Friday, February 22, 2008

Captain Charles Boycott

The Balkans seem to be going up in flames these days. The streets of Beograd were in mayhem yesterday... today Mitrovica... tomorrow Sarajevo? For rather different reasons than Serbia or our other entity (I hate to call it 'lesser', like many here do), yet another street protest has been called in Sarajevo. To be quite honest....i'm not expecting much, nor is much of anyone I suppose. There seem to be larger issues overshadowing our dissatisfaction with the appaulling performance of this government and the disturbing social anxiety that continues to and creep and crawl under our skin.

I spent the new year of 2006-07 on Ireland's most western point, Achill Island in County Mayo. My ancestors first came to the states from this area, in the aftermath of the Great Famine (as it was called) that plagued Eire from 1845-48. My great-great and few more great grandfathers was a cobbler. He made boots. When he stepped off the boat in Ellis Island, New York in the mid 1800's his services were immediately put to use. They shipped him off to make boots for Union soldiers fighting the civil war. Famine to war. What a party, huh?

Achill Island is what Croatia is trying to sell itself as...."Ireland, the way it once was." Achill is indeed old Eire. When i first visited many years ago I crossed the bridge from the mainland and climbed through the green rolling hills towards the bay. Over a small foothill the mighty Atlantic opened up before us. A little boy, with wavy blond hair, was bouncing on his horse drawn carriage through the sand. The Atlantic wind blew both the boys and horses hair in this fairytale the way we all sort of idealize Ireland to be. I got out at the 'bus stop', looked around, and found only a pub. Imagine that. I, of course, sat and had a Guinness as one does when in Ireland. Do as the Romans, right?

Some of you may wonder how the hell i drifted so far from my original theme. Well, the thing is, i haven't really. In fact, I'm just getting to the fun stuff. Now western Eire accents can be tricky even for east coasters...let alone for a third generation Irish-Americans. The pub was silent with the exception of some soft jig tunes on the radio. Men reading newspapers, drinking pints, and smoking ciggies. I could have been in rural Bosnia, I thought to myself. Except the beer here was much better.

The bar tender unenthusiastically asked me what i fancied. A thick brown meal in a pint glass was put in front of me ten minutes later. The art of Guinness pouring in Ireland is not taken lightly. The gentlemen next to me eventually lowered his newspaper and peered over the top of his hanging glasses at me. Uninspired but what he saw, he again lifted the newspaper which covered his face.

Through the crunch of the sports pages a coarse, island accent rang out, 'you know lad, you Yanks ought to know a t'ing or two about this here island. During the land wars in the 1880's there was a right bastard of a state agent named Captain Charles Boycott. He sucked the people dry with his high rents and forced many onto the streets. Parnell, god rest his soul, instructed us not to react with violence but to not work his land, deny him of his harvest, and leave his stables and houses to fall in ill repair. So you know what we did son? We walked out on the bastard. Now he in turn called called out the army and police. He shipped in labour from other parts of Ireland, brought the Orangemen here to harvest what was rightfully ours. We kept our word though, like true Christians. We didn't raise a hand. And in the end, his army and foreign labour cost him more than the harvest was worth. By the time the Land Wars were over, all of Ireland had begun to use the word BOYCOTT as a term for organized isolation. There's more to life, son, than a few shillings in yer pocket. You gotta do the right thing, ya know. Ya gotta stand up to these greedy bastards who try and bleed the people for all their worth. Remember that son. Boycott started here on Achill Island. Don't you ever forget that."

To say the least, I haven't forgotten. In fact, it has been a way of life for me since the early 1990's. Unknowingly following in my ancestors footsteps, I have been a major boycotter for almost twenty years now. Coca Cola. Kraft. McDonalds. Wal-Mart. Nestle. Monsanto. Exxon. Shell. If their hands are dirty - I don't touch the stuff. If they don't care for their employees, why should i care for their stockholders? Their profits are never enough. Their means of gaining them are immoral. They are replacing the oppressive monarchies of times gone by and we are their serfs.

Now most folks here think I'm nuts. Waiters just shake their heads at me when i send back the Olimpia mineral water they bring to me. What's wrong with Sarajevski Kiseljak damn it?!?! But it has been a proven method, particularly in the past few decades - of opposing both corrupt and inhumane corporations and governments. Money is power. Power is money. Or so they think at least. And as long as they do, we need to hit 'em where it hurts.

Protest has been worked into an art form in many places around the world. The global south is becoming especially aware of the power of boycotting of products. Hundreds of universities in the US and UK have forbidden the sales of Coca-Cola on their campuses because of Coca-Cola's horrendous human rights record in India and Columbia. Coca Cola, for the first time in many decades, recorded lower profits due to conscientious buyers.

It is a powerful tool. And one that opens ears and eyes.

This may mean not having some creature comforts or having to do without some things we may like. But extreme circumstances often require extreme actions. It may take a bit of digging and prying, but every one of our dear politicians is knee deep in one company or another. We need to find out who, what, where, when, why and how.

The cheapest and easiest of things often turn out costing more than we could ever imagine. Why feed those who oppress you? If there is something we can do, we must ask ourselves what that something is. If there is nothing we can do, we need to ask why not?

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