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Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Suicide or migration?

Suicide is painless,
 It brings on many changes,
And I can take or leave it if I please
     (Theme song from MASH)

The Week summarizes a comment about those suicides in China and what motivates them  (We have the same problem on our South  Dakota reservations and in our military):

There’s plenty of blame to go around for the spate of suicides at Foxconn, the Chinese manufacturer that builds iPhones for Apple and PCs for Dell, said Lee Gomes ( At least 20 workers at Foxconn plants in southern China have attempted suicide in recent months, 13 of them successfully. In the search for culprits, the most obvious is Foxconn itself, which pays so poorly that its workers “can’t afford even the entry-level consumer electronics products they spend their days making.” The company used to make workers sign a pledge “that they won’t blame their employer if they try to kill themselves,” until the press raised a stink. Blame also falls on the Chinese government, which has encouraged breakneck economic growth even at appalling human cost. But in all the finger-pointing, don’t forget the Western consumer—that is, you and me. Working in one of Foxconn’s factories “is nothing any of us would wish on anyone we knew.” Yet we depend on those plants “for the gadgets we love so much.”

For 50 years that I have been covering business in one  capacity or another, we have had an influx of illegal aliens pour into our country.  In the 1960s, there were a number of factories in the community I covered as a journalist that would have periodic raids to round up the illegals and send them back across the border.  They took work in the drudge shops, such as foundries, forge shops, and did stoop labor on farms and packing plants.  Those that were caught and sent across the border soon returned.  Nobody much cared.  The prevailing attitude was that the United State was a safety valve.  If those hungry and dissatisfied people were not "wet-backing" into the U.S., they would be fomenting violence and international disorder south of the border.  In the name of hemispheric order, we let them come in and made only token attempts to enforce our immigration laws.  These people performed work of a nature that no  one wanted to do for long.  Employers needed the work done.  And the people in charge of government and business thought it was better to have them gainfully employed in the U.S. rather than causing political mayhem in their home countries, which could not provide them employment. 

 We have had the same process take place within our borders.  Our young people migrate out of the Great Plains into more cosmopolitan areas.  The lack of jobs at the level they seek is a part of the problem, but by no means the total motivation behind their decisions to  move.  The culture of the Great Plains is something that educated, talented people find bleak and oppressive.  Teachers from K through college see the brightest and most capable students leave for opportunities to work and live in ways that do not exist and, often, are held in disregard on the Great Plains.  The desire to prepare for and acquire more stimulating and satisfying lives was a factor that every teacher confronted, and why they expected to see the most promising students migrate away.  At one time, a college president increased the enrollment of our institution and enhanced its academic reputation by emphasizing that it would prepare students and make them competitive to succeed in more sophisticated, cosmopolitan cultures.  He devised the slogan "A gateway institution" to describe the college's mission.  Enrollments increased and the student body became noticeably more ambitious and diligent. But state officials and business leaders were offended by the ploy and the president was forced to find another slogan and not recruit students on the basis that the college was preparing them to create lives in other places. 

Unlike the illegal immigrants who sneak into the United States to work or the people who leave the Great Plains to find more satisfying and rewarding lives,  the workers at Foxconn in China have no way to seek better lives.  So, many commit suicide.  It seems a better alternative to them than a life of drudgery, frustration, and wage slavery with no prospect for a better future.

Suicide has a devastating effect on the living who the suicides leave behind.  It is the ultimate form of rejection.   The suicide says in effect to those who remain behind that they provide no reason for someone to stay in this life.  In some cases the social climate is why people choose suicide.  The lives of the survivors are forever changed.  They have to confront the fact that they might be part of the hopelessness that motivates someone near them to commit suicide.  They might even be a major cause.  Even if the thought of their implication is suppressed, it is not easy to  live with and casts the shadow of doubt that survivors cannot escape.  Most people who survive the suicides of those close to them retreat into denial.  Their quality and value as persons is called into question by suicide, so they contrive reasons which absolve them of any part in the motivations.

 To a lesser degree, people who are left behind when other people reject the community and culture they are in to seek a more tolerable life elsewhere suffer a similar sense of rejection and dismissal.    When people leave one job for a better one or move from a community, those left behind often mount angry slanders about them,   When former students with whom I have stayed in touch leave one job to take another, presumably better job, their employers nearly always terminate them on the spot with the old "clean our your desk and never come back" routine when they  submit their resignations.  Implied rejection makes people furious. 

The news about suicides on the reservations is largely met by racial slanders.  Suicides in the military meet those elaborate rationalizations that place blame elsewhere.  When young people commit suicide because of discrimination and  bullying, the reactions of those who discriminated and bullied are generally more of the same.  Whether it is employers and communities that talented and aspiring people want to get away from or reservations and service organizations over whom people choose death, it is more than most people can handle to consider that these are entities for which death seems a preferable alternative to many and are our cultural creations.

Suicides generally involve mental health issues that are complicated and often not understood.  We can understand the suicides in the Chinese sweat shops as caused by hopelessness.  The present for those workers is sheer drudgery and the future promises nothing else.  We can blame the Chinese executives for creating hopeless conditions.  But then we face the suicides in our military, on our reservations, and among our bullied high school students.   People can deny any involvement in what creates the hopelessness, but they can't deny that hopelessness exists.

Should anyone find the consideration of hopelessness oppressive, we offer Dorothy Parker's "Resume" as an approach to the matter: 
Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren't lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.


larry kurtz said...

Excellent commentary, sir.

How would making Mexico our 51st State change migration dynamics on the Great Plains?

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Aberdeen, South Dakota, United States