iOS app Android app More

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Janet Ritz

GET UPDATES FROM Janet Ritz
 

The Case for Informed Citizenship

Posted: 07/15/10 01:09 PM ET

With reports of the use of child labor in horrific conditions that supply tobacco to Philip Morris cigarettes, the ongoing destruction of the Gulf of Mexico, the suicides by technology workers in China, the denial of unemployment insurance extensions to the millions who've exhausted their benefits, the widespread use of child labor to produce chocolate, and the conflict minerals used in cell phones, has the time come for citizens to look in the mirror?

Human Rights Watch, the group best known for documenting governmental abuse and war crimes, plans to release a report on Wednesday showing that child and forced labor is widespread on farms that supply a cigarette factory owned by Philip Morris International in Kazakhstan, in Central Asia.

While child labor should be condemned in any setting, the report said, employing children on tobacco farms is particularly hazardous because tobacco field laborers are exposed to high levels of nicotine while doing their jobs.

In a society that runs on oil, on gas, on coal, on supermarket produce sections piled high with colorful fruits and vegetables that many around the world would see as equivalent to the gold in Fort Knox, we have distractions from the consequences of our choices. If we stop to think about what went into the production of that phone, that tank of gas, that bar of chocolate, what will we see in ourselves? Are we, by our own obtuseness, responsible for those who toil in unsafe conditions, who find themselves looking out at a destroyed Gulf of Mexico, who mourn for loved ones buried in an unsafe mine?

There used to be more concern about the world, about our impact through climate change, the heartbreak of unemployment in a great recession, the desire to make a difference through sustainability and social responsibility. Now we see members of Congress who ridicule those they've helped to throw out of work and a worldwide press that feverishly touts "Climategate" allegations -- ruining careers and endangering the progress toward needed repair -- and then buries the retractions of those false allegations in their back pages.

Given the trajectory the scientists say we are on, one must hope that the academy's report, and Wednesday's debunking of Climategate, will receive as much circulation as the original, diversionary controversies.
No one notices the correction of a diversion when a broken Washington won't extend unemployment benefits to those at effect of their own failed policies and who slap each other on the back for their own through-the-looking-glass sense of street cred of being bigger and badder than anyone else, all the while exposing the missing piece of a soul that would allow the middle class to fall into poverty while they demand unpaid for tax breaks for the richest among us.

All amid cries of "socialism"!

Who is benefiting from socialism in the United States right now? It's not the growing legions of the unemployed. It's not the dwindling middle class being forced into a new standard of poverty as the decided norm pronounced from on high by those who have never had to use an ATM. It's the very rich who are able to pay less taxes than their secretaries, as was pointed out by Warren Buffet. It's the corporations who see their oil and gas exploration now polluting our Gulf and fracking of our water, subsidized by politicians voted in by uninformed citizens too distracted to anticipate the consequences of their vote.

The American people have nothing against capitalism. Everyone wants to make a buck. But this is not capitalism. It's corporate socialism and social Darwinism that is being perpetrated against the American people and their natural resources -- with disastrous consequences -- while the poorest of other countries suffer for the never-ending appetite of the socially irresponsible consumerism that pervades our culture.

The late American psychologist, Gustave Gilbert, once made the observation (paraphrased) that evil was the absence of empathy. There are members of House and Senate who have made a stand that empathy is weak and wrong. There are those who vote them into office and who keep them there that have either been persuaded by this argument or who agree with it wholeheartedly.

What has happened to this country? What has happened to help thy neighbor? What has happened to strength in numbers? What has happened to the heart and soul of the good American? How long can we put our heads in the sand while the heat waves rage above us before we realize that there are consequences to our choices? That the neighbor whose house goes into foreclosure because their Senator blocked their unemployment has now brought the value down on everyone's house on the block?

Naomi Klein warned in her book, The Shock Doctrine, that there was a concerted effort to create crises in societies that would allow corporate interests to take advantage of dazed citizenry:

In The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein explodes the myth that the global free market triumphed democratically. Exposing the thinking, the money trail and the puppet strings behind the world-changing crises and wars of the last four decades, The Shock Doctrine is the gripping story of how America's "free market" policies have come to dominate the world -- through the exploitation of disaster-shocked people and countries.
Disaster capitalism has been active around the world for decades while the American public has remained oblivious. Is it any surprise that those who have profited would bring their modus operandi to our shores? Is it possible that America has become a third world country to these mega corporations and their representatives in Washington and in state governments?

When viewed from that perspective, the horrific and continually unfolding disaster in the Gulf takes on a troubling light. Did BP act with such recklessness because they knew the officials in the Gulf Coast region and the regulatory agencies long ago captured by industry would do little in response to unwanted outcomes? Have corporations come to see Louisiana and the surrounding states in the same way they look at third world regions so long at effect of their carelessness and callous behavior?

The only people who can change this downward spiral in which American has found itself are those who are willing to change themselves. Do you feel dazed by events? In a trance where only rage and outrageousness moves you? Do you watch only one news channel? Do you read only opinions that are similar to your own? Do you vote against your own interests, whether you realize that or not? Do you feel blindsided when your options are reduced?

The change to informed citizenship requires due diligence. Where does the product you're about to buy come from? Who manufactured it? What are the conditions that were incurred to produce it? Are those conditions something you would support? That's due diligence.

The same diligence can apply to the American economy. Were American jobs displaced to make that product elsewhere? Is there a viable American alternative, preferably local, available?

The diligence is the responsibility of a citizen when it comes to elected representatives. Who donates to their campaigns? Who are they beholden to? What are their voting records? What alternatives are available if those answers are not satisfactory?

The diligence can overcome bias in the media through ratings. Are you voting with your remote control for out-of-control rhetoric and the very distractions that daze and confuse you?

President Obama made an important point at a commencement speech delivered earlier this year:

ANN ARBOR, Michigan (AP) -- In a blunt caution to political friend and foe, President Obama said Saturday that partisan rants and name-calling under the guise of legitimate discourse pose a serious danger to America's democracy, and may incite "extreme elements" to violence.


"What troubles me is when I hear people say that all of government is inherently bad," Obama said after receiving an honorary doctor of laws degree. "When our government is spoken of as some menacing, threatening foreign entity, it ignores the fact that in our democracy, government is us."

The founding fathers left a remarkable system of representative democracy that requires nurturing by those who depend upon it for their life, liberty and pursuit of happiness. If you're an informed citizen, you know it's your responsibility to protect and nurture that system. The results of your actions and of those who are empowered by your actions are important to you. You research it to protect yourself.

With that research, you can make informed choices about what you buy, how you live, how you get your information, how much you are at effect of the policies enacted by those you've empowered. With your dollar, you can choose items that do not harm children or that enslave adults in the process of manufacture. With your dollar, you can choose products that do not harm or deplete our natural resources by use or misuse. With your dollar, you can choose items that enhance the quality of life rather than destroy it.

With your vote, you can change the world. Who is obstructing the process? Ask yourself that. Be willing to look at the answer even if it does not fit your ideology. Don't give in to inflammatory rhetoric designed to shock and awe you into supporting those who would use you for their own profit. Don't give in to "us and them" thinking; the idea that bad things happen to people because they must somehow deserve it, rather than the clear-eyed suspicion that maybe, just maybe, someone is profiting off their misery and doesn't want you to know your complicity.

It takes courage and discipline to be an informed citizen. The pressure to join a mob mentality where personal responsibility is diluted within the group is very high in a society pressured by the worries of day-to-day survival. It is not helped when the government itself turns into factionalism akin to a cafeteria fight where the cooks and servers run to see the combatants, which leaves no one to stock the food trays for starving students.

There are Americans who are starving, who are increasingly homeless, who are sitting in growing despair at the betrayal by the representatives they voted into Congress. A large majority of Americans, by the latest poll, want unemployment compensation restored past the 99 week threshold. That it has not been done means the representatives they voted into office are not representing them. And yet, when asked who they will vote for, many of these same displaced citizens, angry at their situation but uninformed as to the reason, state they will vote for the very politicians who have denied or will deny them their needed support.

An informed citizen can change that. An informed citizen can change the world. The golden land that beckoned others to freedom is still here, somewhere, under the oil spill and the heat waves and the recession and the businesses that hoard their trillions rather than hiring or lending. The layers of pollution and the cries of children are a thick muck from which to emerge. It will take discipline on the part of every citizen. It will take the commitment to self-inform.

If you are a citizen who is lucky enough to have a job, to have security, to have clean water to drink and clean air to breath and clean oceans in which to bathe, whose children are happy and safe, rather than working in obscene conditions while getting poisoned by nicotine, don't just count your blessings, look at your part in the impact on others who don't share your advantages.

If you do that, sleep well at night, even if the world's not perfect.

More on this topic at The Environmentalist

 

Follow Janet Ritz on Twitter: www.twitter.com/janetritz