Yesterday I went Christmas shopping for nieces and nephews. After a short trip to the Namaste Fair Trade shop, I had some wonderful gifts and a good conscience, for I had supported Nepali crafts-people. And I had managed to shop on Tuesday, rather than Black Friday, officially designated by Adbusters as "Buy Nothing Day".
But how important is it to go to the Fair Trade store? After all, this is America, and we have laws regulating our imports.We know they aren't made by child labour, or forced labour. Or do we?
Recently Al Jazeera English investigative reporter Ragi Omar has been doing a series of reports on Twenty-First Century slavery. And his latest findings should send a chill down all our spines. Omar looked into the five-million strong forced labour prison camps, the Laogai, in the Peoples Republic of China. Many of these inmates are known prisoners of conscience such as Falun Gong adherents.
Officially, the prisoners make goods only for the Chinese market, because goods made by prisoners are not officially allowed into the US. In fact, forced labour is a key component in the cheap garments, toys and novelty items we purchase in American chain stores and superstores. The government, corporations and consumers alike turn a blind eye
to the tainted nature of these goods. A Falun Gong survivor spoke of beatings and torture in the forced labour camp, where he made novelty slippers for the American market, with the care instructions label in English, not Chinese. Ragi Omar's team posed as garment importers and were informed straight up that if they needed the items in a rush, five prisons would cooperate to fulfill the order!
Columbian president Juan Manuel Santos recently pointed out in a BBC interview that the war on drugs cannot be won in the coca plantations of Columbia nor by battling Mexican drug cartels. It can be won only in the US, from where the demand arises. And like US drug addicts whose appetites have indirectly led to forty thousand drug-war deaths in Mexico, we, the American consumers, provide the demand that perpetuates the misery of five million Chinese slaves. The government is turning a blind eye. The corporations are complicit. But if we, the consumers, open our eyes, slavery in China will end. We have the power. Let's use it. This Christmas, this Hanukkah, don't give your child, your niece or your Auntie a tainted gift.
A couple of days ago we had the opportunity to watch Roco Belic's filmHappy at Boulder's own Dairy Center for the Arts. The film begins in a Calcutta slum, where a poor rickshaw wallah tells us of his happy life. "My house is great", he said cheerfully, gesturing around the crude shack covered with tattered plastic sheets. "It is open on one side, so we get plenty of breeze." I was stunned.
As s child I remember singing Johnson Oatman's old hymn "Count your blessings" When upon life's billows you are tempest-tossed, When you are discouraged, thinking all is lost, Count your many blessings, name them one by one, And it will surprise you what the Lord hath done.
This simple children's hymn has always remained with me for the profound spiritual message it contains. Counting blessings is an important practice of metta, or loving-kindness. Counting blessings, giving thanks, frees us from hindrances such as doubt, despondency and discontent. Instead of feeling discouraged, bitter or frustrated because we don't have all the things--wealth, power and prestige--to which we feel entitled, we can experience a thrill of surprise for all the blessings we do receive on a daily basis.
This morning I woke up in a warm bed. Amazing! There was clean water to brush my teeth. Fantastic! And delicious, pure spring water to drink. Incredible! We may take these things for granted; millions will never have them. Counting blessings leads us not only to metta, but also to karuna or compassion, as we think of all the people who have no warm bed, who go to sleep hungry or in fear, who have to carry water for miles, who don't have any clean drinking water. As we count our blessings with genuine surprise and enthusiasm, we naturally think of how to contribute in any way to those who don't get a chance to enjoy life's simple pleasures.
So, this Thanksgiving and every day, remember to count your blessings and feel innocent joy and childlike surprise. And if you want a moment of goosebumps, click the link below for a lovely rendition of Aled Jones 'Count your blessings one by one' by an English choir girl.
Count your blessings while you may,
For we are here but little time to stay; All around are hearts sincere and true Lovely things abound just waiting for you;
Count your blessings while you may
The big or small, whichever comes your way,
For then you'll find this world a place of love
If you will count your blessings from above.
As a small child, I remember visiting my great-grandmother,
Emma, in a sparsely furnished room. The only item of interest in the room was a
large photograph of my great-uncle, Albert George Board, tragically killed
during World War I.
Sergt. no 1853 6th Battal.
(Rifles) The London Regiment... was an ostrich feather dyer; volunteered for
foreign service and joined the 6th London Rgt 6 Aug 1914 after the outbreak of
war: served with the Expeditionary Force in France and Flanders from 7th
March 1915, took part in the Battle of Festubert, after which he was promoted
L.Corporal for bravery in the field, gaining his second stripe 25 OCt for good
work at Loos after his senior NCO had been killed: was promoted Sgt in Dec.,
and was killed in action at Loos 9 Feb. 1916 while investigating a mine crater
which had only been exploded that morning. Buried in South Moroe Cemetery near
Loos. Corpl Cuss DCM wrote: "The bombing platoon worshipped him, and the
boys would follow him anywhere. We have sustained a loss which can never be
replaced. He went out on his own to explore a mine crater which had only been
exploded that day, and was sniped while doing so. His body was recovered the
next day by two of his comrades, and buried with full honours and a cross was
erected bearing a suitable inscription."
As his obituary points out, he was an amazing and
charismatic figure, respected for his love and kindness. Thirty-five years
after my uncle's death, I was born in a small town in England, the eldest child
of two only children. My grandfather had died some years before my birth, from
an autoimmune collagen disease. The man who would have stood in my
grandfather's place, offering support to the new parents and love to the
newborn baby, was Albert, whose life had tragically been wasted in a futile and
Because of this war, which occurred a generation before my
birth, I was robbed of the company and love of an uncle who would have meant a
great deal to me--the more so because I had no maternal grandfather. Because of
the war, my great-grandmother lived her life in mourning. The death of Albert
Board left an empty chair at the family table that could never be filled. It is
almost a century after he was killed; yet his death continues to leave its mark
upon the living.
World War I alone left empty chairs at fifteen million
family tables--tens of millions of families changed forever by the loss of a
loved one who could never be replaced. Then, in World War II, whole families
and lineages were exterminated, entire cultures destroyed-- robbing the whole
human family of the unique gifts of these lineages and cultures.
The 'war to end all wars' did not end war. In our nascent
century, World War III has taken the form of a metastatic cancer, breaking out
as many seemingly disparate entities. There are wars waged by wealthy nations
against poorer nations, typically Moslem, tribal or both, as in Afghanistan and
Iraq. There are proxy wars fought by poor tribal people against other poor
tribal people, using the sophisticated weapons of the wealthy nations, as in
Sudan, Sierra Leone and Ivory Coast. And there are endless wars against
abstracted enemies: the War on Terror, the War on Drugs, fought using
sophisticated weapons from wealthy nations and resulting in the deaths of
countless poor, often tribal, people.
Every one of these wars leaves empty seats at thousands of
tables. Every one of these wars creates losses whose effects will still be felt
in a hundred years, just as the loss of the uncle I never knew impacted my life
permanently. Every one of these wars pushes tribes and cultures to the brink,
robbing the human family of unique forms of wisdom. There is no war to end war,
but as HG Wells said, "If we don't end war, war will end us."