June 13, 2013

Of Elephants and Children

For several centuries, folks ate in what was called service à la française, or service in the French style. All the food for all the courses would be arranged on a table, and guests would simply take what portions they desired of each. Think of all those banquet scenes set in medieval castles, where boisterous noblemen quaff tankards of ale while reaching for enormous cuts of beef from the center of the table and you pretty much get the idea.

Over time, this evolved into what we think of today as the buffet, mostly to solve the one big problem with service à la française, namely keeping all the various foods at the correct temperature throughout the meal. In  the 1830s, a more refined solution was introduced into the salons of Paris by the Russian ambassador, Prince Alexander Kurakin. He preferred to have each course served in sequence, an innovation that was quickly labeled service à la russse. This rapidly gained favor in Paris and spread to England. It remains the dominant style in the Western world.

One consequence of this change in dining styles was the need for a much greater variety of knives, forks, and spoons, as well as other specialized implements to accompany each course. Suddenly, no fine dining experience was complete without lemon knives, sweet meat forks, marrow spoons, ham bone holders, cucumber snips, grape saws, or bon bon tongs. Handles for these dining implements -- a service for twelve required up to 96 spoons -- created an enormous demand for ivory, the most desirable source. One company maintained an annual stock of 26 tons of high-grade ivory to meet demand. That's about 1900 elephants worth of tusks. (England alone imported 500 tons of ivory per year in the late 19th Century. You do the math.)

So there you have it. In order to consume lavish feasts, thousands of elephants had to die. But we are better than that now, right? Most civilized people react in horror at the very idea of killing elephants for any reason, let alone to make toothpicks or knife handles. But we are somehow able to live with the idea that children spend 12 to 14 hours a day sewing our clothes for about 6 1/2/ cents an hour. We are able to live with unsafe factories that collapse or ignite in massive fires, like the one that killed 112 garment workers in Bangladesh working for about $2 a day.

Don't get me wrong. I'm no better than the next guy. I wear the same clothes made in Asian factories that most of us do. The answer isn't to stop buying from those countries, thereby plunging already desperate people into utter destitution. I don't want to trade child labor for child prostitution. I do want to see better working conditions and better safety laws and better pay.

Of course, the United States has been through this already. Thanks to organized labor -- yes, those awful unions conservatives love to hate -- the abuses of the sweatshops eventually ended. Workplaces got safer, working conditions improved, and pay got better. But like water, greed seeks its own level. First it was the movement of industry to southern states with strong anti-union laws and weak environmental laws. Then someone figured out that the whole world was one big sweatshop ready for exploitation. The scramble for cheap Asian labor began. When it comes to the glories of capitalism, you might call that the elephant in the room.

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