Dreaming About Revolutions in an Age of Sweatshops

by Michael I. Niman, ArtVoice 11/21/07


I’ve been wading through data on productivity, debt and income disparity for the past few days trying to figure out if the US qualifies yet as an undeveloping nation—a sort of first-world-to-third-world freefaller. I lost my concentration, however, when the shopping season suddenly started early and with a vengeance. Thanksgiving, it seems, is now simply the day before Black Friday. It’s a holiday where we pig out and eat like there’s no tomorrow—because tomorrow we won’t have time to eat, and the day after we won’t have money to eat. It’s a day to study hundreds of pages of newspaper ads and carefully map out shopping strategies.

Eventually there’s Christmas, which marks the end of the Black Friday season and the commencement of After Christmas sales. If we make it to the end of the year we reward ourselves with a drunken night of debauchery. Ain’t the holidays grand?

For a smug, condescending columnist, this season is replete with stories that beg to be written. And I’m not talking about that sappy story cubicle columnists construct each year around an iconic image of some poor homeless person trying to eat a free meal in peace, or the story about a food pantry giving a basket of hand-me-down food to a struggling family that really deserves better than one day a year of paternalistic kindness. I’m more inclined to write yet another story about Buy Nothing Day—the anti-Black Friday day after Thanksgiving celebration of life, love, family and the pursuit of nothing. Buy Nothing Day’s founders at the Adbusters Media Foundation have sold out, using their anti-consumerist notoriety to pimp their own “anti-brand” of footwear, which you can buy on, yes, Buy Nothing Day. But forget about them—the holiday has taken on a life of its own with thousands of folks opting to step off the treadmill, at least for a day. But my last Buy Nothing Day column went into syndication, winding up nestled amongst ads for widgets—ultimately undermining the creds I need to be smug and condescending.

I could go back to the no tomorrow theme. We not only eat and spend like there’s no tomorrow. We do everything like there’s no tomorrow, ultimately increasing the possibility that there won’t be a tomorrow. Now there’s a cheery holiday column. Losing your planet is the ultimate homelessness story. Or I can write about how Baghdad is spending its Black Friday season. Or how about Kabul? Or Rangoon? I don’t think folks are lining up to buy iPods or Wiis (Nintendo says the plural of Wii is “Wii systems.” Fuck ’em) in Potosi, Mumbai, Abidjan or a thousand other cities that play pivotal roles on our Black Friday season supply chain.

Or maybe I could write a cheery piece about Santa’s real North Pole, located in China and run by Taiwan’s Hon Hai Precision Industry Co. Their elves make iPods and iPhones, as well as Intel motherboards, Microsoft X-Boxes, Nintendo Wiis, Sony PlayStations, Motorola and Sony Ericsson phones, HP and Dell computer components and a whole bunch of other stuff. In Shenzhen, China they have one plant that employs 270,000 serf-like workers who live and toil in what critics call “iPod City.” British journalists claim workers there work up to 15 hours per week and earn as little as $50. I guess some things suck more than having to wait in the cold for five hours to buy your Nano.

Hon Hai initially responded to the exposé by attempting to sue the journalists in Chinese courts for almost $4 million, later backing off after Reporters Without Borders put pressure on Apple to rein in their supplier. Somehow all this didn’t jibe with Apple’s ad images of the union rights leader Cesar Chavez and the pacifist skinhead and human rights activist Mahatma Gandhi admonishing us to “Think Different.”

In the end I wrote about nothing. Then early this morning before I awoke, I had a dream. Not a rhetorical dream, like an “I Have a Dream” dream, but a real one—you know, like your feet are Velcro, or you forgot to get dressed, or there’s just a whole bunch of chocolate to be eaten. Anyway, in my dream there was a nonviolent revolution. The people just poured into the streets chanting and waving banners. It was a great party until a phalanx of cops goose-stepped onto the scene.

Dream-wise, this all makes sense. I was interviewed a few days before about Burma’s Saffron Revolution, so that was on my mind. In my dream I thought I was in the Ukraine, home of the previous Orange Revolution. Burma’s architecture is too weird for my dreamscape, hence the Ukraine. And I was doing the airplanes, time zones and hotels thing two weeks ago—which always livens up the dreamscape.

My dreamy revolution this morning began with a great party in the streets. Then the soldiers came, causing everyone to run. But how do you run from a police state? It’s like Buffalo’s Snow Evacuation Route. Follow it and you wind up in Kenmore. Big deal. Eventually everyone in my dream was just running. But then the dream overpowered the nightmare and the cops and soldiers started to run, too—not after the protestors, but with them, away from Big Brother. One of the soldiers stopped in the street and broke down crying. Two protestors took him by the arms and gently admonished him to keep running. But there was no longer anything to run from. Without the police, there was no police state. The revolution was won.

Then the dream got fuzzy like dreams do. I was walking to my seedy hotel in what appeared to be Belize City, but I knew it to be Vancouver, so I could quickly write my Artvoice column about how the Ukraine was free. Then I woke up in Buffalo. So long live Burma—damn it!

Here’s to dreaming about revolutions in an age of sweatshops.

Dr. Michael I. Niman is a professor of Journalism and Media Studies at Buffalo State College. His previous columns are at www.artvoice.com, archived at www.mediastudy.com and available globally through syndication.

ęCopyright 2007

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