I've witnessed grand theater these last couple of days, drama on a campus-wide scale, actors playing roles for all the usual reasons -- passion, a need to identify, a lack of anything better to do. I've seen a set constructed piece by piece, and taken down nine days later, piece by piece. And on that set, I've seen actors recite their lines, conflicts develop and resolutions surely and inevitably follow. There were tangential plot lines and a cast of hundreds of walk-ons and bit actors, to be sure. But at its core, the production featured 13 protagonists pitted against bureaucracy personified by one woman -- University President Judith Rodin. There was no doubt as to who was stronger and who was weaker. There was no doubt as to who was in charge and who was begging for action from the powers that be. And there was no doubt that the underdog's cause would be taken up by the audience; no doubt that the sheer specter of 13 hunger-striking students would elicit public sympathy. But then again, what was in doubt about this whole process? Know this: A cause capable of generating this measure of commitment from this many students is an eminently winnable one. Certainly, there is much to be written about the problems with such a reality. At a minimum, it leaves us to cross our fingers and hope that the activists have indeed taken the right side. But in this particular case, I cross my fingers without much conviction that there is a right and a wrong side to this debate. After two weeks of information overload regarding the relative merits of the Fair Labor Association and the Worker Rights Consortium, I remain certain only that there are profound and valid reservations about each. And I have a sneaking suspicion that no monitoring organization will ever succeed in securing the reality that the student activists want. Put simply, the problem of poorly treated Third World workers has nothing to do with who is watching whom. It has everything to do with the fact that Third World economies have repeatedly proven incapable of footing the bill to ensure First World-style human rights for their citizens. That, of course, doesn't mean it's not worth trying. Doing what you can is sound policy even when you can't do everything you want. But even if Penn ends up employing the activist-backed WRC to monitor the production of its logo apparel -- even, that is, if the protesters emerge victorious on the central point of their agenda -- it won't be their most important victory. Their greatest achievement is this: The word sweatshop is now a part of virtually every Penn student's vocabulary. The protesters have won a place in the average student's mind, right in among thoughts of school, shopping and Saturday night plans. Sure, some of them think that sweatshops are places where sweatshirts, and sweatshirts only, are made. But most of them also carry with them an increased awareness of one central fact: that elsewhere in this fine world of ours, people's lives are not as good as they are here. That may sound like small potatoes compared to the Penn Students Against Sweatshops activists' ostensible goal of ensuring that individuals involved in the production of Penn-logo apparel are not mistreated. It is. But then again, who ever said that 13 kids could change the world? Most of the time, the best we get a chance to do is influence the minds of those around us. And most of the time, we don't use that opportunity in constructive ways. The sweatshop protesters did. They added a new dimension to our understanding of the world, a new category of awareness. I remember talking to one of the protesters about his boots days before the sit-in started. They aren't made by Nike, he said. That was what was important to him. But don't you worry that these boots, too, were made by someone who is being mistreated? Sure, he said. But I can't know everything. I do what I can. I know that what Nike does is wrong, and therefore it matters to me that I don't wear the clothes and shoes they make. At the time, I remember thinking that Nike would never have the slightest idea that this student refused to wear their shoes. Now, nine days later, they may just have heard.Comments powered by Disqus
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