. Follow Robert and his UK-based colleague, Dean Robinson, on Twitter.