Review: The True Cost

The True Cost: A Review.

Industrialized clothing production has always been problematic, but those problems have become intensified and have much more far-reaching consequences in recent decades. This is due in large part to a phenomenon known as “fast fashion.” In the not-so-distant past, the fashion world had two, at most three “seasons” of new clothing. However, global capitalist markets and industrialization have sped up production, shipping, and other processes that bring new styles to market, so much so that new fashions can hit shelves practically weekly. Hence, “fast fashion,” which encourages consumers to treat clothing as disposable.

The True Cost (2015) is an exploration of the causes and consequences of fast fashion in particular, and global capitalism in general. The film’s creators journeyed from Texas to the UK, from Bangladesh to Cambodia, from China to Haiti, and other places around the world. The film features interviews with experts from a multitude of fields, including ecofeminist Vandana Shiva, Free Market Institute director Benjamin Powell, physician Pritpal Singh, and animal rights activist and fashion designer Stella McCartney.

Perhaps most importantly, the film prominently features individuals struggling against the systemic problems associated with global capitalism in their own niches. Though they may be less famous in Western contexts, their stories are no less important. They help to shed light on the day-to-day consequences of the capitalist system, the ways in which seemingly disparate sectors are intrinsically connected within this system, and what individuals can do about it. Bangladeshi union leader Shima Akhter, American organic cotton farmer LaRhea Pepper, and Cambodian parliamentarian Mu Sochua are among these voices.

The True Cost takes a wide-lens view of the garment industry and the various economic pockets tied to it. I’ll discuss a few of the major themes that are the focus of this film here.

Agriculture

The huge growth seen in the fashion industry would not be possible without accompanying intensive industrialization of agriculture. As infrequently as we ponder the impact on garment workers as we shop for clothes, much less frequently do we think about farmers, who are one more step ‘removed’ from the final product. These industries appear disconnected to most of us, yet our constant consumption of “disposable clothing” would not be possible without industrialized agriculture. The industrialization of agriculture includes the mass use of herbicides, pesticides, and other agrochemicals that are not only dangerous for the natural world but also to human beings.

When her husband died of brain cancer, Texan LaRhea Pepper realized that organic farming isn’t just important, it is “imperative.” While she doesn’t have “a smoking gun” that directly connects the agrochemicals used on the farms surrounding her community to the many farmers she personally knows who have died from cancer, she has more than enough evidence to know that there is a dire need for organic farming techniques. She echoes ecofeminist Vandana Shiva’s sentiment that nature is the original economy, and when the land and waters suffers, humans suffer. Pepper says that we must “respect the life that’s in the land,” a lesson passed down to her in her farming family.

For farmers around the world, ‘modern’ agricultural products and techniques are tempting, despite the harm they can do to people and the environment. Yet it is a hard trap to escape from once signed onto, especially for farmers in “developing” countries, such as India. GMO cotton and other patented seeds have proven to be “ecological narcotics,” as Shiva calls them, because they require ever more chemicals (e.g. pesticides) to maintain their productivity. This in turn creates a dependency on GMO-patenting companies like Monsanto—which are the same companies producing agricultural chemicals. Even more disturbingly, Shiva asserts that the corporations selling carcinogenic farming chemicals are also investing in the development of cancer treatments and pharmaceuticals. In other words, these corporations benefit from causing, as well as treating, human ailments. It is easy to see that there is little incentive for this system to change itself, particularly when it prioritizes profit over human well-being.

Marketing

We think of propaganda “as a foreign thing,” says Mark Miller, professor of media studies at NYU, “but it’s actually as American as apple pie.” Advertising is essentially a form of propaganda that encourages us to buy stuff. Psychologist Tim Kasser has found that increases in materialistic values are associated with increases in anxiety and depression. After reviewing research on marketing, this is perhaps a predictable outcome of advertising that is designed to makes us feel insecure, incomplete, and incompetent—problems that can be ‘solved’ through the constant consumption of new products. Modern day marketing has become the art and science of what 19th century advertising copywriter Samuel Strausser called “consumptionism.” Miller explains that the logic of consumerism wants people “to treat the things we use as the things we use up.” This model is plainly unsustainable, but as economist Richard Wolff points out, American capitalism is treated as above criticism, regularly getting “a free pass” on its dysfunction.

Waste

Most of the waste we produce is non-biodegradable. In recent decades, a growing proportion of that waste is clothing. Increasingly, people think of fashion “as a disposable product,” according to journalist and True Cost producer Lucy Siegle. Many of us try to be more conscious of this, and believe we are doing good when we donate clothing to charity. But the “journey of a t-shirt donated to charity is unpalatable in itself,” says fashion designer Orsola de Castro. For example, almost 90% of the clothing we donate to local charities actually gets shipped to “developing” countries, such as Haiti. The unintended consequence of this is that it puts Haitian clothing manufacturers out of business, so there is less home-grown business and less local capital.

Consumer Capitalism as a Worldview

The True Cost creators interviewed Kate Ball-Young, a former sourcing manager for retail chain Joe Fresh, and in many ways her worldview neatly encapsulates the abstracted beliefs about globalization and capitalism held by most Americans today. Of garment factory workers, Ball-Young asserts that “they could be doing something much worse,” like coal-mining or something. She clearly has no idea just how hazardous garment manufacturing in countries like Cambodia, China, and Bangladesh truly is, both in the short and long-term. “There’s nothing intrinsically dangerous with selling clothes,” she says with a laugh. Perhaps that is true, but she appears to be disconnecting her own work from the very industry that provides her with a source of income in the first place. Ball-Young is emblematic of a Western mindset that as long as we can’t see where a thing came from, then we don’t need to ask hard ethical questions of ourselves, even when we sell or consume that thing.

For me, one of the most serious problems with this mindset is that we are not just cultivating an ignorance of where things come from, but indulging in a fantasy that real people did not create those things. Whether it is clothing or cars or food, we would much rather purchase and enjoy the end product guilt-free than contemplate the journey from field or mine to factory to storefront that a product must take. In doing so, we can overlook the human element of global capitalism—especially human suffering. Maybe we take it a step further by patting ourselves on the back for ‘supporting livelihoods’ overseas. Accompanying this belief is the attitude of TINA: “There Is No Alternative.” When we as consumers choose to believe that “there is no alternative” for the people producing our goods, we can excuse human rights violations, environmental devastation, and other associated problems because—well duh, what other choice do those people have? But what happens when we confront someone who believes this with, Well, aren’t we complicit in a system that has eliminated alternatives? We can’t abstract ourselves as individuals from these complex and interconnected systems in which we participate—and, frequently, which we benefit from. We must acknowledge that our choices as consumers has the power to perpetuate or alter these systems.

Some Criticism

As can be seen from this brief overview of a few of these major themes, the scope of the film is daunting. In its attempt to be accessible by not getting too deep with any one topic, The True Cost touches upon a variety of interconnected issues only superficially. This ends up becoming a core critique from film reviewers, such as Vanessa Friedman. In her New York Times review, she wrote of The True Cost’s director Andrew Morgan, “it’s hard not to feel in the end that he was overwhelmed by the scale of the problem. In trying to do everything, he skirted a lot of things, including acknowledging the shades of gray in this subject.”

Another shortcoming of this film is that it is not explicit enough in stating the disproportionate effect of exploitative industries like fast fashion on people of colour, most of all people of colour in the ‘Global South.’ To put it into perspective, (particularly white) Western consumers are exempt of accountability for their part in exploiting the time, health, and labor of people of colour in ‘distant lands.’ So while I commend the film for putting women of colour’s voices and experiences front and center, it cheats its own argument by shying away from the ways in which gender, race, and nationality play into global capitalism’s systemic violence. The film also does not in any way note how global capitalism is in part an expression of Western colonialism and imperialism, and how people of colour (especially women) continue to suffer the greatest burden of this legacy.

Finally, although there is some discussion of disability and mental health throughout the documentary, this is done without exploration of the experiences of people who are multiply marginalized. That is, the film’s creators do not flesh out the ramifications of living and working within an oppressive system that contributes to mental and physical disabilities disproportionately in communities of colour and in the ‘Global South.’ And where women of colour are place front and center to tell their own stories in their own voices, disabled people are not afforded this treatment. Rather, they are featured more as props backgrounding the ‘horrible’ stories of environmental contamination explicated by the director/narrator.

The Bottom Line

Nevertheless, for people who have never met a garment factory worker (let alone are friends with any), The True Cost may bring the human element of exploitative industries, like fast fashion, to the fore of their consciousness. Maybe they will start to pay more attention to workers’ struggles around the globe, including in places like Cambodia and Bangladesh. Maybe it will start to sink in how these systems do much for the West at the expense of the Global South, especially women of colour. Maybe they will start to see how our decision-making processes impact the direction industries take, and thus how we need to take responsibility for those decisions and their effects on our fellow Earthlings.

This documentary is best for people with limited knowledge of the themes it discusses, as it provides some solid, entry-level information. It’s a great starting point for getting a big-picture grasp of the abusive nature of global capitalism. From there, hopefully viewers will continue to more deeply educate themselves on these issues.

Here is some literature that might prove helpful for such continuing education on global capitalism, the interconnectedness of its systems, and how this impacts all of us:

And for those specifically interested in “buying better,” check out this page on the film’s site.

 

 

How (Not) to Deal

The past couple weeks I’ve been thinking a lot about relationships. About my past relationships, potential future relationships. I’ve been thinking about why the ones in the past went wrong (not all of them did, but most of them), whose “fault” it was, and about why I have a fairly cynical attitude towards future ones. I also hear other women talking about their feelings on similar notions: I don’t want to “settle”, I’d rather be alone; I can’t seem to find a guy that I’m on the same page with; It shouldn’t require so much effort/compromise; When it doesn’t work out, I feel like it’s my fault; and other such sentiments.

There have been some videos circulating recently, about guys as well as girls (not really sure what to think about the “bossy” video, haven’t made up my mind, but that’s another story), that I have felt are really connected to this, but at first wasn’t sure how.

There have also been all these articles lately decrying, or simply commenting on, our depraved and rampant hookup culture in the States, (oddly enough?) pinning most of the blame on women. (Tangent: Doesn’t this tell us something about what happens to decent newspapers when they become private? Give me a break, WP…) Their quotes of women explaining why they would rather hook up in short, apparently meaningless relationships certainly makes the situation look very shallow: “cost-benefit analysis”, really? Seems like we’re in a sorry state.

Rosin talks about this in The End of Men, where hookup culture comes from and why women, in general, are tending to avoid committed relationships more and more often. But her portrayal of women’s side of the story tends to pin the blame on men: they [meaning most men] simply have not caught up to where social gender norms are today. Things have changed very quickly, but [most] men have not changed with the times.

I tend to agree with that, but I think she doesn’t bring the argument full circle: [most] men are able to carry on with their antiquated worldview because we are still raising them to believe in it. Meaning, their fathers and their mothers (and schools, religious institutions, sports organizations and so on).

This is the female version of the men’s activist crowd’s gripe, where they complain about being subject to military draft and losing custody battles, yet refuse to acknowledge their views of masculinity (gender, more broadly) as harmful. Women complain about not being able to find an “emotionally available” man who is willing to commit, yet continue raising their sons with the self-entitlement, masculinity complex and heteronormative ideologies that deprive them of what they’re looking for. Both lines of thinking want to keep their cake and eat it too.

I get it. I feel scared when I have my worldview rattled, too. I feel stupid and ashamed, at times, when that happens. Sometimes it means giving up some power, which is also scary. But paradigm shifts can also be liberating, and transcendental. I mean, wow, they can feel really good! And it is often they case that they can work out for a win-win situation.

Well, what does this mean for me. What do I have to do. I guess it first means taking a long look at my own short-comings, some of which are the result of my [patriarchal] cultural upbringing. As a for instance, I was twenty-one years old when I finally learned how to talk about my feelings. As in, “I feel sad.” “I feel angry.” Sound strange? To be fair, most American girls/women don’t suffer terribly from an inability to label or express their feelings, because they are told being emotional is feminine and they embrace their emotions as a way to embrace their femininity. I didn’t like the idea of femininity, however, didn’t see myself as feminine, and even deplored it, to a degree. [Patriarchal] American mainstream culture also tells us that that which is deemed feminine is lesser, kind of vapid, a little bit pathetic. So while it was how I was “supposed” to behave, I very much rejected it and modeled myself after male role models.

vincent_van_gogh_woman_head_hands

Many (most?) of the boys/men around me would go through the following succession when confronted with strong negative feelings: 1. Humor: Make them laugh, laugh it off, make light of the situation. Especially good if you can laugh at them so they will not feel safe bringing up negative feelings around you in the future (but you can also laugh at yourself, too). If they persist, try 2. Anger: Lash out, put it back on them, make them feel guilty for bringing up negative feelings, generally yell or get pissed until they stop. Good for multiple uses because it also acts as a deterrent to people bringing up negative feelings around you in the future. If this fails, phase 3: Shutting down: Just stop talking. Stop blinking. Maybe even stop breathing. Don’t respond in any way, shape, or form. Eventually they will feel too stupid/hurt/embarrassed/guilty to continue and will go away. It’s like the No Talking game: whoever can out-silence the other person the longest wins. Now, should this not work, you will need to resort to phase 4…: Running away: That’s right. Literally flee the room. Probably they won’t pursue you, but if they do, get to a place where they can’t find you. You could even get in your car and drive away (later you can pass this off as “blowing off steam” so that you still look like you’re in Phase 3 and will save some masculine face, feel me?). It works via Internet too. Are you having a skype conversation that suddenly turns all negatively feely? Slam! Close the lid, problem solved. :D …Right?

It seemed a fairly successful model. For example, it resulted in me not crying for a span of nearly two years, excepting the occasion of my grandfather’s funeral. I got very good at expressing all my negative feelings as just one: anger.

This all sounds pretty emotionally immature, eh? Agreed. This treatment of emotions stunts one’s ability to label and own emotions, to empathize with others, even to feel. But when it is your cultural worldview, it sure seems like the right/good thing to do. And so I did, for years and years, until I felt bad enough to want to Exit Stage Left. Fortunately, fortuitously for me, I fell into a good crowd, and I literally began to have this value set untrained from me. It was rough. It still is rough. But I am fairly certain I treat people a lot better now, and I absolutely feel better off, myself.

Cambodian mainstream culture has only convinced me further that this way of dealing with emotions is harmful, to individuals, relationships, and communities. I see people here go through a similar set of phases when confronted with strong negative feelings, but in the extreme: when jokes and anger don’t work, violence is an all-too-easy method of next resort. A man fired off his assault rifle at a wedding when folks wouldn’t turn the music back on for him. This admiration of hypermasculine values is hardly an American thing, and it doesn’t just hurt women.

I don’t believe this is the Answer to Everything, but I think this could be a really good jumping-off point for addressing harmful patriarchal values on an individual level. It’s something we can do in our own homes. It can be as simple as not laughing at or mocking someone who is crying– be they male or female. You are probably doing so because it is making you feel uncomfortable, perhaps because you don’t have a clue of what to do– because your culture has utterly deprived you of any tools to deal with strong negative feelings, be they your own or someone else’s.

I am a firm believer that empathy can be learned, but just as important as taking on a new value set is eradicating the old one.

Thoughts on this?

A Beautiful Day for a Protest

The crowd in front of the Institute for Foreign Languages is enormous by 9 o’clock, comprised of thousands of mostly young women, though there are young men and older folks as well. Here and there is a monk or two. They stretch for almost a kilometer in each direction down Russian Boulevard, with the crowd still growing, spilling onto side streets, Cambodian flags scattered amongst them. They are garment factory workers protesting the abysmal wages they are expected to survive and support families on. They have demanded $160, and it looks like they’re not going home ‘til they get it. They turned down the government’s recent offer to raise minimum wage from $75 to $95; $95 is still not a living wage, but it did seem like a mild insult.

In the epicenter of the noisy scene is a group of tuk tuks with the strikers’ ringleaders on top, a handful of men and a couple of women. They have megaphones, enormous loudspeakers, and they shout their demands from the tuk tuk roofs. For the first three hours, it is mostly the same two men, looking to be in their 30s, leading the cheers and shouted slogans. Then some drums and music sound, and there is dancing. After the dancing, a young woman appears on top of the tuk tuks, holding a microphone. She gets the crowd riled, her fist raised in the air. Participants and bystanders alike record the scene with their smartphones. RFA and Phnom Penh Post journalists retreat into the coffee shop across from IFL, which is virtually empty…besides me.

I talked to a group of young women just outside the coffee shop, who told me they are from Prey Veng, Kampong Speu, Kandal. The youngest was 16 and the eldest 30, but most were 18 or 19. I wanted to ask them loads of questions, like who were they staying with while they were in the city, so far from home? How could they afford to strike for so long and travel so far to petition their government? How long have they worked in the factories, what were the factories like, what did their families think of their working in them? But they are far from home, indeed, and they look on me with suspicion and perhaps amusement, or puzzlement. Perhaps it is because I’m a short-haired white girl—a ktheuy (a “gay”) for all intents and purposes, and why do I want to talk to them? City folk are more or less comfortable with me, and I have no trouble around the people in the places I frequent, but people from remote villages are another story. I baffle them, and maybe scare or disgust some of them (sentiments I have heard my Khmer friends and acquaintances express about their ktheuy counterparts). Mostly they are too polite to say anything, but they have few qualms, it seems, about giving me the cold shoulder. A few minutes milling around a huge crowd is not much time to gain someone’s trust.

I am impressed by the strikers’ tenacity; strikes have been happening on and off for months now in various parts of the country, but this round of strikes began last Tuesday. Strikes have often lead to protests, which occasionally have turned violent (which is nothing new). In Phnom Penh they have marched to four kilometers to Hun Sen’s building, carrying signs and wearing smiles. Cambodia is not a union-friendly nation, but it would seem that Cambodians see value in them, and in workers’ rights. Enough to fight for them, though their opponents are formidable. The atmosphere of unrest is tangible; these protests are concurrent with the opposition CNRP’s protests against the 2013 national election results. Various other protests over land grabbing, workers’ rights, environmental and other issues occur on what is becoming a regular basis across Cambodia. One wonders how long things can go on like this before something gives…

Striking factory workers march down Russian Blvd.

Striking factory workers march down Russian Blvd.

Thousands of protesters clog Russian Blvd for over 5 kilometers.

Thousands of protesters clog Russian Blvd for over 5 kilometers.

Here’s hoping for $160 in 2014!

Guest Blog: The Manifestation of the New Age Hippy

Guest blog by Ellen Ripley.

The Manifestation of the New Age Hippy

I thought that the perfect decade to live in would be the 60’s, so that I could have lived in San Fran, experienced the summer of love, etc. I had always admired the counterculture of the hippies, black panthers, feminists, punks, and others, and how, for the first time in history, minorities were able to impact the world around them. However, let’s fast forward to 2013– what the f happened to these social movements why was peace and love not enough to change the world more concretely? Well, after I had the opportunity to actively do some unintentional field work in Northern Cali (fyi I am not a trained anthropologist but I’m sure you can get over that, haha), I have come to some realizations. Feel free to disagree or downright scream at me for my view points, but it’s just how I saw things go down. Where to start… Well, first off, the hippy movement is still alive and kicking in Northern Cali but the culture or core ideologies have shifted as even they realize that smoking and listening to music, however good, was not going to impact the world in the way they once hoped. In 2013, the street hippies have their own code of ethics, which in many ways is contradictory to what the movement was supposed to be all about.

For one, let’s talk about the legalization of marijuana, which you would think would be supported in full since most of the people I talked to on the streets and at the music festivals believe this drug will save the world, has healing power and so forth and so on. With this concept in mind you would think they’d say, yeah, legalize it. Not so, however, because most of the people growing make a shit-ton of money and are small farmers. If it just got legalized, they would lose profits– yes, that’s right, this drug that they seemingly full-heartedly believe will heal many diseases is better kept restricted so they can keep their capitalist scheme going. Speaking of capitalism, I have never met a group of people more prone to capitalist ideology– and I grew up in the Big Apple, so that’s saying something. Anyways, I’ll stick with their profits from growing medical marijuana as an example. They could easily figure out their costs and what a reasonable profit would be for the risk, etc., keeping in mind the Feds still can come in and chop down the crops even though Cali has legalized it (America has not). Instead of doing this, they apparently see no incentive to make sure that it’s affordable to the masses. Rather, they make somewhere in the range of about 500 percent profit– yeah, really that high. Once again I must question their claim that this is a drug that can really heal; I can tell you, if I had a drug that I thought could really heal in Cambodia, I would be trying to find a way to make it affordable for the masses while being able to sustain my livelihood, but 500 percent profit is not what I had in mind.

This is just it though, it does not stop at farm products. Much of their livelihood comes from going to festivals around the country, selling things like shirts, crystals, herbal remedies, jewelry, art, beer and food, etc. Why I bring this up is that while spending a weekend at one of these festivals I realized how quickly they price gouge each other and I am not sure why that is, as they will talk about corporate greed and supporting local people. For example, I was with a group of people who bought beer from a big liquor distributer thus making the beer cheaper than if you buy it at a convenient store somewhere. Never did they sit down and talk about what a fair profit for the work would be. Instead they wanted to get the most they could for said beer, once again at a range of 500 percent profit (cha-ching– capitalism!) at one point someone in the group was thinking 5 dollars for a beer which only cost them about 70 cents. That was one of the few times I could not control myself and had to say, well, you could, but should you? I get it: maybe it’s human nature that we want to get the most resources we can for our own survival, but according to the hippies’ code of ethics, this goes against half the shit they are always talking about.

More ironically is that they do this to each other but then they talk about a Utopian world of peace and love to me, and how human nature is inherently good, and if the world was to end and restart with them things would be different despite history proving otherwise. But that’s pointless to bring up to a majority of people who are already abusing their own system for greed and profit. The system is another hot topic I heard brought up a lot but they are so out of touch with how much they depend on the system that they are no better than the people who started the exploitation of people in the first place.

I should mention what form of currency they use, which will explain a lot about their persona and overall appearance to the rest of society. Instead of hard cash or dollars, experience is their currency. For instance, that whole look of “dirty hippy” is actually a form of power dynamics that creates yet another hierarchy in society. How does this yield them power? The dirty look means they are coming off the streets or out of the forest and this makes them more real, and it’s assumed that they also have more experiences and stories to tell other people. Thus the thrift store look, which they say is a statement and doesn’t make them materialistic, is actually the same as some soccer mom buying her Chanel bag: it gives them power over other people in their social circle. Another staple of being a “true hippy” is having a dog at their side, but it can’t be just any dog, no, it has to be a wolf-looking dog which some of them have specially bred. Yeah, no lie, they let dogs at the pound die so they can wield power in the subculture if hippyism. A wolf-dog, which they will often try to pass off as having been found in the woods or in the street somewhere out of sheer luck, is another sign of their “amazing” life experience, but once you get them talking about said dog, more often than not it was no lost dog on the street or the forest, but came from a dog breeder and cost lots of money.

My main point being is that every system has a currency and the commodification of experience is used as a form of security to gain and wield power in this subculture. This had me wondering: why are most of them still in America, why not move to another country that is extremely impoverished? For one, they don’t want to acknowledge their own privilege or have to deal with anything negative at all. They justify said behavior by reverting to very neoliberal perspectives, eg tend to your own garden and I’ll tend to mine, that we ought to all have the same level of responsibility for ourselves, thus the the world will be a better place. This ideology is often extremely Amero-centric and when someone such as myself comes along asking them to defend this ideology outside the American context, they often could not and would seem pretty annoyed at me. This reminds me, though: when they do leave the great US of A, they often head down South of the border to South America. They seem to place a lot of value on those cultures, specifically Peruvian culture. I am not quite sure why this is, but this is my best guess: it’s a safe place to go and “rough it” enough to come back with stories, but not enough to shatter their views. Plus, often times they already know someone who has gone there so there is less to figure out for one’s self. It also seems that if said hippy has made it to South America, the power they gain from this will often allow them to have some sort of superiority complex. It was from this that I first realized that experience is currency.

For whatever reason, I came off as threating to certain people in the hippy community I was around and I could not figure out why, as I mostly stayed quiet, followed them around, and just sort of went with whatever. It was not until I realized all of the above that I understood that it was not what I was saying, but the very fact of my presence and that I had exceeded their limited time in South American culture by living in Cambodia. The ironic part about this is that, once I realized that experience was currency, I did not really feel they were “worthy” of my currency, so to speak. I did not feel the need to use power over them, so I decided early on to keep my day to day life quiet, as I did not want to feed into their system.

One would expect the idea of gender roles in hippy culture to be questioned and long gone, but in fact this is pretty far from the truth. The days of free love and sex seemed to be long gone, maybe it was the HIV or STI rates, but nevertheless it seemed monogamy has taken its place. Most of the people I met who were, let’s say, over the age of 23 where all in a serious relationship but the dynamics of them were not of a romantic type but more of some sort of partnership in a business-sense, as most of these relationships support a livelihood of selling that require two people to support it. Moreover, the males seem to believe they need to play a protector role. I brought up gender roles with them, and it did not seem to register, as this once again would make them question things and they don’t like to be critically aware of their habits and behaviors.

Post Election Jitters

Things appear to have calmed down quite a bit from Sunday night, when army trucks and military police were out and about, roads were shut down (Monivong, Norodom, parts of Sihanoukville, and some in Steung Meanchey), and people returning from the provinces were trying to decide if and whether or not they should come back to Phnom Penh.

There was a riot in Steung Meanchey supposedly set off by a man of Vietnamese decent hitting a Khmer monk outside a polling station. Whether or not that was the actual catalyst, people flipped their lids and angry voters tried detaining the polling station election official and burned two police cars because their names were not on the registry. After watching several videos of this event posted by people on facebook, it appears that several of the rioters were young men, possibly even teenagers (i.e. not legally old enough vote).

Many people still have not returned to Phnom Penh, but on the whole things seem mostly “back to normal”. Some shops and homes are still shuttered, which is unusual; for most Phnom Penhers, though, today seems like business-as-usual. I have been hearing an unusual amount of sirens, but haven’t seen anymore army vehicles or soldiers in my part of town (Toul Kork). Yesterday, a cruise through Kampuchea Krom revealed a typical amount of traffic, with many businesses still shut but the local market hopping as normal. Nevertheless, a sense of anxiety pervades, with people simultaneously saying, “there’s nothing to worry about” and “wait and see”. Who can blame them when there are reports coming from provincial residents that they have seen military units moving from the provinces (e.g. Kampong Cham, Preah Vihear, Pailin, etc.) towards Phnom Penh. An atmosphere of an uncertainty has thickened since Sunday as everybody “waits to see” what will happen.

If it seems like I can’t make up my mind if things are actually back to normal, well…I have my doubts. Yesterday Sam Rainsy and the CNRP declared that they were rejecting the election results, which saw huge CNRP gains but not an actual, overall win. The election is contested for a number of reasons, including the casting of ballots by Vietnamese migrants who are not Cambodian citizens (and some of whom are in fact illegal immigrants); the “indelible” voter ink being easily washed off, resulting in the same person being able to cast multiple votes (also because of duplicate names on the voter registry); names being left off the voter lists; et cetera.

Nevertheless, even if the CPP refuses to budge on the results, the CNRP has really thrown a wrench into the works. CPP plans to continue their dynastic rule through their children won’t be possible in every province now. In Kampong Speu, for instance, Hun Sen’s youngest son Many was all set to have a seat in the assembly, but the CPP won only 3 seats there and Many was fourth on the list. Oops!

The National Election Committee has supposedly declared that the official results won’t be released for another two weeks, thus people seem to be getting back to work and school, and life is getting on as normal. Perhaps by mid-August, the anger will have died down and violence can be avoided. It seems highly unlikely that the official results will differ at all from the preliminary outcome.

un actionOn facebook there has been a proliferation of pictures and status updates pleading for the UN and/or the US to “help” Cambodia, declaring that the CPP has not allowed fair elections to take place. Many of these updates are coming from young people, who made up a large section of CNRP supporters.

Will CNRP’s wish for an investigation into the election be granted? Will the US do more than just tut-tut the CPP’s corrupt control of the RGC? Will people say enough is enough and take to the streets? Until the official results come out in August, there is likely nothing to do but wait. Jam mul sun. “Wait and see.”

Out with the old…?

The national elections are bearing down on us. The closer we get, the more frequent and raucous the political campaigning becomes. Where the commune elections saw hardly any crowds of campaigners or promotional flags, with only a propaganda video here or there, the election for the leader of Cambodia has seemingly galvanized most everybody. You can’t turn around without seeing a Funcinpec poster or a CPP TV spot or a CNRP radio advert. Even the little-known LDP has its supporters out in force.

Cambodian People's Party supporters near Wat Phnom

Cambodian People’s Party supporters near Wat Phnom

Friends, co-workers, and random people that I ask about the frenzy tell me that I didn’t see this during the commune elections because “they are unimportant”. Nobody cares about those positions, they explain to me; what really matters is who leads the country. “Who leads the country, leads all,” one young man told me. Perhaps so, but it seems like an awful small, not to mention imbalanced, basket to put all of one’s eggs in.

It seems a hopelessly rigged fight; the CPP is infamous for bribing, threatening, changing voter lists, and altering ballots to get their desired ends. Yet CNRP supporters seem more numerous by the day. Even supposed CPP “supporters” are often paid to join rallies, which explains their lack of enthusiasm when compared to CNRP rallies, to a degree.

Nevertheless, people seem to be pinning their hopes with ever-increasing fervor on the

Cambodian National Rescue Party supporters near Orussey Market

Cambodian National Rescue Party supporters near Orussey Market

Cambodian National Rescue Party and it’s just-arrived leader, Sam Rainsy. Rainsy got in yesterday morning (video here). My classes were half-empty, but the streets were full of excited people on motorbikes, in the backs of trucks, and in tuk tuks, shouting “lak prambi! Lak prambi!” Number seven! Number seven! Seven is CNRP’s number on the ballot. (You might be thinking, how is it that the main opposition party is so far down on the list? Good question, I don’t know how they structure the ballot; the CPP is number 4, if you’re curious.)

CNRP leaders ride a truck during a campaign rally

CNRP leaders ride a truck during a campaign rally on Kampuchea Krom Blvd

A parade of Cambodian National Rescue Party supporters

A parade of Cambodian National Rescue Party supporters on Kampuchea Krom Blvd

Rainsy has been back less than two days, and someone’s already shot at CNRP headquarters— though he wasn’t even there and no one was injured, fortunately. People are suggesting it was an intimidation tactic by CPP supporters.

Others have a different theory. The whole thing, claims one young Phnom Penher, is a sham. Sam Rainsy and Hun Sen are actually friends. Without an opposition party, the country would be much less stable; with no hope for the people, Hun Sen would have much more of a threat to his power on his hands.

It’s possible that Hun Sen will win outright. Plenty of people who hate the man still vote for him, because they fear him. They believe him when he says that if CPP loses, “Khmer Rouge shall return”. The specter of Khmer Rouge is never far and never forgotten. While most of Hun Sen’s ties from the murderous Democratic Kampuchea have magically disappeared, at least from the public eye, the threat of Khmer Krahom’s imminent return is fresh in the minds of any Cambodian adult over the age of 25. People will vote for him out of fear.

I am getting out of dodge for the weekend of the election (which takes place on Sunday the 28th), just to be on the safe side. While it would be interesting to see how Phnom Penh expresses its disappointment or elation, I think it probably would be safer to watch it on TV…just in case.

Real Cannibals

The 1980 Italian film Cannibal Holocaust includes an extended rape scene in which two white Western men rape a young indigenous-Amazonian (Yanomamo) woman in a muddy field while their white Western female counterpart films them.

The film is supposed to be a commentary on the state of modern “civilization”, wherein wealthy, white privileged Westerners manipulate, abuse, and exploit the “uncivilized” of the so-called developing world/Third World/Global South/etc.

While the film fails on multiple levels to sincerely translate its theme of “who are the real savages, anyway?”, that scene has always stuck with me. Similarly in The Last King of Scotland, the terrifying Idi Amin calls out his Scottish physician as only having come to Africa “to fuck and to take away”.

The global hierarchy is sort of a large-scale parallel of the social human hierarchy composed of individuals. The patriarchal hierarchy tells us who is allowed to rape whom, and where, and when, and to what extent they can get away with it. In the global patriarchal scheme, the “West” is at the top of this hierarchy. America can rape nearly whoever it likes, whenever it likes, and never stand to account for its actions.

Why should I be surprised, then, when its individual parts, its people, behave the same way. White Westerns (men particularly) come to Southeast Asia feeling completely entitled to buy other human beings. They have little or no shame in it. They sit across from me at a hang bai (rice shop) eating their loc lac with one emotionally detached, casual arm draped over the shoulders of a girl half, a third their age. We can talk more about that girl later (a whole post unto herself, she is), but for now let’s look closer at that man.

He might be British, Australian, American, New Zealander, or from somewhere in Europe. He doesn’t need to be wealthy where he’s from; being white makes him wealthy enough here. He could be 20, or 40, or 75; it’s inconsequential in determining the age of the girls, boys, women he will purchase.

He probably feels like he’s doing nothing wrong (yeah, yeah, it’s a crime, it’s illegal, but he was driven to this!); he justifies to himself that “a man’s got needs” and he only flew halfway around the world to satisfy those needs because there wasn’t a cheaper, easier source accessible in his own country. Besides, the real perk of Cambodia is that being here makes him feel like a god. All the locals seem to revere his white skin, his pocketbook. He is taller, richer, whiter, smarter, better than everyone in this godforsakencountry.

He might not be a backpacker or a sex tourist. He might be a teacher at a nearby school. He might be in charge of classes of children aged 6 to 18. He might friend some of them on Facebook and meet some of them off school grounds, after school hours.

He might establish himself as a member of the community by marrying– purchasing– a Khmer woman (not legally, necessarily, but only ceremonially) and having children with her.

Taking a long, close look at this man helps me understand myself, my own hypocrisy. Our familiarity ends at the point where I realize we don’t deal in the same currency. This man, like the men in Cannibal Holocaust, see Cambodians (Africans, South Americans) as subhuman. They are purchasable, expendable, replaceable items. They are like animals. Sometimes I fixate on the way Khmer people occasionally treat me like an animal, like the Other, and the way they do it to other Cambodians. But in the hierarchical scheme of things, their Othering will never be as sinister, never as dehumanizing, and never inflict the same level of damage as That Man’s will. He has too much power to compare with them. He’s out of our league. He can get away with almost Anything.

And I’m making it a point to find a way to stop him.

Beauty is only…

Today after my class, I ran into one of our Vietnamese students as she was waiting for the elevator. She had on an Angkor Wat shirt, and I remarked on it. “I visited Cambodia. Have you been there?” she asked. “I live there!” I said. She laughed. I explained that I really did live there. She looked genuinely confused. “But…Cambodia is black,” was her reply, pointing to her skin. “We are white.” As usual, I just nodded, smiled, and said have a nice day.

I get it. I’m white. This sort of thing shouldn’t bother me. But after two years in the ‘bodes, I’ve had about all I can handle of black-white-absolutely-no-grey-area. If it wasn’t so loaded in sociopolitical and cultural meaning, I might feel differently (well, probably not), but it is.

White is beautiful, noble, eligible, marriageable, intelligent. Black is detestable, uneducated, unattractive, pitiable, lascivious.

Colour is also largely femininized. A man may become more desirable the lighter he is, but he will never decrease in value if he is darker. For a Cambodian woman, her skin tone lies somewhere on a spectrum of (both implicit and explicit) value.

Hence why my host sister uses products like this, and why cosmetics companies make a killing from various skin whitening creams, soaps, deodorants, makeups, etc.

And pun intended, when I say “make a killing”. Many of these creams and soaps use powerful but poisonous whitening agents– sometimes even mercury. People have asked, Is it worth jeopardizing your life to be “beautiful?” Hard to say, as most people are largely unaware of the potential dangers, and the Cambodian government does nothing to educate the public. Of course, this is part of a wider obsession in Asia and SE Asia with skin lightening. On the whole, Cambodian mainstream culture supports discrimination against “darker” skin while praising “lighter” skin.

As frustrating as it is for me, the [white] observer on the outside looking in, you really can’t help but empathize with Cambodians: their conception of physical beauty is often shaped by powerful external forces that cement age-old appreciations for certain phenotypic features. Cambodia’s major idol at the moment is South Korea (a manifold obsession, really), and eats up its pop bands and soap operas with their light-skinned stars. Cambodian awe of blonde hair (hair bleaching is IN, for the moment) and lighter-coloured eyes appears to be a long-standing relic of colonialism and “Western” influence in general. (It is interesting to note, though, that young Cambodian boys and girls alike seek to imitate big, shiny Korean and Japanese eyes– particularly in anime/manga fashion– by wearing black contact lenses. My students occasionally freak me out when they show up to class wearing them and I’m not expecting it; reminds me of the black, oily virus from the X-Files, frankly.)

I am of the opinion that Rock and Roll could save Cambodia… And kill cookie-cutter K-Pop bands like 2am. O_o  Only sorta kidding.

I’m not gonna lie: I am quite surprised by how light-skinned most HCMC dwellers seem to be. Women here, even moreso than they do in Phnom Penh, go to extraordinary lengths to cover every inch of their skin when they go outdoors. And yet I detect a similar trend to Cambodia: thus far, whenever skin has been mentioned, the people having the conversation were almost exclusively female.

This is not to say that men go unaffected by this beauty standard. While it doesn’t have nearly the same impact on their everyday lives as it does for women, it certainly impacts the major bullet points of the human social existence: from getting a job (all Cambodian resumes must include a photograph) to being accepted to university to getting married, men also experience discrimination or praise on their skin colour. In wedding photography, the groom is photoshopped to be lighter-skinned, just as the bride is. A lighter-skinned man is more likely to get a job or be promoted over a dark-skinned man (my school is a testament to this form of discrimination). A dark-skinned man, however, will always still be able to get married, whereas a woman’s intrinsic value as a token of status decreases with the darkness of her skin. It is something to make good fun of if a woman has a dark-skinned husband, but it is embarrassing and goes unremarked-upon if a man marries a woman with darker skin than him.

Sometimes it’s hard to believe that such superficial phenomena can maintain so much power over society and the individual in Cambodia, but one need only look around to find equally superficial (and equally powerful) examples in American society…or any society, for that matter. All hail the power of sociocultural hierarchy.

The Greatest Games

I am a hopeless Romantic, and as such I love the Olympics. I could care less who gets the gold, which countries cart off the most medals and all that jazz. As I watched the Opening Ceremony, I was reminded that the true value (and true Romanticism) of the Olympics/Paralympics lies elsewhere: thousands of athletes from all over the world and from all walks of life coming together for, well, games. Being a good sport is more important than winning or trampling others for glory, in spite of the competitive nature of the Games. And countries who are “in real life” at war with each other might send athletes who compete peaceably with each other: so terribly romantic!

From the cover of Vogue Magazine.

These Games in London are especially exciting for a number of reasons. This will be the first time that women have the chance to compete in boxing, and they are predicted to steal the limelight. Women have been boxing for a seriously long time now, but only recently have people started taking it seriously. And they should, ’cause boxers like Marlen Esparza are seriously good! (She’s on the American team, by the way.) She was recently featured on the cover of Vogue— simultaneously powerful and sexualized, because of course we can’t fathom a female athlete of any sport wearing anything but a dress, yeah? >_< Cool photography, but seriously…the Queen’s shoes must always match her dress? Scoff if you must, but the sexualization of women has a powerful impact on female athletes– it might make or break their career, even for the best of the best. Take female weightlifters, who find it nearly impossible to find sponsors because they “can’t” be feature in a sexy red dress like Esparza here– despite phenomenal talent.

From Vogue Magazine

The London 2012 Games are also the first to design the Olympics and Paralympics simultaneously and in a fully integrated way, rather than independently as they typically have been in the past. Both games have also been created with PWD (Persons With Disabilities) in mind from the beginning, and the Committees of both the Olympic and Paralympic Games have decided to extend that cooperation through at least the 2020 Games, holding both Games in the same city. Their torch relay begins the 24 of August, and the Opening Ceremonies for the Paralympic Games will be held on the 29th; the Games will feature 21 sports, including shooting, powerlifting, wheelchair tennis, and sitting volleyball.

Both games have…bizarre, Cyclops-esque mascots. Whatever, they’re cute.

Credit to blogger Nincompoopery; Sorn in red.

Shout-out to my boys and girls in Kampuchea, whose team had a female flag-bearer for the Opening Ceremony for the first time ever, Taekwondo champ Sorn Davin! Six athletes will compete from Cambodia.

Here are some other cool “firsts” facts about the London 2012 Olympics/Paralympics.

It’s been speculated that LGBTQ athletes were responsible for the crash of a major dating application, Grindr, even though only a couple dozen of them are out. Hmm… Also, here is a list of all the lgbtq out athletes ever to have competed in the Games. If you are straight and/or cisgender and you think lgbtq issues don’t have much implication for “normal” peeps or the broader population, think again: the Olympics has been another stage where the sociocultural battles of sex/gender are taking place– going so far as to define who is “truly female” or “truly male”. Some have called this gender policing, and it has serious implications for straight/cisgender athletes who self-identify as one sex but “fail” Olympic sex test standards. Perhaps the issue has been louder and more noticeable in recent times, but it has a long history underlying the Games. Tell me again that sex is as clear as black and white. “Ability” is not quite so black and white anymore, either: the creator of Oscar Pistorius’ Cheetah blades has said himself that, if not Pistorius, then some other “disabled” athlete in the future may in fact be able to run faster on blades than any pair of human legs could ever run. Perhaps now it is fair for Pistorius to compete in both Olympics, but there may well come a day when Paralympic athletes competing on blades will actually be in a league of their own.

Lastly, a small complaint: if badminton and table tennis get to be Olympic sports, when is Ultimate going to be featured?! “In the distant future,” if at all, is some folks’ guess– in part due to a tendency of the Games in recent years to move away from team sports.

Good luck to all athletes throughout the Games; you represent more than you know.

Fresh Bites

Gang rape remains a popular [male] pastime in Cambodia, and people say stupid shit like, “We shouldn’t blame the perpetrators because they’re Cambodia’s hope for a developed future.” Nevermind that their victims should also be considered Cambodia’s hope for a better future.
Even as Cambodia’s rainy season started much, much earlier than usual, droughts are laying the Midwest low back home. Sure climate change is normal, but even if you don’t agree we’re accelerating it, isn’t it safe to say we are completely unprepared for it?

The Navy opts for neutral urination. Won’t dude sailors miss the time they spend glancing awkwardly at their mates’ penises when nature calls?
And this makes me feel real good that my first-ever credit card that I’ve actually used is from Capital One… >_<