Thursday, August 14, 2008

How I stopped worrying and learned to love Walmart

My hometown has yet to receive a Wal-Mart, so shopping at one is still kind of exotic to me. I never would have thought I could buy underwear, motor oil, frozen shrimp and a crossbow all in one place.  Brooklyn, far behind on the mega-store curve but catching up quickly, still has none.  In northeastern Pennsylvania, where my folks bought a house a few years ago, there is the first and only Wal-Mart I have ever visited.  The store is monumental in its banality and sublime in its material abundance.  I remember the first time I crossed its threshold.  It was akin to visiting Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.  At both places the scale is daunting, the visual stimulation overwhelming, and one gets the feeling they each represent only the knife’s edge of a massive complex of economic and cultural influences. 

My family had gone to Rome in the summer of 1990.  My late brother Michael at the time had full blown AIDS and was involved with ACTUP, the direct action AIDS advocacy group.  Although far from proletarian he was greatly disturbed by the opulent wealth and power represented at the Vatican - it didn’t seem to have anything to do with the image of Christ that we were raised with, the simple man whose treasure was in heaven and his heart.  He was also disturbed by the contradictory stances the Church took with regards to the disease.  The Church, through Saint Vincent’s Hospital, provided him, and my brother Vincent who also died of the disease, with excellent and compassionate care.  At the same time they lobbied against the use of condoms for its prevention and in general the frank discussion of human sexuality that was necessary in a time of epidemic.  The conflict pitted ideals against practicality.  In life and death matters it was not that hard to choose.

It’s easy to knock Wal-Mart, and most of the time I think it is justified.  They are an aesthetic blight on our landscape, their presence in a community often threatens small business owners and Main Streets all over the country, they have questionable employee benefit practices and aid and abet spurious Chinese trade and labor policies. Like all commercial behemoths they dumb down and homogenize our culture by reducing choice and access through their goliath reach that obliterates all other outlets for products, cultural as well as material.  Unfortunately they are also really cheap.

There were five of us brothers in my family and my folks raised us on city employee salaries, the Board of Education specifically.  I am still stupefied as to how they pulled it off, raising us as well-fed, educated, intellectually inquisitive, more or less happy young people.  My mom is a veteran bargain hunter, as well as a devout Catholic.  We’re not getting back to Rome any time soon, but, much to my chagrin, the mega-store is quickly proving to be her other pilgrimage.  Had we grown up in the Pocono’s instead of Brooklyn I don’t doubt that we would have been Wal-Mart babies. The New York native in me recoils at this thought of course, but how else to provide for a large family on a modest salary? 

Strange then that something “good” is something “bad”.  Can we have it both ways?  Can we have the convenience of a vast, modern economy and still preserve a daily life that hasn’t had the originality, autonomy and authenticity marketed out of existence?  Can we provide affordable goods without wreaking havoc on other sectors of our lives and other parts of the globe?  I hope the answer is yes. 

Saint Peter’s Basilica is a triumph of human creativity.  No matter what it represents, it is still among the most beautiful and transporting things created by mankind.  Wal-Mart, while no beauty, is also a triumph in its own right, a product of the most advanced part of our global economy and technology.  Neither is perfect of course, and both in many ways are still works in progress.  The world is full of triumphs - complicated, imperfect, ever improving triumphs.  Whitman said that America is a poem constantly rewriting itself.  The bright spot of hope in that thought is that we are all the poets of that great work, so the responsibility for change lies in ourselves, and who better to do it?  Whitman also said,  “Do I contradict myself, very well then I contradict myself.  I am large, I contain multitudes.”  I think we have to embrace these types of contradictions if we are truly going to make changes in the world.

This is no apologia for the monster retailer.  Rather it is a call if not to arms then to consciousness.  If you really want to change the world, to make it better, you’d better be prepared to have an open mind, to accept some very surprising facts, and to face opinions and attitudes that you might not have expected to have.  That’s half the battle, recognizing it is ourselves who hold the power, especially in a consumer society.  Yes, our choices have been limited and often we seem to be exempted entirely from the grand marketing and development schemes of the biggest players.  But the bottom line is we still control our pocketbooks.  Gandhi famously said, “You must be the change that you wish to see in the world.”   What is the Wal-Mart you wish to see in the world?  You need only lift your voice to make it happen.

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