The ‘Conscience Industry’ Says…

The ‘Conscience Industry’ Says…

San Francisco


San Francisco

Rainforest Action Network did lift its boycott of two US-based Mitsubishi companies, as Alexander Cockburn states, based on what we see as good faith efforts [“Beat the Devil,” Nov. 9, 1998]. We are still boycotting the other 158 Mitsubishi companies to hell and back, and our signed agreement with Mitsubishi Motors and Mitsubishi Electric says so. We certainly applaud specific behavioral changes the companies have agreed to undertake, but we have never issued any sort of blanket endorsement. Readers should scrutinize RAN’s work to determine whether it’s “hucksterism,” as Cockburn suggests, or whether it’s a step toward systemic change and ecological revolution. Read the text of the agreement on RAN’s Web site:

President, Rainforest Action Network

Decatur, Ga.

Alexander Cockburn has again used The Nation to shrilly attack a progressive activist, this time Leonard Zeskind, a tireless veteran of the antifascist movement whom Cockburn calls a “richly rewarded…terrormonger.”

This is a journalistic mugging. For more than two decades, Zeskind has sounded the alarm in Europe and America about the mounting dangers of nationalism, xenophobia, racism, anti-Semitism and homophobic hate. Through his writing, scholarship, media interviews, lectures and frontline organizing and activism, Zeskind has highlighted the myriad dangers posed by the far right. Years before David Duke gained headlines by winning nearly 60 percent of the white vote in his 1990 bid to become a senator from Louisiana, Zeskind unmasked the “mainstreaming” strategies of the radical threat posed by racist skinheads, Christian Identity “theology” and the rural Christian Patriot movement. After many years of largely unremunerated activism, Zeskind had the good fortune to receive a much-deserved MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. This appears to be the source of Cockburn’s anger.


Canton, Mass.

I read Alexander Cockburn’s column, in which he challenges the authenticity of Equal Exchange, with sadness and a sense of powerlessness. I am a Nicaraguan and have worked for eight years with groups of small coffee farmers who sell their coffee to importers participating in the fair-trade initiative in Europe and the United States, among them Equal Exchange. For several months now, I have been working for Equal Exchange, a US worker-owned cooperative.

I have had the opportunity to know almost all the groups of coffee producers in Latin America and the Caribbean. I worked with them before they started their relationship with fair-trade importers and specifically with Equal Exchange, when they sold their products only in the conventional market. I have experienced the difference between trading in a fair-trade market as opposed to a conventional market.

During my first year of work with coffee farmers in the early nineties, they were unable to cover their costs because of low prices, so they had to get loans from commercial banks. The problem was that they again had to sell their coffee at a low price, and the farmers–with great hardship–were able to retire only a portion of their debt. The banks had given them a short loan period, and if they did not pay on time they had to surrender their land. In those days we had our first experience with fair trade and we managed to make our first shipment of coffee to Equal Exchange. With the earnings from that sale, we were able to pay off the loans and–for the first time–have money to spare to invest in the farms. Thanks to fair trade and Equal Exchange small producers did not lose their land. This is something we will never forget.

Fair trade has enabled producers to preserve their most treasured means to a livelihood–the land. In addition, the price they can now get for their coffee has enabled them to invest in their land. Now, they have more coffee-producing land, they have diversified their production and improved infrastructure, and they live in better houses. Their diet has also improved.

Thanks to fair trade these producers can now address issues of their health, education and other social problems that in countries such as ours are no longer a concern of the government. I think I have a great job because I am able to see thousands of farmers who have improved the living conditions of their families through fair trade–this is neither a utopia nor a lie. Some of the results are as tangible as those I have mentioned, and others are as intangible as the fact that producers now have greater knowledge, acquired through the technical assistance, training and education they obtained through fair trade.

The middlemen, or “coyotes,” have no place with the farmers who work within fair trade because it is no longer easy to cheat farmers. Equal Exchange has contributed a great deal to the entrepreneurial and personal transformation of the small coffee producer in Latin America, the Caribbean and Africa. The farmers are still poor, but their standard of living is better. When I look into the past I smile happily because the changes are evident and range from the personal appearance of farmers to the way they speak, the decisions they make, the transformation of farms and the social services they provide their communities.

It is irresponsible to say that companies such as Equal Exchange are not different from other capitalist companies. I can affirm, and even shout, as thousands of farmers would as well, that fair trade has restored human dignity, to the small coffee producers in developing countries.

Equal Exchange

Brooklyn, N.Y.

As a former Working Assets credit card holder, I welcomed Alexander Cockburn’s piece on the “feel good” hucksterism of the “conscience industry.” In 1993, Working Assets notified me that it was transferring its credit card operation to Fleet Bank. I wrote CEO Laura Scher to convey my dismay about this decision, since Fleet and its subsidiaries had been pretty badly tainted with accusations concerning predatory lending practices in poor communities. Fleet faced three class-action lawsuits (for usury, loan-sharking and racial discrimination) and Fleet was among six banks that paid huge settlements after accusations of profiting from high-interest loans made in violation of truth-in-lending laws. New York City officials had suspended doing business with Fleet because of allegations that it had bilked minority homeowners in Atlanta out of their homes through deceptive lending practices.

Scher replied that she was “aware of the allegations about Fleet’s lending practices, and the elements of truth in some of them” (emphasis added). However, this awareness did not deter Working Assets from running full-page ads in The Nation for the next few years soliciting your readers to use the Working Assets credit card to help “end discrimination” by banks. Truth in lending?



Petrolia, Calif.

Let us take note that among those protesting my column on progressive hucksterism Bernard Sanders is nowhere to be found. I’d been looking forward to the independent socialist’s defense of his eagerness to remit nuclear waste from Vermont to a poor township in Texas. I guess Sanders, after his assent to the bombardment of Iraq, reckons silence is unusually golden.

As for those marshaled here, Randy Hayes knows as well as I do the dangers of “seal of approval” environmentalism, and I’m happy to accept for the time being his affirmation of revolutionary aims. Rosario Castellón’s paean to the beneficial works of Equal Exchange somewhat misses the point of what I wrote. I’ve no particular quarrel with the work of that organization in the Third World, though Equal Exchange is by no means the first broker to consider the question of equity. My beef is more with what Equal Exchange is doing right here. There’s many a region in the United States, not least my own backyard of Northern California, where small coffee roasters are an important part of the fabric of modestly radical, local political and cultural economies. They back decent causes. They provide jobs. They know all about relations and conditions of production, at home and abroad. And then here comes Equal Exchange, pennant of virtue fluttering over its order book, going into direct competition–not with Folgers and other giants who couldn’t care less about conditions of production among those from whom they buy their beans but with the small roasters. Equal Exchange calls up my local co-op and offers to fly the coffee buyer to Central America, quid pro quo obviously being a big order for Equal Exchange coffee, at the expense of local roasters, given the finite nature of shelf space. So what separates Equal Exchange from the giant Starbucks, whose local rep here simply offered money to one store to dump rival roasters’ coffees onto the bottom shelves? Let Rosario Castellón fly out here at Equal Exchange’s expense, and I’d be happy to arrange some conversations with local roasters.

Now we come to Leonard Zeskind. Is he a “tireless veteran of the antifascist movement,” as his chum Levitas proclaims, or a “richly rewarded terrormonger”? He’s both, the lucky dog! Northern liberals love to applaud anyone who makes a living beating up the rubes, whether it be Zeskind or Molly Ivins, who traded in a genteel education for the profitable activity of affecting a redneck style in which to attack rednecks and other demons circling liberal campfires. Why would the MacArthur folk shovel money by the sackload into Zeskind’s arms? Not for drawing maps of the nonprofit policy-making sector–MacArthur Foundation included–that keeps the capitalist social order in supple shape. No, Zeskind assists in the coarse enterprise of terrifying liberals with the myth that out there west of the New Jersey Turnpike and south of the Loop is a rural fascist movement on the verge of taking power. It’s the game Morris Dees has played for years, leading to an endowment at the Southern Poverty Law Center of nearly $100 million, with which he does little to fight poverty, the death penalty or other discriminatory applications of the law.

Listen to the last sentence of Zeskind’s review of a Dees book, here in The Nation in 1996: “When the next generation’s D.W. Griffith shows a militia version of Birth of a Nation in the White House amid fond remembrance of how Christian patriots braved repression and calumny to restore US sovereignty, a few will turn for elements of the truth to…” a book by Morris Dees! “Assuming all the libraries will be purged by then,” Zeskind warns darkly, “find a safe spot for your copies now.” In other words, send Dees your fifty bucks! Beat back Kristallnacht for another month!

The terrormongers, often better than their pals in the FBI, Justice Department and local enforcement agencies–remember the Anti-Defamation League’s collusion with torture cops in the 1980s and Chip Berlet’s subsequent defense of this–run these scams year after year and get lionized. But more successful recipes for social misery and class injustice have come out of the Rockefeller, Ford and Pew foundations in the past ten years than out of all the right-wing groups ever named by Zeskind and Dees. You won’t ever get richly rewarded for saying that. Not by liberals anyway.

So liberals tremble at Morris Dees’s and Leonard Zeskind’s bulletins about the right-wing threat to America. They devour The Nation‘s nervous blares about the Christian threat (will our covers ever make as much fun of the Lubavitcher Rebbe as they do of the poor Virgin? I think not). And all the while the effective enemy of freedom is given a rousing welcome. What, after all, would the rural posses actually do if they were in power? Let’s suppose they’d lock up the blacks. They’d throw out the browns. They’d fix things so that their jackbooted cops could stamp into our homes, scrutinize our reading matter. They’d jerk the single mothers off welfare. They’d…they’d…they’d throw up their hands in frustration when they found that Bill Clinton had done it all. Would a simple Klansman ever dream up so fine a scheme to incarcerate black people (and, as felons, permanently deny them the right to vote) as the 100-to-1 disproportion in sentencing between terms for crack and powder cocaine, ringingly upheld by Clinton and his Attorney General and first pushed through by then-Democratic House majority leader Tip O’Neill? Would a constitutionalist stomp on the Bill of Rights–particularly the Fourth and Sixth amendments–with the same ardor as Clinton, with those roving taps on any phone the target might be adjacent to, with his ravaging of habeas corpus in death penalty cases, with those denials of due process to immigrants both legal and undocumented?

Liberals love the comforting landscape offered them on a weekly basis in The Nation: Battling Bernie Sanders in Vermont, courageous Morris Dees in Montgomery, Alabama; and yes, Bill and Hillary in the White House, sometimes off the mark, but in Eric Alterman’s last analysis, in the angels’ corner. It’s OK to hate Bob Barr and the Republican managers, but can’t we at least have a little realism and abandon the delusion that endless denunciations of David Duke constitute a vital service to freedom in America, to be rewarded by MacArthur genius grants and the gratitude of all those old folk Dees and Zeskind and the others have frightened, down the years, into dipping into their scant savings in order to keep the imagined beast at bay?


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