Update May 2022:
I just want to acknowledge that my views on the subject of 'the power of consumers' has shifted since I initially authored this blog post – namely, I now believe that too much emphasis is placed on individual consumer choices and not enough emphasis on deconstructing the capitalism and championing major systemic reforms. I also believe that the question of 'consumer choice' is a nuanced one, as many of the so-called 'conscious' consumer choices are inaccessible to the majority of the world due to financial and logistical constraints.
That said, I decided to let this blog post remain on my website with minimal edits, namely because it does connect the dots between the privileges Americans enjoy and take for granted, and the harm caused to communities (and entire nations!) in Central and South America. Benefitting from the destruction of someone else's country and then complaining when they seek refugee status in your own country is the height of hypocrisy, and I hope this blog post gives people pause to consider their own role in systems of injustice.
It's time we have a serious talk about the power of consumers – and no, I don't just mean your power to select toothpaste with fluoride or toothpaste without. Certainly, as consumers, we all have the power to signal to companies what we want to see more or less of on our grocery shelves. But what we all tend to overlook is that our consumer choices have a massive effect on government and geopolitics. Confused about how? Let me walk you through it.
I'll draw my 'case study' from a current event that is keeping me up at night. Literally, I woke at 1:00 am this morning, unwisely grabbed my smartphone and scrolled through Twitter for a moment, and then spent the night sleepless and intermittently crying while chasing stories down a political rabbit hole after catching sight of these sobering numbers:
The reality: Trump Administration won’t make the deadline to reunify all of the kids under 5.
Only 38 out of 102 ‘tender age’ children will be reunified today.
14 will never be eligible.
12 parents have already been deported without their kids.
— Mariana_Atencio (@marianaatencio) July 10, 2018
As humans – at least those of us with the capacity for empathy – we relate stories about other people to the experiences we can reference in our own memories.
When I've followed reports about the refugee families fleeing across America's southern border, I relate it to the experience I had of working with refugees families fleeing conflict zones in Iraq and Syria, arriving to Europe's shores.
Here is a photograph from one of the many families I made friends with, who had arrived in Northern Greece from Syria – their entire family consisted of a father, a mother and five gorgeous little girls. Pictured here are their mother and three of their daughters – the youngest is playing with my sunglasses!
The pervasive narrative of 'American Exceptionalism' and the cultural belief that our 'here' is universally better than anyone else's 'there' has obscured our ability to grasp what I consider to be a fundamental realization people need to make before approaching any debate on immigration or refugees –
Although there will always be a small subset of the population who loves to explore and travel as a lifestyle, most of humanity prefers to stay home.
Most people feel a deep emotional bond with the land they were born in, the earth their grandparents and ancestors are buried beneath. As a general rule, people prefer to be surrounded by their own culture, their own language – they crave familiar sights, sounds, and smells.
To leave home for a vacation or even a gap year may be a novelty, to permanently dig up roots and resettle your entire family in a foreign and often hostile land is not a choice people make for fun, or even out of base opportunism. When most people flee across borders with their children, they are making a choice out of desperation, they are running for their lives.
I am certain what was true for the families I met in Greece is also true for the families arriving in the United States – frankly, America is not so exceptional that most people wouldn't rather stay home, if doing so didn't mean extreme suffering, human rights abuses or even certain death.
When I was in Greece, I met many refugee women with newborn babies, including this little kitten who was five days old.
His mother put him in my arms, and then his family asked me to please adopt him and take him to America, because I could give him a better life than what they could give him in a refugee camp.
I was shocked. The only words I could find to respond were,
"Babies belong with their mothers."
It seemed like the most self-evident, conscionable answer a person could give in that situation.
Never in a million years would it have occurred to me that the woman sitting next to me – exhausted, grief-stricken, terror plainly written on her face – deserved to have her baby taken away because she had arrived at that place without the right document.
And yet, somehow, Americans are justifying that very same thing...
Although I don't share the sentiment, I can at least understand and empathize with the scarcity and fear people feel when they fail to welcome refugees into their land.
What I can NOT understand, however, is –
1) The over-reliance on law and government to solve the problem, to the extent that 'breaking the law' (i.e. crossing a border without a visa, which I remind you is a misdemeanor) justifies the horror of stealing babies out of their parents' arms and putting them in cages, and
2) The irony of telling refugees it's 'their own fault' their babies have been stolen from them, while at the very same time, failing to turn that self-responsibility on themselves and critique how their own choices might be contributing to the conditions that bring refugees over borders and into the United States, and
3) The irony that, by and large, it's the same subset of Americans who voice deep paranoia about taxation and government control who are also leaning into this extreme form of Kantian ethics around 'following the law' and who are failing to take responsibility for their own role in this situation.
The only way 'libertarianism' works is when it is practiced alongside radical self-responsibility. Anything short of that, and what you have is not a functional social order, what you have is a hedonist anarchy.
So how have average citizens of the United States, through their personal choices, contributed to the geopolitical situation in which refugees are fleeing Central America and crossing our border?
Through the power of consumers!
Still confused? Let me break it down for you...
Buying Fruit From Central America
Americans are bananas about our tropical and out-of-season fruits. We're so bananas, in fact, that during the turn of the last century, a group of American businessmen formed United Fruit Company, bought up enormous territories of land, and by 1930 they became the largest employer in Central America.
The fruit import business was booming, especially in the post- World War II economy, and many powerful Americans owned a large stake in the company – including the Director of the CIA and the US Secretary of State.
So naturally, when through democratic elections Central American leaders came into power who wished to reappropriate land to indigenous people and enforce the decisions of labor unions, the United States government decided to start training rebel militias, funding military coups and backing the dictators who replaced their democratically elected rivals. Naturally...
If you've ever heard the term 'banana republic', this is what it's referring to.
Although this could be a likely point of departure into anger towards the American government for their neocolonial foreign interventions, if we're going to practice radical self-responsibility, then we have to bring it back to the power of consumers – none of this would have been possible if the American people were consciously choosing not to spend their money on a product sold by corrupt fruit importers.
United Fruit Company eventually morphed into Chiquita, and their biggest rival, Standard Fruit Company, likewise morphed into Dole. There is still scarcely a grocery store in America where you cannot find products from Chiquita and Dole on the shelves, in spite of the fact that these two companies continue to cause havoc all over Central America, the Caribbean, and the northern Amazon regions of South America.
In fact, as recently as 2007 Chiquita Brands pled guilty in a US Federal Court for 'aiding and abetting a terrorist organization' for their cooperation with Colombia's 'United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia' (UAC). Chiquita provided $1.7 million in cash to UAC, smuggled thousands of AK-47s across borders for them and also helped them smuggle drugs into Europe. In exchange for this help, UAC 'silenced' (read: murdered) union organizers and bullied family farmers into selling their fruit exclusively to Chiquita.
Buying Drugs & Celebrating Drug Culture
When we think of being a consumer, we usually think about swiping our cards in department stores, not about furtively handing off cash for a dime bag – but there's a market for drugs just like there's a market for makeup and shoes, and the power of consumers is just as potent on the black market as it is at the shopping mall.
Now, I am sure many people's instincts here will be to clutch their pearls and exclaim that they're not responsible for the drug trade. Isn't it interesting how nobody's a drug user and yet we've had ample fuel in this country for a decades-long 'war on drugs'?
Alright, well... even if you've truly never done a single drug on a single day in your life, this post isn't just about taking responsibility for our power as consumers, it's about practicing radical self-responsibility, so let's look a little bit deeper...
Who here hasn't watched a movie that glamorized drug use, or at the very least glamorously depicted characters who used drugs? Who here hasn't listened to and enjoyed music that referenced selling or using drugs? Or bought magazines or read online news about the celebrities whose glamorous lifestyles include partying and... drugs?
Much has been written about the drug cartels and paramilitary gangs that have overtaken entire countries in Latin America, but I am not sure many Americans are listening. The American media frets 24/7 about the brutality of ISIS – and rightly so – but how much coverage do they give to the gangs right in our backyard who are committing the same sins: forcing young men into combat, forcing young women into sex trafficking, torturing and beheading anyone who dares to cross them?
If you've invested yourself in any way in driving a cultural narrative that uplifts and encourages drug use, then you're helping to create a market for drugs. And if you're helping create a market for something, you're also responsible for the impact of producing those items. The very impact you've created is precisely what refugees from Central America are fleeing their homes to escape from.
Creating A Shadow Job Market For Undocumented Workers
This is the proverbial elephant in the room right here, folks. There is an entire shadow economy of undocumented workers who are paid shockingly low wages, labor in conditions that would cause an OSHA inspector to break out in a cold sweat, and consistently work outrageously long hours and weeks with no overtime.
When undocumented workers have an accident or their bodies simply break down from the stress, there is no workplace insurance to compensate them. When an employer abuses them, there is no legal recourse to protect them.
Many employers hiring undocumented workers keep their books straight by turning a blind eye to obviously fake employment eligibility paperwork, meaning – despite the hysteria around immigrants 'draining our resources' – undocumented workers pay taxes into social security and medicaid, but they will never be able to file tax returns at the end of the year or claim benefits when they retire.
How many of us have looked at historically or geographically 'foreign' systems – slavery, child labor in factories, apartheid – and clucked about how people could turn a blind eye to such immoral practices happening all around them?
Well, here's my answer, but you're probably not going to like it – if you've ever bought vegetables at a grocery store, eaten in a restaurant, or lived in a building you didn't construct yourself, then you know exactly how people turn a blind eye to exploitation because you're doing it, too.
The historical record is not going to smile upon the 21st Century American economic system any more than we currently smile upon Victorian textile mills or the Antebellum South.
The reason people flee their homes without immigration paperwork is because they're running for their lives; the reason people head towards the United States when they go is because they know, when they get here, they will have a job. The reason they will have a job is because American people keep creating them, by exchanging their money for goods and services provided by undocumented workers.
I am not writing this to say that we shouldn't provide jobs to refugees from Latin America – in fact, I think very much that we should continue to do so, albeit fairly and legally. My point in writing this is simply to point out the hypocrisy in wanting the government to punish people for crossing the border at the same time you personally reward them by creating jobs for them with your consumer choices.
To be fair, it should be just as wrong to participate in one side of an illegal transaction as participating on the other side. It should be just as wrong to purchase goods and services from an undocumented worker (or the business employing them) as it is to BE the undocumented worker.
If you purchase food in a restaurant where an undocumented worker did the dishes, do YOU deserve to be arrested? If you buy a home from a construction company employing undocumented laborers, should YOUR babies be taken from you and put in a cage?
When we turn the tables and hold both parties in a transaction responsible for the role they have played, the argument that 'they were breaking the law, they were irresponsible parents, they deserve whatever happens to themselves and their children' doesn't seem so reasonable now, does it?
This was only one case study out of dozens I could use to illustrate the power of consumers to shape the world they want to live in – and I am sure I will write about this topic again. In the meantime, consider this a call to action to bring your conscious awareness to the products and services you spend your money on. What kind of world are you 'voting' for when you hand over your money?