What if Boxing Day becomes just another shopping day?

In a growing Boxing Day tradition, now those of the “lower classes” have the gift of no longer getting the day off.

Boxing Day, a holiday in Britain, Canada, New Zealand, and Australia, was historically the day those on the lower rungs of the class ladder got to celebrate. It was, in effect, the servants (or serving class) Xmas. Sometimes gifts were given by employers (masters?) to honor service well done. Gifts were not expected in return as this would muddy the class lines. As the article at Snopes details, Boxing Day “was about preserving class lines,” and, for a person of lower status to give a gift to someone of higher status would be a slight.

However, in more recent times, the holiday (at least in my experience of it while living in the UK for seven years) has morphed into an extension of Xmas – or, another day to eat and drink oneself silly while spending time with friends and family. Also, as so many have extended/divorced/multiple families to see over the holidays, it allows another day to make the family rounds. It also allows for another day of that renowned tradition – holiday telly – classic movies, holiday specials, and the like.

When I lived in the UK in the late 90’s and early 2000’s, it was still not treated as a “shopping day.” Most stores where we lived were not open. Yet, with consumerism strengthening its stranglehold on the globe, Boxing Day is becoming yet another holiday that is giving in to the “we live to shop” paradigm. As the UK Telegraph reports, this year 200 extra shops will open to add to the already huge trend (over a 1,000 ‘big box’ stores) that no longer remain closed in honor of the day.

This trend to open stores all the time is ubiquitous here in the USA (or, United Shoppers of America). I remember, though, when stores were closed on Thanksgiving, Xmas Eve, Xmas Day, Easter, etc. Alas, now you can find something open pretty much any hour of any day. Sucky thing is, the peeps that have to work on the holidays at the places that are open, such as gas stations, convenience marts, grocery stores, etc, they are the very same peeps who are already on the shit end of the ladder.

I wish we would go back to closing stores once in a damn while. If you forget the sage for the stuffing, tough luck, you should NOT be able to find a place to purchase it on Xmas day. And while not everyone celebrates all holidays, and many are problematically Christian biased, it is nice to have some days of the year where we shut down our work brains and celebrate for a day.

Though I am not much of a Madonna fan, I agree with her song “Holiday” that claims we need to take a holiday and celebrate. I think, in fact, we should have some days entitled “Holiday” with no religious baggage attached or no dead white President to celebrate. I use all holidays in this way already – as days to celebrate the people, food, and, yes, drinks, I love.

I wish, though, that there was a way to make holidays more equitable along class lines  — and gender, race, and sexuality lines for that matter! Bringing back carnivals (Bakhtinian style) would be a start. These pre-capitalist celebrations were about breaking away from societal norms and subverting rule-bound practices. Unfortunately, consumer capitalism has turned merry-making into excuses to buy more stuff. To prove this never ending imperative to shop, my email inbox today is flooded with news about sales, 75% off closeouts, and best prices of the year… And this is with a high junk filter! Why in the F would I need to shop like there is no tomorrow the day after the most consumer driven holiday of the year?!?

So, sadly, consumer capitalism is now having its way with Boxing Day – but instead of “preserving class lines” by giving the “servants” of the world the day off, now the “servants” get the same old shit – another day of work.

For those who don’t have to “serve” on this day, they should resist this revamping of the holiday by REFUSING to shop.  As a person with winter break privilege (a great perk of academia), I have many days off over the holiday season. And, even though I am stateside now, I WON’T be shopping on Boxing Day. Instead, it will be leftover scotch eggs, sausage rolls, trifle and plenty BBC America all washed down with the best drink of all, Magner’s Irish Cider (which makes taking down the tree and trimmings a bit more bearable… )

Happy Boxing Day everyone, and here’s to obliterating, rather than preserving, class lines. And, to NOT living to shop!

What if Santa is gender-queer?

My fondness for Santa goes way back. In the days when I used to buy into the patriarchal God paradigm (touted at the Catholic school I attended), I thought of Santa as similar to God, or perhaps, maybe even God in disguise. After all, both were depicted as white bearded males…

After Catholic school put me off organized religion for life (which it achieved by the time I was in 4th grade), I didn’t give up my love for Santa even though I ultimately rejected the idea of the big white dude in the sky.

Santa has so many traits I love:

Santa wears red. My favorite color of all time.

Santa loves cookies. So do I.

Santa wants people to be good to each other, and Santa’s naughty list seems a lot more fair than that of god’s or GW Bush’s.

Santa lives by a Dionysian spirit – good food, good drink, celebration, and merriment are an important part of existence according to the Santa paradigm. I agree.

Notice that above I at no time refer to Santa as “he.” That is because I refuse to believe Santa is only male!

I think of Santa as a cross dresser, as transgender, or genderless. Like any deity worth their salt, I see Santa as beyond the gender binary – rather, Santa understands that we mortals view the world through tiny gendered boxes and would have a hard time accepting a gender-queer icon.

Well, Santa, I would like to inform you the time is ripe for you to reveal that the beard is false, that you sometimes wear a dress, that you have only been cross-dressing all these years so as not to freak out the parents (kids, or course, would accept a gender-queer Santa – it’s the closed minded parents that would need help accepting Santa’s ‘otherness.’)

On that note, you might as well admit that you have been passing as white all these years in fear your color would work against you. Heck, these past several years you have probably been afraid that your color might label you a terrorist or enemy combatant… You would come down the chimney to find ICE or FBI ready to haul your red-clad butt to Gitmo. (OK, so I know some out there will argue that as Santa comes from snow-zone, he would be white, but Eskimos are not white and they come from the land of snow. Plus, Santa’s whole give, give, give mantra is not in keeping with take, take, take white history…)

So, Santa, I can see why you might have deemed it necessary to PRETEND to be a “traditional male” of the white supremacist heteronormative patriarchy variety for all these years- but don’t you think it is high time to force society to realize that not all icons need be male or white or cis or heterosexual or able-bodied? And, what is up with the person known as “Mrs. Claus” – when does the s/he get to share the limelight?

Think of the mind expansion you could bring about by revealing that you (as well as “Mrs. C” and the elves) have been forced into normative boxes – that you, like god(s) have been limited by the small-mindedness of humans who refuse to see beyond gender/race/class binaries and INSIST on referring to deities in male terms (for a good post on this subject, go here).

Santa, if you came forward about your identity, perhaps people might begin to question the father/god set up of most religions and question why our belief systems are male-centric.  Perhaps they might begin to shed the blinders of gender essentialism, cis privilege, and the Heteronormativity/marriage/family matrix.

Come on Santa – you know it’s time to give up the patriarchal shtick. When you visit my house this year, I hope you come sans the white hetero male drag… But please, keep the belly! I do not want to see “Hunky Santa” with six pack abs anywhere near my stocking…

What if we loved fat girls as much as we love the “bowl full of jelly” Santa?

We attended my son’s holiday concert the other night. The kids were mainly middle schoolers, with a handful of high schoolers sprinkled in the mix. There were a number of solos, and the talent rivaled that of American Idol auditions – some were brilliant, some you had to mentally plug your ears to…

One part of the show I can’t get out of my mind though:

Two girls came to the front, 7th or 8th graders I would guess, dressed in identical shimmery gold and black sleeveless dresses. One was tall, thin, and tan, the other was pale, fat, and short.

Now, without describing them further, most people will picture the tall thin girl as attractive, and the short fat girl as ugly. This is the reaction the people sitting behind me had, as they audibly tsk-tsked as the fat girl made her way to the front of the stage (I had to force myself not to turn around and begin to beat them over the head with my umbrella). Their sounds of disapproval seemed to emanate through the audience, and, as the girls performed, I sensed the (mostly parents) in attendance trying to muster applause for the fat singer, while the thin singer was showered with whistles and mighty claps. Yet, the fat singer was the better singer – and, in my book, she was beautiful. I loved her dark hair, the way her limbs pushed mightily from the sleeveless dress, her full face, the hulk of her form as she sang clear notes into the audience.

The thin girl next to her exuded embarrassment due to standing next to such fatness – her look indicated that she was trying to convey to the audience, “please, it wasn’t my choice to have to sing next to lardo here, if I smile big enough and look pretty enough and just pretend I’m up here all by my beautiful batting eyelashes self, maybe it will work.” I hated her. I know she is only a tween, but I couldn’t help it. The contempt and shame she exuded due to being placed on stage next to a body she deemed ugly was way too palpable for me to forgive.

As for the fat beauty, she never looked up, never made eye contact with the audience, never owned her wonderful singing talent. At 13 or perhaps 14, she seems to have learned that her body is not supposed to exude confidence, that it is not supposed to expect praise and love, and that, perhaps, she is lucky to even be included in the show with a body such as hers. The skinny-minny family behind me certainly would have preferred her not to be in the show, that they made clear. (And, yes, I realize I am doing a bit of skinny bashing here, but fat hatred and the destruction of the self esteem of young fat bodies brings out the skinny-hater in me…)

Anyhow, as I wished fervently that I could somehow make that fat girl on stage love herself, love her body, and love her pale, full limbs as much as her vibrant voice, I thought of, of all people, Santa. As the holiday carols boomed out from the choir, I pondered why we love this iconic fat old “man” so darn much, but can’t muster love for fat girls. (For my refusal to believe that Santa is really a man, come back for a post on this matter Xmas eve.)

This holiday season, my wish is that all fat bodies, not only those bedecked in red suits and donning beards, will be shown love. They too deserve affection, praise, and compliments – and, yes, a plateful of cookies.

Happy holidays fatties! And, yes, to the skinny-minnies too.

What if you are on GW’s Xmas* list this year?

For my coverage of GW’s generous gift giving, I am drawing on the article by Tim Dickinson, “Bush’s Final F.U.,” from Rolling Stone. (Read the full piece here.) As Dickinson details, Bush is leaving a plethora of parting gifts to “screw America for years to come.”

What are some of these gifts?

Well, if you make your bucks in the oil industry, Bushy has a special treat, 2 million acres of land in Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming for you to pillage! If you are more of a coal tycoon, you no longer need worry about pesky air-pollution standards. If you’re a factory farmer, guess what? All that icky waste can be dumped right into local waterways thanks to GW’s generosity.

What does Bush have under the tree for those who make their ka-ching from polluting? Well, rules about emissions of lead have been lessened and, as a bonus gift, hazardous waste can now be recycled or burned as fuel. Never mind that this will increase cancer-causing air pollution, it’s the thought that counts.

If you do actual work for a living, sorry, but Bush ran out of gifts before he got to you. In fact, he found it necessary to take away the ability to take time of for medical conditions. He also took away more of those annoying rules that help to protect workers form toxic chemical exposure. But, it you drive a big rig for a living, you can now drive for 11 hours a day and up the number of big truck crashes and driver death tolls. How festive!

If you are on Medicaid, sorry, but your vision and dental care had to be taken out from under the tree. Co-payments have been raised. You all must have been naughty this year.

Got a vagina? Well, Bush has a big old lump of coal for you. Under new “conscious laws” (discussed further in this post), healthcare workers can now refuse to supply you with birth control prescriptions, to participate in abortions (even participating in making appointments for them!), and can determine whether or not they feel like giving you any services related to reproductive health and family planning. So, if you have a vagina, an STI, or are a non-heterosexual, plan to have your reproductive justice go up even further in smoke in 2009.

However, if you like the idea of an Orwellian state, Bush has got a special treat for you this year. More domestic spying! Joy to the world!

Unfortunately, as Dickinson’s article details, most of these gifts will be very difficult to return.

Oh, if only the Who’s down in Whoville could make Bush’s heart grow as they did for the Grinch. Alas, seems like GW’s heart may not be two sizes too small, but rather, non-existent.

(With thanks to Feministe for alerting me to the Dickinson piece!)

*As a non-religious person who loves the holidays nonetheless, I always write Xmas in this way – for me, it is not about “Christ” and thus I avoid this way of spelling the holiday… BTW, for an interesting take in how the birth of Christ narrative is hardly unique, see Zeitgeist.

What if Bush has morphed into an incurable STI?

(The “What if you could buy social justice” series will continue after the New Year. For your holiday pleasure, there will be some more “festive” posts for the next few weeks.)

While you might have thought you could rid yourself of Bush this January, it seems that he cannot be gotten rid of easily. Rather, like an incurable STI, he cannot be completely eliminated but keeps causing different symptoms in the body politic, symptoms that will continue once he vacates the oval office, symptoms that will effect  the US body for years to come, unless, that is, Obama and co. can “cure” the festering sores left by GW…

The most recent flare-up of the Bush Virus will cause all sorts of symptoms in the reproductive organs of the populace.  Allowing ANYONE employed in the arena of healthcare to refuse services based on a “right of conscience,” this ruling will lead to more unplanned pregnancies, more STI’s, less prenatal care, less healthcare for society’s ‘others’ – those with STIs, those in poverty, those who are not of the ‘idealized norm’ and may have, gasp, HIV and non-white skin.

Work at Wal-Mart but don’t like people doing the nasty? Refuse to dispense birth control! Work as a receptionist making appointments for patients but think “every child is a gift from God”? Refuse to give appointments to those abortion-seeking heathens! Work as a nurse at a school and don’t think kids should learn ANYTHING about sex except to ABSTAIN? Refuse to give reproductive health information to students!

The great thing about this 127-page ruling is that it will GIVE to everyone – not just women. While much commentary rightly focuses on how this is another knife in the back to the female populace, it is also a knife in the back (or groin) to ALL peoples as it will exacerbate STIs, unplanned pregnancies, and, yeah! it can even spread the virus of poverty further! Ensuring that those who can’t “shop around” for needed healthcare, it also ensures that those who already have the shit end of the stick will be given even more crap to deal with. Can’t afford healthcare or groceries? Well, guess what, now you can’t get your birth control prescription filled either, so hear is another glorious mouth to feed to help you and your future generations stay down in the poverty quicksand.

As Nancy Keenan, president of NARAL pro-choice America, puts it, “This horrible eleventh-hour rule is a reminder that even though Bush is on his way out the door, his anti-choice legacy will continue to harm women’s health and privacy.” Yes, even though he is on his way out the door, he is leaving women (and men) with a gift that will keep on giving, kind of like herpes.

P.S. For coverage of this issue on the Rachel Maddow show, see the video link at Blog for Choice here: http://www.blogforchoice.com/archives/2008/12/rachel-maddow-o.html

What if you could buy social justice? (Part 5: The Mall as Place of Worship)

(Due to the impending date of the Join the Impact “Light up the Night for Equality” on December 20th, which will take place in MALLS and commercial centers across the nation, I have inverted posts 4 and 5 – part 4, on Disney, will be up in a few days.)

The notion of “a place of worship” tends to be quite general, encompassing churches, temples, synagogues, outdoor gatherings, and yes, malls. There is, in fact, a place of worship called “Church at the Mall” at Westfield Mall in Annapolis, Maryland.

A “place of worship” can be any location where people gather to carry out the (religious) practices of worship, prayer, devotion, study, etc. Usually the term indicates that a certain congregation regularly gathers to perform such acts. In terms of raw numbers, it would seem malls have the biggest global congregation of all, beating out Christianity, Islam, and, yes, even Disneyism.

The Mall is one of the primary locations where devotees of the religion of consumerism practice their faith. To be honest, I really should say “my faith” here –I admit I am not immune to the lure of a good mall!

Anyhow, while mall shopping has been supplanted by internet shopping and other cultural trends since the 80’s, or the ‘era of the mall’ (view Valley Girl as a reminder of 80s mall days!), malls are still very iconic in the consumer world. Further, while traditional malls have been supplemented with virtual malls, outlet malls, and print malls (catalogues and the like), if you say the word “mall,” most people will conjure a similar image – big parking lot, long concrete edifice emblazoned with different store names, shiny floors, a food court, escalators, impossible to find restrooms…

That we have a shared cultural conception of what a mall looks like and what its functions are reveals a lot, namely that malls are an important part of our assimilation into a consumer capitalist worldview – they are places we as citizens are supposed to congregate to shop, eat, socialize, view movies, etc. Yet, unlike earlier marketplaces (the work of Bakhtin is key here but I do not have the energy to wade through my dissertation to find pertinent quotes just now), malls are not communal, or subversive, or ‘carnivalesque.’ Rather, malls promote uniformity, conformity, and, yes, as so many films indicate, a zombified populace. (Drawing on this trend in horror film, Buy Nothing Day encourages zombie mall invasions that aim to raise awareness about the ways in which consumerism turns us into zombies.)

Yet, as films such as What Would Jesus Buy reveal, consumers do not take kindly to being told they should stop shopping. To those of us born and bread in the land of consumption extraordinaire such a message is tantamount to telling us to stop breathing. We, the United Shoppers of America, do not want to stop shopping because consumption has become a huge part of our existence – or, as the saying emblazing mugs and bumper stickers claims, “I shop, therefore I am.” (Another favorite in this genre is the “Save the Planet. I need a place to shop.” – as seen on mugs and t-shirts.)

Malls, even though they are being supplanted by internet shopping and Wal-Mart super centers, are still an important American cultural symbol. In fact, when I lived in the UK, I can’t count how many times people asked me about malls and/or made fun of America’s obsession with shopping malls.

As David Guterson argues in his article “ENCLOSED. ENCYCLOPEDIC. ENDURED: THE MALL OF AMERICA,” :

“our architecture testifies to our view of ourselves and to the condition of our souls. Large buildings stand as markers in the lives of nations and in the stream of a people’s history.”

If, as Guterson argues, malls convey a great deal about culture and history, malls in the US would seem to reveal that we like concrete, crappy food, and marked down merchandise. They also reveal that consuming (be it food or products) is a cornerstone of existence – especially considering how many malls there are, how long they are open, and how much trouble people will endure to worship at them (such as circling for ages for prime parking spots). They reveal we do not like physical activity (our parking practices and escalator reliance prime indicators here), nor do we like to have our worship interrupted (as the quick food intake at food courts and the like reveal). As per what they say about how we view our children, well, what are those horrible mall strollers shaped like cars and animals if not large plastic prison cells? What are those plastic play structures and soft play corrals if not jailhouses for those not yet able to shop?

Malls also reveal our penchant for being “out of reality” while shopping. As Guterson writes:

“Getting lost, feeling lost, being lost-these states of mind are intentional features of the mall’s psychological terrain. There are, one notices, no clocks or windows, nothing to distract the shopper’s psyche from the alternate reality the mall conjures. Here we are free to wander endlessly and to furtively watch our fellow wanderers, thousands upon thousands of milling strangers who have come with the intent of losing themselves in the mall’s grand, stimulating design. For a few hours we share some common ground-a fantasy of infinite commodities and comforts- and then we drift apart forever. The mall exploits our acquisitive instincts without honoring our communal requirements, our eternal desire for discourse and intimacy, needs that until the twentieth century were traditionally met in our marketplaces but, that are not met at all in giant shopping malls.”

Malls, thus encourage, to borrow from Baudrillard, an existence based on simulacrums – simulations of the real, endless repetitions without substance. Moreover, malls serve as a primary place where the manufacture of consumer desire is perpetuated and solidified.

As Anthony Robinson argues in his article,  “Articles of Faith: Consumerism is a greedy society’s religion,” malls help to propagate the eternally deferred desire that  drives consumer capitalism. As he writes, “for consumerism, discontent is essential. One must be in a constant state of anxiety about keeping up, having the newest and the latest.” Malls trade in producing this angst, inundating shoppers with anxious-inducing messages that the sale is about to end, the newest product is nearly sold out, that if you don’t have these shoes, this dress, that video game, you are not valuable.

More problematic still, malls represent such desires as virtuous and normal. As Robinson puts it, “The sins to be repented are still with us: greed, envy, sloth, covetousness. Only they are no longer sins. They are the virtues of ‘the good consumer.'” Or, in other words, consumerism exalts in what many religions and moral codes would label as sinful/immoral/selfish.

While the mall has little to no “carnivalesque spirit,” it can, nevertheless, serve as site where the world and its norms are turned upside down, or at least critiqued. The Join the Impact candlelight vigil planned for December 20th is an example of such a possibility. While some may argue that a silent vigil at a mall is hardly carnivalesque subversion, I would counter that promoting SILENCE and NON-CONSUMPTION at a mall is pretty dissident. Malls tend to be noisy places buzzing with the hubbub of chattering shoppers; they also are dedicated to sealing the deal – to making those prattling as they roam the promenades stop by and PURCHASE. For, if the cash registers are not the altar of the mall at which the congregation is meant to worship, what is?

Thus, promoting non-consumption, reflective silence, and the raising of awareness about SOCIAL JUSTICE, the vigil planned for the 20th undercuts traditional mall worship, turning the mall, instead, into a social, carnivalesque space that is dedicated not to mindless consumption, but mindful subversion. Here’s hoping that many more such actions take place at malls across the nation and the globe so that the mall becomes not a site of consumerist worship, but a site of collective, carnivalesque interaction – or, what a marketplace, ala Bakhtin, should be.

(For those living in my neck of the woods, San Diego, go here for information about the vigil in Escondido and here for other planned vigils at various San Diego county locations.)

What if you could buy social justice? (Part 3: The Temple of Wal-Mart)

When I read that a Wal-Mart worker had been trampled to death by stampeding shoppers eager for bargains on “Black Friday,” I flashed back to Reverend Billy. His over-the-top evangelical-style preaching’s that encourage ‘worshipers’ to STOP SHOPPING in the docu-comedy What Would Jesus Buy equate our consumerism to evil, to greed, and, catchingly, to the “SHOPACOLYPSE.” Black Friday’s news, with one Wal-Mart worker dead as a result of consumer madness, and several others injured, as well as the shoot out at a Toys-R-Us in Palm Desert that left two more men dead, seemed to indicate that the ‘SHOPACOLYPSE’ is indeed upon us.

As someone who includes a directive to please not buy any needed supplies at Wal-Mart on my course syllabi, I often get questions as to why I have a vendetta against this store. Many cite it is hardly the only company that relies on exploitive labor systems both here and abroad, and that, more prosaically, they rely on the cheap prices. Well, Wal-Mart is like the grand-daddy of exploitation, the icon of cheap consumerism. If we can, as socially conscious consumers, bring down this evil symbol of corporate global capitalism, other companies will surely take notice.

As for the claim that people ‘need’ to shop at Wal-Mart for economic reasons, I do not fully agree, at least not in all cases. I understand that restrictive budgets require ‘bargain shopping,’ yet, what places like Wal-Mart promote is not shopping for necessity, but shopping in mega-quantity, the happy face price slasher beckoning customers to fill, fill, fill that oversized cart.

Wal-Mart encourages people to BUY MORE and PAY LESS doing so, rather than to buy less and be willing to pay more for equitably produced products. Yet, I realize that for some non-urban dwellers, Wal-Mart is pretty much the only place to shop (as the corporation has been so successful at putting mom-and-pop stores out of business). For others, the cheap prices really are a necessity. It is not these shoppers that are treating Wal-Mart as a temple – these are the very shoppers that are consumer capitalist system FORCES to make choices that are in fact counter to their own interests. Those at the most exploited end of the labor system are the most likely to HAVE to shop at places like Wal-Mart, and also the most likely to be exploited by employers such as Wal-Mart and other corporations. This is why, of course, that in these darker economic times (I say ‘darker’ as they have been dark for MANY for a lot longer than this latest “economic meltdown”), about the only places seeing sales increase are places like Wal-Mart. What horrible irony that the very corporations that create such an exploitive, unequal society also reap the most benefits when the economic house of cards comes crashing down…

At cites like Wake Up Wal-Mart and Wal-Mart Watch make clear, Wal-Mart is a major corporate evil-doer – it is, in keeping with the faith metaphor, the devil that entices us to keep sinning, both individually and collectively. This holiday season alone, each employee will generate over $2,000 in profit for Wal-Mart, or, “from the work of 1.4 million Americans, Wal-Mart will reap billions of dollars in sales” (as cited here). Yet, these workers will not reap the benefits of the billions in profits. Rather, they will, in true Wal-Mart fashion, be denied healthcare and other benefits, be underpaid and overworked, and be prohibited from unionizing. Or, they may be, as Jdimytai Damour was on was on Black Friday 2008, trampled to death by Wal-Mart customers.

As Jeff Fecke reports in “Always Low Wages. Always,” WalMart is allowed to carry on their heinous practices with merely a light slap on the wrist once in awhile, as in the case of the latest settlement where the company has agreed to pay $54.3 million to settle a lawsuit. The suit, about their practice of requiring employees to work off-the-clock, is one of many taken against this frown-inducing corporate giant. As Fecke reflects,

“While it’s good to see the suit settled, and employees compensated after a decade of stalling, I’m a bit disappointed that it’s being settled. As noted, a jury trial could have cost the company $2 billion, and that kind of money might have motivated them to, you know, pay their workers and give them adequate breaks. Instead, Wal-Mart will pay their parking ticket and continue to screw over their workforce.”

Issues like these are only some of the reasons I target Wal-Mart as a place to BEGIN the consume-less-and-do-so-more-responsibly revolution (ok, so I need to think of a shorter name for this revolution…)

Another key reason to people-cott Wal-Mart is because it perpetuates social inequalities in the areas of race, class, gender, ability, etc. For example, the trampling of Jdimytai Damour serves as a horrible, yet telling, symbol of the racism and classism Wal-Mart propagates. An analysis of the pictures of this tragedy reveals that not only was the person killed a POC, but the majority of people waiting outside to take advantage of bargains were also POC. Is it a COINCIDECE that POC are disporportionately represented as workers and shoppers at Wal-Mart? No – it is a reflection of the race and class inequalities in our society that means CERTAIN people will be more likely to have to work the shit jobs and to shop at shit stores to make ends meet.

This is also true on a global scale – Wal-Mart could in fact be viewed as one of the prime masters of modern slavery. As with earlier historical slave practices, the masters are white (the Walton family) and the slave workers are largely POC – especially the lower down the Wal-Mart job ladder you go (although it can’t rightly be called a ladder as many will never climb anywhere in that corporation). Wal-Mart, as the documentary The High Cost of Low Price makes plain, is not one for advancing/promoting its workers, especially if they have vaginas or non-white skin…

Further, while I appreciate the fact that so many films, websites, and activist groups are focusing on Wal-Mart’s deleterious effects, I take issue with the tendency to offer “buy American” as the (under-analyzed) solution. For, while there are many merits to shopping locally, the “buy American” mantra is often framed in an us-verses-them way. As in THEY (the rest of the globe) are “stealing our jobs,” are “ruining American industry,” are “driving down wages.” What gets lost in this us-verses-them thinking is that we all live on one planet.  In fact, the otherwise wonderful Frontline series on Wal-Mart announces this mentality right there in its title: “Is Wal-Mart Good for America?” What we should be asking instead, is: “Is Wal-Mart Good for the Globe?”

As global citizens we should be worried about fair wages and an environmentally safe planet for ALL PEOPLE, not just for Americans. Further, buying items that claim to be “American” or “Made in the USA” is no guarantee they were produced equitably, nor do “Made in USA” tags guarantee items were actually made in the US let alone made under fair labor conditions (as Ms. Magazines article “Paradise Lost” reveals). This narrative also ignores the fact that there our many sweatshops within the US – they are not all “over there” in China or Indonesia. They are right here in Los Angeles, San Diego, New York. The “made in the USA” is a false feel good tag.

While there are no easy answers to the Wal-Martization of the world, a first step would be for those of us who have the privilege of being able to afford to shop elsewhere to do so. Further, we need to make sure we are not using the “LOW PRICES!” as an excuse to buy more stuff then we really need. We need to ask ourselves is shopping at Wal-Mart REALLY a necessity due to budget, or do Wal-Mart prices encourage the buying of many non-essentials thus mitigating the “I can’t afford to shop anywhere else argument.” If you are buying things you don’t need at Wal-Mart because they are so cheap, the money saved from not buying these things could be used to shop somewhere with more equitable labor practices (and hence higher prices).

Further, rather than worship at this temple dedicated to ceremonies of conspicuous consumption, we could do like Jesus and attempt to destroy the temple. In order to bring down this money-changing temple, we must resolve to resist the false happy face promises, the artificially low prices, and the lure of bargains. For, the bargains at Wal-Mart come at a very high cost – they come at the expense of exploited workers around the globe, environmental harm, and, yes, even democracy. (See, for example, my post here for how Wal-Mart bribes politicians such as California Governator Arnold Schwarzenegger).

So, dear readers, if you haven’t already, please consider people-cotting Wal-Mart. If monetary or geographical locations don’t make this possible, you can take action by staying on top of Wal-Mart news at cites like Wake up Wal-Mart, Wal-Mart Sucks, and Wal-Mart Watch and via signing petitions, writing letters, and making your voice heard in the blogosphere and elsewhere. Wal-Mart may be only one consumerist temple among many, but it is the ‘patriarch’ of temples in so many ways – bringing down this daddy of corporate capitalism would help give our global family a better chance at living free from domination and exploitation brought to us via Wal-Mart sweat-shops, factories, and ‘super-centers.’

And, in case I haven’t dampened your holiday spirit or disturbed or pissed you off enough already, stay tuned for the next post in the series where I attempt to de-throne the mouse: “The Church of Disney.”

What if you’re “secretly” sexist, racist, and homophobic?

Sorry for the interruption in the “What if you could buy social justice?” series, but I have had this PostSecret post percolating in my head for awhile. After viewing this week’s “secrets,” I couldn’t wait any longer to brew my discontent into words. (All quotes are taken from the book Blogging Heroes by Michael A. Banks and exact pages numbers are footnoted below.)

PostSecret was born as a community art project in 2004. Frank Warren handed out blank postcards addressed to himself around D.C. and asked random strangers to anonymously post their secrets to him, decorating their cards however they wished.  This initial project was displayed in a DC art gallery for four weeks, but, as Warren kept receiving hundreds of postcards, the website PostSecret was born. In addition to garnering worldwide acclaim, Warren’s concept has spawned 4 real world books.[i]

An “online exhibit” of sorts, PostSecret “hangs” 20 new pieces of postcard art each Sunday, most of which function as “confessional secrets,” or, in other words, revelations people keep secret in the ‘real world.’ While there are many funny, heart-wrenching, erotic, and sentimental secrets, there are also a number of secrets that reveal the sexism, racism, homophobia, and anti-feminism of not only the sender, but the wider culture. While individual postcards might seem to be just that – individual – the fact that Warren admittedly tries to tap into zeitgeists, and the fact that the interactive PostSecret community comments on the secrets in droves, indicates that many of the cards represent cultural, rather than merely individual, ‘secrets.’

Warren, noting that “I really feel as though these new modes of communication, and these new kinds of conversations, can uncover hidden elements of our common humanity,” nods to this cultural narrative function of the secrets.[ii] Worryingly, but not surprisingly, many of the “hidden elements” reveal that our “common humanity” is rife with sexism, racism, and homophobia, not to mention ableism, ageism, anti-feminism and many, many other world views that not-so-secretly act as if only certain bodies matter.

Yet, while Warren argues that, “When I put secrets on the blog, they are living secrets. When you visit the blog and read a secret, you know that somebody is carrying that burden or dealing with that issue in real time,” I think many of the postcards don’t deal with carrying burdens so much as unloading them.[iii] The notion of “carrying a burden” indicates one has some sense of remorse, or some intention to try and change. However, I would argue many of the “secrets” function as confessionals that “erase” or “forgive” the burden once it is confessed.

Taking this analogy further, how fitting that the posts renew each Sunday and offer a weekly clearinghouse of confessions, allowing the site to function as a quasi-Sunday confessional where “sins” can be forgiven. Just at the priest will assign so many Hail Mary’s as penance so that one’s slate can be wiped clean of sin, so to does the cite allow “sinners” the be absolved each Sunday. The penance (that functions more like a reward) is online recognition of their “sin.”

Further, many postcards don’t indicate “dealing” with issues so much as offloading them so they don’t have to be dealt with. Using an “airing dirty laundry” schema, the site allows “secrets” to be purged, making it “ok” to be racist, unfaithful, uncaring, mean, or whatever, as long as one has “dealt” with it via crafty postcard confessional.

While I find the site and the concept fascinating, many recent postcards have led me to question some of the wider messages that the site is sending. In particular, a number of recent postcards indicate that it’s NO SECRET we live in  a society mired in sexism and racism – and, problematically, that this ‘secret’ is part of out “common humanity.”

This postcard, from 12/13/2008,  promotes the idea that females can “makes up for” supposed “abnormal sexual acts” via scrubbing their roomies dishes (and also by being “hot”). In so doing, I would say it doesn’t so much “offload burdens” as perpetuate the idea that only certain sexual behaviors are normal.

In addition to perpetuating sexist stereotypes and objectifying the female body, many post-cards trade in racism. One from this week’s selection links racism to losing one’s virginity, suggesting that virginity is to big a prize to squander away on ‘racial others’:

A similar postcard from last week’s selection, frames women as racialized commodities to “choose” from:

Many postcards deal with the control of the female body, especially via secrets about nude pictures. The following postcard, “Pussy Galore,” reads “I have naked images of my ex-girlfriend and am getting more tempted to make them public.”

Other postcards deal with rape and sexual assault, sometimes in though-provoking, critical ways. Others, though, subtly send homophobic messages of the “No Entry” variety.

Here, the choice of image and the copy “No Entry” does not so much serve to condemn rape as to condemn certain types of sexual activity as abnormal. As anal sex is coded as gay and wrong, the postcard thus purports to be about rape but nevertheless sends a homophobic message. That the message is not overt in effect makes it all the worse – the viewer is encouraged to condemn rape but NOT encouraged to question the homophobic message of the card itself.

I am certainly not the only one who has noticed that the “common humanity” PostSecret often reflects (and, in doing so, condones) involved a humanity defined by sexism, racism, homophobia, etc. A while back Angry Asian Man alerted readers to this postcard:

Similarly, as this postcard flagged at Racialicious, indicates, it’s ok to “resent black people”:

Or, from another card flagged at Racialicious, we see that one can be a loving racist parent:

And, we wouldn’t want to leave out the anti-feminist messages. With this card, flagged at Feministing, all the MRA’s and feminist haters out there had their dreams fulfilled:

Warren, referring to the thousands of postcards he receives, notes “some are funny, some are haunting, and some are inspirational.”[iv] He does not, I notice, say, “some are sexist, some are hateful, and some are downright horrifically racist.”

Moreover, as he reveals, the postcards to not come out of a vacuum but build upon one another each week, touching into a sort of cultural groupthink…

As Warren reveals, “The secrets I post every Sunday influence the secrets that I receive the next week. For example, if I posted all pornographic secrets, that’s what I’d be getting.” [v] With this quote Warren indicates his publication choices influence what he will have to choose from to publish in the next week in a sort of revolving door fashion. I am wondering what some of these recent choices indicate about what he would like to be getting… Do these postcards not scream “Send me more sexist, racist, homophobic and anti-feminist secrets!”? I think it is no secret that they do.

(The buying social justice series will continue in a day or two…)

[i] Banks, Michael A. Blogging Heroes. Wiley Publishing, Indianapolis, 2008. 63-4

[ii]I 66-7

[iii] 67

[iv] 67

[v] 70

What if you could buy social justice? (Part 2: The One True Religion: Consumerism)

(To read part 1 of this post, go here.)

A couple weeks back, I finally got around to watching What Would Jesus Buy, an anti-consumerist documentary that follows Reverend Billy Miller and his “Church of Stop Shopping” choir as they tour the U.S. in the consumer-frenzied run up to Christmas. The film begins with images of crazed, stampeding shoppers and various news channels reporting on “Black Friday,” as well as other Christmas-induced shopping mania.

It is the perfect film to watch at this time of year as we enter the manic descent into the mindless consumerism of the holiday shopping season and the directive to buy, buy, buy is everywhere. This directive comes through the mailbox via catalogues, through the television via ads, even via one’s email inbox via messages about “lowest prices of the season.” In general conversation, people pepper their speech with Christmas shopping “must-do’s” or share news of recent “bargains.”

As a professor quoted in What Would Jesus Buy clarifies, Christmas successfully convinces us to buy because it “combines commercialism with this true feeling of love and affection.” Or, in other words, we have come to associate the giving and receiving of gifts with love – the better the gift, the more gifts, the more we are loved – or so goes the loving-through-buying narrative, a narrative that translates into 5 million tons of extra waste generated from the holiday season via all the wrapping paper, packaging, etc (and this is in the US alone).
Yet, where all the stuff we buy during the holiday season will go is not a question we as consumers are encouraged to ask. This point is made clear by the “stop shopping counselor” featured in What Would Jesus Buy. Noting that many people are quite literally addicted to shopping, she encourages breaking the cycle via asking questions such as: “Do I really need this?” “Where will I put it?” While we don’t tend to consider where purchased items will go in the short term, neither do we think about where they will go long term.

The “disposing” side of consumption, so well captured in the film The Story of Stuff as well as in the garbage filled earth featured in Wall-e, is not a side we are prompted to think about. In fact, even given the popularity of the “go green” and “save the planet” paradigm we are now in, we are encouraged to SHOP to save the earth – BUY more green products, PURCHASE a hybrid car, GET re-usable shopping bags! This is not to say that these directives do not have their merit on some level, but that we are rarely given directives to NOT BUY, to STOP CONSUMING, let alone to consume less.

Driven by what the film refers to as the familiar god of “buy now pay later,” we are very reluctant to give up our consuming habits and instead create more palatable alternatives, ways to keep shopping that make us feel better about doing so while simultaneously doing nothing to stop our consumerist mindset. This is hardly surprising given the deification of consumer capitalism in the United States. It is, I would argue, the one true religion – the one that speaks to (nearly) all US citizens, that transcends race, class, gender, sexuality, and belief- the worship of the dollar and the joy in spending that dollar is the foundation of the “American Dream.” We are, as the story goes, a country where the streets our paved in gold, where anyone can make it, where Joe Six-Pack can become a millionaire!

Even in times of national crisis we are encouraged to identify as consumers, rather than as citizens. And, just as GW directed Americans to go out and shop post-9/11, so to are we being encouraged to buy our way out of the current economic crisis. As Anthony B. Robinson writes in “Articles of Faith: Consumerism is a greedy society’s religion”:

“House Minority Leader Boehner, a Republican congressman from Ohio, celebrated the recent passage of the economic stimulus package by saying, ‘The sooner we get this relief in the hands of the American people, the sooner they can begin to do their job of being good consumers.’ Your title: ‘consumer;’ your mission: ‘buy stuff.’ Echoes of the president’s call, amid the crisis of 9/11, to get out and ‘shop.’

We learn this lesson of ‘good consumerism’ our entire life span in the US. As children, Disney hawks its wares to us, promising hours of endless fun and adventure. As tweens, we have entire genres of film, television, and music marketed to us – not to mention a whole slew of fashion and techno gadgetry. With college and the era of one’s first credit cart, we are tantalized with cars, stereos, and endless dorm/apartment ‘needs.’ As we enter the ‘real’ world, we are prompted to buy houses bigger than we can afford, cars bigger than we need, vacations we cannot pay for, and enough clothes and accessories to outfit a small country. As we age, we are incited to think about devices that can supplement our slowing bodies (purse finders and lights that turn and off with a clap!), as we near death’s doorstep, we are not allowed to go gently into that good night, but are tantalized with designer coffins, special headstones, and snazzy urns. Not consuming is, in US parlance, tantamount to being dead.
This is why, to Robinson’s question “Is it too much to suggest that consumerism has become a kind of alternative faith, a religion of sorts?” I would answer “Heck, NO!” Consumerism is the most popular, and most impervious to critique, of all US faiths! As What Would Jesus Buy makes clear through its witty conflation of faith and shopping, Wal-Mart has become our Temple, Disney our Church, the mall our place of worship.

Stay tuned for the next installment of What if you could buy social justice, “The Temple of Wal-Mart.”