Well, it's been a rough couple of days, let me tell you. No bad things happened, I've just been physically messed up. I spent yesterday asleep on the sofa.
Which put me in the perfect prone position for watching Penn and Teller's Bullshit, which I do love, even though they are unrepentant white male libertarians, because even though they manage to get some things wrong, they are smart enough to admit when they're wrong (such as their episode on Global Warming). Last night, they showed a repeat of their pro-WalMart show. The part that stood out for me was when a pair of anti-WalMart people held up a blatantly mean t-shirt they had made depicting what they saw as the "typical" WallyWorld shopper. It was classist. It's this attitude I want to address today, not whether WalMart is good or not, because I can't make that call for anyone.
Now personally, I'm of two minds about WalMart. I won't shop there if I can possibly help it, and I don't like their business practices. However, the effect of WM differs depending on where you are. They can destroy a town's business, but they can also revitalize parts of a city that have no commercial infrastructure, such as the part of Chicago they showed. Most large grocery stores are located in suburbs, causing food deserts in the inner parts of a city, where you have a choice of going to a very overpriced store in a fancy part of town, or, if you don't have a car and rely on public transportation and walking, you can go to the corner bodega or 7-11 and pay $1 for a banana. In those case, WalMart is a valued part of the community, bringing local jobs, low-priced food, and money to the area.
Or, for instance, the WalMart that has been built in the rural area half an hour up the road from the farm - there was nothing there to put out of business - until about ten years ago, there wasn't even much in the way of houses, but the increasing suburbs along the main road into Richmond and Charlottesville brought massive housing development to the area, and those houses need a grocery store.
In both these cases, WalMart is clearly not the enemy, no more than any other large box store. However, their low prices can kill smaller businesses that can't compete, and they have some questionable business practices. But I find the focus on WalMart illogical, since all large box stores follow the same practices - yes, Sam Wal had the idea, but it's not like the other stores didn't immediately jump on the bandwagon. Worried about sweat shop workers? Don't buy from Target, Sears, K Mart, and Abercrombie & Fitch, among others. All large stores that do not buy exclusively from Europe, the US, and Canada employ sweat shop workers to produce their clothing. Until the world governments get serious about improving the quality of life for the poorest of the poor, putting your children to work in a sweat shop will be far preferable to selling them into prostitution and sex slavery. It's Hobson's choice - do you refuse to buy from sweat shops and collapse the economy of several very poor countries, or do you give up cheap prices so that the workers in those countries can be paid by the dollar instead of the penny?
If you're well-off, you can make those choices without any real great harm to yourself, but for the poor in the US, it's not that simple. Sure, you can tell people to eat healthy and organic, to patronize farmer's markets and not eat processed foods, but the single parent on welfare isn't going to pay any attention. When your budget is so tight it screams every time you open your wallet, the 79-cent box of off-brand Macn'Cheese is going to feed your family dinner, whereas one organic banana isn't - which would you choose? Do you even really have a choice? And where the hell are the farmer's markets? They're not in the poor parts of the city, that's for sure.
A lot of the "Eat Healthy! Fight Teh Obeeeeesity Epidemic!!!" rhetoric flying around is profoundly classist, as is a lot of the anti-WalMart bluster. It becomes very obvious why people focus on WallyWorld rather than, say, Target when the gloves come off, and the insults begin. WalMart is a target (heh) because poor people shop there. And poor people are so tacky, amirite? They buy cheap furniture and tacky decorator stuff, they all wear cheap t-shirts, and the Dads are buck-toothed and skinny, and the Moms are fattty fat fat, with a ton of welfare-suckling kids, and they have the nerve - the sheer, stinkin' nerve! - to be buying things that only nice people are supposed to have, because WalMart sells them cheap. Hell, where are they even going to fit that 56" flat screen in their tacky tacky single-wide trailer?!
So much of the prevailing attitudes against the poor seem to want to punish them further for being poor. They're stupid for buying houses they can't afford, they're sucking welfare dry, they're a burden, they're criminals, they're...
What a lot of people are not saying but thinking, is this: Poor people are unattractive.
The assumptions made about poor people, and the classism (and let's not forget racism) inherent in those assumptions are incredibly damaging - they're ignorant, they're fat, they're stupid, they "breed too much"*, they take more than their fair share - and they result in the elimination of social programs that are the very least we owe the people who do all the low-paid jobs that keep our country going.
I've long been of the opinion that any job has honour - any job, no matter how much is is looked down upon, is important, and the lowest paid jobs are some of the most important. I can live without any vice presidents of management, but I can't live without the people that pick my food, the people that clean my office, the people that pick up the trash, sweep the streets, work the cash registers, stock the shelves, clean the toilets, and maintain the sewers. Without them, our whole standard of living falls apart.
We demand so much of the low paid members of our society, and yet we balk at supporting them so that we can continue to pay them the low wages that make our society one of the cheapest to live in. We talk about welfare like it's a hand out to people who don't do anything (the image of the inner-city welfare queen with ten kids by ten different men is a racist Republican lie) instead of a vital part of a capitalist society that encourages great wealth at the top and poverty at the bottom**.
And we sneer at WalMart. Because we can afford to shop at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods***. We can afford to buy our clothes at nice places, and only a quarter or less of our income goes on the food we eat. But there are a lot of people who can't, and for them, WalMart isn't a destroyer of Small Town America[TM], it's a life-line.
And honestly, why should poor people suffer more? They already live in a society that will keep them poor all their lives, why begrudge them a flat-screen TV and cheap food?
Once we solve the problems of poverty in our own country, we can start worrying about the changing face of world business. But until then, attempting to block the one business that focuses on the needs of the poorer members of our society (as opposed to other businesses that take advantage of third-world labour), smacks of a dislike of our own poor, and the kind of activism that doesn't inconvenience the middle class.
Which seems, oh I don't know... tacky.
*The spectre of the poor having more children than anyone else is brought up, like in the movie Idocracy, as proof that the US is going downhill, as if poor people have less intelligent genes. It's a sneaky eugenics argument that has no basis in reality, as intelligence is not that easy to predict. The fact that many of our greatest inventors and thinkers have come from humble beginnings does seem to refute this classist line of thinking.
**I'm not a huge fan of unbridled capitalism, since humans are fallible, and tend to ignore the damage their quest for riches can create.
***Not me. The guy that owns Whole Foods is an ableist, classist, anti-fat jerk, and I feel no need to give him any of my hard-earned cash.