Welcome to Week 5 of Be the Change!

This week I dive into Georgia's awful anti-voting bill by focusing on how corporations, activists, and consumers have reacted in the wake of the legislation's signing. I also share a poem about America's promise and peril called A More Perfect Union; and, in light of the trial of Derek Chauvin, a poem about George Floyd and America's ongoing struggle against racism called Manumission.

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Can One Be an Ethical Consumer in an Unethical System?

Free image/jpeg Resolution: 8000x8000, File size: 1.36Mb, Cube ethics morality drawing
In the wake of the passage of Georgia's reprehensible anti-voting law, corporations have been alternatively berated for not speaking out against it or praised for doing so. It is common to see comments on social media like "Delta privately supported the bill but American Airlines opposed it, so I know who I'll be flying with post-pandemic!" Though I suppose it's better that big businesses say the right thing than be silent, this whole notion of frequenting one corporation over another based on its supposed ethics raises a fundamental question: is it possible to be an ethical consumer in an unethical system?

Leaving aside the near-impossibility of keeping abreast of each company's actions--Which supported the anti-voting law? Made campaign contributions to Republicans who voted to overturn the election? Refused to disclose its carbon emissions? Doesn't have diversity in senior management?--there are major challenges for the consumer. First, headlines can never capture the nuance of these issues. Big business is in the business of making money, period; they make campaign contributions based on what will serve the bottom line, which is often tax cuts and loosened regulations. That many of the elected officials funded by these companies--Delta and American alike--don't appear to believe in democracy is only an issue to the extent that activists call them out on it and the busy electorate notices.

Second, the waters can get muddied very quickly. Whole Foods purports to be good for the environment because it sells expensive organic food to wealthy people, but it has also devastated local grocery stores and is virulently anti-union. Costco is praised for paying its employees well, but it derives significant profits from the sale of cheap gasoline--exacerbating climate change. Nike puts on all manner of empowering ad campaigns and has stood by Colin Kaepernick, but it continues to use slave and very-low-wage labor at its overseas factories. At its core, no big business is socially responsible; boycotting one in favor of another is a game of Whack-a-Mole. Today's "good" company will be tomorrow's villain for the simple reason that all of them are, in varying degrees, harming people and the planet. (To be clear, I am not talking about small and medium-sized businesses. If you want to shop ethically, go to your local grocery store, coffee shop, bank or credit union, restaurant. This essay is about large, publicly traded firms.)

Third, corporate America will do what's right only so long as it is profitable to do so, or at least won't hurt their bottom line. What happens when the ethical practice is unprofitable? Particularly in the case of publicly traded firms, the answer is that there is no such thing as a "double" or even "triple bottom line"-- that is, profit, people, and the planet. No, there is only profit and varying degrees of finding ways to do well, or appear to do well, on the latter two, provided that they do not impact the first. Those who say that enlightened companies realize that there is an alignment between what's good for the bottom line and what's good for the planet are ignoring just how hard it is to reap the kind of profits the markets expect without causing harm.

In a world of bewildering complexity, the consumer can almost never win, for we are up against massive marketing campaigns, disinformation, and a lack of time to sort truth from half-truth and outright lies. None of which is to say that we shouldn't do what we can to hold corporate America to account. But when we do so, we must be clear-eyed about what we're up against. In a fundamentally unjust economy, there are few powerful people and businesses that are driven by justice, as opposed to profit and power. While in a particular instance, a particular firm might say or even do the right thing, that is not the same as being a driver of positive change. "Business is a force for good" is the mantra of those who like the status quo and want to sell the rest of us on the idea that only the same entities that have gotten us into this mess can get us out of it.

True change can only occur when we take an economy and society-wide approach to justice, and that requires good public policy at the local, state, and federal level. The rash of anti-voting legislation being proposed and enacted nationwide was made possible by the Supreme Court's gutting of the Voting Rights Act and the onslaught of dark money spurred on by the Court's decision in Citizens United--allowing unlimited political spending by corporations. If we focus only on a particular fight (such as the Georgia law) and only on the stances of individual entities, we will miss the broader problem--and in missing it, fail to address it.

While it is useful to boycott companies acting in bad faith, we musn't forget that our law, tax code, and regulations allow bad faith actions; until we change our framework, we'll find ourselves struggling to determine which airline, fast-food joint, or clothing company is less bad on a given day and on a given issue. Who has time for that?

A More Perfect Union

And I should like to be able to love my country and still love justice. I don't want any greatness for it, particularly a greatness born of blood and falsehood. I want to keep it alive by keeping justice alive." - Albert Camus

When children by gunfire die,
When the dreamer and the warden clash,

When statues betray the sculptor, we proclaim
This is not who we are.

Who are we?

I take my chisel to Plymouth Rock
But the rock gives no blood;

Our history is like that stone,
Heavier than its weight…

Standing at a dank underpass, I rattle
A tin cup, wave a sign that reads

This is not who we are—

I can grow rich here, devote my life
To the pursuit of happiness…

It is said that upon his murder, Lincoln belonged
To the ages: Why do we wait for blood?

We’ve planted great forests of headstones.
I wander their lush paths, the sanguine streams,

And amidst this grandeur, this horror,
I glimpse both what is and what could be.

Sunday, August 18, 2019
Hope is definitely not the same thing as optimism. It is not the conviction that something will turn out well, but the certainty that something makes sense, regardless of how it turns out.” – Václav Havel

I so want to be optimistic and airy, to write of our generous spirit, to wax
poetic about moon landings and beach landings, entrepreneurship, sliced bread,

the assembly line, the World Wide Web. It feels un-American to discover an Antebellum
shackle and not see its value at auction, not imagine the great stories of triumph and

tragedy it can tell. An unarmed Black man was—again—murdered by police this week;
they crushed his windpipe with a knee. Shall we steal that leg, extract the knee like a

tooth, shine it like a fine pair of shoes worn at a meeting of the Fraternal Order of
Police, donate it to the National Museum of African American History?

Mr. Floyd was shackled and dead when the ambulance arrived. What
will become of those cuffs when they are no longer needed as evidence?

If the little Black girl at her lemonade stand can become president, if
the little Black Boy Scout selling cookies can launch an empire,
what more do we owe the past? We’ve gotten ahead by looking ahead: history

recedes until nothing remains but glorious myth. Our most dangerous belief is
in the Grand Gesture, the faith that all wrongs can be righted. If in 1860 the South
had manumitted its 3,953,762 slaves, would George Floyd’s windpipe still be whole?

America on the brink. America always on the brink. Land of the
larger-than-life. Land of slavery and freedom. Land of monumental dreams,

it’s not optimism I need, but hope, “the ability to work for something
because it is good, not just because it stands a chance to succeed.”

An American didn’t say that: We are strivers, doers, achievers, no time to waste.
When I was a teenager opposed to one of the many

wars we like to launch for one reason or another—we thought it was oil,
this one, but maybe it was geopolitics, or messianic Christianity,

or, most likely, someone stood to profit from the bombs bursting in air—
my teachers told me it was naïve to oppose war, that I would grow out of

idealism, as though there were honor in accepting the unacceptable
and shame in questioning it. They were wrong. I did not outgrow it, still

I am ashamed of myself, ashamed of my country. The shame
grows hot like iron forming into manacles, and soon every last one of us

will be chained, face to the pavement, knee to the neck,
unable to say what it means to be free.

May 27, 2020
Thank you for reading. I welcome your feedback and suggestions for future posts.

Be well,

- Andy