What if the Supreme Court in a Supremely Sucky Decision Sides with Wal-Mart?

The Supreme Court sided with Wal-Mart. I am still in shock. This is such a blow on so many levels, especially in regards to sexism, worker’s rights, and the continuing corporatization of the U.S. For background on the case, go here and for a list of proposed actions/protests, go here.

I am re-posting a piece critiquing Wal-Mart to mark the day of this  heinous decision.

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.’


What if Fight Club, ten years on, is more relevant than ever? Part 1: The Capitalist Body

In honor of Fight Club’s recent release on Blu Ray and ten year anniversary, I will be posting a three-part ode to this class anti-capitalist film.

In honor of Fight Club’s ten year anniversarynt and recent release on Blu Ray, I will be posting a three-part ode to this classic anti-capitalist film.

Here is part 1:

In opposition to the celebratory policing of the body so in vogue in the contemporary USA, Fight Club scorns a society that has allowed the body to become a mere object.  Deriding the very technology that many other films (such as Forrest Gump) celebrate at both the level of content and form, Fight Club refuses to buy into the supposed technological promise of disembodied capitalism where we can project our bodies into the past or future.

Through a contemplation of the pervasiveness of violence, ennui, and lack of affect definitive of the late 90’s, the film meditates on the body as brutalized not only by the self and by other bodies, but by the whole ethos of capitalism.

In contradistinction to Forrest Gump, the film did not celebrate the current state of affairs in America by offering up a bodiless white male hero.  Rather, it introduced us to a dejected and morally bankrupt capitalist everyman who suffers profoundly due to the disembodied and depersonalized capitalist landscape in which he must live.

Most reviews and articles about the film did not consider it in this light though. Instead, they focused on its supposed celebration of violence and virulent masculinity.

Again and again, writers interpreted the film as a sort of call to arms that inveigled viewers to reject ideas about the ‘new man’ and return to ‘traditional masculinity’, complete with bloodthirstiness, aggression, and domination.

For example, Henry Giroux claims the film “locates violence as the privileged vehicle for male community and solidarity.” I myself see it as critique of violent masculinity, rather than a celebration of it.

The film’s critique of consumer capitalism was not lost on most, but the majority of commentators felt this focus was overshadowed by a larger concern with the supposed ‘crisis of masculinity’ occurring in the late 90’s.  Giroux argues the film in fact reduces the crisis of capitalism into a crisis of masculinity arguing that “the crisis lies less in the economic, political, and social conditions of capitalism itself than in the rise of a culture of consumption in which men are allegedly domesticated, rendered passive, soft and emasculated”.

In a sense, Giroux is suggesting that the film serves as a rallying cry to re-masculinize the body, to bring back the brawn and bravado of the Rambo age.  To him, this is a key weakness of the film as it focuses on an individualized politics that waters down real world issues into mere fist fights.  However, Giroux’s reading of the film focuses mainly on the surface images – he spotlights the violence, the quasi-fascism and celebration of militaristic hard bodies that the camera repeatedly captures. Yet his reading fails to address the fact that that the main character Jack ultimately rejects his alter-ego’s violent credo and that Tyler is, in fact, an undesirable double that is destroyed by the film’s end.

What readings such as Giroux’s also fail to consider is the film’s sustained focus on the body – at both the level of form and content.  At the formal level, the camera zooms in on bloodied faces, battered bodies, and black eyes.  The film is also awash in the fluids of the body – blood, sweat, spit, and urine practically ooze from the screen.

The sound editing further accentuates the material factors of embodiment, emphasizing the thud of punches, the thump of bodies hitting the ground, the thwack of fist against bone.

At the level of content, the film contemplates the status of the body within the advanced capitalist American landscape.  This bodily fixation is not quite as apparent in the film as it is in Chuck Palahniuk’s novel, but the movie nevertheless gestures towards broad questions involving what consumer capitalism does to the body. And what it does is not pretty.

Up next: Part 2: (Dis)Embodying Capitalism

What if Jesus were out shopping this holiday season?

This holiday season, give yourself a present: watch the hilarious and disturbingly informative What Would Jesus Buy.

This anti-consumerist documentary 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. Why the focus on “black Friday” and “cyber Monday” as if shopping will solve all our problems??? I am no economist, but I think it will take more than stuffing stockings to cure our economic ills.

Unfortunately, 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.

(This post ran last year, in a slightly different form. The original can be found here.)

What if you could buy social justice? (Part 10: Avoiding the ATM: Breaking the Consumerist Mindset)

This series has been based on my conviction that green products, pink ribbons, rubber bracelets, political t-shirts, and Oprah give-aways are NOT going to bring about social justice. The consumer activism mindset that has taken hold in US society will not end genocide, war, poverty, racism, or anything else. In fact “consumer activism” is largely an oxymoron. Although one can be a “conscientious consumer” (and take an activist stance via NOT shopping/promoting certain corporations (i.e. Wal-Mart)), I don’t believe a socially just world cannot be bought – no matter how much is being spent.

Further, although many social justice organizations need money in order to do their work, donating money will not in and of itself bring about equity. Such donations are important no doubt, but what is just as necessary (if not more so) is using your voice, your brain, your pen, your keyboard, your body to PROTEST those things that are wrong in our world. (And NOT buying can certainly be a form of protest.) Besides, throwing money at a situation never works – it may make things look better on the surface, but dig a little deeper, and the problem will still be there.

In spite of this, justice through consumerism is being sold to the world citizenry at an alarming rate. Donate to this politician and your country will be saved. Buy this car and the environment will be healed. Purchase products with pink ribbons and breast cancer will disappear. Send money and the ravages wrought by Katrina will be fixed. Order a box of Thin Mints for a soldier and ameliorate the damages of militarization. These are the types of messages that we are inundated with. They vary in type and urgency, but all, at their core, have the same purpose: to make us, as humans, believe that through consumption we can make the world a better place.

This mass-delusion keeps the wheels of advanced corporate capitalism spinning us happily towards our doom as we go about lives driven largely by consumerist desires. Even more abhorrent though is the way the consumer mindset has infiltrated activist/social justice movements. I imagine many earlier visionaries are rolling in their graves. Emma Goldman certainly would take issue with consumerized voting movements such as Rock the Vote. Karl Marx would hardly endorse the push for re-usable bags over and above the push for worker’s rights (after all, how many of those Whole Foods shoppers with their cloth bags are thinking about the exploitive labor that picked that organic produce?) Virginia Woolf would see right through pink-washing. And I doubt if Sojourner Truth would be quick to buy a rubber bracelet claiming “Ain’t I a woman?”

Part of the reason that this consumerist mindset has taken such a strong hold is that consumerism has become the new one world religion, as discussed in parts 1 through 5 of this series. We are encouraged that with shopping comes salvation, that buying is the best form of worship. Yet, in spite of the ways consumerism has infiltrated every facet of life, including not only religion but also activism and protest, there are a number of indications that the world populace is beginning to question justice through buying. Sites like Enough.org are good signs “enoughism” is gaining appeal. Enoughism, a concept that Berkeley Professor Wendy Brown describes as “a threshold of wealth and consumption above which no one needs more…a threshold below which no one can thrive” seems to be the type of system that combines socialism with capitalism in a productive way – a system that would allow for capitalism with a social conscious and a collective world view (Brown quoted in Ms., Winter 2009, p.37). Perhaps one positive outcome of the global economic crisis will be more people saying “Enough!” to the corporatist greed that got us here. Perhaps it will lead people to break their ATM habits, to a switch from a consumerist mindset to an enoughism one.

Meanwhile, I believe that instead of heading to the ATM, literally or figuratively, we would do better to spend time, rather than money, doing the following:

  1. Reading/Writing
  2. Thinking
  3. Talking
  4. Listening
  5. Acting

To elaborate:

Reading/Writing: We would be better served by educating ourselves about the many problems in our world rather than running out to buy green/pink products. Reading about the complex history behind the problems that plague human society is vital. We cannot hope to change the world without doing our research first. Writing is the next part of this equation – whether it is writing a blog post, a letter to an editor, or a missive to Dear Aunt Hilda. The pen (or keyboard) is indeed mightier than the sword.

Thinking, an activity that is woefully under-rated, must occur both individually and collectively. We need to think about the changes that need to be made, examine what prevents these changes, and consider how we can make change a reality (rather than merely a rhetorical stance peppered in speeches). Buying is easier than thinking, hence many opt to purchase something in hopes this will bring about change (i.e. a politically hip t-shirt or a rubber bracelet) rather than THINKING about what really needs to occur for change to happen.

Talking, or raising awareness, is crucial. We cannot hope to change the world until the masses wake up from their slumbering sheep-state. However, as the conversation is currently controlled by the corporate owned BIASED media, most of the ‘talking’ that takes place on a societal level works to maintain and perpetuate things as they are. We must interrupt this conversation and CHANGE the subject(s)!

Listening to ALL kinds of ‘others’ regarding how to make the world a more socially just place is vital. Everyone deserves a place at the table, and the more diverse the voices the better. We must listen to others as their experiences will be different from ours – even if they share the same sex/gender/race/class/sexuality/belief etc. This is one of the reasons the big umbrella labels we use can be problematic – not all women are the same, not all queers are the same, not all trans people are the same. Each person, no matter how many ‘social positionings’ they share, will bring something new and different to the conversation. We must keep our ears open for to ALL types of voices coming from all types of places. We need to seek out others to listen to who have different “lenses” or experiences from our own.

Acting in ways both small and large to bring about the socially just world we envision is the essential culmination of these five steps. If we do the first four, and forget about the fifth, not much will be gained. We need to take action regarding all of the above, continually asking ourselves “What actions can I take to change things? What activism can I be a part of?” What we do NOT need to do is act in more ways that our bound up with consumerism!

(And, for a list of sites that encourage NOT buying, go here to find a number of great sources compiled by Dervish.)

What if you could buy social justice? (Part 6: Wearing Justice: T-shirts, Bracelets, and Ribbons, Oh my!)

The religion of consumerism encourages its flock that happiness, success, and salvation are possible via the worship of commodities. However, while this religion has become more sedimented into the cultural landscape, there has definitely been a concurrent resistance to the normalization of buying as a means to salvation.

Many activists, scholars, community organizers, writers, and educators have worked in multiple ways to call the religion of consumerism into question. Yet, simultaneously, many of these same people who are working for social change use consumerism as a platform to raise awareness and foment critical resistance. Perhaps the most well-known consumer-based campaign is “think pink” (to be discussed in part 9 of this series.) More recent consumer based social justice trends include the proliferation of bracelet, ribbon, and t-shirt campaigns.

The first and perhaps most well-known of the “bracelet activism” phenomenon is the “Livestrong Bracelet” associated with Lance Armstrong. Ryan McNutt, of McNutt Against the Music: Confessions of a Cultural Warrior, refers to such phenomenon as “brand-iron activism.” As he notes, this is “a phenomenon that is hardly unique to our times but which has rarely been embraced with such open disregard for genuine substance.” Noting that “Brand-iron activism’s primary objective is not activism itself but the appearance of activism,” McNutt intriguingly links this consumerized activism with the concept of “branding,” arguing that “The activism may be substantial or frivolous or anything in between; what matters is that other people see the activism and associate the person with it.” Using bracelets to illustrate, he makes his case as follows:

“Let’s take the Livestrong bracelets as an example. I’m all for the idea that small donations can make a big difference, but buying a bracelet for a dollar is hardly a significant financial investment in the fight against cancer. The real reason why the Livestrong bracelet became ridiculously popular is because it allowed people to brand themselves as caring, thoughtful individuals. Buying a bracelet had less to do with contributing to the fight against cancer and everything to do with being seen fighting cancer.”

The emphasis on appearance and seeming over substance is critical – and arguably widespread within US conceptions of activism and social causes. My students, as a case in point, often turn first to such consumer-driven notions of change when starting out on their activism projects, creating bracelets, t-shirts, and buttons to “brand” themselves as activists. They also often create facebook/myspace pages where one can donate funds (or, in effect, “buy justice”). While this type of activism certainly has its place (and is a way for student’s to comfortably dip their feet for the first time into activist waters), I am wary of the tendency to rely on ONLY this type of branding/consumer activism. Further, like McNutt, I question the “logo” nature of such campaigns – do all those who wear their justice via bracelets and t-shirts also work actively to bring about such justice, or is the donning of a Gap Inspi(red) t-shirt or a Pink ribbon construed as enough in and of itself? Certainly many who use their bodies as a billboard to raise awareness about social justice causes also walk the walk, but I would surmise that many, or most, do not necessarily go beyond this slogan based protest.

McNutt seems to feel the same way, suggesting the “support the troops” movement as an indicative of this trend:

“Whereas once “supporting the troops” meant sacrificing for the war effort, today it’s all about self-branding, putting a flag on the windowsill and putting a ribbon on one’s car so that your patriotism is affirmed.”

This same patriotic branding was prevalent post 9/11, when flag waving in all its forms (flags on t-shirts, bumper stickers, cars, houses) was used to brand oneself as a patriotic American.

This “branding over action,” as McNutt refers to it, ominously portends that we are acting in the best interests of corporatized government rather than working to change society. McNutt, elucidating this concept, writes:

“What intrigues me about the rise of brand-iron activism is how closely the behavior of ordinary citizens is starting to mirror that of their governments and corporations. Take the environment as an example: the business and political communities have realized that they have much to gain by being seen as environmentally conscious, but haven’t even come close to taking the steps needed to overcome the challenges our planet faces. Branding takes precedence to genuine action because, by and large, that’s all the engagement that most people need and expect. We’re all becoming so used to interacting with one another superficially that when our culture emphasizes image over reality, branding over action, it just seems natural to us.”

I would extend McNutt’s argument here in terms of consumer capitalism – not only do “ordinary citizens” mirror “their governments and corporations” by seeming to care about social justice causes, they also promote and support the interests of corporatized government by BUYING into the notion that consuming is the answer to all the world’s problems. The satirical cite DeadBrain hilariously captures this phenomenon with their spoof post, “Rubber Scarcity to Limit Rubber Band Bracelet Production.” Reporting that “there is not enough rubber,” the post mocks the profit motivations behind bracelet activism, citing a fictional CEO of “RubnanD Inc” as claiming, “Our profits are going to dry up, and believe me, profits from selling a three-cent piece of rubber and silicone for as much as five bucks a piece is a nice profit.” The mock news-story further reads:

“Industry insiders say the enormous demand for the product has grown since the introduction of the NIKE/Lance Armstrong “LIVESTRONG” yellow bracelet. Now, says Chow, “Every sports team, activist group, fundraiser, or pet-project has their own ‘unique’ way to express your support. For heaven’s sake, last week we got an order from the environmentalist whacko group POOPPU {People Opposing Oil and Petroleum Product Use}. Hey poo-poo! These ARE petroleum products!”

While I take issue with the underlying racial stereotyping in this post (i.e. the fictional Chinese CEO is given a racial slur as a name), the post does successfully indicate the irony of supporting one cause (say, cancer) while disregarding related causes (the environment, petro-chemicals, and their link to cancer).

Another issue to take into consideration is the ‘fashion’ of activism. For, in addition to branding oneself as caring about a certain cause, ribbons, t-shirts, and bracelets have morphed into must-have fashion accessories making their appearance on cat-walks, red carpets, and film premieres. As the NY Magazine article “The Styling of Activism” reveals, ribbons adorn dresses and lapels on Oscar night, but must not clash with the all-important outfit.

Activist or protest T-shirts, like bracelets and ribbons, are another large trend. One can don a t-shirt supporting almost any cause or, if one cannot be found in existence, opt for many of the internet/real world shop and design t-shirts of their own. While such “fashion activism” has its place, and can raise a lot of awareness/support in the right situation, wearing a t-shirt alone will not end the occupation of Iraq nor free the Jena 6. Rosa Clemente, in a post at the Green Institute, makes a similar claim about all the t-shirts encouraging people to vote: “Efforts like Vote or Die, Generation Vote, Rock the Vote, Respect my Vote, do not empower a generation – they are catchy slogans emblazoned on pretty white tees that offer empty rhetoric.”

This notion of “empty rhetoric” applies to much of the trend to “buy social justice” via the purchase of Livestrong bracelet, a rainbow ribbon, or a No War t-shirt. Like the Cowardly Lion, whose roar is empty rhetoric, so to do these consumerized forms of activism often have all bark and no bite. The context in which Dorothy says the quote referred to in the title of this post thus links to the critique I am making.

The quote comes from the part of the movie when Dorothy, Tin Man, Scarecrow, and Toto become scared when woods the yellow brick road has led them into begin to appear more menacing. After Dorothy says “Lions, and Tigers, and Bears, oh my!”, the group begins to repeat it in sing-song fashion. Shortly thereafter, they meet the Cowardly Lion who is, we find out, not worthy of their fear. So, their key emotion at this point in the movie, fear, is shown to be misguided. This links to argument I am making that ‘wearing social justice’ in order to raise awareness and fomenting activism is misguided. Further, the ‘wearing’ of such aims serves to ‘brand’ activist movements – a phenomenon that is counter-intuitive to the anti-establishment (or at least change-the-establishment) agenda of such movements.

The critique also links to this scene in the film in that the lion is ASSUMED to ferocious, but is really cowardly. Now, I am not suggesting that those fond of wearing justice are cowardly, but rather, that if the ‘wearing of justice’ is all one does in terms of activism, it might be ASSUMED you are actively working for social change in ferocious fashion, but you might only be, like the lion, taking the timid route – or, wearing the bracelet, t-shirt, ribbon while not actually doing much else.

The proliferation of these commodified forms of protest LOOK a lot like activism but are not all that effective in really creating social change UNLESS they are accompanied by more expansive forms of activism such as protests, rallies, petitions, sit-ins, walk-outs, strikes, campaigns to change legislation, etc. Wearing a bracelet alone will not a socially just world make…

On that not, neither will driving a hybrid save the environment. Stay tuned for part 7 of the series, “Driving Your Way to Eco-Freedom: The ‘Go Green’ Message on Auto-drive.”

What if you could buy social justice? (Part 4: The Church of Disney)

As What Would Jesus Buy documents, over 15 billion a year is spent on advertising to children. This advertising is ramped into overdrive during the holiday season. Or, as Renee from Womanist Musings, puts it, “Santa is Coming, Let the Shameless Consumerism Begin.”

Renee rightly worries about “the message we are sending our children,” the message of “Show me you love me, buy me something doesn’t really feel like a celebration of anything other than capitalism.” Of course, wee ones don’t see the love-through-buying for the sinister capitalism it is (unless they are lucky enough to have parents like Renee who teach them to analyze the world around them, that is.) Yet, even with socially-conscious parents, kids would be hard pressed not to internalize the consumerist messages they are inundated with – messages that tell them all good things in the world – fun, adventure, love, camaraderie, etc come through buying things. (I know I certainly internalized these messages in my consumer worshipping family.)

Children are constantly barraged with the message “YOU MUST CONSUME! BUY! BUY! BUY!” They get it from the internet, television, movies, billboards, radio, and print media. This is exactly why cites like Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood are so necessary. Their mission statement, in part, reads:

CCFC’s mission is to reclaim childhood from corporate marketers.  A marketing-driven media culture sells children on behaviors and values driven by the need to promote profit rather than the public good.  The commercialization of childhood is the link between many of the most serious problems facing children, and society, today…When children adopt the values that dominate commercial culture-dependence on the things we buy for life satisfaction, a “me first” attitude, conformity, impulse buying, and unthinking brand loyalty-the health of democracy and sustainability of our planet are threatened.  CCFC works for the rights of children to grow up-and the freedom for parents to raise them-without being undermined by commercial interests.

And, Disney is one of the, if not THE, commercial interest shaping young children’s lives into a consumer driven existence. As documentaries such as MickeyMouse Monopoly and theorists such as Henry Giroux and Jack Zipes argue, Disney is “the most popular cultural commodity in America.”[i]

Disney, in addition to teaching children gender/sexual/class/body norms, as well as about the glories of patriarchy and empire, also teaches children to be consumers. Or, as Giroux puts it, Disney “sells not only its products but also values, images, and identities that are largely aimed at teaching young people to be consumers.” [ii] Giroux takes this claim even further, arguing that in contemporary US culture, “consumption is the only form of citizenship being offered to children.”[iii]

This claim is interesting when put in the context of one of the most well-known images/locations of the theme park itself, “Main Street, USA.” This supposedly wholesome slice of Americana, the one that park-goers first experience when they visit Disneyland, serves not only as a gateway to the rest of the park, but also supports the idea that Disney trades HEAVILY in turning citizens into consumers, and especially consumers of the Disney brand.

While Main Street is meant to replicate the “small town” feel of an America long gone, it only does so on a surface level. Although the storefronts and some window displays try to transport park-goers to days gone by, the products the stores sell are most certainly in keeping with today’s global marketplace of mass-sweat-produced products. Moreover, Main Street does not offer anything but consumption – unless you count the restrooms and the Abe Lincoln exhibit (which also housed the recent 50 years of Disney exhibit). Oh, and of course, the large row of ATMs…

Now, while I do think we offer narratives of citizenship to children other than “I shop, therefore I am,” a big part of “civilizing” children is teaching that their consumerist desires and acts translate into being a “good American.” And this message certainly doesn’t stop as these consumer-Disneyfied-citizens grow.

Moreover, it is not only the Disney corporation that “works to transform every child into a lifetime consumer of Disney products and ideas” — people like GW Bush also promote consumerism as a way to fight terrorism, to make America safe and strong, to show patriotism…[iv]

However, Disney sows the seeds of this consumerist mindset. As such, Disney, like Wal-Mart, needs to be critically (and actively) taken to task. Yet, Disney and Wal-Mart both actively subvert thinking. As Jack Zipes argues “the Disney film is geared toward nonreflective viewing. Everything is on the surface, one-dimensional, and we are to delight in one-dimensional portrayal and thinking.” As he further notes notes, Disney films encourage people to “stop thinking about change” and “to long nostalgically for neatly ordered patriarchal realms.”[v]

Wal-Mart similarly encourages “non-reflection.” The happy face symbol is perhaps the most fitting representation of the surface mentality Wal-Mart tries to promote – don’t think about your problems or the world’s problems, just smile as you stroll through the aisles of happy-face strewn Wal-Mart (which look the same no matter what town/country you are in and thus obfuscates any sense of situational/geographical contexts). In fact, the use of the happy face as a symbol equates to what Zipes argues is the modus operendi of consumerism – to convince us that consuming will make us happy. In his words, “commodification has no purpose other than to capture and play upon-in order to profit from-our desire for pleasure and happiness.”[vi] As Zipes further argues, it is crucial to remember that “These desires and whishes are not ours-even when we think they are or would like them to be-because we tend to forget what the culture industry does to our children and ourselves.”[vii]

What Would Jesus Buy offers an excoriating critique of Disney, referring to Mickey as the “antichrist” and infiltrating a Disneyland parade to spread the “stop shopping” message. The film also features Disney’s use of sweatshop labor (for a post on this topic, see here) and sweatshop labor activist extraordinaire, Charles Kernaghan. As the director of the National Labor Committee, Kernaghan has played a key role in exposing the exploitive labor practices of Disney and other corporations. The aptly named Toys of Misery as well as the NLC website reveal the very unhappy face behind the Disney magic.

Many activists and scholars (and bloggers!) are working to spread awareness about the uglier aspects of consumer capitalism. To my knowledge though, there has not been near as much focus on Disney-Mania as a quasi religion. Yet, I think the analogy is an apt one – children are raised in the Church of Disney, taught to praise the god-like icons of Mickey and the princess posse (are they the nuns?), and schooled in the necessity of making pilgrimages to Disneyland, or at least the Disney channel.

Jennifer Porter, a Canadian professor who offers a course in “Disney as Religion“, makes a similar argument:

My current view is that Disneyism, as a religion, is a reality. But it’s at an infantile stage (even though some would argue that it started with Walt’s approval of the Mickey Mouse Club back in 1928 as a way to recruit young practitioners (aka, audience members for his cartoons). There are cathedrals (the theme parks), acolytes (myself, other Disney authors and subject matter authorities), and even worship meetings (NFFC groups, MouseFest, and online discussion boards).

And, if one takes the definition of Church as “institutional religion as a political or social force,” Disney is most certainly a Church. It acts as a religion via rituals, traditions, and practices, via the “spiritual leaders” of Mickey et al (and Walt), and via the devotion, zeal, and worship it promulgates. As an institution, it has immense political and social force, shaping the ways we view ourselves and the world.

Further, in relation to labor issues and consumerism specifically, Disney is not only the master of creating lifelong consumer desires, but also is adept at hiding the realities behind its exploitive corporatist agenda, and agenda that is not new, but that has colored Disney from the outset. To illustrate, let’s take a brief look at the gendered labor divisions of Disney in the 1930’s:

“The early Disney shop, not unlike other organizations in the 1930s, strictly divided labor into that performed by men and that relegated to women…the production staff was overwhelmingly male except for the 200 women in the Painting and Inking Department.”[viii]

The women referred to here by scholar Elizabeth Bell yielded on average 250,000 paintings for each feature film (they painted over artist’s tracings on each ‘cell of film’). Yet, these women were not recognized for their work that made the films possible. As Bell puts it, “The hands of women, painting and transcribing the creative efforts of men, performed the tedious, repetitive, labor-intensive housework of the Disney enterprise.”[ix] Similarly, today, the hands of sweatshop laborers (most of which are children’s and women’s hands) are not recognized for their labor. In the “Church of Disney,” such laborers are put under erasure, as the reality of their work would tarnish the image of this “magical” corporation.

For those of us who believe that such practices are deplorable, even if we are drawn into the “magic of Disney,” it is crucial to question our worshipping practices. For my part, I have not barred my kids from Disney films, but have encouraged them to view Disney through a critical lens. And, yes, we have made our pilgrimages to the park (we live a mere 90 minutes away), but, I am always pleased by comments from my children that reveal they are not suffering from blind faith. “Why is Ariel naked but all the prince’s have clothes?” asked my daughter some years ago. “Why do they make you walk through a store every time you leave a ride?” queried my son. So, I readily admit, we are drawn to the faith, but we are trying ever so hard to resist the messages of this powerful opiate.

(Up next: Part 6: Wearing Justice: T-shirts, Bracelets, and Ribbons, Oh my!)

[i] From Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry, Jack Zipes, New York, Routledge, 1997, page 1.

[ii] From “Mouse Power: Public Pedagogy, Cultural Studies, and the Challenge of Disney,” The Giroux Reader, Henry A. Giroux, Paradigm Publishers, Boulder, 2006, ed Christopher G Robbins, page 220.

[iii] Ibid, 222.

[iv] Ibid, 222

[v] From”Breaking the Disney Spell,” Jack Zipes, From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, ed. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, Laura Sells, Indiana UP, Bloomington, 1995, 21-42, page 40.

[vi] From Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales, Children, and the Culture Industry, Jack Zipes, New York, Routledge,  1997,page 6.

[vii] Ibid, 8

[viii] From “Somatexts at the Disney Shop: Constructing the Pentimentos of Women’s Animated Bodies,”  by Elizabeth Bell, From Mouse to Mermaid: The Politics of Film, Gender, and Culture, ed. Elizabeth Bell, Lynda Haas, Laura Sells, Indiana UP, Bloomington, 1995, 86-103, page 107.

[ix] Ibid, 107

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.)