Monday, February 20, 2012

Conscientious Consumption: Owning the Evil Toy

I have many weird, uncomfortable feelings about this iPad I got for Christmas. For starters, it's truly the fanciest thing I've ever possessed. I've never owned a new computer, a new TV, a smart phone or a digital camera, and this elegant device can stand in for all those things. It's just so pretty and current. Almost all my other stuff is second hand. I've never had the hot new toy before and honestly, I was a little scared to handle it.

Now I'm addicted to the thing, which makes it easy to forget my other major misgiving. This beautiful machine was produced in one of the world's most infamous sweatshops. I've tried in the past couple years to avoid purchasing sweatshop-produced apparel and other stuff, and even blogged about my efforts in previous Conscientious Consumption posts. I started hearing about Foxconn (where Apple iPhones and iPads are made) a year or so ago, after a slew of employees committed suicide. In January, the New York Times published a series of articles about Apple's foreign production, including this fascinating Foxconn exposé. It's old news now, but if you haven't read it, I highly recommend it.

I often feel ashamed of my iPad, but I feel more ashamed of the fact that it took me two weeks to read that article. I was brought up Catholic, so I realize that this may just be my own special neurosis. But in my experience, a lot of people get testy when confronted with the subject of sweatshop labor. I suspect that consumer guilt is the major reason. No one wants to feel like an asshole for owning something, so it's less bothersome to just not think about it. 

That was me a few weeks ago. Then I made myself read the article and I learned a few things that have given me a new perspective on my role as an Apple consumer: 

While it's really easy to blame Foxconn for unfair labor practices, those practices have everything to do with what Apple demands from its vendors.

- While all computers are produced in foreign countries (mainly in China), the Apple/Foxconn dynamic is not universal. 
"Many major technology companies have worked with factories where conditions are troubling. However, independent monitors and suppliers say some act differently. Executives at multiple suppliers, in interviews, said that Hewlett-Packard and others allowed them slightly more profits and other allowances if they were used to improve worker conditions."
Though I figured most consumers were unaware of Foxconn and their relationship with Apple, I found the actual percentages rather shocking. 
"Apple is one of the most admired brands. In a national survey conducted by The New York Times in November, 56 percent of respondents said they couldn’t think of anything negative about Apple. Fourteen percent said the worst thing about the company was that its products were too expensive. Just 2 percent mentioned overseas labor practices."
All of this got me pondering...

- If so much of our stuff is inevitably going to be produced in foreign countries by low wage earners, I guess I'd still rather support the lesser of those evils. Is there a way for regular ass consumers like me to know which companies are tied to less exploitative labor practices?

- Shaming consumers for purchasing sweatshop-produced goods makes about as much sense as blaming car owners for air pollution. Yes, all of our individual choices add up to one giant problem. But in both circumstances, corporations are at least as culpable and it's imperative that we don't lose sight of that.

- How do individuals influence corporations and government to promote reform? I don't fucking know. But I have to believe that if even ten percent of consumers were to associate the Apple brand with unfair labor practices, that particular corporation would be far more likely to address labor issues in a meaningful way. Since that article's publication, Apple has hired monitors to inspect Foxconn's facility in China, where employee wages have increased up to 25%. Again, it's important to remember that Foxconn responds to Apple's demands. Getting the middle man to initiate reform strikes me as an insufficient short-term solution, but I suppose it's a start.

More than ever, I believe that knowing the ugly truth is better than not knowing. So please read the NYT article. Here's that link again. If you read it on your iWhatever, it might make you feel weird and that's okay. It's also fine if you don't have any moral qualms. I'm not going to tell you to feel bad. But I'm not going to say that you shouldn't, either. I still feel icky abut this thing.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

Never to Walk in Anyone's Shadow

Yesterday morning, my brother M posted this item on his website, -

Rumors began circulating Friday that legendary pop diva Whitney Houston has been offered a seat on the judging/mentoring panel for the second season of Fox's The X Factor.

My comment on the Facebook link was, "Oh, I would DEFINITELY watch if this were to happen." I'd have programmed my DVR then and there if I could have. But just thirteen hours later, I learned that Houston had died. I was always game for a Whitney comeback but she ran out of chances. And that really sucks.

When I think of what would have made her so perfect for that X Factor gig, of course her legendary voice comes to mind. Who would be better qualified to judge singing talent? But, honestly, the second thing that comes to mind is that infamous clip from The Soup.

It is widely regarded as one of the greatest (i.e. funniest) Soup clips of all time. I'm not going to post it here because this isn't a time to be funny, so I'll summarize instead. It was a scene from the short lived reality TV program "Being Bobby Brown". Whitney and then-husband BB were arguing about the Iraq War and George W. Bush. Bobby was anti-Bush but Whitney was inclined to defend the president, rather vehemently. "George is trying to protect us!" As the argument built and Bobby continued to mock GWB and the war, Whitney reached her limit and screamed, "Kiss my ASS!" That brief image of Whitney shredding those three words is now a classic, probably because The Soup has replayed it numerous times over the past several years (I'd be very surprised if they didn't retire it now).

Sure, when I watched that clip, I was laughing at Whitney. But I was loving her, too. No pop culture figure better encapsulated the term "diva", and that shrill retort absolutely fit the bill. Certainly, her marriage to Brown and the addictions they shared were tragic.* It sounds like he treated her horribly. But I've been reading a lot of obituaries and I'm already tired of the narrative trajectory. "Pop megastar, America's first black sweetheart, gains fame in the 80's and peaks in the early 90's. Marries a less talented and thoroughly insecure, 'bad boy' pop star who leads her astray. Years of drug and alcohol addiction follow, then divorce. Tries to make a comeback but she's clearly lost her chops. Dies in a hotel room and we all kinda know how." The basic message is that if she had just stuck to the old formula - being the polished princess that we knew twenty some years ago - maybe she would not only be alive, but also well.

The problem with that narrative is that I suspect it negates who Whitney Houston was in her heart. Maybe in her relationship with Bobby Brown she was able to reveal a harder edge that wasn't so pop-friendly. But that edge is now an integral part of her iconic image. Honestly, I couldn't have cared less if Simon Cowell wanted 1992 Whitney to judge his competition show. Undeniable talent aside, she was kinda boring then. I was thrilled about yesterday's Whitney, the one who lost her temper with her ridiculous man-child husband on national TV, the one who was rumored to have buddied up with Courtney Love after the divorce, the one who famously stated, "Crack is whack." Again, I don't mean to deny the sadness of her demise or the circumstances that led to it. I find it incredibly depressing. All I know is that yesterday morning, I was genuinely excited that 2012 Whitney might be returning to the pop culture forefront - not to reclaim the woman she was last century, but to be the whole complicated package of a person we'd come to know and still loved.

* I admit, I'm a Bobby Brown fan. Don't Be Cruel is a great album and "My Prerogative" is my all-time favorite karaoke song. I always attempt to sing it exactly as he did, with that odd blend of swagger and self pity. I also loved his stint on Celebrity Fit Club and credit him for still trying in the end, even after falling off the fitness wagon so many times. I think of him every time I gorge myself on potato chips... Oh, and of course I agreed with his side of the Iraq war argument.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Empty Calorie Entertainment: "I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant"

Being at home with an infant, I watch a lot of TV. In this blog series, I examine some of my favorite televisual guilty pleasures and answer the question, "So, why do I like this crap?"

"I Didn't Know I Was Pregnant" on Discovery Fit & Health

This show is by no means my very favorite. I'm glad it exists if only as fodder for The Soup (including their excellent parody "I Didn't Know I Had to Take a Dump"). Oh, yes, I used to think it was just hilarious that there were a TV season's worth of toilet-birthing ladies willing to admit their stupidity on a national broadcast. But then I got pregnant and the joke wasn't so funny anymore. I had my normal share of nauseous days, sleepless nights and sore, swollen feet. I fought hard for a natural birth and because my baby was posterior (meaning she came out head first, but facing the wrong direction) it was a long, painful experience. And though I feel lucky that I got what I wanted and she turned out great, thinking about this show made me pissy. Why should the world's dumbest women be rewarded with births that could be easily mistaken for something as mundane as Taco Bell poops?

Ah, but that isn't every episode of "I Didn't Know I was Pregnant". I discovered this a couple weeks ago when I was nursing my baby at the end of a trying day. Watching TV is about the only thing I can do when she's latched to my breast. The glory of giving life aside, it gets to be pretty boring. On that particular night, I couldn't move a millimeter without her fussing, so I wasn't into channel-surfing. I needed entertainment that would suck me in while she was sucking on me. I stumbled upon IDKIWP and thought, "Well, this oughta bug the hell out of me," and settled in. 

Coming into the midst of a marathon, I caught the tail end of an episode in which a mother was shocked to learn from her doctor that she was 4 1/2 months pregnant. She and her husband had actually tried for another child without success, so this came as a happy and welcome surprise. For reasons that had been discussed prior to my tuning in, she hadn't menstruated in nearly year. Therefore, missing her period was not taken as a sign of pregnancy. Anyway, she and her man were blissful, as evidenced by the lilting piano melody playing in the background. But then - duh, duh, DUHN! - she feels like she's going into labor that very night. She knows it's labor because she's been there before and she isn't an idiot, so she chooses the ER over the bathroom. She spends an entire day being poked and prodded and tested, and she's praying  her little peanut will be okay. At the end of the day, two doctors wander into her room and suggest an emergency C-section. "Hell, no!" she says. She wants this baby. "There's no way he can survive at 20 weeks." The doctors look confused, then they look at each other, and then they're just silent. Finally one of them says, "You're actually 30 weeks pregnant." Duh, duh, DUHN!!! 

In the end, they delivered her teeny, tiny boy and he had to stay in an incubator for weeks. They weren't sure he would survive, but he did, and now he's a 6'4" nineteen year old with bad facial hair who's sweet to his mom. And that made me happy. Actually, the most maddening part of the story was that this poor, frightened woman spent an entire day in a hospital room without a single professional discussing the situation with her. But that was also the most believable part of the story. 

The next episode was REALLY nuts. I can't remember the unexpectedly expectant lady's name, so I'll call her Annabelle. Annabelle is a big girl. I know what you're thinking - "So that's how she didn't know she was pregnant." But the pre-commercial teaser revealed that she was pregnant with twins. Now you're probably thinking what I thought - "Come ON, Annabelle!" But like the lady in the other episode, Annabelle seems fairly intelligent. And her back story is a doozy. As a teenager, she survived leukemia but was told that her treatment had eliminated any chance of bearing children. Her meds contributed to her enormous weight gain in the following years, but at age 23 she gained another hundred pounds in a matter of weeks. When she couldn't walk from the kitchen to the living room without losing her breath, she decided to go to the doctor. Her blood pressure was through the roof, but no one could figure out what was wrong with her. After completing every other imaginable exam, a nurse finally administered a pregnancy test. And then came the unbelievable news. "You're pregnant. (duh, duh, DUHN!) With twins." 

TIME OUT: Kudos to the producers of IDKIWP for presenting Annabelle's reception of this news in a believable way... that is, as a fucking nightmare. Based on the brief time I've spent with my friends H and S's twin tots (both of whom were very much wanted and anticipated), I've gleaned that raising multiples is a heroic undertaking. Unless you're lousy rich with money and time, getting this news at the time of birth should be terrifying. 

And of course, Annabelle needed to give birth ASAP. Pregnancy was killing her. Even after her emergency C-section, her health failed and she went into cardiac arrest (was this woman dealt a crappy hand, or what?). But as she told her mom, she needed to live for her two little boys. Somehow she pulled through and so did her babies. Hooray! Annabelle claims that she menstruated throughout her pregnancy. Something about the way she said that - maybe it was in a hushed tone, I don't remember - made me think she was bullshitting. But given her bizarre, dramatic history and that she really thought she could never get pregnant, I think she gets a pass. 

I was glad to learn that there aren't quite that many dumb ladies laboring in lavatories. But the best thing about getting sucked into that IDKIWP marathon was that I didn't notice my arm had fallen asleep under the weight of my own passed out baby. Our usual nighttime ritual involves holding her in a dim, quiet room, and watching her drift off until she goes limp. It's as fun a pastime as watching water boil. But on that night, I got to skip that step and get to bed early. Sleep came quickly for me, but not before I could thank the universe for sparing me surprise twins.