Wednesday, September 13, 2006

The mega-incorrect Wal-Mart

Lurking behind the 'populist' campaign against America's biggest retailer is elite disdain for the people who work and shop there

America's Democratic Party is divided and unsure on many issues, but its leaders have found a foe they can unite against: Wal-Mart, the discount `big box' retailer and, with 1.3million staff, the country's largest private employer. Across the US this month, Democratic president-wannabes John Edwards and Joe Biden, along with other party luminaries, have addressed rallies denouncing Wal-Mart for low wages and poor healthcare benefits. Hillary Clinton, ex-board member of the Arkansas-headquartered company, has returned a $5,000 campaign contribution as a protest against its policies. It's very unusual for politicians to attack a chain store, but the Democrats think they are on to a winner for the mid-term Congressional elections in November and into the 2008 Presidential race.

The anti-Wal-Mart movement has really taken off. The publicity campaign has been spearheaded by two union-backed campaigning groups: `Wake Up Wal-Mart', set up by the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW); and `Wal-Mart Watch', backed by the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Local governments have also sprung into action: the state of Maryland passed a law in January that would require Wal-Mart to increase its spending on health benefits (which was later dismissed by a federal government judge as discriminatory, as it would apply only to Wal-Mart); and the city of Chicago approved an ordinance in July requiring `big box' stores like Wal-Mart to pay a minimum wage of $10 an hour - which is about twice the current national minimum of $5.15 - and at least $3 an hour worth of benefits by 2010. And a new anti-Wal-Mart documentary is gaining decent audiences around the country.

Democrats believe they can leverage attacks on Wal-Mart to send a wider `populist' message that they care about living standards. `Wal-Mart has become emblematic of the anxiety around the country, and the middle-class squeeze', says Evan Bayh, Democrat Senator of Indiana. Paul Krugman, economics columnist for the New York Times, writes: `If the growing movement to pressure Wal-Mart to treat its workers better is any indication, economic populism is making a comeback.'

But the anti-Wal-Mart crusade is a faux populism - as fake as the knock-offs Wal-Mart sells. It shares with other campaigns against politically incorrect retailers - such as McDonald's and Starbucks - a disdain for mass marketers and, most importantly, the masses who shop with them. But what's different, and potentially confusing, about the anti-Wal-Mart movement is that it is snobbery masquerading as a populist campaign for higher pay levels.

Campaigners say they've concentrated on Wal-Mart because the company is highly symbolic - and they're right, but not for the reasons they give. Antis claim that, as the country's biggest retailer, Wal-Mart's actions have ripple effects throughout the sector and the economy generally, and therefore it's reasonable to focus attention on this one company's lousy labour-relations record. But I would argue that the reason Wal-Mart is singled out has less to do with pay, and much more to do with the fact that Wal-Mart has become the emblem for supposedly rampant American consumerism and just about everything the liberal elites find distasteful about the middle-American, `red state' masses.

The attacks on Wal-Mart are driven by snobbery. Wal-Mart is a `low end' general merchandiser, selling a vast variety of goods at, as the company's slogan says, `always low prices'. Many well-off people routinely dismiss the chain as a distributor of tacky, cheap-quality goods, and do not want to be seen entering its doors (although some do just to buy inexpensive toiletries or groceries). Most of Wal-Mart's employees and regular customers are from the lower-income section of society. The company's roots are in the rural South and Midwest, and it is still associated with these red-state heartlands - indeed, the recent resistance has been sparked by Wal-Mart's decision to expand to the more liberal coastal areas and urban centres.

Campaigners cite that about 80 per cent of Wal-Mart's political contributions go to Republicans, and when a recent Zogby poll reported that 76 per cent of regular Wal-Mart shoppers voted for George W Bush, liberals had the evidence they needed that they had zeroed-in on the enemy. As John Zogby himself says: `You walk into a Wal-Mart and you're walking into the moral equivalent of a spiritual revival tent for born-again Christians.'

The contrast with the treatment of Target, one of Wal-Mart's key competitors, shows how the anti-Wal-Mart campaign is really more about defining social status than fighting low pay. Target sells similar stuff at discount prices, but packages everything in trendy design and markets it with playful advertisements. Slapping an Isaac Mirzahi label on its wares, along with donations to cultural causes, makes `Tar-jhay' the socially acceptable low-cost alternative for the comfortable class. Never mind that its pay levels and work practices are not that different to Wal-Mart's - Target generally gets a free pass thanks to the near-exclusive focus on redneck Wal-Mart.

Wal-Mart is painted as wicked and evil: typically campaigners turn its trademark smiley face into a snarl. By association, those who shop there are found guilty, too. Worst of all, for some, is that Wal-Mart's low prices encourage the masses to buy more, to indulge in the sin of greedy materialism. The company is a symbol of `mindless consumerism', says author Bob Ortega. A 6am stampede in a Florida Wal-Mart for newly-released X-Boxes in 2003 is often cited to prove how the store's shoppers are crazed zombies. Campaigners known as `Whirl-Mart' go around the store with empty carts, as a type of performance protest against the hedonists snapping up the slashed-priced goods.

Wal-Mart finds itself at the sharp end of a wider attack on mass consumption patterns. Personal shopping decisions have now become invested with greater significance, as they are now considered as indicative of one's identity (as opposed to, say, political or religious views). Items associated with the masses are considered taboo today: SUVs, McMansions, fast food. Such criticisms are the means by which to blame those who `mindlessly' buy `offensive' things. At the same time, the elite are able to buy their way out of this, through alternative, eco-friendly, ethical spending.

For instance, the environmental website Ideal Bite, self-described as `a sassier shade of green', provides shoppers with sustainable-living products, so they can `easily align their environmentally and socially conscious values with their everyday decisions'. Of course, all of this comes at a premium price. At the same time, the purveyors of the environmentally-friendly products are praised - witness how organic supermarket Whole Foods is celebrated, even though it's as fiercely anti-union as Wal-Mart.

To be fair, it's not just `latte liberals' who espouse politically-correct shopping. A consensus against mass consumption behaviour now spans erstwhile ideological divides. As journalist Rod Dreher points out, there is now a sizeable number of `crunchy conservatives' who believe that the natural home of conservation is conservatism, and, when it comes to shopping, that right-wingers should care more about values than low prices and convenience.

You would have thought that a superstore that made huge quantities of affordable goods available to the masses would be hailed as a monument to the American dream. Instead, Wal-Mart is portrayed by both left and right today as the American nightmare - a nightmare exported to the 14 countries outside the US, including Asda in the UK, where Wal-Mart has to deal with the added factor of anti-Americanism.

Another reason why the campaigners' claims should not be taken at face value is that low pay and bad conditions are clearly not the only, or most prominent, issues raised. The list of Wal-Mart's sins is long: eliminating small `mom and pop' shops, destroying downtown areas, imposing ugly architecture, squeezing suppliers, facilitating imports from China, ignoring unethical executive behaviour, and so on. The `Wake Up Wal-Mart' website's list even includes `desecrating sacred grounds' in Hawaii and Tennessee. A motley coalition of campaigners espouses these different complaints, all supposedly held together by the united aim of slaying the `Beast of Bentonville'.

This results in the anti-Wal-Mart campaign being backward in multiple ways. Take the criticism about driving out `mom and pop' shops. These fears have existed in the US since at least the 1930s, when the Great Atlantic & Pacific Tea Company established more modern grocery stores. Mistrust of big, modern establishments has traditionally been a feature of conservatism. Right-winger Pat Buchanan attacked Wal-Mart as long ago as 1996, accusing the company of `gigantism' and devastating smaller businesses.

Wal-Mart's opponents romanticise smaller shops, yet these establishments often have limited selection, high prices and unattractive environments. Whatever you think of its labour policies, Wal-Mart certainly marks an advance over most smaller retail outlets, especially the typical inner-city bodega. And come to think of it, when were small shopkeepers known for high pay? The Chicago council's minimum wage measure excludes small businesses, as it applies to only companies with $1 billion or more in revenues - clearly, a serious campaign against low pay generally would see small business as part of the problem, rather than a key ally.

A further backward aspect to the anti-Wal-Mart protests is the way they play the nationalist card and blame Wal-Mart for importing cheap manufactures from China. Wal-Mart's search for the cheapest products, as well as its centralised buying power and hi-tech logistics, certainly facilitate such imports. However, academic claims that retail now drives manufacturing go too far. Wal-Mart brings in 3.5 per cent of China's manufactures, so it's hard to credit it for any economic boom in the People's Republic.

More here


You may have read the article by the same title, which was the forerunner to the book, and that is now in print and available via Many thanks to my readers who waited patiently for the book's release. But, onward we must go with the subject of American women and the damage caused to our gender by the global culture in the making. The institution of marriage, children, and the condition our public school system and churches demands that we consider very carefully the freedom and rights given to women in this nation. Have we abused or mishandled this freedom?

American women are perhaps the luckiest women in the world. We have, however, taken for granted the fact that we were given rights in a world where rights for women is still curtailed, limited, and at times, non-existent. Many women on the planet are not free in any sense of the word. Many women are still owned entities. So, the question begs - why are American women, whose culture and males allowed them to have freedom from gender bondage, so incredibly stupid with their freedom? Let us consider a small list of shallow stupidities:

We are free to take vanity to bizarre standards and measures - those created by the beauty, health, and media industries - that mandate skeletal thinness, life-long photo-youth looks, tanning bed skin color, Botox shots in the face, fake breasts, fake fingernails, waxing, manicured eyebrows, plastic surgery of every make and measure, bleached teeth, and unending and life-long diets.

We are free to fall into the trap of the mandatory mental health industry - supporting big pharma and the New Freedom Initiative on Mental Health - by our addictions to anti-depressants to the tune of millions and millions of American women now zoning out on a daily basis with mood-altering drugs.

We are also free to become useless in our homes. We now hire maid services, landscapers, pool cleaners, painters, interior decorators, cooks, nannies, teachers and tutors, caterers, therapists, party planners, massage therapists, laundry services, etc., while losing every intuitive instinct of our female natures.

We are free to have extra-marital affairs, multiple lovers, to abort children, to disrespect and ignore the traditions of our families and religions, to use men like ATMs, to back-stab our friends and family members, and to take thousands upon thousands of family dollars for personal use in our missions to look like (and act like) teenagers.

We are free to have children with as many men as we choose, and to bankrupt multiple men with mandatory child support payments. We are then free to ignore children by paying far more attention to maid-cleaned, spotless, and magazine-cover homes, where no cooking is achieved, no family memories are created, and no shoes are allowed to be worn on the white carpets of the "new" American home. We are free to give our children computer software to keep them addictively occupied for YEARS, and then complain about their lack of social skills.

We are free to completely ignore the FACT that our children are SUFFERING with mean-spirited and incompetent mothers - children who are hungry, starved for attention, and mistreated by non-stop extracurricular sports regimens, drive-thru bags of dangerous food, teachers and public school indoctrination camps, completely ignored spiritual needs, and disrespect and contempt of their children's fathers.

Sadly, this list has become the typical "home" scenario for America's children and husbands. "Home" has become sterile because the women in American homes have lost their senses under the highly political guise of "liberation." So, another question begs - what does liberation mean to American women? Does it mean the freedom to vote? Freedom from historical gender bondage? Freedom from ownership? I don't think so. Today's American female is free to be an idiot - a shallow, self-involved, pathologically vain, completely incompetent, and angry person - angry to the tune of making the anti-depressant industry the largest profit maker, bar none, for big pharma. Stupid is what stupid does.

American children do not have happy homes. They are television and computer addicts thanks, primarily, to mothers. So sorry, but facts are facts. American children have so many video games, movies, and "equipment," that we now have to have "media rooms" to contain the sheer numbers of purchases made to very purposefully ignore our children. Then add to the mix that American women can't and don't cook. They don't know how, and furthermore, between jobs, beauty and "health" regimens, and chronic diets, today's mothers feel like crap most of the time, which translates into anger in the home. Just ask dad (or boyfriend).

My fear? I look at the history of women in other countries - nations without freedom - and our rapid march toward and beneath a new form of government - one in which freedoms are being incrementally dismantled and removed from the people. I observe state governors who are implementing reproductive legislation, as we speak, to curtail the rights of procreation, which, as we know, means the unalienable, primordial, and biological rights of women. I see men who are becoming more and more disenchanted with marriage - who fear what will happen should divorces ensue. I see the slutting up of American women in dress, demeanor, and attitude, and I see young American girls following suit. And I think of women in other nations, who have never had rights, and their treatment under nations and laws that label them as chattel, property, and for the most part, primarily vaginas and wombs. I worry about the mass, or shall we say "global" disenchantment of men with women. This history could (and has) set women back thousands and thousands of years.

Therefore, let us think candidly about freedom. Let us not continue to be foolish, cruel, stupid, lazy, shallow, and mean-spirited when it comes to the freedoms that America and her male gender allowed to transpire on our shores. We are very lucky women in this nation. To mishandle that freedom is dangerous specifically to women and children. And in today's world, we are desperately needed to be intelligent handlers of our homes and children. We need to educate our children in the home. We need to eliminate family debt and to stock and store our home pantries and family supplies. We need to reconnect to our biological and intuitive natures, and with that said, we must reconnect to our spiritual natures and needs as women. We must be ultimately careful that we do not become what we loathe.

Anger has become a base point for many American women, and I suspect that anger stems from self-loathing, guilt, and boredom. If you're running around shopping, spa-ing, working out, visiting therapists, tanning, bleaching, manicuring, and paying servants to perform all standards tasks in your homes, you are not operating as a woman and certainly not as a mother to your children.


Australia: Some religions are more equal than others

A Melbourne Catholic schoolteacher has attempted to use Victoria's racial and religious vilification laws to protest against a school history textbook's biased treatment of the Catholic Church. John Morrissey from News Weekly attended the hearing at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT)

An attempt to use Victorian law to defend the reputation of the Catholic Church from bias and caricature recently came to a dead end at the Victorian Civil and Administrative Tribunal (VCAT). A Melbourne Catholic schoolteacher, Bob Mears, recently complained that a Year 8 history textbook Humanities Alive 2 vilified the Catholic religion by misrepresenting the role and actions of the medieval Church. But he was told by VCAT, at a hearing on Monday, August 7, that the Victorian Racial and Religious Tolerance Act 2001 was not intended to restrict free speech, but to prevent the incitement of violence against people "among us here today" on the basis of their race or religion.

(Last year, VCAT, under the terms of the same Act, found two Christian pastors of Catch the Fires Ministries guilty of supposedly vilifying Islam by quoting from the Koran).

All of Mr Mears's complaints about inaccuracy, omission and selective use of evidence in the textbook were dismissed as of no relevance to the court and its interpretation of the Act. Although the Act mentions "severe ridicule", VCAT made it quite clear that inciting "hatred or contempt" did not - in the intention of the legislation - mean making another feel offended, nor was redress under the Act possible for anyone wishing to ventilate a concern. The complainant's matter for concern was thus consigned to what the public rationale for the Act calls "trivial comment, impolite remarks or legitimate discussion".

Humanities Alive 2 is a colourful and expensive ($51.95) publication prescribed in a great many government, Catholic and independent schools. Its historical content is superficial and the contents of its accompanying CD-Rom disk are both banal and trivial. Sweeping unsupported generalisations about the Church's oppressive behaviour over a period of perhaps 700 years are relieved by scarcely any mention of her role in sponsoring hospitals, welfare and progress, or any mention of great figures like St Francis of Assisi, beloved of all Christians.

As Mr Mears wrote in April this year, in a letter to Victorian Labor Premier Steve Bracks, the textbook violated the state's religious vilification laws by "seriously lampooning Catholic clergy and, by gross selectivity and calumnies, giving children the false impression that, in the main, medieval Catholic clergy were murderously oppressive, avaricious, licentious, corrupt and that medieval Catholics were non-thinking, uninspired and having a blind religious obedience".

Comments in the national press earlier this year have already publicised this textbook's extraordinary distortions of the Crusades, characterising them as equivalent to modern terrorism. It is also curious that Martin Luther is presented uncritically, while the Catholic Church at the time of the Protestant Reformation is smeared relentlessly. On the CD-Rom accompanying Humanities Alive 2 is a coloured illustration depicting the burning at the stake of Joan of Arc. Featured in the picture is a crucifix; but, with a sweep of a computer mouse, this symbol - sacred to Christians - is transformed into a witch's broom. Thus an officially sanctioned textbook invites Year 8 schoolchildren to desecrate a sacred icon as part of their education.

On educational grounds alone, Humanities Alive 2 fails every criterion of presenting objective history; but especially when prescribed in Catholic schools, it does nothing to strengthen the already fragile faith of young people in the religion both of their baptism and to which their schools ostensibly belong. For the wider community, the textbook regurgitates the old bigoted stereotypes about Catholicism which were common 50 years ago and which have received new impetus in Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code.

The Victorian Government denies that its Act is "law only for racial and religious minorities", but it is reasonable to ask whether Islam, Judaism, Hinduism or any other smaller religious grouping in Australia would have had its history distorted and caricatured with impunity.

The fate of the two Christian pastors of Catch the Fires Ministries, whose audience - unlike children of compulsory school age - attended their function voluntarily, suggests that the Act has been designed to work in just this way. The legal loophole, entirely up to the interpretation of the court, lies in the words "reasonably and in good faith". But, as George Orwell expressed it in Animal Farm, "All ... are equal, but some ... are more equal than others."


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