Disposable People: New Slavery in the Global Economy (Bales)

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford points out that we have passively accepted a disposable society. Planned obsolescence has become the default. We don’t mind because most of us don’t know how to fix things or do much with our hands. Besides, things are made so cheaply (and elsewhere) these days, that it has become easier and cheaper to replace them.

Kevin Bales applies much of that thinking to some of the makers of those things. He said in his new preface that he regrets calling what is going on today the “new” slavery, and I can see his point. It is not so much that what he reports on is new; it is more that it has evolved. He uses case studies in Thailand, Brazil and elsewhere (notably, not the United States, though there are some brief references to its existence here) to make his point. His research is methodical (as is, unfortunately, his writing) and persuasive. If he reaches for the overly dramatic phrase too often, it is an honest bit of overreaching. He wants us to feel and be as passionate about the abolition of slavery as he is. He is the unpaid director of Free the Slaves (www.freetheslaves.net) and his royalties from this surprisingly expensive book ($33 for a paperback!) go to various anti-slavery projects.

My first struggle with this book was a structural / philosophical one. Much in the manner of academics – and appropriately so, I think – Bales has articulated a pattern or system that has prompted the evolution of slavery. Like the things Crawford writes about, people have become disposable. Slaves are easily replaced. The global economy, whose praises we so often sing, has accelerated this process. Profit drives everything, including the police. Where, Bales implies (he could do more here), has all of the moral leadership gone?

Given this attention to the steps in the process (which show up in all of the case studies to varying degrees), I wondered why he chose to organize his chapters around places (rather than these steps). He wants us to recognize the steps in order to interrupt them, but having chapters on places makes it seem like slavery is a problem for other people in other places.

In order to eradicate slavery, he wants us to focus just on slavery. I understand the need to focus and I accept the argument (and not just because it is the day it is) that “injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” I also accept his argument that we should not dilute the power of a word like ‘slavery’ as slave holders are trying to do (“bonded labor,” “attached labor,” etc.). Consider how we reference the Holocaust.

That said, I think Bales overlooks the notion of what I understand as intersectionality. He notes that there are no straight lines anymore, that there is often a layer of managers between the one who own and the ones who manage slaves. He advocates for the equivalent of the eco-detective when it comes to rooting out slavery.

How we can develop the narrow focus he seeks until we’ve examined its underpinnings both in other places and at home? As Alice Goffman’s troubled and troubling book On the Run makes quite clear, we have our own form of “debt bondage” here in the United States. How can we develop moral leadership unless we take care of our own structural problems first? Reading, Frederick Douglass learned early on, makes people unfit to be slaves, but now students are choosing not to read (while Malala gets shot for going to school). Bales points to example after example of how illiteracy and innumeracy are a step toward enslavement. Shouldn’t we be more concerned that we seem to have reached the more sophisticated form of slavery here – where students are choosing to enslave themselves? We also need to take seriously the question of bail, for example. How is it that we continue to allow people to languish in jail because they are poor? If we don’t work on ourselves first, wouldn’t our efforts to free prostitutes in Thailand (though urgently needed) come from a place of moral superiority or smugness? The same is true for the question of transition, and I like Bales’ attention to it. It is not enough, as we ought to know by now, to simply free slaves. They need their 40 acres and a mule and more. But how can we do this without acknowledging Ta-Nehisi Coates’ call for reparations?

This leads me to another issue that I think Bales evades, save for one early example. If another culture deems it appropriate to treat a group one way, are we to judge otherwise? I think so. I think there are such things as universal human rights. But who says my version is the correct one?

This is a very powerful book. At times, it’s overwhelming. I recognize my power as a consumer and try to choose wisely, but such decisions are not as straightforward as Bales suggests. What would happen if I did as Bales suggests with his book? Who made the paper? Who made the building where it was printed?

He is right that I should not let this book just sit on my shelf. I will pass it on.


Assata: An Autobiography (Shakur)

At least I had heard of Cesar Chavez. I can’t say with any confidence that I’d heard of Assata Shakur until some former students posted lists of their favorite books and the #handsoffassata (I don’t even know what the noun is here) starting popping up when things between Cuba and the United States finally began to make their way towards sanity.

The thing is I’ve read a lot of autobiographies. I’ve always been convinced that there is something uniquely American about them, this desire we have to tell our own story. Familiar elements are here – a name change, a desire for self-improvement, extremely low points, etc.. And this is an American story. Or maybe it’s better to say it’s a story of America.

Mostly, though, what struck me is that much of what seems to be boiling over today, Shakur experienced and wrote about 30+ years ago. She makes some great points about education; I have one question about mine. Where was she? I learned so much from this book, from following her both backwards and forwards from her 1973 arrest in New Jersey.

Her remarks about revolution and the problems of expansion resonate a great deal from my recent study of Chavez. Her point that it is international capitalism and not exclusively racism that is at the heart of the struggle was just one of those clouds open up kind of epiphanies for me, a sort of cog in that system. Her acute attention to gender pierced me with its truth.

She also tipped the balance for me. With the words of Ta-Nehesi Coates’ article still pinballing around in my head, I now find myself in support of the US Government paying reparations. I know the logistics are mind-boggling; that said, the money is overdue.

Beautiful writing; sharp poetry.




Between the World and Me (Coates)

When I went to the bookstore to buy this, the clerk apologized. She apologized for two reasons. First, she said, the book hadn’t been put out on display yet, so she’d need to get it from the back. Second, she was sorry to say that though it was short, it was still going to be $24.

I’ve finished it now, and I’d like to go back to that store and back to that clerk and explain that sometimes there are books that are so grounded in time and place, and at the same time defy time and place, that they are so very valuable, whatever the cost.

There is not much I can for certain about this book. I finished it in one sitting, and I will return to it again. And again. I know that Cornel West has criticized it and its author, and I don’t know enough about West or the criticism to offer an opinion there.

The book is compact, to be sure, but that is because Coates’ language is both precise and economic. He wastes no words; he has no words to waste nor time to waste them. He writes to his son here; that is the frame. But he writes to all of us, I think, even me, one who, to thinks he is white. His words are meant to be between the world and him. That implies privacy. And it implies a barrier.

Coates’ book, like the work of Hank Willis Thomas (http://www.hankwillisthomas.com/WORKS/Photographic-/6), is focused on the power of the black body. Who controls it? What has been and continues to be built on top of it? How much time must be spent on keeping it safe?

The job of a reviewer is normally to say whether a book is good or bad – worth reading or not. I don’t think to call it good is to do it justice. It is, as Toni Morrison says on the front cover, “required reading.” It will also require re-reading.

My instinct is, as is so often the case when I read something powerful, to take it to school, to share it with my students. I know you can see the cliche coming, but that doesn’t make it less true. Most of my students (all of them, students of color) would not read the pages I offered them. Some, especially the young men, because they just don’t read; others because they can’t, at least not with the level of attention Coates’ words require. The schools have, at least until this point, failed them. But they show up – many of them, most of the time. So they have not been swallowed by the other form of education they experience – the streets. And that is what gets me going every morning.

It is a tangible thing, this book. I don’t mean to say that it’s because I don’t use an e-reader. I find that I am carrying this book with me. I need it by my side; we all do.

Recently, I had the great good fortune to see Mr. Coates in person (https://www.cityclub.org/events/between-the-world-and-me). With the cost of my ticket came a copy of his book and so I did as I always expected to do – I read it again. Much of what he said that night was familiar to me – from the book and his articles. His challenges: What if we destroyed the concept of whiteness? What if we stopped kicking the can down the road? — continue to resonate with me. I admired how he answered questions – particularly questions from students and particularly questions he knew he was not qualified to answer. He pointed to a phenomenon I’ve recognized before. When one author becomes successful, he becomes (and here he asked, despite the crowd of 700 or so, whether the cameras were turned off), the “head n—– in charge.” I was surprised to hear him say the word.

It was a question from an audience member that helped push me back into the book again. The audience member said that Coates had been criticized because his language in the book was too flowery for such a serious topic. That had not – as you may note above – been my first impression. (Around the same time, I was asked by a parent about teaching an AP class next year.) So this time, I read it with more of an eye on his writing, his carefully composed rhetoric and the diction throughout that established the parallel between that which is done to black bodies and that which is done to the earth.

The book tightened up for me. Coates said he wanted it to be short so it would pack a punch and it does. And now, after the second reading, I see a bit more clearly how it works. I hope the book comes out in paperback in time for me to use with my AP class – even if that class contains just one student.