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The Old "When in Rome" Excuse

Posted by Brooke Shelby Biggs on January 19th, 2006

Great article by Richard Cohen in today's New York Times about Microsoft's recent willingness to cave in to the Chinese government and shut down an MSN blog by a Chinese journalist that criticized the current regime. They, of course, follow Cisco Systems, which sells the equipment the Chinese government uses to censor the Web and Yahoo, who revealed the contact information for a dissident who is, as a result, now in a prison camp doing 10 years hard labor.

This is just the same old birthday suit on a new emporer. The Gap, Nike, Disney, Wal-Mart and scores of other corporations who farm out manufacturing to subcontractors in developing nations have used the same tired excuse: Sure, the working conditions are bad, the labor and evironmental laws are nonexistent, and the pay is paltry - but that's how everyone does it in (insert country here). It's a positively Clintonian splitting of factual hairs - we're not breaking any local laws, we're complying with the local custom. They conveniently ignore the moral implication if, say, the local custom is to whip children who don't meet their quotas. The same semantic jig is on display whenever one of these multinationals falls back on the old reliable "we don't own the factory, so we can't be held responsible for what a factory owner does."

It is remarkable, and remarkably sad, that companies like Microsoft who have grown incomprehensibly huge and prosperous precisely because of certain freedoms and ideals that make America great, yet they choose to sell out other freedoms and ideals when it is convenient. For shame.