A few weeks ago, the embattled Planned Parenthood in Dallas, Texas refused a $500,000 dollar donation from Tucker Max. The Dallas clinic is one of only a handful left in North Texas, after Planned Parenthood lost $73 million dollars in funding in 2011, in an area with one of the highest uninsured populations in America – 25%. The size of the donation would have bestowed naming rights, however, meaning that a Planned Parenthood building would have worn Tucker Max’s name forevermore.
Max made his millions through a series of memoirs filled with drinking tales and tips for bedding women, which turned out to be super-popular with misogynists all over. He once actually tweeted: ‘Planned Parenthood would be cooler if it was a giant flight of stairs, w/someone pushing girls down, like a water park slide.’
Without a doubt, Tucker Max is a scoundrel.
But it was a mistake, I think, for Planned Parenthood to adopt a moral stance on the subject of funding, to not take this lifeline offered to them. As Planned Parenthood has stressed time and again, it’s a health service, not a political organisation. What’s more, it’s a health service facing a very real existential threat. What is the difference, exactly, between taking money from Tucker Max and taking money from Governor Rick Perry, who is trying to prevent Planned Parenthood from receiving any government funds because he’d like to put an end to ‘the abortion business’ altogether? (He also thinks Medicare and Social Security are unconstitutional.)
Principled stands come with assorted rationales: organisations we wouldn’t work for, lows we wouldn’t stoop to. But what is the outcome of Planned Parenthood not accepting Max’s half a million dollars? Does it mean they care for women any more or less? Does it mean that Max will stop promulgating his sexist escapades and treat women as his equals? Will conservatives lay down their weapons in recognition of Planned Parenthood’s ethical funding choices?
For a principled stand to matter there must be a political outcome, otherwise it’s a meaningless gesture. To paraphrase Lenin, the Left believes in morality, but it’s not an ethical framework guided by the Commandments and invoked when it suits the likes of Rinehart, Gillard or Pell.
That is, we ‘must acknowledge that morality is a product of social development; that there is nothing immutable about it; that it serves social interests; that these interests are contradictory; that morality more than any other form of ideology has a class character.’
Persona non grata
It is possible that Dave Eggers believed he was taking a principled stand last week when he declined to attend The Albatross award ceremony, a €40,000 prize funded by the Günter Grass Foundation, which he won for Zeitoun, a non-fiction book about the experiences of Abdulrahman Zeitoun in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. The Albatross is awarded to writers of works that promote ‘freedom of thought and an unconstrained engagement with every area of our life, world and times’. Zeitoun, said the judges, made ‘a powerful case for civic conscience and convictions’.
In my abbreviated version of his explanation, Eggers stated that he couldn’t attend the ceremony at this time because Günter Grass had written a poem about the prospect of Israel bombing Iran. ‘The issues raised in Grass’s recent poem are not issues I am prepared to speak about,’ Eggers said. He then donated the money back to German organisations that work on ‘interfaith understanding’.
Grass was declared a persona non grata by Israel after the publication of ‘What must be said’; that is, for Israel, Grass has ceased to exist and, as a result of his nonexistence, will never again step foot on Israel’s soil.
Grass was accused of being a lifelong anti-Semite, someone who still maintained the views of his Hitler-Youth past (Grass was drafted into the Waffen SS in his adolescence), because of lines like, ‘Israel’s atomic power endangers /an already fragile world peace’.
The offending poem concluded with the hope that the world:
may insist that the governments of
both Iran and Israel allow an international authority
free and open inspection of
the nuclear potential and capability of both.
Curiously, the Voice of Witness series founded by Eggers and published by McSweeney’s, which uses oral histories to highlight human rights crises, has never published a collection of Palestinian voices, despite an international focus. Burma, Sudan and Zimbabwe are indeed countries with terrible human rights abuses, but they’re also countries that don’t work with the United States; in fact, they’re countries often identified as in need of humanitarian intervention (which is precisely what Eggers’ book What is the what? called for).
Wouldn’t Palestinian stories about experiences of life under occupation, of 65-year-olds who’ve spent their entire lives in refugee camps, of house demolitions, non-citizenship and 760km concrete walls be the kinds of stories a political publisher may want to tell?
In an instance where two opposing principled stands are made, the one that dissented and wrote what others were too scared to print, an act resulting in figurative death, is the stand that meant something, rather than the one that viewed the oppression of Palestinians as a difference in faith.
Both the Voice of Witness series and 826 Seattle are recent beneficiaries, along with 38 other not-for-profit organisations, of literary grants from Amazon.com. According to Salon, the grants of up to $25,000 allow seriously underfunded and under-resourced projects to get off the ground.
Chad Post of Open Letter and Three Percent, whose work focusses on translated literature, commented that translators love Amazon, not only because of the grants, but also because of the translation awards Amazon runs.
They’re working for maybe $500 a book, books no one wants to touch. Then Amazon comes along and suddenly they’re benefiting from an industry that doesn’t help them, ever. Five thousand dollars is enormous to them. I can understand people are concerned with Amazon’s power in the marketplace, but I have a hard time chastising them when they directly benefit people who struggle their whole lives to do what they think is important.
Not everyone in publishing loves Amazon, however. Alexander Zaitchik writes in the Salon piece that an Amazon grant is ‘considered the devil’s kiss in many corners of the publishing world, and many grantees are in no rush to blow a ram’s horn announcing their acceptance of money.’ One anonymous independent publisher was quoted saying:
They are a rapacious, horrible company from top to bottom. But they have all this excess capital, so $25,000 here and there is nothing to them. And it’s working. People say, ‘Oh, look, they’re funding a translation prize, what could be wrong with that?’ Yet everything about them is still evil.
Then, just yesterday, author and poet Sherman Alexie tweeted:
If you’re a liberal still supporting the rapacious capitalsm of Amazon then your liberalism has a price point.
— Sherman Alexie (@Sherman_Alexie) April 17, 2012
Last year’s exposé on one Amazon warehouse revealed that workers were casually employed, paid $11–12 an hour, had extremely poor working conditions with no job stability, and regularly suffered heatstroke. Morning Call reported:
Both permanent and temporary employees are subject to a point-based disciplinary system. Employees accumulate points for such infractions as missing work, not working fast enough or breaking a safety rule such as keeping two hands on an inventory cart. If they get too many points, they can be fired. In the event of illness, employees have to bring in a doctor’s note and request a medical waiver to have their disciplinary points removed, those interviewed said.
Not working fast enough, or failing to “make rate,” is a common reason employees get disciplinary points, those interviewed said. Workers are expected to maintain a rate, measured in units per hour, which varies depending on the job and the size of inventory being handled. Products moving through the warehouse range broadly in size, from compact discs and iPods to chain saws. Workers use hand-held scanners to track inventory as it moves through the warehouse, which enables managers to monitor productivity minute by minute, employees said.
These conditions are not anomalous when compared to the treatment of casual staff at other warehouses and factories in the States, particularly those owned by online stores. Mac McClelland wrote an essay about her experiences briefly working in one while on assignment for Mother Jones. It begins:
“Don’t take anything that happens to you there personally,” the woman at the local chamber of commerce says when I tell her that tomorrow I start working at Amalgamated Product Giant Shipping Worldwide Inc. She winks at me. I stare at her for a second.
“What?” I ask. “Why, is somebody going to be mean to me or something?”
She smiles. “Oh, yeah.” This town somewhere west of the Mississippi is not big; everyone knows someone or is someone who’s worked for Amalgamated. “But look at it from their perspective. They need you to work as fast as possible to push out as much as they can as fast as they can. So they’re gonna give you goals, and then you know what? If you make those goals, they’re gonna increase the goals. But they’ll be yelling at you all the time. It’s like the military. They have to break you down so they can turn you into what they want you to be. So they’re going to tell you, ‘You’re not good enough, you’re not good enough, you’re not good enough,’ to make you work harder. Don’t say, ‘This is the best I can do.’ Say, ‘I’ll try,’ even if you know you can’t do it. Because if you say, ‘This is the best I can do,’ they’ll let you go. They hire and fire constantly, every day. You’ll see people dropping all around you. But don’t take it personally and break down or start crying when they yell at you.”
It’s a grueling and depressing piece, worth reading in full, but it also gives an insight into the working day of a modern casual employee:
The culture is intense, an Amalgamated higher-up acknowledges at the beginning of our training. He’s speaking to us from a video, one of several videos—about company policies, sexual harassment, etc.—that we watch while we try to keep our eyes open. We don’t want to be so intense, the higher-up says. But our customers demand it. We are surrounded by signs that state our productivity goals. Other signs proclaim that a good customer experience, to which our goal-meeting is essential, is the key to growth, and growth is the key to lower prices, which leads to a better customer experience. There is no room for inefficiencies. The gal conducting our training reminds us again that we cannot miss any days our first week. There are NO exceptions to this policy. She says to take Brian, for example, who’s here with us in training today. Brian already went through this training, but then during his first week his lady had a baby, so he missed a day and he had to be fired. Having to start the application process over could cost a brand-new dad like Brian a couple of weeks’ worth of work and pay. Okay? Everybody turn around and look at Brian. Welcome back, Brian. Don’t end up like Brian.
What’s my point? In Capitalism and Freedom, Milton Friedman wrote that ‘there is one and only one social responsibility of business – to use its resources and engage in activities designed to increase its profits so long as it plays within the rules of the game.’ Amazon is disliked for its hunger for monopoly, for bullying publishers and because it’s suspected of predatory pricing (whereby a company drives down prices so the supplier will be ultimately forced to sell for less. Once they have total monopoly, they can charge whatever they like).
In other words, Amazon is seen as not playing by the rules.
But this rationalising of capitalism is plain weird. Companies cannot exist in a capitalist system without competing against other companies. Indeed, that’s what the market does: pits them against each other to see which can make the most profit. There are many ways to maximise profit, but nearly all involve lowering wages or lessening conditions in order to make something cheaper or turn it around more quickly.
It’s not a matter of good capitalists versus the bad capitalists. Sure, some companies have labour practices that are dreadful and we should try and change those – but this idea that we can have principled fidelity to publishers or booksellers, as though they, unlike Amazon, are not in it for the profit, is simply untrue.
It’s like Chad Post said, ‘The grants give Amazon something to point to, but people don’t see Amazon’s business practices any differently. It’s the same as with any corporation. Money is money. I take money from Citibank, and I fucking hate Citibank.’
Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.
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