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Randall Amster

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Schlock Doctrine: Where, and by Whom, Was Your Christmas Made?

Posted: 12/27/09 08:40 PM ET

Nothing against our friends and neighbors in the Far East, but it seems as if just about everything that came down the chimney for Christmas this year bore a "made in China" label on its underbelly. Even the items that appear to be iconically American in their logos and characters have been shipped here from across the planet. This is the stark reality of globalization.

Children's toys in particular present a unique ethical conundrum. On the one hand, we want our kids to have stimulating new things to play with and expand their repertoires of dexterity and cognizance. On the other hand, we cannot escape the fact that another kid on the other side of the planet might be toiling in a factory somewhere to make the stuff that potentially enhances our kids' lives. This is especially the case when nearly every toy -- even supposedly "green" ones -- seemingly comes from the Middle Kingdom.

Sweatshop labor, of course, is no secret, but it remains something of an abstraction through the insulation of our lives in the West. That fell apart around here this year, when I noticed that some of the boxes in which our purchases arrived had actual names of people next to the "Made by" category inscribed on them. They also listed factory numbers and product designations in many cases as well, such as "Item #2572 of 32525." If it's indeed the case (as Vegan Peace observes) that "the average North American toy maker earns $11 an hour [while] in China, toy workers earn an average of 30 cents an hour," then someone is obviously making a pretty penny on this system just in the rate of labor exchange alone.

These realities have been thoroughly understood for some time now, as evidenced by this 2005 article in which the complexities of the problem are well documented:

"The International Labor Organization (ILO) has estimated that of the 250 million children between the ages of five and fourteen work in developing countries, 61 percent are in Asia. Although we live in an extremely modern age, there is, in fact, child slave labor present in China . Some of these children work in sweatshops. A sweatshop is a workplace where workers are subjected to extreme exploitation, including the lack of a living wages or benefits, poor and dangerous working conditions, and harsh and unnecessary discipline, such as verbal and physical abuse. Sweatshop workers are paid less than their daily expenses, thus they are never able to save any money to invest in their futures. They are trapped in a never-ending cycle."

Disney products specifically have been singled out in the past for their imbrication in this oppressive system. Wal-Mart, which the United Food and Commercial Workers Union notes is "the largest importer of Chinese goods," has repeatedly asserted its innocence in such matters, yet speculation continues. Even some Sesame Street products, which discerning parents will often embrace due to the items' perceived educational qualities and general familiarity, have been implicated in recent years. The full ramifications of this global trade in exploitative toys have not been lost on analysts and activists, including this introduction to a 2008 report from the National Labor Committee:

"In China , the busy toy season is already in full swing as thousands of factories work around the clock churning out millions of holiday toys, which will start arriving in the United States and Europe by September. Like last year and the years before, the American people will spend over $21 billion on 3.6 billion toys this holiday season. At least 85 percent of these toys are made in China by three million mostly young women workers toiling long hours in 8000 factories. And these are only the factories that have export licensees, leaving aside the many smaller subcontract toy plants."

There are certainly many alternatives for purchasing products with greater ethical standards (the website Vegan Peace, among other sources, provides links to a number of them). But let's face it -- parents are busy, disposable incomes are tight, children need stimulation, time is money, and this is America. In other words, even with the best of intentions, it's a great challenge to be purists in our parenting. Furthermore, most folks out there don't give these issues a second thought at all, leaving the few making more deliberate choices merely a small drop in a high-volume bucket. Finally, there really isn't a foolproof, diplomatic way to fully screen out gifts from well-meaning others.

And then, inevitably, the stuff will soon break. I estimate about a one-month shelf life for any new toy given to a child under five. Some items retain functionality with missing buttons and lost pieces, whereas many others wind up in landfills -- or, in a feat of wonderful irony, recycled and shipped back to China to be turned into more short-term consumer goods. Thus, in many cases, the things we buy are almost literally garbage.

The most apropos description of this cycle of inherent decrepitude is perhaps the Yiddish word schlock, meaning something "cheap, shoddy, or inferior." While I would love to claim sole authorship of the ironic phrasing in the title of this piece, it has actually appeared previously in a few places, including in an amusingly caustic critique of Naomi Klein's persuasive book The Shock Doctrine in which she argues that capitalism foments and (of course) capitalizes upon crises, thus cleverly making a buck both coming (i.e., problem) and going (i.e., solution). Referring to Klein as "the Ann Coulter of Canada -- a demagogic sycophant who has parlayed her political shtick into a lucrative business," this sophomoric article with its sarcastic mien actually almost got it right in the end:

"We Americans and our evil multinationals, it seems, champion a brand of heartless free-market piracy, which robs the good people of the developing world of the fruits of their labor, and forces them to toil in hot, miserable working conditions, just to make our garments and sneakers. Our big multinationals assimilate or obliterate anything in their path towards global domination."

The author of this 2008 missive likely didn't intend to validate Klein's logic. But to critique a thesis one must be able to articulate it cogently, hence arguing for its utility as a point of critical reference. In a similar sense, the lesson of this holiday season may well be that the ethical implications of our choices are so woven into the fabric of ordinary commerce that we almost can't help but be pulled into orbit around a set of values that most would deem both schlocky and shocking at the same time. And so, in explicating the aesthetic of schlock and its uncritical acceptance among many consumers, perhaps we have uncovered something uniquely "made in America " after all.

 

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