Our Passivity Surplus

AP Images/A.M. Ahad

Once in a while, disparate news events make visible a thematic convergence, something wonderful or disturbing that had been coursing unseen through the culture. Since the mass murder of 26 children and educators at Sandy Hook Elementary School, the nation’s attention has frequently been riveted by events that call into question what we owe to one another and what we owe to ourselves. Can we, like the inspiring, relentless parents of those dead kids, rouse ourselves to care about our fate?

Recently, two terrible yet at least partially hopeful episodes occurred: one in a familiar American city, the other thousands of miles from the U.S. We were horrified to learn of the kidnapping, torture, and sexual assault of three girls (now women) over a ten-year period by Ariel Castro, a middle-aged man seemingly as nondescript as his house in Cleveland. Charles Ramsey, a generous, charismatic neighbor in a down-on-its-heels neighborhood, heard a cry for help and helped kick in a door. (Yes, Ramsey has his own record of domestic abuse, but let’s praise him for what he did here and hope he is a better man than he once was.)

Many have remarked on the explicit, unmediated wit Ramsey displayed in media interviews and even in his call to 911, blasting through protocol to communicate the necessary details. At the end, the operator asked Ramsey whether Amanda Berry, one of the missing girls, needed an ambulance. Ramsey replied, “She needs everything. She’s in a panic, bro. I think she’s been kidnapped, so, you know, put yourself in her shoes.”

Put yourself in her shoes: With that resonant phrase, Ramsey, a black man rescuing a white woman, demonstrated a kind of social empathy that too often does not exist in American life. I have had debates with people who oppose a program of universal health insurance who will say, bluntly, “I’m not interested in what strangers have or don’t have. All I care about is myself and my family.” Because these people have tax-deductible employer--provided health care, they are members of what Paul Starr has called “the protected public” a phrase that applies, in the wealthiest country in the world, to the majority of Americans. Even following a massive recession, most of us have enough of the essentials of life to get by.

To be protected, or to imagine oneself protected, is comforting. Some conservative thinkers believe that such passivity is the paradoxical symptom of a healthy political culture. George Will has argued that a smaller voting turnout indicates that the electorate is content. In a profoundly balkanized nation, Ramsey put the lie to that cramped sentiment. Sometimes, contentment is not enough.

In Bangladesh, meanwhile, more than 1,100 workers died in the clothing--factory collapse near Dhaka that supplied retailers like Benetton, Primark, and Bonmarché. A corrupt owner had illegally added three extra floors to the top of the building, structurally weakening it. Pretty much everyone in North America and Western Europe is affluent by the standards of Bangladesh. We appreciate the efficiencies of the global supply chain that provide us with cheap clothing. Are we able to put ourselves in the shoes of the victims of this catastrophe? Does it matter if we do? Or is that merely a kind of moral vanity, easy for prosperous people to indulge in? Some activists have advocated boycotting the Western companies that subcontract substandard Bangladeshi garment factories. T.A. Frank in The New Republic has argued that our large retailers should adopt legally binding disclosures. Frank proposes that “Congress should require any business that places orders for more than $100,000 worth of goods from a foreign vendor hire labor monitors to monitor the factories involved and make the results of their findings available to the public online.” It’s a great idea that would make garment importers more accountable to American consumers. The real Western leverage, however, is coming from large international labor federations. Despite the decline of unions in the U.S. and much of the world, these federations have banked a still-substantial institutional social power, and they have been pressuring clothing retailers to take responsibility for working conditions in Bangladesh. (It should be noted that many of these unions aren’t even retail or clothing unions—labor solidarity, at its best, extends to workers of any kind anywhere in the world.)

While Westerners wonder what they should do, Bangladeshis have fiercely acted on their own behalf. As Vijay Prashad noted in The Guardian, unions and political organizing on the left have a strong history in Bangladesh dating to the nation’s founding in 1971. Even as Bangladesh became one of the top garment manufacturers in the world, heavily dependent on that export trade, its workers have sought higher wages and safer working conditions. In the past couple of years, garment-worker activism had been escalating in the wake of layoffs, not to mention the frequent fires and accidents that plague the industry. Unions and other organizations had led massive street demonstrations day after day. In the wake of the fire, responding to citizen pressure, the government has announced that garment workers will get a raise. (They currently are paid less than any other garment workers in the world.) It has also made legal the right of workers in the garment industry to organize unions without the permission of the owners of the garment factories. Feeling the heat from labor federations like UNI Global Union and IndustrialALL, Swedish retailer H&M has announced it will spearhead a fire-and-building-safety accord and seek the agreement of other major retailers. A horrific catastrophe, born of a lazy contempt for human life, is being met with a cry of resistance. State and private authorities, out of self-interested fear of unrest or more humane impulses, are responding. But American firms like Wal-Mart and the Gap are resisting signing the accord, and the activism of Bangladesh workers and their foreign union supporters will no doubt be needed for a long time. In late June, the Obama administration announced it would suspend trade to Bangladesh.

But there is another recent event about which Americans seem stirred neither to put themselves in another’s shoes nor march in their own. To some extent—somewhere between the Boston Marathon bombing and Bangladesh and Cleveland—the media lost sight of the West, Texas, fertilizer--factory explosion. Fourteen people died, and 200 were injured. Nearly 140 homes in the adjacent neighborhood were damaged, many decimated. Following the explosion, it was revealed that the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the workplace safety regulatory agency, had not fully inspected the site in 28 years (a partial inspection occurred in 2011).

The reaction of those who work at West Fertilizer, live near it, and survived the harrowing experience of volunteering to rescue the trapped or tame the fire has been strikingly dissimilar to that of the Bangladeshis. A few scattered lawsuits are in motion, but nobody is in the streets demanding safer factories. Few seem to be blaming 83-year-old Donald Adair—owner of the factory since 2004 and a church elder and lifetime area resident described by locals in recent articles as “honest and good”—for storing more than 1,300 times the amount of ammonium nitrate required for such a facility to self-report to the Department of Homeland Security. Good man though he may be, Adair reportedly carried only $1 million in liability insurance, woefully inadequate to cover the explosion’s enormous damage.

A week after the explosion, The New York Times ran a long story about its aftermath. Texas is the U.S. state with the highest worker fatalities. It does not have a state fire code; neither does McLennan County have a county fire code, a requirement that experts say would vastly upgrade the safety of facilities like the one in West. “There has been nobody saying anything about more regulations,” the cousin of two brothers who were victims of the explosion told the Times reporter. A week after the explosion, the state legislature put a stop to a bill that would have provided $60 million in training and assistance for volunteer firefighters. “Businesses can come down here and do pretty much what they want to,” said the senior executive editor of Texas Monthly. “That is the Texas way.”

You might call the support that West, Texas, residents have generally given to the fertilizer factory owner its own kind of social empathy: people imagining that if they were the owner, they pretty much would have done what Adair had done. But despite our congenial associations with the word “neighbor”—from Mr. Rogers to The Simpsons’ Ned Flanders—we would be wise to remember that neighbors can be negligent, even dangerous.

Three weeks after the fire in West, Texas, a now former paramedic, who went to the scene of the explosion, was charged with carrying materials that could produce a pipe bomb. This arrest might tidily resolve the questions about what caused the explosion. Perhaps, however, at some point, the people of Texas will have to decide if they wish to demand something—anything—better than this from government and business.

You can put yourself in other people’s shoes. You can protest on the street in your own shoes, or rush to a locked doorway and scream for help. You can hope that the people with the biggest pair of shoes in town do the right thing. The question is, what happens when they don’t? What happens when Congress can’t bring itself to adopt the most minimal measures to mitigate gun violence? In Connecticut, grieving parents decided to use the power of their unthinkable experience to start down the long road of changing public policy. In Cleveland, a cry for help from a white woman—a solitary feat of survival—brought the support of a black man, a solitary act of social empathy. In Bangladesh, workers are insisting that their lives must not be tossed away like old T-shirts. We are lucky when we can view the world rather than act in it. But sometimes more is needed. Sometimes, no matter which side of it we’re standing on, we need to knock a door down.

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