Life in Wally-World

 

 

by John Tyler Connoley

 

February 23, 2004

 

 

Among my hippier, dippier friends it's de rigueur to despise Wal-Mart. Wal-Mart represents everything that's wrong with the twenty-first century: The consolidation of power into the hands of a few large corporations; the exploitation of workers and the environment; the homogenization of culture; the extinction of the mom-and-pop grocery store.

 

As a small-town resident, I'm supposed to bemoan the despoiling of the rural landscape by large warehouse department stores. As a kind and caring individual, I'm supposed to feel sorry for the poor suckers who find themselves working in those cavernous warehouses. As a small-business owner -- particularly the owner of a pop-and-pop grocery store -- I'm supposed to loathe and fear Wal-Mart.

 

Listening to some of my friends talk, you'd think Wal-Mart and its counterparts (McDonalds and Microsoft, for example) were the worst thing to happen to the human race since Count Vladimir Dracula impaled serfs on his front lawn for sport. And that's the main problem with the anti-corporate mentality: it lacks historical perspective.

 

When I consider the alternatives, I'd much rather live in the twenty-first century with our corporate kings than at any other time in the history of the world. Compared to the romanticized kingdoms of medieval Europe, Wally-World is a paragon of virtue.

 

The main difference between our corporate rulers and the kings and queens who went before is that if our rulers don't please us they die (whereas in the past it was the other way around). Wal-Mart has become as big and powerful as it is by giving people what they want -- access to Rubbermaid trashcans in rural towns. As Sears and Kmart have so painfully discovered, the day a corporate giant stops serving its constituents is the day the giant begins digging its own grave. In the past the kings who kept their power were the ones who could terrorize the country folk the best; today itŐs the kings who serve the country folk who survive.

 

Along with comparisons to medieval warlords, it's popular to compare corporate employees to indentured servants. But do the people who make this comparison know what indentured servitude involved? It didn't involve struggling to make the car payments and the heating bill while living in virtual slavery. It involved selling oneself into real slavery for ten years . . . or more. It definitely didn't involve having a car or riding a bus, having gas heat, or even the hope of three square meals a day. It involved children working in coalmines without the benefit of respirators. It involved leaving your wife and children, taking a long voyage across the sea in a leaky sailing vessel in hopes of finding work, and then being killed by starvation or malaria once you reached your destination. Working at Wal-Mart or McDonald's is not indentured servitude -- virtual or otherwise -- and to say so just shows one's ignorance of history.

 

But what about the destruction of the culture? It's wicked the way Wal-Mart drives people to buy cheap acrylic tube socks, while our younger generations no longer even know how to darn a sock, much less make a quilt.

 

Yet, do we really want to go back to the days when our grandmothers learned to sew at age eight and spent their whole lives hunched over sewing frames making handmade quilts and knitting woolen socks to keep their children and grandchildren warm? Even the women working in factories to make Hanes Her Way have a better standard of living than Laura Ingalls' mother -- and the underwear they produce is a lot more comfortable than Ma Ingalls'.

 

Most galling of all, however, to my artiste friends is the rampant sponsorship of art and culture by our corporate overlords. Everywhere you turn, corporations are putting their names on things that used to be sponsored by individuals. Wal-Mart has even invaded our sacred National Public Radio! Certainly this is a sign of the destruction of the world as we know it.

 

But, again I ask: Would we prefer it the way it was? Does anyone remember what art and culture were like when Lords, Ladies, Bishops, and Cardinals called the shots? While the Church had its stranglehold on culture, only biblical dramas were allowed, and the people who paid for them had their mistresses painted as the Virgin Mary and their grandchildren painted into the corners. Then after the Church split into Protestants and Catholics and lost its power, we still had individuals with petty desires calling the shots. How many pictures of the Medicis did we really need, and how much more interesting might VermeerŐs paintings have been if heŐd been able to do what he wanted, instead of painting only pictures of people with the money to commission him?

 

Today's corporate sponsors have a responsibility to their customers, which requires them to be more democratic in the way they spend their money. Of course, this means they're not likely to sponsor controversial art installations, but their fear of the customer also keeps them from telling NPR what it can and can't say. They recognize the disaster that would occur for them if something like that ever leaked out.

 

To be clear, I'm not saying our current system of corporate rule is Shangri-la, but when I consider the alternatives, I'd much rather live today, under the watchful eye of Wal-Mart, than in any time or place I know of.

 

 

 

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