Monday, March 27, 2006

The way the world won't be saved...

I’d like to discuss this story in the Star Tribune. It concerns the attempts of a few students at Macalaster College–an institution I grew up just a few blocks from, by the way–to ban Coca-Cola products from campus. The reason for this, as far as I understand, is to punish the company for its alleged behavior in Colombia (among other places). Anti-Coke activists believe that Colombian Coke bottlers are complicit in the murders of several labor organizers, as well as guilty of abusive practices towards their employees. Coke, for its part, maintains that they are innocent of these charges and claim that their workers are treated better, paid more, and allowed to unionize in greater numbers than the average Colombian laborer.

So who do you believe? I don’t know. It wouldn’t surprise me if certain people in Colombia’s Coca-Cola organization are guilty of using their country’s endemic violence to do away with their opponents, although I haven’t seen any compelling evidence to support this. It would surprise me, however, if it was Coke’s actual policy to kill labor leaders. Still, stranger things have happened, and often they’ve happened in Colombia. My concern here is not the truth (of lack thereof) of the claims. I’m not competent to judge that. What I want to remark upon are the problems inherent in these sorts of campaigns.

First off, in America even people on the left are used to viewing themselves as hubristic super-consumers. If they hear of some company behaving badly, many people’s first instinct is to call for a boycott of that company’s product. Religious fundamentalists do this, anti-choice activists do this, organized homophobes do this, and–lest we forget–anti-globalization leftists do this. It doesn’t seem to me to be the best way of effecting social change, though. As far as Macalaster students are concerned, the ones who want to take a stand against Coke will perhaps be less tempted to backslide if there aren’t any pop machines on campus, but the rest of them will probably just keep on buying it wherever they can find it. As the article says “The issue is more symbolic than financial. There are only about two dozen vending machines and four fountain-drink locations on campus.

And, of course, everyone knows that the goal isn’t to dry up Coke’s profits. It’s to give them an embarrassing public-relations issue so that they can be shamed into reforming. I’m skeptical as to how effective this can be, though. I would think that the usual response to a public-relations black eye would simply be some public-relations make-up applied over it. It is naive to think that a few student activists and agitators will ever wield enough clout to get a major American corporation to change its actual practices, especially if you take the Coca-Cola point of view that no institutional wrongdoing has occured. At most, they can only annoy it into spending a few hundred thousand dollars worth of damage control money. This is not cynicism, nor is this something I celebrate, this is simply reality.

I should say that I am sympathetic to these students. They’re trying to make the world a better place, and that’s admirable. They’re at that stage where they’re beginning to pick up on the great, vicious complexity of the world and their reaction is understandable. At that age, it feels better to throw yourself into futile fights than to give up and simply let injustice rule so much of life. The problem comes from when they fix on these forms of resistance I consider “painless protests”. Corporate mendacity is, after all, ubiquitous. No matter what these kids buy, they probably buy something that exploitation and unfairness lets us have on the cheap. Why should Coca-Cola be singled out when Pepsi is, in all likelihood, just as bad? Shouldn’t every item in their dorm room and every stitch of clothing on their body be subject to a similar ethics discussion?

A Coke boycott is a consequence-free way to register your disapproval with capitalism’s rapaciousness. These students could, I suppose, refuse to wear any clothes made by people who aren’t making a fair wage. This would make their wardrobe prohibitively expensive. And, if they feel Coca-Cola is a cruel and violent entity, I imagine they probably feel that the U.S. Government is even worse. Why don’t they stop paying their taxes then? Because they’d have their wages garnished or they’d be thrown in jail. It’s so much easier just to say you won’t drink Coke. No one will bother you for that, and you’ll probably have much nicer teeth to boot. But you shouldn’t get so full of yourself that you’ll be quoted in the daily paper saying things like, “But the truth is that they need us, we don't need them. ...No union leaders have been assassinated in Colombia since this campaign began. That to me is proof we are having an impact.” Because then you’re just insulting all the brave Colombian people risking their lives to bring peace to one of the world’s most violent nations. You, after all, are just a bunch of privileged college students in St. Paul who are declining to drink Coca-Cola. It is an act of extreme American arrogance (and, yes, people on the left are infected with this too) to imagine that your consumer decisions, however virtuous, are making the world a better place. It’s a lot harder than that, I’m afraid, and you spit in the face of the people you claim to support when you pretend otherwise.

If you believe the charges against Coca-Cola, and you want to help the people of Colombia, you ought to make a personal decision not to drink their beverages. You shouldn’t act as though this makes you more virtuous than the Coke-swilling masses, though. You’ll just irritate people and make the left look bad if you do that. No, you should carefully save up all the money you would have spent on soft drinks and then, when you’ve got a few hundred dollars, you should send it to some group or agency in Colombia that is working to bring the rule of law, peace, and democracy to that country. Otherwise you’re just making a huge show of a tiny sacrifice and then deluding yourself that this is all that's required of us to salve a bleeding world.