One of the inevitable things about vacation time is that you miss stuff. Particularly Internet stuff.
For instance, I read and enjoyed this post at CMR, but totally missed the combox discussion afterward which somehow went from rainbows to color-coded socially conscious products to the boycott of goods made in China; an interesting read, to be sure.
What interested me about that comment thread is that for a while Mr. M. and I were firmly in the "Don't buy things made in China" camp. Given that we lived in a very rural area at the time, had no computer and no way of doing any online shopping, and had three children under three this was a challenge; but we were committed to it.
We did well for a while, and felt pretty good about it (and ourselves). Sure, sometimes a relative or friend would give us Chinese-made baby goods, but we weren't being strict about what others bought, just ourselves. So we found Spanish baby sandals and Fisher-Price toys made in Mexico and a slew of other non-Chinese alternatives to the Made In China (MIC) stuff that was ubiquitous, and decided smugly that the only reason anybody wouldn't do likewise was that it was just too much work, or that they were oblivious to the serious reasons in favor of such an economic boycott.
As usual, though, pride wenteth before a fall. Ours was twofold: children's shoes, and JPII.
Those cute made-in-Spain baby sandals only went up to a teeny size; when the girls started needing actual shoes we were flummoxed. There simply weren't any children's shoes not made in China. You could buy cheap Chinese shoes or expensive Stride-Rite Chinese shoes or imitation knock-off Chinese shoes or opulent NBA Chinese tennis shoes or any sort of Chinese shoes you liked--but you couldn't buy non-Chinese shoes, not in a small rural American town. Even if we'd had the computer and Internet access we probably couldn't have afforded any non-Chinese children's shoes out there, anyway; parents know that for the first six or seven years of a child's life a brand new pair of shoes will fit the child for approximately 17.5 days, give or take a week, so spending hundreds of dollars a pair doesn't make sense unless you're both wealthy and a spendthrift.
Okay, I thought at the time. We'll have to buy MIC shoes for the girls. But that's it. I'm not buying anything else.
And then I heard something reported that our Holy Father, John Paul II, had said about economic sanctions and boycotts against a different country. I've looked for the quote, but haven't found it; what I remember was that the pope was against boycotts, pointing to their disproportionate effect on the poor.
I hadn't ever thought about it that way. I thought my refusal to buy Chinese-made goods was a statement against Communism and against the many human rights abuses perpetrated by China in the recent past. It had never occurred to me that a poverty-stricken family might be counting on the handful of yuan a teenage daughter might bring home to them after each week's work in a factory; it never crossed my mind that the family might secretly thank God for this employment, and suffer greatly if it were lost.
Now, I know that this doesn't mean that Americans have some kind of moral obligation to load up on the goods produced by every suffering nation; when we let American companies exploit the people in China or elsewhere by paying them $100 a month to make goods that cost more than $100 apiece we aren't helping matters. And I firmly believe that our own lack of manufacturing is hurting our country, not just economically, but from a security perspective as well.
But deciding to boycott a nation to protest against that nation's policies really does, in the end, hurt those already suffering under oppressive governments and in situations of poverty most of us can't really fathom from our own experiences.
What's the answer?
I still think that buying locally is best, whenever possible. But if I can't buy shoes made in Texas or even in America, should I avoid the goods produced by some nations altogether? Maybe--but perhaps the decision should depend more on how doing that might impact those already suffering in those countries than on the political realities. Because the young Chinese worker whose income may someday provide a better life for his family may, in the end, do more to bring about the end of the human rights abuses in his country than a mere boycott ever could. Real, lasting, hopeful change in China will have to be made in China, after all.