Saturday, August 22, 2009

No More Boycott of the Week Club

Recently, the CEO of Whole Foods Market spoke out against the public option in the Wall Street Journal and progressives were rightly outraged. In long standing American tradition, a boycott was immediately proposed and some creative soul instantly produced an appropriate graphic commemorating the event that one could display on one's blog or Facebook page. Most of my friends in real life and online signaled their distaste by instantly indicating that they too felt betrayed and then summarily forwarded via e-mail the sad news to everyone who might be similarly indignant. I very nearly signed up myself, until I took a step back and began to really think about what I was about to do.

Was I willing to embrace the eternal human response to cut off my nose to spite my face? I mean, can I name another place besides Starbucks where even part-time employees get benefits? After all, it certainly is nice to shop at a place where I can usually feel good about where my money's heading. As I understand it, the CEO of Whole Foods has professed libertarian beliefs on the record for years so it's hardly surprising he'd say such a thing. Maybe my pragmatic streak needs some use, since I admit it's gotten rusty since this whole health care matter started being discussed everywhere I look. Now that I've dusted it off, I'll let it speak for me.

I need to make a running tally of the number of people I know, organizations I belong to, or political entities who implore me constantly to boycott this, refuse that, or avoid this. While I do acknowledge that with the internet our world is in many ways smaller than it has ever been before, let me say that I could literally sign a petition, boycott an organization, or refuse to spend my money every single day. Websites like the late, great made me wonder if I needed to find the nearest commune or learn how to make all of my consumer goods from scratch. Already blessed with a fantastic guilt complex about my over-large carbon footprint and my paid for, but not tremendously fuel-efficient car, I suppose I needed more reasons to worry that I was destroying the planet and contributing to the destruction of Western Civilization in one simultaneous lethal combination.

It reminds me of how in France, strikes among government workers and nationalized industries are so commonplace that they have become part of the country's societal framework. One expects next that striking workers will provide timetables weeks ahead of time so that everyone can more easily prepare for them and make other plans accordingly. Strikes were never meant nor designed to become routine. They were intended to be relatively rare events that were products of necessity and worst-case scenario. Once they became routine matters that created yawns rather than heightened senses of urgency, the whole point was lost. And yet, the French cling proudly to this "tradition" and right to strike as an essential tool needed to win needed concessions, fair wages, and adequate worker's rights.

In writing this entry, I'm not really out to debate the merits of unions, collective bargaining, and striking. Nor am I taking a swipe at the French. Other people much smarter than I have done a superlative job on those subjects, and most of them are Republicans. What I am debating, however, is at what point boycotts, strikes, and other mass movements that rely on a combined effort to make their impact become overused. The symbolism of striking is as important as the instant impact of the deed. So in that spirit, no one (and certainly not I) doubts the good intentions behind any of multitude of calls to action now resting in your inbox and mine. What I question is if we'd be better served by knowing how to pick our battles. The key, in my mind, is to find some overlap and maybe devising ways to work together to fix societal ills.

Part of the problem is that often everyone wants his or her own Kingdom of control, which is why we have groups within groups that logic dictates would be better served if they were part of one bigger organization. This might explain why, for example, I get five e-mails from womens' reproductive rights groups a week, each of which says an identical thing to the four that came before it. It's rather comical if you have ever been privy to two separate people who want to be given credit for saying the same basic thing in their own words when delegating responsibility would be a much better strategy. The point, I hasten to add, shouldn't be about us. Any activist group I have ever been part of unfortunately falls prey to this problem from time to time. If we resolved to keep our egos restrained long enough, we might recognize that we can accomplish more together than we ever can apart. And, selfishly, I might not have to boycott quite so much.


Norah said...

As always, Kevin, I think you make some very good points, but I'm going to have to nitpick a little, especially since you reference my field. Each "women's reproductive rights" organization has a niche and they fulfill a specific role. The repro health and justice community is actually very, very well connected. There is a very strong coalition and they all work together very closely on policy and even communications. Each time something of significance happens in reproductive health policy or something like the murder of George Tiller, the coalition convenes in some way or another and devises a strategy, messaging, and they delegate. The thing is, not everyone is on five different repro health mailing lists like you are. Because each group has their own niche, each group has their own set of contacts. If you don't like getting the same information from five different groups, pick the one you find the most relevant. Odds are, they are sending most of the same information *because* they work together. Of course, there is some inter-coalition politics at play and each organization needs to do their part to make themselves stand out to funders, but that's not the fault of the orgs themselves, that's a much deeper problem that has to do with limited funding and what is expected of orgs who are trying to get that funding. I'll refrain from going on that tangent :)

I understand your frustration, but do try to keep in mind that there is a lot going on behind the scenes with people in the same general field.

As for the Whole Foods boycott, god damn, I've been telling people for *YEARS* that they're union busters. Whatevs. I still shop there from time to time. I also buy clothes that are probably sweatshop made. Boycotts only work if you get enough people to commit to it. I respect people who are conscious of their economic impact, however small, but at this point in my life I don't have the luxury of time or money to be that particular. Maybe when I'm working a regular job and not going to school I can spend the time to find fairly-traded, unbleached organic cotton socks handmade by workers making a living wage, but for now I'll stick with what I can find on sale at Target.

jadedj said...

Kevin, as regards the boycott, the problem as I see it is that when philosophical meets practical, practical usually wins on a daily living basis. It's just human nature. For example, the socks analogy of Norah. Sometimes it difficult to do the right thing, and still function.