Category Archives: Ethics

Does Nonviolent Direct Action Work? Yes.

Nonviolent direct action was employed by Martin Luther King, Jr., to effectuate change in the USA, and modeled on the writings and work of Gandhi in South Africa and India.  These are two examples of successful nonviolent change.  But are there others?  Does nonviolence really work?

The answer is, yes.

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William McDonough on Sustainability

February 13,2010

When you hear the word "William McDonough", what comes to mind?  Well, first of all, he’s a famous architect, educated at Yale University.  A biographical sketch of McDonough states:

McDonough is a world-renowned architect and designer and winner of three U.S. presidential awards: the Presidential Award for Sustainable Development (1996), the National Design Award (2004), and the Presidential Green Chemistry Challenge Award (2003). Time magazine recognized him as a "Hero for the Planet" in 1999, stating that "his utopianism is grounded in a unified philosophy that—in demonstrable and practical ways—is changing the design of the world."


901 Cherry Offices, Gap Corp, San Bruno CA

(All photographs used in this blog entry are from portfolio pages found on Mr. McDonough’s web site HERE)

So, when my girlfriend asked me if I’d like to attend his lecture at the University of South Carolina one evening last Fall, I thought his lecture would be like some others I’ve attended — a showcase of neat architectural designs. 


Greenhouse Factory, Holland MI

McDonough’s ideas on sustainability go so much further than bricks and mortar! 

If you are interested in sustainability, you would do well to familiarize yourself with this man’s ideas and proposals! 


Rooftop farming, Guanxi Province, China

Fortunately, the University of South Carolina has left open a link to the streaming video of his lecture.  It is so-well-worth your time to watch this video! 

The link to view the one hour lecture is at the bottom of the following page:  CLICK HERE

McDonough presents a paradigm for sustainability that we should all bear in mind as we think about what it means to live in this world, how to work toward sustainability for all people.  This is about SO MUCH MORE than just design of living space! 


Design for house that functions like a tree uses sunlight to generate energy, cleans water, sequesters carbon, provides natural habitats, and produces oxygen and food

Yes, architecture is part of William McDonough’s work, and part of his vision, and part of this lecture.  There are some neat slides.  But that’s only the beginning of what he has to convey.   

This link is not a cheap flick showing pretty pictures of houses.  It is a one hour lecture about sustainability that will change your thoughts about sustainable Design.  That’s Design with a capital D.  The big picture includes a tessalation (and I’ll leave it to you to learn what that is all about): 

  • What is required for a design to be sustainable, in our living and working environment?  
  • How can design be ecologically, socially, and economically intelligent?  
  • What are criteria for a Cradle to cradle design protocol? 
  • How can we make designs sustainable for the long haul, not just for one or two generations but for thousands of years?  

Think about this for a moment.  What does it take for a design to be sustainable?  If you were to start from scratch, how would you redesign your world so that it were ecologically sustainable, socially sustainable, and economically sustainable? 

  • Social:  Sustainability means something that we enjoy.  If something gives us no gratification, if we get nothing rewarding from it, why would we want to do it? 
  • Economic:  Sustainability means that something must be economically viable.  If an idea or project has no economic viability, it’s not going to sustain itself over a long period of time.
  • Ecological:  Sustainability means that something needs to be sustainable over a period of thousands of years.  At the moment, our society is frittering away resources in ways that will make those resources unavailable to our children’s grandchildren.  What can we do differently to fix that? 

These are just a few ideas meant to entice you to consider devoting an hour to watching this lecture. 

Visitor Center, Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest

The actual architectural designs you will see in this lecture are, indeed, interesting and beautiful.  But it’s the underlying theory that’s critically important. 

McDonough’s vision is creative, cutting edge and represents a new paradigm for thinking about design of our environment as well as what is important to society about design.  Namely, our society needs to change its mindset from being a throwaway-use-em-up culture to being a culture built around wise utilization of resources and sustainability.  To be sustainable, the design must be beautiful.  To be sustainable, the design must be economically viable.  To be sustainable, the design must be environmentally sustainable. 

One of my personal favorite lines from this lecture, is McDonough’s assertion (rejecting the throwaway culture) that he disapproves of the use of the term "consumers" when referring to people.  People have value as people.  It warps our imagination and our consciousness to view people as merely "consumers" of throwaway products. 

Another thought:  When you throw something away, WHERE DOES IT GO? 

Just keep thinking, the ideas are provocative!  I hope you will watch it! 

In this lecture, you will find hundreds of ideas that just make sense.  McDonough’s creative genius is that he puts common sense themes together into a comprehensive vision.  Perhaps our policy makers may not get all the way there, perhaps society won’t 100% adopt his vision.   But even if we get halfway there, we’ll be a lot better off than we are right now, a lot more sustainable than this present policy direction we are moving in.  

The link to view the one hour lecture is at the

bottom of the following page:




Yes, one hour is a long time in our sound bite society.  I urge you to take the time; it’s well worth the investment. 

I hope very much that the University of South Carolina will leave this streaming lecture online for a very long time. 

Additionally, HERE is a link to his TED talk.  I am not embedding the video because I personally prefer the U of SC lecture.  The U of SC lecture gives more detail about the design process and goals. 

To learn more, you can also read McDonough’s book, Cradle to Cradle

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Waging Peace: Thank You Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

18 January 2010

This video combining footage from the civil rights movement with Dr. King’s "I have a dream" speech with music from Sarah McLachlan is amazing and beautiful.  Enjoy … and be inspired! 



I think there’s a common misperception that confuses peacemaking with cowardice.  Perhaps that’s because the common notion of "keeping peace" can include avoiding confrontation.  But faking peace is different from making peace. 

Making peace, waging peace, is active not passive.  It requires vision to know the truth and courage to meet the iniquity head on.  Those who step outside social norms to confront oppression know that they risk not only public censure or jail, but even death and torture. 

There is nothing cowardly about waging peace.  Standing up and acting on the principle of truth force, or soul force is a weapon, wielded against the forces of oppression and injustice.  It is moral weapon which, like the sword of King Arthur, can only be wielded by the morally strong.  It is not for the faint of heart. 

Dr. King, thank you not just for your dream, but for your footsteps marching to lead the way in the walk of peace.  For by walking the way of peace, and through your sacrifice, you led my people — Black and Brown and White — to a place where no war could have taken them.  You have led them to within sight of a promised land, the land of reconciliation and brotherhood. 

I know there are those who feel that objective has not yet been accomplished.  But we are closer now more than ever.  With continued warfare in the way of truth force, it will happen.  That’s my dream.  I have that promised land within my sights. 


Peace Be With And In You

Truth Force Be With And In You



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I Have A Dream

28 August 2009

Today marks the 46th anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s "I Have A Dream" speech, delivered at the end of the March on Washington on 28 August, 1963.  (For text click HERE.)

This image is from

Dr. King is of course remembered for his role in fighting segregation in the Deep South of the United States.  In that battle against institutionalized injustice, he was one of many voices.  Some of those voices advocated hatred and violence.  A student of Jesus and of Gandhi, King instead chose to lead his people in the way of peace. 

In his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, he wrote: 

In any nonviolent campaign there are four basic steps: collection of the facts to determine whether injustices exist; negotiation; self-purification; and direct action. We have gone through an these steps … .

The March on Washington was a manifestation of his Direct Action campaign.    

[W]e who engage in nonviolent direct action are not the creators of tension. We merely bring to the surface the hidden tension that is already alive. We bring it out in the open, where it can be seen and dealt with. Like a boil that can never be cured so long as it is covered up but must be opened with an its ugliness to the natural medicines of air and light, injustice must be exposed, with all the tension its exposure creates, to the light of human conscience and the air of national opinion before it can be cured.


These two images courtesy of
Wikimedia Commons

Here is a video of the speech: 

(中国人 If YouTube video is blocked, you can see the speech on Tudou, click HERE.)

This blog entry is also cross posted on my Peacemaking blog, Peaceworks

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More about The Social Status of Women in China)

 3 August 2009

Here’s an article written a few days ago in Newsweek about that issue of women’s social equality in China:

 A Great Leap Backward

This article focuses more on women in business, but the underlying issue is how women are perceived, and the role they play, in society overall.  It’s not considered demeaning for women to be referred to as "flowers"
or for a job description to state beauty and age features of the
proposed receptionist or waitress. The motto may be that women may hold up half the sky, but like many ideals of the Communist revolution that one has also largely been swept away by time. 

If anything, in my view, the article doesn’t go far enough in describing the extent of discrimination in China.  For instance, it describes the gender imbalance in allowing families to have a second child if the first child is a girl, on the supposed assumption that boys are more useful to poor, rural farmers.  It may be true that boys are more useful to poor rural farmers, but there is a larger and more significant purpose to the "girl" exception to the one child policy.  It reduces infanticide of female infants.  That one comment is like the canary in the coal mine:  it says a lot about the relative value of males versus females, opportunities available to them, and in my view that’s a sad statement about society. 


My last blog entry on this topic was More on 三八女 (the social status of women in China) 11 March 2009 (click link to view)

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The Value of Life

1 May 2009

In this blog entry, I argue the notion that the method by which medical students are trained screens out those who are most concerned with the value of life and alleviation of suffering.  Namely, by forcing medical students to experiment on animals (euphemistically referred to as “sacrificing” them), the medical establishment itself selectively screens out the very same potential physicians who are most concerned with life.

I know this self-selection happened in my own case. I was wildly enthusiastic about biology.  Beginning in 6th grade, I happily rode two hours on a public city bus several days per week to study biological science at the Science Center of Pinellas County, a nonprofit devoted to children’s science education.  Originally started by a scientist who taught local children out of his garage, the programs I fell in love with were in animal science taught by Dr. Ramstein.  I took his course in microbiology and couldn’t wait to take the next course that he taught.  Only six youngsters would be allowed in the course, and it required several prerequisites.  while I was on the waiting list for his class, I took other classes on entymology, herpetology, and marine biology.  Finally, I was one of the lucky children who drew the straw to take that class.  Funny, I don’t even remember the name of the class now, because I never took it.  That’s because, during an open house for parents, I heard Dr. Ramstein telling visitors about some of the experiments we would be doing.  I couldn’t quite believe my ears.  It was things I couldn’t do. 

The class required that mice be “sacrificed”.  I vividly remember my shock at the thought of killing animals.  The extent of my horror and disbelief was such that, once I got home I decided that I must have been mistaken.  Surely this was a class about LIFE.  Surely each child in the class would not be required to experiment on animals and then kill them.  So, at the next opportunity, I talked with Dr. Ramstein about it.  Gingerly, of course, because he was almost like God in terms of my child-like estimation of his stature.  His reply?  He reassured me that the animals were treated humanely at all times.  It was quite necessary, he insisted, and besides, it was "just" mice. 

Well, mice are living creatures, too.  With great sadness and disappointment, I decided that "sacrifice" of animals was not within my values.  For the record, my decision was not for lack of passion or talent.  Though I never took another biology course, six years later as a senior in high school I placed in the 99th percentile on the Florida state biology exam.  I also exempted a year of college biology, never having taken a single biology class in high school.  I don’t say that for the purpose of bragging, but rather to make the point that a qualified student was weeded out on account of adherence to a standard of ethics that placed a higher value on life than that adhered to by the professional teaching the class.

If the path toward medical education were to be visualized as a sifter, there are many things that sift young students out of the path.  Some get sifted out because they don’t have the grades or talent for it.  Some get sifted out because they have other interests or passions.  Some, like me, get sifted out by the requirement that they lose their squeamishness about killing animals.  Who is left; who is the square peg who finds that medical education is the square hole that fits them? 

Well, first of all, they are smart.  Students who get into medical school can memorize and parrot back formulas, chemical compositions, and diagnoses.  Second, they don’t mind spending time in a lab and doing precise work.  Third, they have stamina and social tolerance for the long hours required.  Fourth, they have monetary resources to attend school for many years.  Fifth, many of them are also highly motivated by the promise of rich monetary reward that awaits a successful physician.  And Sixth, yep, they can tolerate doing awful things to innocent animals. 

A girlfriend of mine who used to work in the animal lab at a medical school told me why Golden Retrievers are one of the dog breeds preferred for medical school experimentation.  The medical students are required to do various surgeries on the animals.  These surgeries become progressively more involved, such as amputation of the animal’s leg, and then end with something like open heart surgery so that the medical student can see the beating heart.  And then the animal’s heart is stopped and it is euthanized.  The reason Golden Retrievers are preferred is because of their sweet temperament — they keep wagging their tails and loving on their owners even as they are having their legs cut off. 

It’s possible to argue dozens of reasons why vivisection is a necessary requirement of medical education.  Indeed, just recently I read a column by a physician who argued that dissection of a human cadaver was a necessary means of preparing future physicians for the emotional challenges of cutting on (and doing medical procedures to) a living human being.  A doctor can’t afford to be squeamish about jamming a knife into a person’s body, if that’s what it takes to cut out a tumor. 

But cutting on a cadaver is different in both kind and degree from inflicting pain on, and then killing, a non-consenting, sentient, being.  I’m continually amazed at the artificial rationalizations people will create to justify decisions they have already made.  The notion that babies — or fish — don’t feel pain is one of these outlandish notions.  Of course they feel pain.  Even amoebas react to painful stimuli, that’s one of the central functions of the central nervous system. 

This is only the beginning of where those arguments could go.  The most important fact to consider is that by sifting out young people and eliminating from medical education those who cannot stomach animal experiments, Medicine as a profession eliminates the very people it ought to be seeking out:  those persons who place such a high value on life that they refuse to degrade it. 

When I was ten years old and lacked perspective, I made the mistake of thinking that my qualms, and my resulting inability to engage in higher medical education on account of it, was just personal to me. However, since that time I’ve become aware of this happening in a more systematic way.  Through the years, I’ve become aware of many other people who were also thwarted from medical education because of their value of life.  

For example, I once knew a promising premed student who got further than I did in her quest toward a medical education.  She had nearly a 4.0 GPA in her college premed courses; and she obtained a prestigious internship / fellowship to work for a neuroscientist. Part of the plum was that the student’s name would be included in a research publication. 

Part of this students’ job was to prep animals for surgery. The surgery was not supposed to proceed until the animals were fully anesthetized. Well, you can guess right here what happened. The surgeries would proceed before the animals were anesthetized. When the student objected, the neuroscientist supervising the research grew irate. The student then had to make the choice whether to take her concerns to the university ethics committee, which could cause severe stigma and backlash, or whether to do nothing. The student could not bring herself to do either. She didn’t just quit her internship. She thought this was the tip of the iceberg; she decided to quit premed altogether. I’ve since heard of more, similar kinds of decisions.

How many students have pulled themselves out of the premed or medical school track on account of ethical qualms about medical education?  If I, in my personal experience, have known two or three, how many more must there be? 

As a result of this self selection which eliminates an entire class of moral people from the list of potential physicians, the entire “pool” of future physicians is skewed toward those who are less concerned with ethics, who are less concerned about life and the very values that a medical education is supposed to protect. As a result, our physicians are those who don’t mind tolerating “animal sacrifice” and pain. 

If our educational system is designed to screen out students like my friend, who had qualms about doing surgery on conscious rats, then we shouldn’t be surprised when our physicans are more like that neuroscientist who got so angry at my friend — willing to overlook ethical qualms, willing marginalize those who disagree, willing to overlook suffering and pain in the interest of "science".  If we teach students to be callous and to rationalize away suffering, why would it surprise us when our physicians are callous to pain and rationalize away suffering?  It is our medical education system that selects for training only those who don’t have qualms about it. 

Alright, I’m certain that a physician reading this is up in arms at this point.  YOU care about ethics, you care about suffering, that’s the reason YOU went to medical school.  Yes, I don’t dispute that.  I’m speaking in terms of the outside edges of the bell curve.  It’s not YOU that I’m worried about.  The fact that YOU are reading this article at all is an indication that you indeed have concern for ethics and that, in your case at least, I am preaching to the choir. 

But what can we do about that small minority of students who could care less?  And, more importantly, how can we move the bell to capture more of the students who are most concerned about life, even those students who are loathe to engage in animal experimentation? 

Talking about ethics is a good first start. Too many physicians have spent all their time in a biology lab.  Because they have never systematically studied philosophical ethics, they fail to appreciate the fact that ethics and morality is not just a matter of opening one’s mouth to voice the opinion du jour. They fail to understand that there are various analytical frameworks which can be used to discuss ethics and to inform the process of making ethical decisions. 

When I was in graduate school studying medical ethics, I telephoned a few of my local hospitals and a few large medical practices, to survey them about the resources they devoted to ethics.  My initial thought was to write a paper about ethics procedures at the hospitals. 

All of them had ethics committees, because they were required to do so as part of their federally mandated certification requirements.  However, none of them had a system in place to ensure that the members of the committee had any training in ethics, and none of them had devoted significant, institutionalized resources (such as library budget or training) to development of expertise in the ethical decision making process.  At the time, I thought that there was inadequate source material from which to write a paper.  On the other hand, perhaps the fact that ethics was just getting lip service within the medical establishment is the material itself, needed to jumpstart a discussion about the role that ethics plays (or ought to play) in medical decision making.  Is it really enough to give a nurse a beeper and tell her that she now has ethics duty?  And what about the role of patient advocate?  Is a patient advocate merely someone who can write down a complaint voiced by a patient, or is it someone who has the authority and backing to go head to head with a blustering, loud, and red faced surgeon who resents being told what to do? 

But this is almost beside the point.  At the present time, medical education itself sifts out as chaff all potential physician candidates who have moral qualms about medical education.  While it would be outrageous to call all physicians a-moral (because most of them are moral people) I would urge that medical education, as it’s currently practiced, sifts away those who are most concerned about life and pain and other, more ephemeral, values which ought to be sanctified by the medical profession. 

No amount of “training” in ethics can impart a basic,  foundational, fundamental respect for life. Until medical education is fundamentally altered by finding ways to include those who are most concerned with the sanctity of all life, it will always be skewed away from sanctity of life and toward the less ethical among us.  I am not saying that the middle portion of the bell curve of physicians is unethical or amoral.  What I am saying is that the profession ought to rise to the challenge of finding ways to include the most morally sensitive members of society in medical education and, in so doing, shift the paradigm of medical education toward even greater respect for the value of life and alleviation of suffering. 

"First, do no harm," is more than an ideal, it is a moral imperative. 


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Why I Oppose Western Sanctions Against Myanmar (Burma)

25 February 2009

The Washington Post reports that Hillary Clinton says economic sanctions against Myanmar (Burma) have been a failure and the Obama Administration may consider other options.


I, personally, hope that some sanctions will be lifted, particularly to allow more trade that benefits sustainable industries and tourism, as these are more likely to benefit people rather than the government or large corporations.

I have had personal reason to consider the sanction issue carefully. I traveled to Myanmar last year in spite of the sanctions, but only after careful consideration of the issue of whether I could, ethically, go there. My experience highlighted, in my mind, the complexity of the issue but also the very real need to bring responsible economic development and dialogue that will eventually create an unstoppable force for free speech and human rights.

Sule Pagoda in Yangon

There are those who would say that my travel to Myanmar was ethically wrong. As a practical matter, even if one avoids government-run hotels, it is impossible, they say, for one to travel to Myanmar without putting tourism dollars into the hands of the Military Junta. The countervailing argument is that travel to Myanmar increases contact with and economic support of local people. Many who travel to Burma attempt, by catering to small, family run businesses, to tailor their travel in a way to avoid enriching the Junta and instead to put money into local pockets. The isolationists reply to this that the benefit to the Junta overwhelms the small support that local people receive from tourism; they also reply that the people of Myanmar do not need support or solidarity from outsiders who fail to understand and do not truly partake of Burmese culture. These views gave me great pause for thought before I traveled to Myanmar, but in the end I am very glad I went.

Parade for a young novitiate

In my view, the benefits of engagement between Myanmar and people from outside cultures result in more good than harm. First of all, my small engagement in dialogue with the people I met was extremely meaningful and educational for me, personally. There’s nothing like being in a place to spur development of deeper awareness and understanding. It gave me a deeper appreciation for and knowledge of people, culture, and situation.

Impromptu English lesson in a small rural school

This spurred me to do more research, to be more aware of the issues on an ongoing basis, to befriend Burmese immigrants in my own community. My deeper awareness and understanding, in turn, has made it possible for me to communicate to others, to raise awareness about what the situation is in Myanmar.
I hope that my trip also lent support and encouragement to the people I met, all of whom appeared to be ordinary citizens just trying to make it during difficult times. I pray that my continuing dialogue with them bis post and email does not jeopardize their personal security (recently a college age blogger who spoke in favor of free speech was sentenced to 20 years imprisonment), but on the other hand I’m aware that my support may be a force that can sustain through tough times.

Seamstress earning her living in Yangon

The second reason I disagree with sanctions is that they don’t work as one would hope. When Western countries pull out of an economic void in response to human rights concerns, what really happens is that other countries, from cultures less concerned with human rights, move in quickly to fill the void. Just because Western based businesses are not engaged in economic development activities in Myanmar does not mean that there is no economic development. Just as in Sudan, when western companies pulled out that left a vacuum that was quickly filled by China. Even now, the government of Myanmar considers China to be its friend while lack of engagement encourages mental vilification of the USA.
Even now, China is investing in an oil pipeline directly from Myanmar to China and selling arms to the Myanmar government. I believe that consumers from Asian countries could care less about working conditions in the mines that produce their rubies; and when I saw the throngs of people collected around Burmese jade or rare wood in the markets of Guangzhou, I don’t think I detected concern for the effects of strip mining or of clear cutting timber. (Full disclosure, I purchased a piece of jade in China without asking about its origin.)

Restaurant at a quarterly night market

In my view, Myanmar presents the West with a golden opportunity to help a fledgling economy build itself in a sustainable way, even if to do so requires an end run around the Junta. If the populace is engaged, and as the country becomes woven into the web of the global economy, the Junta will have to give way. This policy has been largely successful in China, as one example. While there is much room for improvement of human rights in China, its economic engagement with the West has made it much more of a challenge for a totalitarian government to control information, contacts, and awareness of global issues. This has resulted in a government that, while still totalitarian, is in fact more responsive to public opinion than it would at times prefer to be. I hope for a policy change in Washington, D.C.!

A worker in a textile factory near Lake Inle

On the other hand, I would hope for a policy that would be carefully and sensitively tailored in such a way as to benefit local people in sustainable ways. The world does not need more colonial powers exporting ideology from the top down, nor does Myanmar need huge capital projects wrecking the environment and traditional culture, financed by large corporations fueled solely by greedy stockholders. Myanmar presents an opportunity for investment in small scale, sustainable micro-enterprise that directly benefits people, operating within and accountable to local communities. I hope that future U.S. economic policy will be directed toward this aim.

Building a road outside Mandalay

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The Challenge of Chinese Joint Ventures (or “More Melamine Mis-Adventures”)

December 2, 2008

China has the problems of any transitional economy," says Yanzhong
Huang, a global health expert at Seton Hall University in South Orange,
N.J. "But the deeper and more fundamental challenge China faces is a
systematic lack of business ethics."

"You cannot fully police the whole food chain," adds Dali Yang, a politics professor at the University of Chicago. "A lot
depends on changes in social norms. People have to recognize that integrity does matter.

 from "Behind bad baby milk, an ethical gap in China’s business"  Christian Science Monitor, 17 September 2008. 

The business ethics of substituting melamine for legitimate protein sources has already been a topic of discussion on my blog.   In June of 2007, the topic on my mind was use of melamine in dog food (!F92952EA9124A41B!2105.entry ).   

It makes little difference what the context, I think.  Dog food, infant formula, milk chocolate candy:  it’s all the same when you get down to it.  Fill in the blank with the product of the day, and it still fits right into the same equation in terms of business ethics. 

Namely, the current melamine-to-dilute-milk scandal exemplifies an attitude of doing anything to cut cost — without regard to quality, in disregard of health or safety standards — all in the name of greater profit.  It exemplifies a willingness to engage in deceit, or else an uncanny knack for focusing on petty terms of a contract (e.g. level of protein in milk) without regard to the underlying substance of the values those terms were intended to protect (e.g. a certain nutritional standard for food).

The other striking thing about this melamine scandal, as the ripples run through the food supply chain, is just how widespread it was.  If it had just been one bad producer, or one bad company, it wouldn’t be so surprising.  In this case, the problem is so widespread it points to a systemic failure of values. 

In a real sense, melamine is truly just the tip of an iceberg.  While the last melamine substitution scandal involved dogs and dog food, I hate to say it but I am so, "not surprised" that the line was not drawn at adulteration of food intended for animals.  In the adulteration scandal before the dog food (the one that didn’t make it into USA newspapers because it only affected people in Third World countries), Chinese manufacturers had substituted chalk for the key medicinal ingredient in a pill to treat malaria.  They had even put acetaminophen (the ingredient in Tylenol) in the counterfeit drug, luring people into thinking they were recovering from malaria instead of receiving further treatment.

Think about it.  Someone sold chalk under the pretense that it was a pill to cure malaria.  As reprehensible as it might be, selling chalk as a cure for the common cold isn’t likely to kill someone.  But selling chalk as a cure for a treatable, deadly disease, and on top of that to insert an ingredient that disguises symptoms and thus further delays real treatment until the person really cannot be saved by any medicine?  This goes beyond audacious.  In an earlier blog entry on the malaria topic, I equated this conduct with murder because of a legal analysis regarding the elements of intention and forseeability of death. 

If a culture has fostered an ethical system that values profit more than human life, why does it come as a surprise that the same value system would be applied when it came to the business opportunity to substitute melamine as a "protein" ingredient in baby formula and milk products, even knowing that it would cause harm to thousands upon thousands of humans?  The only difference here is that the consumers affected were more powerful than dogs or people in Third World countries who were afflicted with malaria.  As such, they aren’t taking the news standing down. 

Well, here’s my take on it:  "Three strikes and you’re out."  How long will the world go on trusting Chinese companies (or Chinese regulators) to ensure the safety of any product that goes into the world market stream?  It’s amazing that the Chinese government can act so swiftly and effectively on some things, and be so stymied by others.  Something does not compute. 

Rather than beat these dead horses, however, I’ll move to a different topic that is highlighted by the current case study in the news.  That is, the danger that lurks for Western companies contemplating the formation of joint ventures with Chinese firms.  The precise danger, highlighted by the current melamine scandal, is that Western-based companies might fail to realize the extent of the difference in values, and hence in business ethics (and decisions stemming from those ethics), between themselves and their Eastern-based counterparts or culturally nonwestern managers. 

Just last month, I spoke in a blog entry of the need to listen to the white noise, to pay attention to cues that things may not be what they seem.  This is one area where the white noise consists of small indications of a value system that is widely different from one assumed by many Western managers to be common everywhere.  I once watched a television round table discussion in Hong Kong consisting of CEO’s of various large, multinational enterprises doing business in Hong Kong.  None of the managers, whether Western or Asian, would admit that there was a screaming disjunct in values between a Western and an Eastern based enterprise.  In this regard, and in the interest of being "politically correct," I think they were being less than candid. 

Many companies only see a potential market in Asia, or a potential labor source, and they fail to recognize crucial cultural differences which much be addressed as a condition to successful integration of business in the East and West.  A Western company seeking to enter the playing field in Asia must force itself to see outside its own cultural paradigm in this regard; it absolutely must be conscious that very different cultural standards govern the way business decisions are made in different cultures.  A manager, or company, that fails to understand this, will find itself surprised in some way if they assume that the standards of the native country will be adhered to in the host country. 

This is not to say that Asian organizations lack values.  They just place them in a different hierarchy.  It’s a hierarchy that has some distinct strengths, but it’s a different paradigm than that which a Western company will take for granted.  As just one example, a Western paradigm of what a "corporation" is fundamentally is based on the idea of a joint stock company, where the owners are shareholders and the management works on behalf of the shareholders.  As such, objective competence is highly valued; training or promotion opportunities depend upon demonstrated competence and leadership.  An Eastern paradigm, however, is more in line with a small family enterprise grown big.  Managers are groomed and promoted based on family ties and loyalty; with training and promotional opportunities allotted based on status and seniority. 

There is strength in the approach of grooming and promoting managers based on personal ties.  The strength of such an organization, of course, is that it keeps control within a very tightly defined circle of confidants.  It works particularly well for personal security of the individuals who are insiders within the management structure.  But in a western organization, much of what happens would be negatively categorized as nepotism.  I’ve been told that a typical Asian work force is so closely tied by blood and relations, that a new management can only be brought in by wholesale housecleaning.  Someone coming from a Western model based less on personal loyalty and more on personal competence, however, had better be aware of this from the outset.  One of my western friends working in an Asian organization described not a glass ceiling but a steel one, as he realized that he could devote his entire career to one company and never overcome the "outsider" label.  On an institutional level, it can mean that the western managers and eastern ones are simply not on the same playing field, as the same duty of loyalty is not owed to the outsider. 

As a corrolary to this, I’ve been told by more than one source (not that I’ve verified it myself) that an Asian organization will often have two sets of books.   One set is the "real" set of numbers, kept in a secret off-site location and known only to a few top managers who are very loyal to each other, and a second set of books which is the official copy.  One friend of mine even told me of a computer program that automatically took the numbers input for one and created the numbers for the second one.  This second set of books is the one which the Chinese organization will share with its western partner in the joint venture.  (Squeamish yet?  Better to know than not to know!)

In my opinion, the real value of the expatriate manager is that he or she brings the home country corporate values and culture to the overseas operation.  The best success comes when the expatriate manager is given tools and training to help drive those values into the Asian counterpart.  That tool chest must include actual control over the company and its day to day management.   Companies that are successful at incorporating their Western managers into their Asian operations manage to merge the greatest strengths of Western companies (quality, integrity, precision, design, human rights) with the great strengths of Asian ones (leanness, cost effectiveness, worker diligence, loyalty).  Companies that do this will thrive.  Those that fail to do so will fail.  It is a high stakes decision.

Having observed the life of an expat manager, and having become friends with many expat managers from many companies and many countries, I’m more convinced than ever of the truth of this.  Many companies move operations to Asia as a means of cutting cost while taking advantage of an excellent labor force.  In cutting cost, they may be tempted also to cut the cost of the expat manager, who tends to cost much more than a local hire.  This trend is evident in recruiting literature.  Companies think they can save a lot of money hiring a native of the host country to run their overseas operation. 

Certainly, there are advantages.  The person is likely to work for a lower salary than an experienced top level international manager.  Moreover, they are unlikely to need the support that an individual needs when working outside their home culture, for example education allowances for children or translators.  They will also have none of the issues associated with personal and family adjustments to living in a foreign culture. 

I think it’s a mistake, however, for a company to imagine that a non-expat manager could possibly have the same perspective as an expatriate.  Just think of one thing, the issue of cultural adjustment.  At some level, isn’t cultural adjustment what it’s all about?  The idea is to have cross cultural fertilization, to gain the benefit of meshing the best of two very different cultures, isn’t it?  If the company’s home culture is left at home, that won’t happen. 

What value does it bring to a company to have an expat manager?  Well, if by enforcing a quality standard the manager saves a company from being bankrupted by products liability claims, he’s more than earned his keep.  In terms of driving company values, the expat manager just might be worth his weight in gold, sometimes literally. 

While the essence of driving corporate values can be regarded as intangible and even unimportant, it’s not, really.  When western values are driven into the corporate culture, it does show up in the bottom line.  Among other ways, it shows up in risk management.  When there’s an earthquake, concrete has been properly reinforced and mixed, and buildings don’t collapse.  There is no lead paint in toys.  It shows up in employee retention, raising the level of expertise and reducing the need for constant retraining.  These are just a few things I can think of without even trying.  I’m sure that a good business student could brainstorm a few more. 

Indeed, I’d venture an opinion that the most important thing an expatriate manager can do is to drive corporate culture and corporate values into the overseas operation.  This is the soft, squishy realm of mission statements.  It means grappling with the policy issue of "what kind of company do we want to be." 

The mission statement, that statement of corporate values, is so important because it sets the guidelines for how the company will respond to more specific questions.  It points to the answer to questions like:  "Do we want to focus on bottom line balance sheet issues and ignore the safety and health violations on our factory floor?  Do we want to supply modern equipment, training, and safety standards including ear plugs even if that adds a few dollars to the cost of what people will pay for our widgets in Wal Mart?" Values, indeed.  A company doing business in an international environment faces a significant crisis of identity, namely:  "Whose cultural values do we espouse?" 

Do we live by the values of the home culture or of the host culture?  Certainly, to some extent when in Rome we do as the Romans do.  Yet, there is also a bottom line which, if we cross it, causes us to lose the essence that distinguishes us.  A good expat manager knows where that line is.  A good expat manager is, of course, sensitive to and respectful of the values of his host culture.  With sensitivity, and with common sense, he will drive the values of the home office into the guts of the overseas operation. When the various sets of values are meshed and integrated, the three snakes working as a team are transformed by their efficiency into a dragon. 

This risk of joint ventures is that the Western values are not fully heeded or integrated.  The risk that expat managers will be overruled in the values department is a lesson that I bet the company Fonterra wishes it had learned sooner rather than later. Fonterra, a New Zealand company, owns a minority interest in Sanlu, a milk producer in China.  Sanlu happens to be the milk producer at the epicenter of the melamine scandal.  It was Sanlu’s expat Fonterra executives who happened to be the whistleblowers on the whole melamine-in-milk scandal. 

Here’s how the scenario played out:  The Fonterra executives sitting on the Sanlu Board, in their minority position, became aware of the melamine adulteration.  The New York Times reports: 

For Sanlu, a pivotal moment came on Aug. 2 when company officials informed the board about the melamine problem. Sanlu is a joint venture with the New Zealand dairy giant Fonterra. Fonterra owns a 43 percent share and has three members on the board. Fonterra’s executives say their representatives immediately pushed for a public recall at the board meeting, only to be overruled by the rest of the board.


The problem was finally exposed in September when the New Zealand government, after discussions with Fonterra executives, contacted authorities in Beijing. Beijing officials say they knew nothing about the scandal until September, though a Fonterra company spokesman said the company believed the central government knew in August.  [All emphases supplied.]

Now imagine something.  Imagine that you were an executive sitting on that Sanlu Board, and you learned about the Melamine.  And then you learn that it’s no surprise to your Asian counterparts, that they are complicit in the decision and want to cover it up!  Think about it.  This is the Corporate Board.  It’s the highest level of corporate governance.  And think of how many lower, middle, and upper managers were aware of it, and all of them were complicit in the activity.  It’s as if the apple were rotten to the core.  Fonterra failed in the essential task of driving its corporate values into any portion of its joint venture with Sanlu. 

While the violin is different, the tune is not.  This same scenario gets played out day after day in joint ventures involving Chinese companies. There are many companies who, figuratively, look the other way.  They fail to notice quality issues, human rights issues, safety violations, supplier problems, tax evasion, double sets of books.  This may work, for a short time, but it’s not sustainable.  It’s a matter of probability:  something is going to come back to bite. 

One of my friends told me of the misadventures of her husband’s company.  I first met "Hilde" and her husband "Alfie" when Alfie was the freshly arrived general manager of a joint venture manufacturing operation.  It was easy to see why Alfie was a CEO.  He was extremely well educated and articulate, incredibly gregarious, outgoing, cheerful, and personable.  I imagine he had already proved his competence as a manager, since he had started factories on several continents for his company and had been successful.  He was eager to learn Chinese, to experience Chinese culture, and he was looking forward to the new China venture.   When I met him, he had already built the plant and was running it, with a Chinese staff, in the joint venture.  At our first meeting, he told me that the Chinese production managers had jumped the gun just a bit.  They had started production a few weeks ahead of schedule, resulting in some poor quality product, but he was certain it was a matter of training and the learning curve. 

But two years later, I learned his company was pulling out of the plant and was building a different facility in a different province of China.  Why?  The story was all too familiar.

Alfie’s home company was a German company, with a German company culture.  They wanted things done right.  They wanted their factory to be neat and clean, their processes and products precise.  They wanted the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed.  They valued their longstanding reputation in their industry, and they wanted to always be known for the quality of their products.  They viewed their reputation and the quality of their work as paramount.  Moreover, the particular product involved serious safety potential.  If manufactured incorrectly, people could be harmed. They took safety very seriously. 

None of these more or less intangibles computed with the Chinese managers.  In the eyes of the Germans, these Chinese partners seemed to care less about precision, cleanliness, safety, quality, or long term results.  And the Chinese owned 51% of the joint venture.  The Germans were stuck with an unworkable venture. The last straw had to do with the seeming lack of regard for quality.  As  result of quality issues, the company was losing reputation and market share. 

When I last saw her, Hilde told me that Alfie was the only German member of the management team left at this site.  The other Germans simply couldn’t tolerate what was happening.  When they would fly in for meetings, their meetings with the Chinese managers just deteriorated into shouting matches.  Hilde’s cheerful, optimistic husband had met his match.  He had thrown in the towel, and he was leaving, too.  At the new factory they were building in a different region of China, she said, Alfie’s German company was going to have full ownership and control, because they were not going to tolerate the kinds of management decisions driven by Chinese values. 

There’s another secret, too.  The Chinese managers know about the culture wars before the Western ones catch on that they even exist.  What surprises me about the Sanlu – Fonterra situation, actually, is that the Sanlu managers let the Fonterra managers in on the secret.  In many companies, the Asians would simply not tell the Westerners.  This underscores why it’s important to have Westerners on the ground, in positions where secrets are more difficult to conceal. There’s nothing like personal inspection to expose what’s in the closet. 

I won’t be popular for saying this, but yes, there is a culture war.  Yes, it really is all about values.  The question is, who is going to win the values decision?  What is the values statement your company wants to make?  Will the move to China, for your company, involve sacrifice of the very values which make your company unique and successful?  Do you still think the expat manager is too expensive? 

My mom once said to me, "If you think education is expensive, try the cost of not having one."  In a similar vein, I’d say, "If you think an expat manager is too expensive, try the cost of not having one."  Good luck. 

For a citation to the N.Y. Tmes article, see: 

International / Asia Pacific

Despite Warnings, China’s Regulators Failed to Stop Tainted Milk


Published: September 27, 2008

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Listen to the White Noise

3 October 2008

One of my friends wrote her doctoral dissertation, for her Ph.D. in Philosophy, on feminist epistemology.  "What is that?" you ask. 

Epistemology is the study of knowledge itself.  Epistemology examines the nature, scope, and sources of knowledge.  It asks questions like, "How can we know when something is true?" and "What constructs do we use to perceive the world?"  Epistemology happens to be my favorite area of study within the field of philosophy.     

Though I could use examples from history of how we extrapolate our known experience to interpret our new perception of the previously unknown (a common example is the description Galileo wrote when he looked at the moon through a telescope), I will use the much more close-at-hand example of the first time my daughter cut herself. 

She cried, "Mommy, there’s ketchup on my hand!" 

My daughter had never seen blood before, and so the closest analogy she could find to explain this red stuff was ketchup.  Her experience that day expanded her world view, but the first impulse of her mind was to relate the red stuff to something else that she already was familiar with. 

I remember the dramatic expansion of my own, personal world view when in 10th grade chemistry class I learned about molecules and the periodic table.  Suddenly, instead of thinking of hard things and liquids in simplistic terms, a bit like the categories of "earth, air, fire and water" (or various combinations of those things), my mind was opened to the concept of a universe filled with molecules that were themselves comprised of electrons whirling on orbitals around protons and neutrons.  It was a liberating shift in how I perceived of matter and of the universe.  For particle physicists, even these simplistic images dissolve into, and are subsumed by, a multidimensional world of subatomic particles, time, and gravity. 

When we learn new, mind expanding concepts, it’s not so much that we throw out our previous notions of the world completely, but rather that we revise those notions as our base of knowledge increases or as our ability to analogize expands. 

In short, we perceive of a universe built upon constructs that we can somehow relate to in our experiential lives.  So, the epistemologist recognizes, those constructs are very important. 

What feminist philosophers noticed at some point was that male dominated professions (science, philosophy) only attended to certain kinds of knowledge, dismissing other ways of constructing reality.  I admit that I collect "dumb blonde" jokes, but that genre is basically what was happening to women in science and in philosophy who asked strange questions, questions that didn’t quite fit into the box with neat answers. 

This marginalization happened to me in my legal career, as well.  I saw things differently.  Because of my different perception, I asked questions a male colleague wouldn’t have asked.  My challenges were not well received.  Challenges to long-standing ways of seeing things can be dismissed as stupid, or they can be valued, all depending on who is making the decision — their motives, their own insecurities, their degree of comprehension of the question. 

As a case in point for the way non-conforming thoughts can be marginalized, to the great detriment of science, my friend writing her dissertation used the example of submarine technology.  I cannot go into great detail, but the basic point of her dissertation was to examine how the fact that for decades, the data from sonar was dismissed as "background noise."  People just assumed it had no real meaning.  The fact that this was considered just "noise" with no significance impaired development of sonar for perhaps decades.  When someone finally paid attention, sonar was a great breakthrough not because it was a new discovery but because it was a new way of looking at the same facts that had long been known. 

Feminism, in philosophy, seeks to be inclusive of alternate ways of looking at the facts.  What might have been a generation ago referred to derisively as "feminine intuition" can now be acknowledged as building on a different kind of knowledge, perceived from a different vantage point and based on more subtle cues.  Rather than listen to the facts as recited by a speaker, say, "X is true", perhaps we notice instead that he blinks his eyes a hundred times in a minute.  (Intuition, in fact, may be simple attentiveness to cues that others miss.)   Based on those blinks, we decide we can’t trust the truth of the speaker’s factual assertions.  A different kind of knowledge, listening to blinks.  Different theoretical constructs. 

What amazes me is how simple this notion is.  And how practical.  And how, sadly, even when we know of the weakness of older theoretical constructs and the importance of being open to new information, we still seem programmed to see only what we expect to see. 

What brought this to mind today, for me, was a quote from a news source describing the discovery of Steve Fossett’s plane.  You may recall that this plane went missing a year ago and rescuers scoured the mountains for it.  After being given up for lost, the wreckage was discovered by a hiker this week.  The news article reports:   

"The rugged area, . . .  had been flown over 19 times by the California Civil Air Patrol during the initial search . . . . But it [was overlooked because it ] had not been considered a likely place to find the plane [emphasis supplied]."

(From article "Searchers Find Fossett’s Plane and Human Remains,", 2 October 2008.)

Now, I completely understand that this was mountainous terrain, difficult search conditions.  The article makes that quite clear.  But isn’t it amazing, too, that even when they were looking for the plane, even when they searched that exact area nineteen times, (nineteen times!) they didn’t see it —  in part because they weren’t expecting to see it! 

Another, more shocking, example was the fact that NASA engineers attempted to warn of a potential problem in the Space Shuttle Columbia’s skin while it was still in orbit.  They were told not even to aim cameras at the orbiter.  The rationale were that damage to the skin was impossible (of course now we know that not only was it not "impossible," it was a fact).  Secondly, some small minded manager said that even if it was damaged, it was impossible to fix it, so there was no use looking to see if there was damage.  Of course, hindsight is 20/20.  Thanks to that decision, dismissing facts that didn’t fit the prevailing paradigm, we’ll never know if the Shuttle crew might have been able to come up with a solution that might have saved their lives, if given the opportunity to do so. 

So, what does any of this have to do with the price of beans in China?  Well, that’s one neat thing about philosophy.  Philosophy applies to almost everything, including the price of beans in China.  Or more appropriately at this time, the price of milk tainted with melamine.  It applies to how we decide to test for a potential problem, when we discover it or when we acknowledge it to exist as a fact rather than theory (e.g. are polar bears in danger or not), and what we do about it after we acknowledge that there may be a problem.

A business person working as an expatriate in another culture will of course be aware that there are cultural differences, but it’s important to be aware that those differences may be like a fault line, not visible from above the surface of the earth and only discerned by the most sensitive of seismic measures.  An expat manager trying to function in a cross cultural environment must learn to view the facts from outside the perspective of a single paradigm.  He always must scour the clues with a fine toothed comb, picking up crumbs from nonverbal and unstated or understated cues.  Always on the lookout for cues that otherwise might be overlooked, he must ask how those cues may be a clue that things may not always be what they seem.  I realize, this is easier said than done. 

The most obvious example that immediately comes to mind, in a Western-Asian context, is the concept of face (mianzi).  The idea of giving or losing face is broader and more compelling in Asian than in Western culture.  Indeed, this concept is so commonly known that it is the subject of almost every book on China.  Less well known are some of the other, even more fundamental differences that are only learned with time.  In the melamine scandal, it would pay to ask, "What values and ideals facilitated the decision of not just one, but many, Chinese managers (at all levels and at many places in the supply chain) to dilute milk and add melamine to enable it to pass the spec for protein?  What blinders caused others not to see this until tens of thousands had been sickened? What factors played in the government’s failure first to regulate, and second in failure to take corrective action?"  A failure to anticipate that this scandal could happen, and take measures to prevent it, is one of the consequences that results from failure to see or think outside a particular paradigm.     

In my own life, I try to use these types of examples to remind myself to be open minded.  There are other ways of seeing the world.  In some of those viewpoints, there is legitimate strength in that different viewpoint.  It is not just some strange, distorting lens.  At other times, we must be vigilant to protect that which we know is right.  In either case, sometimes things can be different from the way they seem, even if we’ve never imagined that viewpoint before. 

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Guantanamera: Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca

September 9, 2008

A Song Of Peace

I grew up in South Florida, in an environment heavily influenced by exiles from Cuba.  I attended a school where a lot of children spoke Spanish.   My mom paid a neighborhood teenager to tutor me in Spanish.  I didn’t learn a lot of Spanish from that teenager, but she I used to listen to a lot of Cuban language songs on the radio station, including the top 10 hit at that time, Guantanamera. I still have fond memories of listening to that song on the little console radio with my teenage mentor singing and dancing to it.   "Guantanamera, Guajira Guantamamera . . . . "  It was this song that I ran across this spring.  There are many versions on YouTube.  Here is one popular one that I will share with you:



(Click here for Sandpipers version of the song)


Remembering that I used to actually know the words, I decided to try and re-learn at least some of it, in honor of my Spanish speaking nephew, Jose Luis, who is now crossing cultures of his own.  As I did so, I used some internet resources to learn more about it and then to translate it from Spanish into both English and Chinese. I was surprised at what I learned. 

I learned that the song Guantanamera is a folk song with many versions and many verses.  Not all verses are played or sung by all artists.  Many verses of the song are based on the poem Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca by Jose Marti.  Marti was a nationalist hero who fought for the freedom of Cuba during the Revolution.  Though he himself was communist, his main emphasis was on liberating Cuba from colonial rule and securing self determination for her people.  As such, he is revered by both sides (the winners and the losers) in the Cuban civil war.  (This reminds me a bit of the hero General Aung San of Myanmar, the revolutionary hero whose legacy is claimed by both democracy advocates and the military commanders who control the country.)  Much like Whitman’s poem "I hear America Singing, the poem Cultivo Una Rosa Blanca is very long.  It has many more verses than are sung.  If my translation sparks your interest, I hope you will do some of your own research into the poem and the life of Jose Marti. 

Guantanamera strikes me as a song for peace.  When we really think about it, peace is not just an absence of conflict.  Every life will have conflict in it.  All of us must interact almost daily with others whose values or decision are not the same as our own.  Every one of us faces decisions about how to respond to conflict.  Our primary goal is to become reconciled with one another, whenever possible. Indeed, to achieve peace, we must also become reconciled within ourselves!  The song Guantanamera, as does Marti’s poem, outlines very simply how to make the first steps toward peace. 

As counter-intuitive as it may seem, at times, the path toward peace begins with a commitment to view the OTHER as a being worthy of respect and a commitment to work for peace unilaterally, even if the Other fails to do so.   There is no hope for peace unless we individually commit to respect others, to respect ourselves, and to ourselves be open to the idea of reconciliation both internally and externally.  Thus, I think almost every religion instructs us to turn the other cheek in the face of aggression. 

In this poem, we cultivate a white rose.  Because even when reconciliation with another is impossible, we must still become reconciled to and within ourselves.  We must know that we have done all we, individually, can do to make things right.  What must we do?  We must choose not to respond in kind to violence.  Someone must always make the first, unilateral step.  Someone must cultivate a white rose.  When we cultivate a rose, even for those who would spite and revile us, we become workers in the garden of peace. 

I dedicate this translation to all those among you who work for peace in your own lives and in the context of where you live.  

Thank you very much to my friend Carmen for checking the Chinese for me. 

Each verse is first in Espanol, then in Ingles, and then in 中文:

(Chorus and Intro)

Guajira Guantanamera
Guajira Guantanamera

Guantanamera means a song of Guantanamo

Guantanamo is a town on the Eastern coast of Cuba

Guajira is slang for a peasant from the countryside





(First verse)

Yo soy un hombre sincero

De donde crecen las palmas

Yo soy un hombre sincero

De donde crecen las palmas

Y antes de morirme quiero

Echar mis versos del alma

I am a sincere man

from where the palm trees grow

I am a simple man

from the land of palm trees.

And before I die,

I want to pour out these verses that flow from my soul








[Repeat the Chorus]

(2nd verse)

Mi verso es de un verde claro

Y de un carmin encendido

Mi verso es de un verde claro

Y de un carmin encendido

Mi verso es un ciervo herido

Que busca en el monte amparo

My verses are brilliant green

And also fiery crimson

My poems are clear green

And also flaming carmine

My poems are like a wounded fawn

seeking refuge in the forested mountains







[Repeat the Chorus]

(third verse)

Cultivo la rosa blanca

En junio como en enero

Qultivo la rosa blanca

En junio como en enero

Para el amigo sincero

Que me da su mano franca

I cultivate a white rose

In June and in January

I cultivate a white rose

In June and in January

For my true friend

who lends me his steady hand


我耕种白色 玫瑰花


我耕种白色 玫瑰花



[Repeat the Chorus]

(Fourth verse)

Y para el cruel que me arranca

El corazon con que vivo

Y para el cruel que me arranca

El corazon con que vivo

Cardo ni ortiga cultivo

Cultivo la rosa Blanca

And for the cruel one who would

Break my heart

And for the cruel one who would

Pluck out my living heart

I cultivate neither thistles nor nettles

I cultivate a white rose







[Repeat the Chorus]

(Fifth verse)

Con los pobres de la tierra

Quiero yo mi suerte echar

Con los pobres de la tierra

Quiero yo mi suerte echar

El arroyo de la sierra

Me complace mas que el mar

With the poor people of this earth

I cast my lot

With the poor people of this earth

I throw my fate, for

The brooks of the mountains

please me more than the sea




我一起安置我的命运, 因为



[repeat the Chorus]

Ha, you read this far, so now it’s your turn to try the karaoke version!


Click on image for the karaoke!  Enjoy! 

When I ran across this song and did the translation, it was back in March of 2008. 

At that time, there were news stories being aired about protesters
setting fire to shops, about tanks turning on the protesters, about
more protesters in the world protesting all of this.  The saddest thing
about the violence — both on the part of the protesters as well as the
response to it — was that this whole issue was raised in an area of
the world known for its special religion and spirituality, a place one
would think would be devoted to principles of nonviolence. 

was plenty of blame to be spread.  As I alluded in my blog at the time,
the term "cultural genocide" is an apt description of what spurred the
protesters to anger.  Though paying lip service to celebration of minority diversity, the government in fact has a strategy of almost forcefully incorporating minority groups into the mainstream of ordinary Chinese life.  They marginalize minorities economically by forcing the relocation of all but a token few,
the token few of whom are turned into tourist attractions.  The rest
are mainstreamed by being forcefully moved into "modern" housing,
educated in the language of the majority rather than in the language of
their ethnic group, and by having their population diluted by
immigrants from the non-minority population groups.  In the high
plateau T place, this process has been followed especially vigorously. 

Children are prohibited from studying in their native
language, ancient nomadic ways of life are discouraged, and Han Chinese
are given special incentives to relocate to remote western regions. 
The population pressure is such that these incentives aren’t really needed.  A case in point is the explosion of the industry of cashmere goats.  Traditionally grazed in a cold and inhospitable climate, their cashmere fur was rare and expensive.  With the opening of the high plateau to "development," more and more Han Chinese have encroached into that area to raise goats and sell the cashmere, cashing in on the trade.  As a result, the lands are heavily overgrazed, resulting in desertification, and cashmere prices worldwide have plummeted due to the glut of supply. 

The opening of the railway into Lhasa has only served to accelerate this through
the process of tourism.  Though I haven’t been there, I’ve read that one cause of anger is that Han Chinese immigrants (widely regarded in all of Asia as being very keen businessmen) have displaced locals as the
primary merchants thriving off the tourist trade in trinkets, souvenirs, and hotels.   But, while resentment over this displacement can
understandably give rise to anger, ought it feed into violence? 

In the
high elevation location that was on my mind, as a case in point, the spark of violence
merely acted as an incendiary to justify police actions and then even
more violent reprisals against those who were expressing their

It was a sad time for many.  At a time of
preparation for the Olympics — with its calls for and hype about greater
openness, China’s big coming-out party — journalists were expelled from any areas in western China
where there were high percentages of native Tibetans, because of the
potential for unrest.   Tourists, with their pesky questions and
cameras,  were no longer permitted in those places, either.  Everyone (Chinese and foreigner alike)
was notified on short notice that their flights or trains had been
canceled.  Cell phone service, which most people in China rely on for
communication, was completely shut down to affected areas.  It was through (unverified) word of mouth
that I heard monks in that place were setting themselves on fire. Only the natives, speaking among themselves, knew of these things.  I heard from a friend of a friend.  

Out of the
view of publicity, it wasn’t just that the rest of the world never saw
it.  Even most Chinese, relying on the state approved media for their
understanding of the world around them, were fed and believed the
official story.  The official version of events was that the violence was an unjustified action by malcontents
who were not properly grateful for the handout and aid that had been
doled to them by the central government.  After all, before China took
over things, those people were poor.  It was during this time that I learned the average life expectancy in that place has
doubled in the last fifty years.  (While this is probably true, isn’t that statistic a bit less dramatic when one considers that life expectancy has doubled in most nations when they get access to antibiotics and health care, including a significant increase in life expectancy among the majority population as well?) 

In the media, the general population was reminded
over and over that the high plateau place had been an integral part of
China for almost 1,000 years, the sporadic and unfriendly nature of
that occupation and the independence of the last couple hundred years
of history notwithstanding.  Television news footage interspersed this
type of footage with film footage somehow linking the exiled former
leader (always reviled in the media and in books published on the
subject) with film footage of the CIA training his ranks of
insurgents.  (Hmm.  I wonder how this might relate to anything else in
history, as the film footage looks strangely similar to other footage
showing U.S. aid to the resistance movement during the Japanese
Occupation.  Hmm.  I wonder where and when that film footage was
taken?  And how does it relate to our support of other movements in the
world where population groups have sought a voice for their own freedom
and democracy?)  

At the same time all this was actually
going on in that place and in western China close to that place,
protesters across the world were showing up wherever the Olympic torch
ran.  At one point protesters attacked a handicapped girl in Paris, France, who was bearing the torch for the Olympics as it made its way through France. 
The escalated counter-reaction was swift.  I heard very soon after this about an entire tour group of French
visitors who were denied visas in Macau, even though they showed their
complete, booked tourist itinerary.  These current events were
inescapable from the public psyche and very much on my mind as I listened to this song and mulled over its meaning. 

Join me, won’t you, in cultivating the white rose? 


Filed under Ethics