Thursday, May 8, 1997
Aiming for the Green
My, my, the Tiger Woods cavalcade keeps rollin' along mightily, don't it.
Perhaps not since Mark Spitz and Bruce Jenner, with their boyish post-Beatle-esque
shag haircuts and Ipana smiles, has such a perception of All-American wholesomeness
abounded across the land. His emergence as a lodestone for the country's
longing is not a little scary. The clamor about Woods seems to be of a pitch
which precludes hearing what he reveals -- or doesn't reveal -- about himself,
in any other way than what people are predisposed to believe about him.
It appears that everyone wants a piece of this guy, and in the process of
imprinting their projections upon him, Woods moves further toward entropic
dissolve. Clearly, a major element of his appeal is his blank-slate guilelessness,
a quiet aplomb and self-containment born of an adolescence spent on the
fairway rather than at the mall or on the street corner. As a consequence,
watching Woods face the public is almost an exercise in pathos.
Those who want to claim him as their own under the banner of racial exclusivity
questioned his initial self-designation of ethnicity, causing him to finally
tweak his lineage into the all-encompassing category "Cablinasian."
He advanced that definition recently on the Oprah Winfrey show, in an appearance
which probably marked the first occasion in which he ventured beyond his
media image. Not surprisingly, he was accompanied by his father, Earl, whose
presence confirmed that this is as adept an operation as anything we have
seen since Colonel Tom Parker groomed Elvis. The senior Woods fielded the
brunt of the questions, stating that Tiger's choice of racial identity is
"academic." He had raised his son, he said, to be a human being
and a good person.
So, as Earl Woods would have it, we're beyond race -- which is both good
and bad. Good for the obvious reasons, not the least of which is that class
then becomes our primary focus; and bad, because race and class impinge
upon each other here, as they have throughout our history. But it is doubtful
that any considerations of such subtleties are a part of the marketing plan
of Tiger Inc. Woods père, the former Green Beret and president
of the company, gives every indication that his sheltered son's apparent
naiveté on these matters will remain undiminished.
* * *
Tiger's bland assertion to Winfrey that he had
"nothing stirring inside him" must have been sweet music to Nike
CEO Phil Knight, although it was certainly redundant. Knight's people have
long been aware of Woods' placid temperament, and for the past few years
have envisioned him as a $40 million complement to the moral somnolence
Michael Jordan has provided them when it comes to Nike's global labor practices.
I wondered in a column a few weeks ago whether Woods' concern for exploited
Asian workers in his mother's home country who make the clothes he wears
had abated as a result of Nike's agreeing to independent monitoring of offshore
sweatshops. But of course my speculation was moot: I sensed that if he wasn't
utterly oblivious to the issue, his various handlers would ensure that he
wouldn't be unduly distracted by it in future. Indeed, it would be a bit
of a stretch for someone who grew up around country clubs to have witnessed
the erosion of work in the lives of similarly-hued inner-city residents,
and to have also noted that many of those jobs are now performed for a pittance
outside the country.
This is the young man the country has taken to its heart. These days, success
will have us absolve almost anything, and most spectacularly when the elect
exhibit that storybook graciousness we harbor as a remnant of our basic
democratic instincts. That those two impulses are at odds, is surely at
the root of Tiger's dilemma and, to varying degrees, yours, and mine. We
will accordingly greet the latest news of Tiger's Nike association with
different reactions and responses. Woods' new contract with the company
is reportedly worth $60 million and includes a head-to-toe line of Tiger
apparel, bearing his own logo, which will be churned out by Asian factories
and their 12-14-hour-a-day workforces.
How we assess the above presupposes an extant capacity deep within the American
breast -- dare I say a yearning ? -- for simple extrapolation. Consider
these other new developments: 10,000 Nike workers in Indonesia demonstrated
two weeks ago, burning cars and ransacking the offices of a factory which
refused to pay them a $2.50-a-day minimum wage. In Vietnam, some 800 workers
at a Nike shoe factory, mainly women, went on strike in late April over
the factory's refusal to pay minimum wage, strict control of access to toilet
facilities, allowing a maximum of two glasses of water per day, verbal abuse,
sexual harassment and corporal punishment. In March, a supervisor at a Nike
sub-contractor in Vietnam was found guilty of forcing 56 women workers to
run three miles around the factory for not wearing regulation work shoes.
Twelve of the women were hospitalized.
We get the politicians we deserve, it is frequently said. One should hope
that we never have to say the same of our heroes. I understand those who
submit that this kid is a golfer, and doesn't pretend to be anything
else, so leave him be. But you'll have to excuse me, his lack of elementary
awareness is repugnant. As a golfer, he's a man among men. As the human
being his old man professed to have raised unencumbered by the pertinent
shades of yellow and black, he remains a boy.
--Copyright John Hutchison 1997
Don't Do That Voodoo
The wizards in Washington have been casting some remarkable
spells. First they conjured up "the end to welfare as we know it,"
meaning the end to the safety nets that had protected thousands of poor
people from indigence (according to my dictionary, "a level of poverty
in which real hardship and deprivation are suffered and comforts of life
are wholly lacking"). Then last Saturday, with fanfares and full imperial
regalia, they enthroned a resplendent new era in which unemployment is at
a 25-year low, economic growth is at a 10-year high, and -- this is a direct
quote from The President -- "our economy is now the strongest it's
been in a generation." The mainstream press celebrated with prominent
front-page coverage: in the Los Angeles Times and the San Francisco
Chronicle you could hear champagne corks popping behind Robert A. Rosenblatt's
description of an age when "the booming economy generated new jobs
at a rapid pace." The stock market leaped in a graceful grand jeté
that would have made Baryshnikov proud, jubilant that, miraculously, the
decline in the jobless rate had not produced omens of inflation. The populace
huzzahed, reassured that the dreaded warlock Alan Greenspan, with his cauldron
of ever-rising interest rates, had been driven from the gates (at least
until May 20, when the Federal Reserve is considering raising rates again).
WARNING: The following contains very large
numbers, representing large numbers of very ordinary people.
But after wading through the first gleeful sentences in my newspaper, I
realized that this economic emperor is stark knobby-kneed naked. I noticed,
first of all, that the Department of Labor, which prepared the figures,
doesn't say that employment is up. In fact, a lot of people (some 6.7 million)
are still looking for work, and the most flagrant category of unemployed
-- African American male teenagers -- has grown from last year's 34.9 percent
to 37.3 percent. Half of the "decline in the jobless rate" came
from a decrease in the workforce: the number of people with jobs remained
nearly the same in April as in March, but for some reason fewer people were
available to work. There has actually been a reduction in the past six months
(from 63.1 percent in October to 54.2 percent in April) in industries generating
new jobs in our booming economy. And on the average, people with jobs earned
one percent less in April than they had in previous months.
"People with jobs" -- this is the magic phrase that flips His
Imperial Majesty upside down and whisks off the last tattered pieces of
his once-dazzling figleaf. The Job has been sanctified as the talisman necessary
for a prosperous and stable society and, led by Milwaukee, one city after
another is moving its poorest residents from welfare to workfare. But an
ingredient must be missing from this witches' brew, because something has
gone awry: at a time when the unemployment rate has fallen to a media-worthy
4.9 percent, the official poverty rate remains somewhere around 13 percent.
Nearly 64 million Americans are employed in civilian jobs, but at least
35 million people in the United States live in poverty. (I say "at
least" 35 million because official statistics take time to prepare
and the most recent figure, 36.4 million, is for the year 1995.)
Whatever happened to the idea of earning a living wage? Doesn't anyone (except
the people who don't make one) think it's fundamental to a decent life?
Or have the holders of well-paying jobs gotten so out of touch with the
nitty-gritty of daily existence that they simply have no conception of what
constitutes a living wage? Even if they cannot cross the imaginative hurdle
into empathy for a person trying to feed, clothe, and shelter a family on
the minimum wage, all they need is a little elementary arithmetic, using
numbers provided by the Department of Labor and the Bureau of the Census,
to understand the situation intellectually. The official poverty threshold
in the United States in 1996 for a family of three (one parent and two children)
was $12,517. Let's say that a single parent works full-time at a job paying
$5.15 an hour, the new minimum wage that will go into effect on September
1, 1997. His -- or more likely, her -- annual earnings of $10,712 will leave
the family short by $150 a month. (For a family of four, with a threshold
of $16,029, the task is a little easier. If the father has a full-time job,
the mother can work half-time, take better care of the children, and still
make up the amount needed. A nice, neat solution, except that most poor
families are headed by single adults.) Even if the parent lands a better-paying
job -- a real achievement these days for a high school graduate with no
further training -- the family is still likely to fall behind. Full-time
jobs are hard to find: in a period when factory overtime rose, the average
workweek in private industry was only 34.6 hours.
Thirty-five million poor people, more than the combined populations of New
York, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania, participate in an economy that is busily
producing the highest profit margin of the past generation. They live in
poverty for many reasons, which mostly converge at one point: they are not
paid enough for their work to allow them to escape. What is the wisdom in
investing our nation's future in an economy where inequalities -- and inequities
-- in the distribution of wealth are increasing? And what is the wisdom
in bragging about it?
--Copyright Betsey Culp 1997