Tuesday, July 30, 2013

"I am an Undesirable Citizen," Part One: The Martyrdom of Bradley Manning

“God damn it, Kyle. All right, ha-ha-ha, I hit ‘em…”

        Today a military judge convicted Bradley Manning of espionage while acquitting him of the “more serious” charge of aiding the enemy. Manning, a twenty-five year old army private, had earlier released documents that expose U.S. war crimes in Iraq and Afghanistan, including video footage of American soldiers gunning down Iraqi children. While these incriminating documents were being published by Wikileaks, the military retaliated by confining Manning to an eight-by-eight foot cage. This punishment was meted out even before formal charges were filed against him, and would set the tone of the Manning odyssey. Deprived of the legal right to a speedy trial, he would wait three years before seeing his day in court. During this period of Kafkaesque torment, he was assumed guilty before proven innocent, subjected to treatment which both the dictates of international law and commonsense call torture. This included eleven months of solitary confinement in a small, windowless cell, as well as subjection to sleep-deprivation regimens and what CIA torture handbooks call “self-inflicted punishment” – that is, being forced into debilitating stress-positions for extended periods of time.

       Having witnessed the great evil that lies within America’s heart of darkness, Manning had decided to follow the demands of his conscience, letting the world know what was really going on in Iraq and Afghanistan under the new American mandarins. Graphic video-footage, photographs and mountains of documents irrefutably proved what groups like Human Rights Watch had long been saying, but what the government had long denied: countless innocent people were being senselessly and, in many cases, gratuitously murdered by American forces overseas. Having unmasked these crimes, Manning was immediately subjected to them himself, becoming a victim of U.S. terrorism. Like 10,000s of Iraqis imprisoned at Abu Ghraib prison, Camp Bucca and elsewhere, he was subjected to psychological and corporeal torture, all under a sordid veil of secrecy and (illegal) executive prerogative.

“Oh yeah, look at those dead bastards.” Another soldier: “Nice.”

        If it had been long understood that the wars were justified with lies – the alleged presence of WMD and Saddam Hussein’s supposed connection to al-Qaeda – the Wikileaks revelations made it crystal clear that the actual prosecution of the wars was patently criminal. Again, the illegality of the wars had long been confirmed. The concept of “preemptive war,” i.e., the “Bush Doctrine” which the Iraq war was based on, is in practice identical to a “war of aggression,” the main crime that the Nazi regime was convicted of at the Nuremburg Trials. So again, the illegality of the war was never in doubt. If George Bush leaves the country, for instance, he will have to be careful since if apprehended by a foreign power he may be tried for war crimes and/or crimes against humanity on the basis of international law. What Manning did do, though, was provide unimpeachable evidence showing that the content of these already illegal wars is itself criminal.
        It is difficult to stress enough the Kafkaesque character of Manning’s experience. Indeed, if Kafka had written a story with as many legal mishaps, loopholes and aberrations of justice as plague the handling of the Manning case, his story would have been ridiculed as a boorish melodrama. After unveiling the truth, Manning was brutalized with punitions that are outlawed under the Geneva Conventions, U.S. military law and the U.N. Convention on Torture. Then he was told that the criminal organization whose dirty deeds he had exposed – and which had subsequently tortured him – would decide his “guilt” or “innocence.” That is to say, the criminals would decide his guilt or innocence in exposing their own crimes. After exposing the crimes of the military, he was to be judged by a military tribunal. There was to be no jury, no public scrutiny and no chance of appeal. Heck, he was not even allowed to bring the documents to court that he had released – you know, the reason he was being prosecuted in the first place. Their content, he was told, was “irrelevant.” Despite their being “irrelevant,” they must have been important; after all, he was eventually convicted of “espionage” because of their “irrelevant” content.

A van comes to pick up the bodies of the deceased and wounded. Overhead, a soldier looks at the computer screen before requesting permission to “engage.” “Come on, let us shoot!”

        What makes the charge of “espionage” so interesting, however, is the fact that the law cited as the basis of this charge is the Espionage Act of 1917. This law was passed by the Wilson administration during WWI to quell any and all dissent against the war. Whether someone actually committed a crime because of their opposition to the war was irrelevant; one only had to express opposition to the war to be found guilty. Obviously, this law tore the First Amendment to shreds. Under it, people were jailed simply for sending letters to newspapers which criticized the war. Intellectuals and activists like Eugene V. Debs, for example, were thrown into the slammer solely for delivering speeches which were critical of the conflict – one which virtually all historians now agree was a senseless, futile and willful orgy of human carnage. One movie producer, Robert Goldstein, was even sued because he promoted the movie The Spirit of ‘76 on the American Revolution. The government was afraid that the film’s patriotic rendering of the conflict would stir up anti-British sentiment, now America’s ally in arms. Rather tellingly, the court case was titled the United States vs. The Spirit of ’76. There are some things you just can’t make up. Today most historians and legal scholars view the Espionage Act as a piece of legal sophistry, that is, a law based of political expedience rather than sound jurisprudence. In any case, it is totally unconstitutional.

        That the charge of “espionage” is entirely based on the Espionage Act of 1917 is, consequently, illuminating. The use of this law is a startling admission of Manning’s innocence: he is guilty of nothing other than his opposition to America’s illegal wars; and there are no other grounds for convicting him of a crime other than this principled opposition. None of the people who were charged of “espionage” during WWI were secretly disclosing secrets to the enemy – you know, what “espionage” actually means. Instead, “espionage” meant that they opposed the war and had the audacity to voice this conviction. This peculiar interpretation of the word espionage is the same used in the prosecution of Manning. In other words, he is guilty of nothing other than opposing the war in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the very law used to convict him admits this explicitly.

“Oh yeah, look at that. Right through the windshield! Ha-ha!”

        And the trial of Bradley Manning stands in stunning contrast to the absence of any trial against those who instigated or prosecuted these two wars; those who committed the ultimate war crime of starting two “aggressive wars.” If a policeman, for instance, kills someone whom he suspects is armed and aiming to attack him, but this proves to be untrue, the policeman is guilty of homicide. Bush and Cheney said that Saddam Hussein had WMD and supported al-Qaeda, two allegations which turned out to be false. Yet in acting on these allegations – ones which the government had drawn out of whole cloth – over one-million Iraqis died and the country was plunged into unimaginable chaos. If a public official like a policeman is to be held accountable for the death of one person based on false grounds, then surely Bush and his cronies should be held accountable for the deaths of over one-million people on grounds that they cooked up – in other words, that they lied (or should we say perjured) about.

A tank arrives at the scene. “I think they just drove over a body.” Another solider asks, “Really?” Chuckling, he replies, “Yeah!”

        So if we were to write a synopsis of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, it might appear as follows. Both wars were illegal from the start and justified by lies devised by people who had spent the greater part lives studying the law and how to get around it. Those who fabricated the lies came out of the conflicts scot free; one even built a library for himself. The Iraq war ended after the illegality of the war had finally been seared into the public consciousness and the truth had been unveiled by a quiet, unassuming private who had not studied the law, but who instead followed the demands of his conscience and simple human decency. For following the law of his conscience and disclosing the truth he was tortured, savaged and maligned by the same government and press which had sold the public the lies that had started the war. The death of over one-million Iraqis and only God knows how many Afghans were “irrelevant” they said. For he was guilty of a greater crime, that of “espionage” – in other words, telling the truth. But this was to be expected. After all, how were a government, press and citizenry which had built their lives around lies to understand the value of truth? The value of one-million human lives?

Two wounded children are found lying in the van, now riddled with bullets, its decrepit chassis lying on the side of the road.

        His accusers took him to court after beating him brutally, jailing him and cursing his name. A sad, almost wistful smile appeared on his face as he heard the sentence read. He had come into their world to bring peace where there was conflict, truth where there was great darkness. Yet, he had been rejected, even by those whom he had come to save. So they crucified him for speaking the truth, not for anything else. He had committed “espionage.” Above his head, the judge wrote that his crime had been speaking the truth. No, his accusers said, do not say that he spoke the truth but only that he claimed to speak the truth. The judge faced them. What has been done is done, he said. And so they ran his name through the mud, traded scoops and watched with unrestrained glee as he bore his fate. He was suffering for their lies, their crimes, their sins, a burden which he took on without complaint.

“Well it’s their fault for bringing their kids into a battle.” “That’s right.”

Note: The italicized portions of the text are lines taken from a video that was released by Manning to Wikileaks. It can be accessed at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5rXPrfnU3G0. 

Note: This is the first part of a series on "undesirable" citizens and their importance to human society.

Friday, July 19, 2013

An Open Letter in Opposition to Wal-Mart's Human Rights Violations

“The City of Sherwood will provide services and infrastructure to support the highest quality of life for our residents, businesses and visitors in a fiscally responsible manner.”
             – City of Sherwood Mission

To the City of Sherwood,

        As you know, the impending arrival of Wal-Mart has aroused strong feelings for many residents. A recent editorial in ‘The Oregonian’ entitled ‘The Demonization of Wal-Mart,’ evokes the conflict in now familiar terms. Those supportive of construction are portrayed as realists, citizens who are aware of growth’s inevitability, while those opposed to construction are understood to be against growth as a matter of principle. This facile rendering of the Wal-Mart debate, however, is deeply problematic: by framing the debate as an essentially parochial one, important issues which need to be addressed are excluded from the picture. Yes, the introduction of Wal-Mart does pose fundamental questions concerning city growth, transportation infrastructure and the health of the economy. However, all of these issues are intertwined with another issue which has up to now been marginalized, though it should be at the center of considerations: human rights. 

        Unfortunately, Wal-Mart is a known human rights violator with a less than sterling record when it comes to the treatment of its employees. It is well-documented that the company uses illegal measures to prevent workers from unionizing; disregards the statutory rights of workers, especially women and people with disabilities; uses suppliers which are engaged in human trafficking; and implements other illegal strategies for increasing its profit margins – all at the expense of the average employee. So while there may be no legal justification for stopping Wal-Mart’s construction out of “growth” concerns, its construction does pose profound – and legal – questions concerning morality, human rights and simple human decency. As a body dedicated to ensuring “the highest quality of life for our residents, businesses and visitors in a fiscally responsible manner,” I hope that the City of Sherwood will consider the above stated implications of Wal-Mart’s arrival – a company which has repeatedly shown disregard for the quality of life of residents, businesses and visitors through its fiscally irresponsible policies. 

        There are several common arguments that are used to justify having a Wal-Mart in Sherwood, all of which fall apart while looking at the retailer’s human rights record. In an economy still making its way out of the Great Recession, many supporters believe that the store will help the economy by creating jobs and providing consumers with affordable goods. Though this argument appears credible on the surface, it neglects to factor in several important considerations. Of these considerations, two prove especially cogent: what type of jobs does Wal-Mart create, and how is it capable of selling such low-priced goods? In 2007, Human Rights Watch (HRW) published a report on Wal-Mart – its first report on human rights in the U.S. – and found that Wal-Mart’s jobs rely on, and indeed, fuel a cycle of poverty. Moreover, HRW found that the company’s business model, particularly its signature low prices, is only made possible through policies which systematically erode workers’ wages. 

        Jordan Weissmann writes in ‘The Atlantic’ that wages have become eroded to the point that most employees cannot even afford the company healthcare plan, a finding that was earlier 
documented by HRW. The cost of healthcare is consequently pushed upon local governments as Wal-Mart shirks its responsibility to its employees and society: “research has suggested that Wal-Mart workers are disproportionately reliant on safety net programs like food stamps and Medicaid,” Weissmann explaining that this is “a burden on tax payers.” In its 2007 investigation of Wal-Mart, HRW notes that many state legislatures were proposing bills which aimed to get retailers to pay their fair share of employees’ health costs, seeing as their workers disproportionately relied on state services. These bills were privately referred to as “Wal-Mart legislation” in policy circles. In fact, in terms of average spending on worker benefits per employee (amongst comparable retailers), HRW found that Wal-Mart only spends above K-Mart – and this comparison is misleading because K-Mart went bankrupt in 2002. By contrast, Wal-Mart is the biggest retailer in the world and the largest private employer; it is in a place to do better. The same report notes that the posted average minimum salary is misleading since the company often touts the average minimum salary for managers as its storewide average. 

        And these strategies, bad as they are, pale in comparison to other policies carried out by the corporation. Stores are regularly understaffed, hours thinned and – it is charged – long-time workers (with higher wages) fired to cut the cost of paying workers. These policies are complemented with numerous documented incidents of workers being forced to work overtime without compensation. To quote HRW again: “in July 2000, Wal-Mart's Inventory Audit group visited Wal-Mart stores to determine if the stores were ‘adhering to company policies and government regulations with the scheduling and staffing of associates.’ In 127 stores reviewed over a one-week period, the Inventory Audit group found 76,472 examples in which the facilities ‘were not in compliance with company and state regulations concerning the allotment of breaks and meals.’” While one might expect the audit to be a sign of good faith on the company’s part, its subsequent refusal to acknowledge the report’s finding suggests otherwise. Mona Williams, vice-president of communications, responded to the report’s contents by stating without qualification that, “‘The audit is so flawed and invalid that we did not respond to it in any way internally.’” 

        Wal-Mart’s blemished record has extra significance in Oregon. “In the three class action lawsuits against Wal-Mart alleging wage and hour law violations that have gone to jury trials since 2000 [to 2007], juries have ruled against the company. In December 2002, a jury issued a unanimous verdict finding that ‘Wal-Mart engaged in a pattern or practice of suffering or permitting its employees to work off-the-clock without compensation in eighteen Wal-Mart stores in Oregon . . . [and] acted willfully with respect to the pattern and practice’” (HRW; my italics). And as previously stated, the company often fires older workers – that is, those who have worked there the longest and thus have the highest wages – in order to cut costs. A leaked internal memo from 2005 discussed an “increase [in] the percentage of part-time workers, likely lowering the company's healthcare costs even more. The memo explained that ‘current initiatives to improve labor productivity,’ including ‘increasing the percentage of part-time Associates in stores,’ were a ‘major cost-savings opportunity with relatively little impact on existing Associates’” (ibid.). The only obstacle, the memo went on to explain, was “public reputation” – they did not want the public to think that they were being cruel by firing off long-time workers in order to artificially increase profit margins. 

        Discrimination materializes in other ways too. The biggest class action lawsuit over sexual discrimination in history, including some 1.5 million women, was carried out against Wal-Mart (ibid.). Though it eventually fell apart, numerous lawsuits are currently underway, representing every section of the country. Richard Drogan, a statistician hired by plaintiffs to assess the company’s treatment of female employees, found that:“[W]omen at Wal-Mart worked disproportionately in the lower paying hourly jobs; earned less money than men holding the same jobs; received fewer promotions to management; and when promoted, were advanced later and more slowly than their male counterparts. Addressing Drogin's findings, the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit found that a federal district court ‘reasonably concluded that Dr. Drogin's analysis was probative and based on well-established scientific principles’ and that ‘Wal-Mart provided little or no proper legal or factual challenges to it’” (ibid.). 

        What’s more, the company’s discrimination against people with disabilities is unparalleled: “By the end of June 2001, the EEOC had filed sixteen suits against Wal-Mart for violating Title I of the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA), the most against any company since the law went into effect in July 1992. By September 2005, that number had risen to nineteen” (ibid.). 

        Wal-Mart’s coercive relationship with its employees, however, is most vividly illustrated in its attack on unions, which has become legendary. Or as Human Rights Watch says, “Wal-Mart stands out for the sheer magnitude and aggressiveness of its anti-union apparatus and actions” – an apparatus whose refined techniques “deprive worker of their internationally recognized right to organize.” During their investigation, HRW found that the company used anti-union tactics such as aiming security cameras at pro-union workers; illegally banning union representatives from handbilling outside stores; threatening to let go of workers who strike; illegally altering the composition of the workers’ negotiating units; devising pretexts for firing pro-union workers; forcing workers to attend anti-union lectures; and the use of other illegal techniques. This policy is both conscious and systematic. The company maintains a centralized database – the “Remedy System” – through which it tracks union activity, and it funds a Labor Relations Team charged with quelling pro-union sentiment (ibid.). The Labor Relations Team’s function was recognized with unusual candor by a manager (at whose store they had recently visited) who referred to them as “the union busters.” At present, not a single Wal-Mart employee in the U.S. belongs to a union despite numerous attempts to form one. This absence is conspicuous, seeing as Wal-Mart is the biggest private employer in the world. 

        Regardless of one’s position on unions, the right to organize is enshrined in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and U.S. law. The U.S. is also a member of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which means that governments are legally obliged to ensure that workers have the right to freely organize and collectively bargain with management. To say that the company’s attack on unionization violates human rights is thus not a matter of interpretation – it is both an objective and legal reality. 

        At this point, it is worth addressing the question, why? That is to say, why does Wal-Mart fire long-time employees, make employees work over-time without pay, discriminate against women and minorities, crush unions, and pursue other inhumane policies? The thread connecting these policies is simple: all of these policies depress wages and consequently allow the company to boost profits. This is not a sound – or moral – business model. So yes, Wal-Mart will “create jobs,” but these are of a deficient, exploitative kind; and yes, the company’s prices are low, but this is only because its employee’s wages are low. The most bitter seed of all, however, is the fact that this policy is entirely unnecessary for Wal-Mart to remain competitive and profitable. It is a selected business model, one of choice:

        “Wal-Mart, the country’s largest employer, posted $3.64 bn [billion] in profits for the third quarter alone [in 2012] and has already registered $444 bn in sales this year. Wal-Mart heir Robson Walton, whose net worth is $26 bn, took in more than $420 m [million] in dividends last year, while the average employee makes $8.81 an hour or $15,500 a year. The Walton family has more wealth than the bottom 42% of American families combined. In 2010, CEO Michael Duke’s annual salary of $35 m gives him more in an hour than a full-time employee makes in an entire year” (Aguilar). 

        Put differently, while Wal-Mart’s average salary puts a working family under the poverty line, its executives have chosen an altogether different option for themselves. And if the cost of increased wages were passed onto the consumer, the price increase would be negligible and still allow Wal-Mart to compete. Jordan Weismann of ‘The Atlantic’ writes that, “A study from UC-Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education suggested it would cost the average shopper an average $12.49 a year if Wal-Mart paid its workers a full $12.00 an hour and passed most of the cost to consumers.” 

        In conclusion, there is scant evidence to show that Wal-Mart is looking out for the best interests of its employees. By contrast, there is positive proof that the company exploits its workers and violates human rights. So while the City of Sherwood may not be able to revoke Wal-Mart’s construction permit based on “growth” concerns, this is in some ways irrelevant to greater legal, social and moral concerns. In any case, the company’s policies conflict with the City of Sherwood’s goal of ensuring “the highest quality of life for our residents, businesses and visitors.” Accordingly, I request that the City of Sherwood:

1.      Look into the legal implications of allowing a known human rights violator to construct a business in the community.
2.      If Wal-Mart does pursue business in Sherwood, create a legal framework for ensuring the rights of its workers – especially those concerning job tenure, wages and the right to organize.
3.      Ask the company to explain precisely how it intends to guarantee that the rights of its workers are respected; this being an act performed in good faith. 

        Wal-Mart is the biggest and most influential retailer in the world, as well as the largest private employer. How it treats its workers sets the standard for how retail workers on all ends of the supply chain are treated. Other governments[i] have begun to question the legality, morality and benefits of working with a corporation that refuses to guarantee the human rights of its own workers. I hope and trust that the City of Sherwood will do the same.

Jonathan Ng


[i] The New York City Council, for instance, has successfully opposed Wal-Mart’s construction in the city due to human rights concerns (see Stephen Greenhouse and Stephanie Clifford, ‘A Respite in Efforts by Wal-Mart in New York;’ The New York Times, 3/6/2013). Also, the District of Columbia City Council just passed The Large Retailer Accountability Act, an act which establishes a $12.00 minimum wage for workers; this took place over the opposition of Wal-Mart. It remains yet to be seen whether the mayor will ratify it, though. The government of Norway has divested government pension funds from Wal-Mart because of an  “unacceptable risk of contributing to serious or systematic violations of human rights by maintaining its investments in the company” (HRW). Consequently, there are precedents for government action, especially at the City Council level.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The Iron Law of Wal-Mart: A Look at Democracy in America

        Last Sunday I had the misfortune to enter a violent spat of indigestion over breakfast. It was not the peanut-butter toast, but rather, an editorial in ‘The Oregonian’ that sent my stomach churning. Spelled out in bold relief, the article is titled ‘The demonization of Wal-Mart,’ and covers the ongoing feud between the residents of Sherwood and Wal-Mart over the super-retailer’s attempt to construct a big-box store in the center of town. The article seethes with condescension, sounding not unlike a tightly-wound adult who feels the need to lecture a child about the importance of washing behind the ears. To give you a sense of this, it is worth quoting directly from the article. The writer begins by claiming that “even by Wal-Mart standards, Sherwood’s reaction to the nation’s largest retailer is jaw-dropping,” going on to explain “less clinically” that “the citizens of Sherwood need to get a grip.” Local efforts to stop the super-retailer from constructing a store there are not only naive but misguided; they can only do damage to the city’s image and economy in the long-run. Construction is inevitable, the benefits undeniable and the economic logic irrefutable. What Sherwood is going through now are just growing pains which will soon pass. Don’t send the “town down the wrong path” with pesky regulations and red-tape; rather, realize that you are part of the twenty-first century and get your head in the game. 

        As you can probably guess, there are several claims that I take issue with in the article, the entire piece, to be precise. For one, the article’s eagerness to dismiss Sherwood’s grassroots campaign against Wal-Mart as mere anxiety over the city’s rapid growth smacks of the small town, small minds cliché. The language used conjures up images of a “sleepy” town peopled by short-tempered simpletons who are always looking to find fault with innovation. Secondly, and more significantly, the editorial glosses over the very real substance of the resident’s concerns. Wal-Mart is infamous for violating federal labor laws, depressing its employee’s wages and engaging in exploitative practices domestically as well as overseas. Yet these substantial facts are only alluded to in the breeziest manner, likely because they complicate the cookie-cutter narrative that the writer chose to pursue. 

        Reading between the lines, however, it is apparent that ‘The Oregonian’ editorial is the result of more than sloppy journalism, but in fact, a national crisis of democracy. The views articulated are not by any means exceptional; actually, they are what one would expect from a middle-of-the road American newspaper. And this is a cause for grave concern. For Sherwood’s grassroots campaign against Wal-Mart, far from being a reactionary initiative, is democracy in action. The fact that ‘The Oregonian’ failed to recognize its fundamentally democratic character is symptomatic of a degraded understanding of what democracy means and how it is practiced. Unfortunately, this degraded understanding of democracy has seeped into consciousness of the American public, politics and the media, including ‘The Oregonian.’ Instead of being participatory and empowering, this ideal is dictated by those at the top to those at the bottom, recoils at the thought of public involvement and believes that only a handful of ‘movers’ is needed to govern. When other people start to voice their own opinions, their efforts are dismissed as quaint. If they begin to take action – like Wal-Mart workers who have tried to unionize – they are attacked without a second thought. As shown below, this crisis of democracy has far-reaching consequences and is intimately tied to the global economic situation, especially where it concerns Wal-Mart. 

        At the core of the editorial is an economic ideology which is firmly opposed to democracy – that is, rule by the consent of the people. Economic growth is assumed to be an inexorable force, one that cannot be stopped even if it is not desired by those whom it entangles. Or as the writer explains, “Sherwood was growing rapidly before Wal-Mart came calling and likely will continue to grow rapidly after the retailer opens its store,” meaning that citizens “whose goal is to stop Wal-Mart should realize it’s too late.” But why is it “too late” and why is this growth inevitable? The truth of the matter is that this type of economic expansion is always a choice: it is not as if Wal-Mart’s arrival is the result of a hurricane, a shift in tectonic plates or some other natural cataclysm. Quite frankly, the supposed inevitability of economic expansion is a myth, though one that has many disciples even as we trudge our way out of the Great Recession (an event that disproves the inevitable growth thesis in spades). And not only is the logic sloppy but it is dangerous. Environmental degradation, wage-slavery and looming inequality are explained away with the same spurious talk of inevitability. Those who engineer this misery are implicitly liberated of all guilt since – after all – it was going to happen anyway. 

        As you can imagine, this economic mantra works against democracy because those who engineer the growth are always allowed to have their way; all other opinions appear irrelevant under the storm-cloud of the inevitable. Capitalism’s fatalism, in this regard, is strikingly similar to Communism’s faith in historical materialism, or the idea that history progresses in predetermined stages through the interplay of economic forces. In other words, for the capitalist the theology of inevitable growth is the equivalent of the communist’s belief that class conflict drives history. Each brand of fatalism is incompatible with the ideal of democracy, which recognizes not only the potential for social action, but asserts that society is only as good as it empowers its members act separately and in concert towards meaningful change. Naturally this is impossible in the economic realm if the ‘economic movers’ are the only ones who get to call the shots. 

        Most economists, particularly those favored by Wal-Mart, would be quick to respond that the current system is democratic because it allows for each actor to freely compete with its competitors. After all, every company operates in the same ‘free market.’ These sentiments are shared by ‘The Oregonian,’ which states that Wal-Mart will face steep “competition” in Sherwood, before adding somewhat incongruously that the “best way to ensure that Wal-Mart thrives is to make it difficult for new competitors to open in Sherwood.” This tension in terms, what most would call a contradiction, hints at a more basic truth. To call the relationship between local stores and Wal-Mart – the biggest, richest and most powerful retailer in history – “competition” is like calling a boxing match between a toddler and Mohammed Ali fair. The statement is too absurd to take seriously. But it is.

        A related indicator of the decline in democracy is the tendency to accord corporations the status of individuals, a development which impinges on the ability of real people to participate in the political process. Within the last several decades, the Supreme Court has repeatedly affirmed the right of corporate elites to commandeer the legislative process through their control over campaign financing. Spending money in support of a certain candidate is a form of ‘free speech,’ or so we are told. If corporate interests choose to buy off politicians by deluging the political process with cash, then this is just democracy in motion, ‘free speech.’ This logic could have been taken straight out of a Lewis Carol story, though Orwell is perhaps more apropos for our purpose. Apparently the irony of money being likened, indeed equated, with ‘free’ speech does not rub off on the Supreme Court, or much of mainstream America for that matter. Free speech, a value enshrined in the Bill of Rights, is still ‘free’ but you will have to pay for it if you want your ‘free’ speech to count. And since some people own more money they also have more ‘free’ speech. To borrow from Orwell, within America’s democracy all people are equal but some are more equal than others. All people have free speech but some people have more (and costlier) ‘free’ speech than others. 

        Recognition of corporate personhood is implicit in ‘The Oregonian’ article, though not in the way one might imagine. For in practice, corporate personhood not only gives the corporation the rights of individuals, but these rights tend to carry more weight than the equivalents accorded to real citizens. Put another way, not only do corporations enjoy the fruits of citizenship but they are something of a super-citizen, enjoying V.I.P. influence when it comes to how political decisions are made. This favoritism is clearly shared by ‘The Oregonian,’ which suggests that Wal-Mart and City Council should not hesitate to ride roughshod over the will of the citizens – that is, the real people: “the committee exploring business regulations would be wise to heed two pieces of advice… shared with the council: Don’t let fear determine your actions. And remember what your goals are. Put less clinically, the citizens of Sherwood need to get a grip.” In other words, the City Council should not waste time listening to the demands of the people – those whose expressed will is leading the Council to second-guess itself, or “fear” – but should act unilaterally, pursuing “your goals” first. Sometimes the people are too stupid to know what is good for them. In such cases the movers and shakers should dictate the terms, which is to say, help them “get a grip.” 

        While this logic would find itself at home in a fascist society, it is hardly compatible with a democratic one. Contrary to the claims of ‘The Oregonian,’ the will of the people does matter; in fact, it is the foundation of all democratic governance. Yet kowtowing to corporate largesse and elite power has become a hallmark of the political process. And this knee-jerk deference to authority is as keenly practiced by mainstream journalists as anyone.  Indeed, if the media is a ‘fourth estate’ then it is one whose land has become incestuously intermixed with the estates of Wal-Mart and other vested interests. Robert Fisk, the best English language journalist on the Middle-East, cheekily described this process when he suggested that ‘The New York Times’ should change its name to “American Officials Say,” seeing as it regularly rehashes the official version of events instead of launching its own investigation. One cannot help but wonder, for example, if the Iraq War would have happened if the media had chosen to question the findings of the Bush administration on WMD. By publishing the official story of an Iraq saturated with weapons the media greased the way for war, preparing the Bush line for public consumption side-by-side with the perjurers at the White House. And the presentation of the ‘facts’ was not simply complicated by misinterpretation or a misplaced emphasis on both ‘sides’ of the story in pursuit of ‘objectivity.’ Every major international organization and creditable expert said that there was no WMD in Iraq; still, the content of the major newspapers was “American Officials Say.” 

        This uncritical deference to power, whether corporate or governmental, continues in the media’s handling of the Snowden affair. Recent revelations about the National Security Agency’s surveillance of private citizens – activities which by definition violate the constitution – were greeted by the press with hellfire and brimstone, against Edward Snowden that is. One would think that the ‘fourth estate,’ a supposed bastion of transparency and free discourse, would have welcomed the revelations. After all, investigative journalists rely on similar sources to perform their work. Instead, Snowden has been vilified by journalists from all milieus: David Brooks on public television, Jeffrey Toobin in ‘The New Yorker,’ and every major broadcasting station in America. To hear all the major news organs parrot the government line at the same time is as amusing as it is disturbing. In a rare moment of candor, the masks of ‘objectivity’ and ‘independence’ have been swiftly cast off. It is like watching a group of avowedly independent anarchists suddenly engage in an elaborate synchronized swimming routine. Needless to say, ‘The Oregonian’ has been equally reticent to call Snowden a whistleblower, preferring to describe him with more ‘neutral’ language when not simply hashing-out articles from the Associated Press or another major news organ. 

        Having spent the first part of this essay explaining why democracy is in a state of crisis, I would like to spend the remaining portion examining why what’s going on in Sherwood is democracy in action. When I returned home last month from school, I was stunned by the number of no build signs posted around Sherwood. Residents have been packing into City Council meetings, circulating a no build petition and organizing at the grassroots level in opposition to the super-retailer. The tension is visceral: anti-Wal-Mart signs have found their way into every neighborhood and Wal-Mart, contrary to insinuations in ‘The Oregonian,’ has yet to build at the site. Residents are choosing to overcome apathy, ideology and the inertia of their personal problems to unite in demanding that the city not allow a corrupt corporation to plant its roots here. To paraphrase Thoreau, they have decided to cast their whole vote. 

        And this is a cause worth fighting for. Wal-Mart embodies much of what is wrong with democracy today. Being the largest retailer in the world, the company uses many overseas suppliers which are involved in human-trafficking, wage-slaving and other illegal enterprises. Human Rights Watch has found that at one shrimp supplier in Thailand, for example, many of the workers had been brought to the plant under false pretenses before being forced to work as indentured labor. The company illegally confiscated workers’ passports, workplace conditions were unsafe and the workforce had been procured with the help of human traffickers. 

        When HRW brought these findings to Wal-Mart the company stated that it would investigate work conditions at the plant, acknowledging that they regularly received shrimp shipments from the supplier in question. Later the company asserted that it did not receive shrimp shipments from that supplier, contradicting previous statements and a mass of evidence suggesting otherwise. Workers say that inspectors had previously visited the site but failed to lodge any complaints about the supplier’s misconduct. And as HRW’s John Sifton writes, “It is comic – or, actually, tragic – to imagine a Sam’s Club buyer visiting the Song Khla facility, saying, ‘thank you’ to a cadre of indentured laborers who are unable to speak openly about their labor woes.” 

        It is also well known that Wal-Mart applies downward pricing pressure in the clothing industry, pursuing a policy which increases profit margins by slicing the wages of workers at the bottom rung of the supply-chain. Put in bleaker terms, the company makes money by taking it away from the poorest and most vulnerable workers, oftentimes destitute widows and children. Workplace conditions for these employees are just as appalling. During a November 2012 sweat-shop fire in Bangladesh, 112 workers died deaths which could have been prevented if not for hazardous working conditions. The site supplied clothing to Wal-Mart, the biggest and wealthiest retailer in the world. And after the most recently publicized sweatshop blaze, Wal-Mart refused to join the European Union in agreeing to stricter safety standards for it suppliers, a disturbing indicator of where its true priorities lie. 

        You do not have to travel overseas, though, to witness the company’s unspeakable behavior. More sexual discrimination lawsuits have been lodged against Wal-Mart than against any other organization in the U.S. The sheer number of cases is so great that the company has succeeded in convincing the government that these cases should not be considered together. Since lawsuits have been filed in every corner of the country, the company asserts that they are too numerous and diverse to be considered the same form of discrimination – or so the reasoning goes. Yet one could equally argue that in light of the unprecedented number and commonality of the claims, it would be a serious lapse in judgment on the part of U.S. officials if they were not considered together. Unfortunately, it seems that the wishes of a single corporate ‘person’ will trump the grievances of 1.5 million real women. As Amanda Reed, a blogger for NOW, writes:

        “Many female Walmart employees have been paid less than male coworkers. In 2001, female workers earned $5,200 less per year on average than male workers. The company paid those who had hourly jobs, where the average yearly earnings were $18,000, $1.16 less per hour ($1,100 less per year) than men in the same position. Female employees who held salaried positions with average yearly earnings of $50,000 were paid $14,500 less per year than men in the same position. Despite this gap in wages, female Walmart employees on average have longer tenure and higher performance ratings.

        “In Dukes v. Walmart -- the largest class action gender discrimination lawsuit in U.S. history -- 1.5 million female employees accused Walmart of discrimination in promotions, pay and job assignments. The case included 120 affidavits relating to 235 stores. When the Supreme Court heard the case in 2011, it ruled that ‘[e]ven if every single one of these accounts is true, that would not demonstrate that the entire company operate[s] under a general policy of discrimination.’ Today, many of the plaintiffs are in the process of filing smaller suits against the corporation.”

        Wal-Mart is also renowned for attacking employees who attempt to unionize, a basic right under U.S. law but one which the company has fiercely resisted. Journalist Steven Greenhouse quotes a Human Rights Watch report which states that “when Wal-Mart faced unionization drives, the company often broke the law by, for example, eavesdropping on workers, training surveillance cameras on them and firing those who favored unions.” Moreover, the company’s crimes potentially reverberate far beyond its doors and the lives of its employees. Carol Pier, senior researcher at Human Rights Watch, notes that “When the largest private employer in the United States seems to be able to violate U.S. law with virtual impunity, that’s a very serious cause for concern, both with respect to its impact on employees, but also by other employers in the United States.” 

        The super-retailer’s assault on unions is also an assault on democracy. Within unions, workers are allowed to register grievances, voice their opinion and partake in the company’s decision-making process. At its finest, it is a perfect microcosm of democracy. I do not doubt that many readers will be put-off by hearing me saying this, but it is true. Consider. The fact that the word “union” arouses bad connotations is itself a measure of how successful corporate interest groups have been in deluding the public with their propaganda. We are told that if we do not live in a “right to work” state, we will be forced to join a union and pay unnecessary fees to maintain it. These corporate-backed propagandists neglect to mention, however, that under federal law no one can be forced to join a union. They also forget to mention that people who are members of a union generally have higher wages, more benefits and securer jobs than those performing the same work outside of one. Today people are inclined to forget that accident-insurance, the eight-hour workday and pensions were all brought about by labor activism and the unions that coalesced out of it. It does not take an economist to see why companies like Wal-Mart hate unions, it is the same reason they cut the wages of destitute children in Bangladesh: they are only concerned about making money. 

        But if the workplace can be a model democracy then it can also be a mirror of what is wrong in society. We have already noted Wal-Mart’s exploitation of the Global South, sexual discrimination and attack on free expression in the workplace. All of these problems, however, could just have easily have been noted by examining the retailer’s wage-structure; that is, who gets what on the company-ladder. Rose Aguilar writes that, “Wal-Mart, the country’s largest employer, posted $3.64 bn [billion] in profits for the third quarter alone [in 2012] and has already registered $444 bn in sales this year. Wal-Mart heir Robson Walton, whose net worth is $26 bn, took in more than $420 m [million] in dividends last year, while the average employee makes $8.81 an hour or $15,500 a year. The Walton family has more wealth than the bottom 42% of American families combined. In 2010, CEO Michael Duke’s annual salary of $35 m gives him more in an hour than a full-time employee makes in an entire year.” For a society in which wealth trickles upward at vacuum speed, it is no wonder that Wal-Mart has its apologists – the company creates and replicates the very order within which the ultra-wealthy pad their (multiple) wallet(s). 

        Sherwood’s grassroots campaign against Wal-Mart’s newest store proposal is democracy in action and a cause worth fighting for. Citizens are realizing that democracy is not a noun but a verb: it is difficult, often thankless and always requires action. ‘The Oregonian’ editorial’s quicksilver critique of Sherwood is, in truth, a resounding affirmation of their cause. Simply put, it would not make much sense if a major newspaper, a bastion of status quo values, did support this grassroots initiative. The fact that the citizens of Sherwood have so thoroughly chagrined those at ‘The Oregonian’ is really a vindication of their efforts; it is something to take genuine pride in. 

        And, as the facts make clear, opposition to Wal-Mart is not just a political issue but a moral one. Sherwood, an affluent community, has chosen to break from its role in the consumption chain; residents are refusing to taste the fruits of indentured-labor. Some critics, undoubtedly those at ‘The Oregonian,’ will respond by saying that the moral argument is understandable but unrealistic. But if Americans are not willing to address the moral problems that are visible, in fact, an entire city-block long, then where will they start? Again, none of these problems – human trafficking, sexual discrimination or depressed wages – are ‘inevitable.’ They are all rooted in decisions made by people and all human action implies choice. And even if we assume that Sherwood is being ‘unrealistic,’ it hardly seems ‘realistic’ to expect that these problems will go away if people choose to do nothing about them. It is worth noting that those who subscribe to this logic always call the plans which are destructive ‘realistic’ – deforestation, pollution and war – while all positive action is dismissed as ‘unrealistic’ – fair wages, sexual equality and conservation. As with the fallacy of the ‘free market,’ such fatalism is convenient for the powerful but dangerous for the powerless, especially if they happen to be performing sweated labor for Wal-Mart. And not only is it dangerous, it is stupid. The residents of Sherwood refuse to accept it and their decision should be respected. 

        In the field of economics there are some principles which attain the status of ‘laws.’ These principals are held to be true in virtually every instance and over time they may begin to take on an aura of the natural or immutable. The so-called ‘iron law of wages’ may begin to appear to be as natural as a law of physics, for example. This appearance of naturalness or immutability is misleading though, since economics always occurs within a particular social order which is organized by human-beings. The ‘laws’ may, then, describe how people act within the order they have constructed, but this order and the laws which describe it are, in the end, constructed ones. Over time, however, it becomes all too easy for the economist, politician or corporate executive to mistake these ‘laws’ for natural laws, like the laws of physics; they begin to believe that what is manmade is actually natural, true for all times and places. 

        This common mistake underlies many, if not most, of the problems we now face. Free-will, which is implied by democracy, is subjugated to the fatalism of economic ‘law.’ What goes unnoticed is the fact that all of these ‘laws’ arose out of decisions which were made by people and thus can be changed by people. For corporations, then, to suggest that they cannot afford to pay their employees a living-wage because of an ‘iron law of wages,’ or the ‘laws’ of the market is misleading. Yes, they may have to alter their business-model, the government’s role may change and consumers’ expectations will have to evolve, but change is always possible. And for the sake of democracy in America, indeed, for the sake of the human race, change must come. 

        In conclusion, there may be an ‘iron law of wages’ but the iron that composes it was smelt with human hands. And there may be an ‘iron law of Wal-Mart’ which asserts its inevitability, but the people of Sherwood refuse to follow it.

        For the sake of human decency, I hope they succeed. 

Note: For those who want to sign the no build petition, please go to Jennifer Harris' petition at change.org. The petition is titled, "Walmart Corporation: Do not Bring Walmart to Sherwood, Oregon." The URL is: http://www.change.org/petitions/walmart-corporation-do-not-bring-walmart-to-sherwood-oregon