April 28, 2013

LERNER: The Contradiction of a Clean Conscience

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Last Wednesday in Dhaka, Bangladesh, an eight-story factory named Rana Plaza collapsed. Rana Plaza housed around 3,000 workers in what we now know to have been sub-human working conditions. Though workers observed and complained of cracks in the walls over the past months, higher-ups maintained their low safety standards, not wanting to spend the necessary money to renovate.  Over 300 perished, though many of the bodies were too mangled or buried too deeply to be identified. In the news, photos of horrified Bangladeshis abound.

At first, the brands subcontracting out to this factory remained in the shadows, hiding behind their out-of-sight, out -of-mind mantras and business models. We now know some of the culprits: a Canadian retailer that markets the brand Joe Fresh, Spain’s Mango and, likely, Benetton and Wal-Mart.

The brands utilizing this factory are of little importance, though. What matters is that these are our clothes. Or they might as well have been. I checked the labels I put on this morning. “Made in Vietnam.” “Made in Bangladesh.” “Made in China.”

And we don’t really have much of a choice. I mean, sure, we could buy American — I can think of a few brands that exclusively manufacture in the United States. But these alternatives seem prohibitively expensive in comparison to the Old Navy’s and Targets of the world. If not our clothes, it’s our oil, sucked out of the ground by migrant laborers, our coffee, grown in exploitative farming conditions throughout the world, or anything else, with the omnipresent chain of exploit from ground to consumer. Living an impact-free life is not only far out of my price-range, but also conceptually impossible given the opaque production schemes that govern the globalized world.

If the above sounds like a Marxist diatribe, it shouldn’t — or at least not entirely. With the 20th century as our reference, capitalist excesses seem a small price to pay given the succulent goodness of first-world living, curated like a museum exhibition here at Cornell University. Yes, I understand that Cornell strives to achieve a certain diversity of class, but compared to Bangladesh, there really is no comparison.

This contradiction is by no means a new problem — it may in fact have improved since the days of outright colonialism. To reject the Nobel Prize in Literature, Jean-Paul Sartre sent a letter to the Swedish Press that was translated and republished soon after in Le Monde. His reasoning referred to a certain disaffection with the occidental Ivory Tower, but also made an interesting concession that referred to the inherent contradictions of his own ideology. He claimed to be no more qualified for a Nobel Prize as a European author than for a Lenin Prize as an avowed socialist, acknowledging the benefit that his bourgeois upbringing conferred upon him. Without his wealthy capitalist youth, Sartre himself recognized that he would not have achieved the success that he did, or been in a position to advocate socialism so publicly.

In an interview with Claude Lanzmann, director of Shoah and Editor-in-Chief of Les Temps Modernes, Sartre used this paradigm to define what it means to be an intellectual. A nuclear physicist, Sartre claims, who simply practices his profession may be intelligent, even a savant. Still, unless he realizes the irony in his own vocation, the fact that his craft will likely be exploited to threaten and destroy in warfare, and protests the end result of his endeavors, he is not an intellectual. Much as we cannot conceivably live an impact-free life, Sartre claims that the nuclear physicist cannot feasibly cease to be what he is — a nuclear physicist. Instead, he must recognize the contradictions inherent in a supposedly meritocratic system that conferred him such privilege through bourgeois birth, and recognize the irony implicit in his contributing to and yet condemning the system itself.

Since this is my last column for The Cornell Daily Sun, I find it appropriate to make a generalized and potentially foolishly over-extended claim about my soon-to-be alma mater. Cornell, great academic institution that it is, has a dire paucity of intellectuals in the Sartrean sense. Our activists ap-proach their own activism with a mind-numbing lack of self-awareness — for me, the foolhardy divestment campaign that has swept campus the last few months embodies this entirely. Worse still are the future financiers and consultants who enter their professions entirely unironically, failing to see that a head-nod Obama vote and professed liberal values do not counterbalance the striking alacrity with which they auction their intelligence off to the highest bidder, no matter what the tentacles of this corporate beast may be engaged in up or downstream. Don’t get me wrong — there are a million different reasons to choose a career and I’m sympathetic to any of them — but none of these warrant the self-imposed myopia that our campus culture seems to validate.

If it seems I’m leaving with a bitter taste in my mouth, I assure you that nothing could be farther from the truth. I would never try to counsel my peers on what future path to take, nor could I claim honestly that even the noblest of undergraduate intentions can truly enact change at anything but the margins. However, I do hope that when we open our browsers to CNN or unfold our morning New York Times and witness the sorts of tragedies that happened at this Bangladeshi factory or at the countless others across the third world, that none of us are comfortable mourning without a heaping helping of guilt. There’s nothing more contradictory than a clean conscience.

Original Author: Adam Lerner