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March 19, 2007


Why is there no comment on this post. Is it because we blogger or blog-reader types have become irreversibly intertwined to the objects listed above and find it easier to gloss over the above factoid - a selective loss of memory in re Coltan. How can the same "we" who pay for "fair price" coffee at Starbucks knowingly fund Congalese genocide !!

I knew nothing about Coltan or it's (almost) sole source. However, the gadgets listed are too much a part of my life. If the factoid is true, I feel as the Hollywood glitterati did after the media buzz of blood diamonds. Will I then eschew my laptop or trash my PDA. No darlings, I will see you at the Kodak theater next year and they will be in full glitter.

One feels sorry for the Congalese, but then one does too for all the trouble in the world, a lot of which can be related back to our comfortable shallow existence. We change or we shut-up, it's like the old Police song -

"Seems that when some innocent die
All we can offer them is a page in some magazine
Too many cameras and not enough food
'Cause this is what we've seen"

I end by saying that I read a litte more of the Wikipedia article. It states that the largest producer of tantalum is Australa and that "Owing to the difficulty of distinguishing legitimate from illegitimate mining operations, several electronics manufacturers have decided to forgo central African coltan altogether, relying on other sources". I, for one, view that statement with a large grain of salt but that will be my crutch for re-appearing at the red carpet next year in full regalia.

Blood diamonds is an apt analogy. Most striking to me is the scale of this tragedy - 4 million dead in 8 years, not to mention the brutality of its unfolding - and the lack of interest in the mainstream media. There is almost no awareness of it in the US. If only there were "too many cameras" in this part of the world!

I'm not about to give up my laptop/cell phone either (unlike diamonds, my livelihood depends on using them, or they add real value). At the very least, I hope to remain conscious of the (no longer) hidden cost of these gadgets and accept my non-zero role in the web of cause and effect, even if all I do is live with the burden of that knowledge.

I would like to stay away from debating for debating's sake, but here's a few last thoughts.

It takes a mainstream or left of mainstream activity for us Americans to be truly aware – a film star adopting kids from the country or some lost & found boys joining our social fabric truly makes a stir. At the very least, we need a left of mainstream movie where Whitaker plays a dictator, or Don Cheadle saves refugees, or at the very least some helicopter full of special forces fight rebels in downtown Kinshasha. There was coverage of Congo during the overthrow of Sese-Seko & the re-naming, then with the attempts to overthrow Joseph Kabila in the mid-2000s. The war officially "ended" in 2003 or 04. I think the cameras exists, it's just how the photos are presented and received. It's similar to your article and the lack of comments (which was my initial observation). Either people want to gloss over guilt-causing facts or simply do not care. A third option is that after reading it, they gave up their laptop use and thus could not respond but that's a leap of faith I am not sure I can take.

Your effort to acknowledge the damage and accept the burden is commendable. I wonder though, how different does that really make you from someone like me who was unaware or someone who reads this and quickly clicks a new link.

I agree with you about the hoops vital global issues have to often jump through to reach our shortening attention spans. It may take a rock concert, movie, celebrity trip/adoption, and other things you mention. Thanks to folks like Chomsky et all, I was disillusioned years ago about how the mainstream media operates. So I don't expect coverage for matters not in the "American interest", or for them to be represented without an entrenched bias. But the magnitude of this disaster seems to me unusually large to warrant such little interest. There is far greater awareness of Darfur, for instance. Can guilt alone explain the deficient coverage? I'm not sure.

You're right. In terms of a solution, my mere reflection / acceptance makes me no different from someone who (a) is unaware of it, as I was until recently (b) doesn't pause to reflect on it (c) intellectually rationalizes so as to come out smelling rather fresh himself. The difference it makes is wholly personal -- being a little more aware of my footprint in the world, for instance. It is like the new way we regard the leg of lamb once we understand the process by which it got to our table. The demystification may not bring solace but it deepens our involvement with the world. I think it's better to have this type of understanding than not, even if we affect no external change.

I am as naive as anyone about such cases where gross human rights abuses are overlooked for convenience and the bottom line.

I was wondering if IBM, Microsoft, Dell and others could actually be more effective here by being the world's conscience. If the Bill Gates Foundation recognizes poverty and disease in Africa, surely it can do the same for the Coltan killing fields.

I think the larger a corporation becomes the harder it is for it to have a conscience. Individuals at the helm may have one but they'll be shouted down if they jeopardize the corporation’s primary obligation: shareholder return. In a way, publicly traded corporations are like wild beasts driven by blind appetites—for profit in their case—and little else. In 2004, I saw a brilliant documentary, ">"> The Corporation; it takes a penetrating look at this beast in a social-historical-legal context.

So the record of corporate altruism (except when it’s a marketing tactic) is very slim. Now, if it makes a difference, the marketing tactic is ok but a wider public awareness must first make it lucrative for the corporation to employ this marketing tactic. Gates’ foundation is different in that it is an independent trust funded by his own money. But it too has studiously remained apolitical, focusing instead on the far less controversial areas of disease, poverty, and education.

Notice the ads down this page from lots of Tantalum related businesses!

I guess Google tracks your posts and selects ads to match their substance. How clever!

My Pollyannaish question regarding the computer industry policing itself and stepping in to stop the bloodshed was induced by the memory of Nike having to answer for profits derived from child labor in Indonesia and some other places. That happened solely due to public pressure and outrage. On the other hand, it is much easier to switch one's brand of sneakers than to jettison computer use. The computer industry is totally a seller's market. I wonder how much it can be moved by public outrage.

You're right: public pressure and outrage is key. In its presence, politicians too find it expedient to discuss and debate solutions. Even a modest groundswell can help (the cynical will note here that little besides talk has happened on Darfur, despite all those "never again" slogans). However, this disaster is now almost totally off the news radar in the US -- the single largest consumer of coltan -- making public outrage a distant and improbable outcome.

Shunya, count me among the cynical here. After the 'there but for the grace of God, goes I' moment that the Coltan wars induced, I was back to pecking away at my keyboard with no further thought of horrors engendered by my consumption patterns. Cognitive disconnect? Yes-but I didn't want to sit in a corner burbling my eyes out over all the ignominy and horror either.
Ha-you reminded me that it's time for my monthly contribution to Medecins sans Frontieres. Click, click, click....done.
Off to surf the net, till the next call to conscience ;)

To the cynical Sujatha

I thought your posting was funny and strangely reminiscent of something I typed in some years ago:

Ah-ha! The "cynical misanthrope ... blogging anonymously" reveals himself! :-) Welcome to the Notes, Gangu.
When did you turn misanthropic?

Shunya, have you read Sukumar Roy? I believe his works are now available in English although I can't vouch for the quality of the translation. It is perfectly logical for this gentleman who claims Roy as his muse, to post a comment "anonymously" and then leave a link to his site where not only his writings but also his photos are available for all to examine! I don't know if my own blog lends itself to an author's profile of Roy and his fabulously nonsensical verse and prose. I would love to write one. I don't know, may be I'll attempt one if I can introduce him in a way that crosses linguistic road blocks. But how does one translate "haatey roilo pencil" without going into the minutiae of doing arithmetic in Bengali?

As for Sujatha's cop-out on how to deal with pangs of conscience, that's what most of us do. Send out the checks and rant on our blogs. Very few of us have the time, energy or the courage to make a cause our full time vocation. But that still is better than doing nothing. (Doctors Without Borders is my own favorite charity, receiving the largest yearly check.) Others, a bit more committed like my daughter, do go out where the action is and get shot in the back - thankfully so far, with rubber bullets.

This flurry of comments reminded me about my monthly contribution. Off I go again to make my donation!

Interesting blog, Gangu the Anonymous!

Ruchira, no fair, at least you get to indulge in vicarious activism of sorts, with your daughter being old enough and willing to go out and be in the firing line. My kids have far to go before they get anywhere close to that level of social commitment- I'm still busy trying to get some more commitment at home. First the home, then the world.

Hello Shunya

The "revealing myself" was not intended to be a trick. To me, Sujatha's cynicism reflected how most of us in the comfortable world deal with issues like Coltan. I was remined of my opening paragraph of my first blog, so a reference seemed fair if I were to say anything at all. Woody Allen told a neurotic Diane Keaton (and I misquote) -- "Life is full of the horrible and the miserable. There's people who are opressed, tortured or have terrible terminal diseases and then there's the rest of us !". The actual line is funnier, but I think that's how most of us deal with our lives.

Misanthrope -- well, a wag said "The more people I meet, the more I like my dog". I think I am being let out of my cage a little more than normal lately. To make matters worse, I don't even have a dog. :-)

wow! very interesting post and even more interesting comments. will keep this in mind. Does the OLPC also use Coltan? How ironic that would be.

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