Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Of Jonestown, Maquiladoras, and Elections

Last night, through the Los Angeles Film Festival, I saw a documentary called Jonestown: the Life and Death of Peoples Temple, by Stanley Nelson. What started for some as a noble ideal of equality and justice for all turned into a nightmare. They found themselves living in a police state of the mind so strong that parents encouraged their kids to drink poisoned Kool-aid. The original faith in their leader turned to fear and even loathing, and yet, they did not feel they could escape his grip. The few that tried had guns trained on them, reminding them that life as they sought it was not an option.

While watching, I wondered, as did many in the audience, how did they let it get so far? Originally, the church was simply one of the few that had all the joy of a black gospel service but with the interracial twist that many found so enticing. People who had lives of little joined a community that promised, and for a time delivered, lives of plenty. Healthcare was readily available. All the food you needed. Shelter. Love. Community. For many, People’s Temple was a socialist Utopia, the likes of which they had never seen in their lives.

At the end of the screening, some of the survivors, members of People’s Temple who were not at the compound in Guyana that day, took questions from the audience. One person asked, "How could you not see that Jim Jones was crazy?"

And then it hit me.

We are all living in Jonestown now.

As one of survivors said, the craziness came upon them so slowly that they didn’t see the signs. One is reminded of the proverbial frog in the pot of boiling water, that doesn’t leap out because the heat is upped so gradually he boils to death. (This appears to be an urban legend, but the image is too valuable not to use.)

Here we sit, as our freedoms are stripped from us one by one, including our right to privacy, or unwarranted search and seizure, rights which are violated when our phone records, email records, and bank records are snooped indiscriminately, or worse, for political revenge. We sat by and watched as George Bush stole Al Gore’s victory and claimed the Presidential mantle for himself. We sat by as the government told us they had no idea someone would fly a plane into a building (even though such scenarios had been widely discussed and pictured in defense department literature). We sat by as we saw a false case being built for war in Iraq. Some of us marched, but what good did that do? After marching, we went back to consume the goods produced by our sick society and tuned out, because to do otherwise was too painful.

And then another election stolen from the voters. Republicans in Nevada threw out Democratic voter registrations. Straight party votes in New Mexico weren’t counted. Voter Rolls were purged in several states. And then, Ohio. We sat by, and kept drinking our Kool-aid, living in the nightmare described by the late, great comedian Bill Hicks: Go back to sleep, America. Your government is in control. You are free, to do as we tell you.

So who are we to judge anything about what others did at Jonestown? Who are the real crazies? The ones who chose for themselves a better life, not knowing how high a price they would have to pay, or those of us who, by our inaction, choose an increasingly worse life, marked by the loss of rights, the rise to power of those who cannot separate fact from fiction, and our own unwillingness to remove our fingers from keyboards long enough to work for the ideals for which people once readily gave their lives. It’s crazy. Our leaders are crazy. We’re crazy, for accepting all of this.

But what options do we have? Well, that’s where the other documentary I saw recently, Maquilapolis, comes in. Sunday morning, for free, thanks to the Los Angeles Film Festival, I had the privilege and heartbreak of watching the stories of several women who live just across the border of America, in Tijuana, working in the Maquiladoras – factories for Sanyo, Panasonic, and other household brands you’d recognize. These factories exist at the border for one reason only: to take advantage of cheap labor, unhampered by labor and environmental regulations. Through payoffs to the Mexican government, the multinationals have persuaded the Mexican government to allow their citizens to be used for slave-wage labor in these outposts of humanity. (Some of these companies are now relocating to Indonesia, were labor, and presumably government payoffs, cost even less.)

Onscreen, we watch how the companies take advantage of rains to dump their toxic sludge into the community, where it rushes down the unpaved roads and paths of the community, an overly beautiful word for homes made from discarded garage doors, things we throw away, in America. Our garbage is their protection, their only protection, from the elements. Wires hang into puddles, electrocuting children who play there while they’re parents are scrambling to bring food home for them. The lovely river, which used to be a place where people vacationed and camped, is now a cesspool of filth they try hard to avoid coming into contact with.

So who are the people who work in these factories? They are incredibly smart people, predominantly women, who never had the opportunity to go to school, who have had children dumped on them by absent men, who originally came to the Maquiladoras because they offered some wages when there were no jobs elsewhere. These women tell their children not to touch the ball being kicked around in the street, because it has rolled through the toxic sludge and contact will produce open sores on their body. They display rashes on their arms and faces from contact with chemicals. At work, the women get dehydrated, because the employers won’t let them drink water, or go to the bathroom, during their shift. They breathe lead at work because no one has their back and the corporate owners know only one God: Profit. Cleaning up the lead reduces profit. So it’s simply not done.

So what have these women done? They have formed a group to educate the others among them of the law, of their rights, to try to press for the accountability their elected officials should be demanding on their behalf.

One woman was just amazing. She was very young – maybe early twenties. She already had three children to tend. She took care of the children by day, and then worked all night. Sometimes she wouldn’t get any sleep. When her company folded up and left town, she checked her employment contract and noted that, according to the agreement, they owed her two weeks pay. The company simply refused to pay. She pressed. She couldn’t afford a lawyer. She became her own advocate, studying the law, learning, working with others in her community. She tried to work the legal system, only to find all the people in it drew money from the corporations she was trying to fight. Still, she pressed on. The company started paying attention. Through their lawyers, they tried to settle for half what they owed her. They fought this case hard because they feared this would set a precedent. The woman fought just as hard, for exactly the same reason. No, she said. This is what you owe. After three years, she had finally gotten the system to hold the company accountable, and the company finally paid up. They even threw in a little extra.

What a lesson.

She was not brainwashed into feeling powerless. She was not drinking the Kool-aid offered to her at every turn. She knew what was right, and would not stop until justice was served. And once she got her share, she started teaching others in their community about how they too could stand up for themselves.

If the poorest, most desperate among our fellow men and women can work for their rights, how is it that we, who are not in danger of losing our livelihood, who don’t necessarily have mouths we can’t afford to feed, do not have time to fight for our rights? We should be the ones looking out for the less fortunate. We should be the ones ensuring our elections mean something, and that elected people really work on our behalf to ensure the enforcement of laws, and to guarantee our rights. We are not holding each other, or the system, accountable. And as a result, it is failing us right and left.

Which brings me to the final point here today. We need many more people working on election protection. Every county and township needs people willing to hold their election officials accountable to whatever laws exist. We need people well-versed in the laws, who can go to the person in charge of vote counting (the county registrar, e.g.). This is not hard work, but it does require some time and effort. Others need to press for new laws to protect our vote.

It’s really this simple: We must have a voter-verified paper record, and that paper record must be audited, before we can claim to know the outcome of any election. We all need to get very educated between now and November so we can hold people’s feet to the fire.

I don’t know who won in 2004. To change the popular vote from a Bush victory to a Kerry victory would have taken a very small number of changes in every large county in the nation, or an even smaller number of changes in more places. Given that people are always trying to game the system, from the lowliest elected office up, it’s not hard to imagine that happened.

This fall, I want to know who wins. I don’t want to be like the people in Jonestown. I want to be like that woman in Maquiopolis, taking nothing for granted, demanding that the system be accountable to the law.

Will you join with me? Isn’t our vote worth some portion of your time, this year, while it may yet make a difference? Or will you just follow Bush to Irantown or wherever he’s going to drag us next?

If ever there was a time to make a stand, it’s now. We may not get another chance. What are you willing to do for your country?


Blogger Real History Lisa said...

Btw - check out Robert Parry's article today about the Madness of the one percent doctrine (if there's a 1% threat of terror, we must act, says Cheney). He uses this fabulous analogy:


In effect, Bush has found himself in a geopolitical version of “the little old lady who swallowed a fly.” As the children’s ditty goes, the little old lady next swallows a spider to catch the fly but soon finds that the spider “tickles inside her.” So, she engorges other animals, in escalating size, to eliminate each previous animal. Eventually, she swallows a horse and “is dead of course.”

Similarly, if Bush seeks to eradicate a succession of one-percent threats, he could well find himself trapped within a growing web of interrelated consequences, each pulling in their own entangling complexities. The end result could leave the United States in a much worse predicament than when the process began.

11:48 AM  
Blogger Real History Lisa said...

I wrote this long before the film "Lions for Lambs" came out and asked a similar question: what are you willing to do for what you believe?

Read my review of the film over at Consortium News.

12:21 PM  

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