Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Bubbles Of Populism

When we're not destroying the purveyors of Intelligent Design nonsense, we should try to make common cause with the targets and consumers of that nonsense, Evangelical Christians.

Yes, there's an awesome badness in them: the hatred of science, the will to subvert the constitution, the stupid attacks on culture, you know the litany. But there's also good in them, and there's far too many decent people among them that don't deserve being treated in such a bovine way by the rightwing elite, which panders to the worst in them. I suggest, rather, that we encourage what is good in them.

The model in this is William Jennings Bryan. History remembers, largely thanks to H.L. Mencken's hilarious dispatches from the sticks, Bryan as a religious buffoon, arguing the literal interpretation of the bible to dunderheads in a Tennessee courtroom. But he was a much more complicated figure than that. Garry Wills, in Under God, argued that Bryan was not cynically exploiting the fundies whose side he took in the Scopes Trial saga; rather, Bryan was sincere in his Christian beliefs, and most germane to the political point, was deeply concerned about the effects not so much of scientific darwinism, but its pernicious corollary, social darwinism, the wholesale belief of which has been central to Republicanism since the Gilded Age.

As good liberals and leftists, we like science but loathe social darwinism and all its historical products: racism, eugenics, imperialism, top-down class warfare, exploitation. Thus we have a common cause with fundies. Unlike the rightwing elite, fundies do not believe that there's "no such thing as society." Unfortunately, they've been poisoned, inculcated with the belief -- since Nixon but perfected during the Limbaugh era -- that government destroys society. We need to convince them that it can preserve society from the corporate interests that will inevitably destroy it.

I posit that it isn't a hopeless task. Populism is organic in America; and by nature it is distrustful of one thing: bigness. Populism has always been cynical in a good way; it has always assumed that anything big and powerful is probably up to no good and must be watched with a sharp eye. There is also the folk memory, not entirely forgotten, of the Depression. We only have to help people see what is big, the monoliths in our society that, like black holes, suck up everything in their path. Progress is being made with Wal-Mart, the big blue maw that destroys American jobs, small town main streets, labor unions; that fuels third world sweatshops.

Ironically, Sam Walton himself understood populism. Always sensitive to the charge that Wal-Mart destroys mom & pop Main Street, Walton at least resolved to promote American factories. When I was a kid, there was always a sign in the lobby of the local Wal-Mart that said "Made In The USA". The implication was that at least there was a trade-off: if Wal-Mart wrecked Main Street, at least it made up for its influence by offering American goods to its consumers. I can personally attest that this worked: my grandparents were populist to the core, and though they mourned the demise of the Ben Franklin store in First Street, they admired Mr. Sam as an unpretentious, hardscrabble guy who hadn't forgotten his roots and who, as the cliche goes, gave something back. Of course Sam's schtick was at least partly a PR creation, and Wal-Mart has always been creatively vile with its employees and labor in general, but at least there was an effort on their part to make up for the slight.

But Sam Walton's been as dead as fried chicken for a while now. And it shows: Wal-Mart is no longer only half-evil; it's long past the point of cartoonish supervillainy. And though the rightwing elite tries with all its might, and though its long been cultivating the belief among fundies that Big Business is always good for America ("if it's good for General Motors.."), they can't quite break the populist suspicion of Bigness.

Now read this, which I'll paste in full because the Post-Dispatch allows its links to die after a couple of weeks:

Wal-Mart critics’ season of unity
By Mary Jo Feldstein

As part of a national push, local union leaders have joined with social advocates, ranging from churchgoers to feminists, to confront Wal-Mart Stores Inc. during its busiest time of year, the holiday shopping season.

Local union leader Dave Cook blasted Wal-Mart to about 50 congregants gathered Wednesday night at Lane Tabernacle C.M.E. Church in St. Louis.

"They're not Christian people. They're not good Americans," Cook said, referring to Wal-Mart executives. "They're an evil, evil company, and they need to be stopped."

After Scripture readings and a brief, unflattering documentary about the world's largest retailer, Cook focused on concerns about low wages and poor working conditions and Wal-Mart's desire to open more urban stores, forcing out current businesses that cannot compete.

But Wal-Mart says it's proud of its wages, health benefits and community involvement. The company says low prices, convenient locations and wide selection keep customers coming back.

"We're excited about the season," said Bob McAdam, vice president for corporate affairs in Bentonville, Ark.

Better-than-expected sales over the Thanksgiving weekend "prove the ineffectiveness" of the opponents' efforts, McAdam said. "The tactics being imposed on us by our critics don't seem to be affecting our customers."

That's true for Renee Smith and Dionne Harrison, who shop at Wal-Mart a couple of times a month for household supplies, toys and clothing. For groceries, they sometimes travel from North County to the Wal-Mart Supercenter in O'Fallon, Ill.

"We love this store," said Harrison, 34, of Berkeley, who was shopping Friday at the store in Maplewood.

The women said they were unaware of any problems with Wal-Mart. And even if they didn't agree with some of its practices, both said, they will continue shopping there.

"I still got to get what I need," said Smith, 33, of Wellston.

The company's critics, however, argue that they're gaining momentum.

About six months ago, the United Food and Commercial Workers started Wake Up Wal-Mart, to organize opposition efforts against the retailer. The group has since formed a coalition that says it is more than 135,000 strong.

Members - who range from small-business owners to family farmers to the National Organization for Women - are using the diverse network to find volunteers, raise money and lobby lawmakers.

Though some of their complaints differ, members of the coalition say joining together is the only way to force change.

The event at the church in north St. Louis brought Cook, who is also local director of Wake Up Wal-Mart, together with religious leaders and the local chapter of a national community advocacy group, ACORN.

Locally, NOW operates a hot line that Wal-Mart workers can use to voice complaints. Volunteers from other groups are distributing fliers and protesting in front of area Wal-Mart stores. They hit 10 locations the day after Thanksgiving, the traditional start for the holiday shopping season.

Similar efforts are happening nationally. But Wake Up Wal-Mart has chosen St. Louis to launch its only locally targeted TV commercials. The three-week media buy, which organizers said cost "several hundred thousands of dollars," will begin airing Monday on network and cable stations.

National organizer Paul Blank said he had chosen St. Louis because it is "reflective of American values" and "an important swing state" politically.

Both Wal-Mart and its critics frequently say most Americans agree with their values.

"Obviously the holiday shopping period is critical to Wal-Mart," Blank said. "For us, we're building this movement. All of the groups that are joining, they're not going away Dec. 31."

Agreeing on an agenda

But building a movement can produce conflicting messages and priorities.

Unions have tried unsuccessfully for years to organize Wal-Mart's American workers. They recently started a nonunion association for Wal-Mart workers to voice complaints.

To gain broader support, Wake Up Wal-Mart has had to expand its focus.

Coalition members associated with NOW are most concerned about the hiring, promotion of and discrimination against women. A class-action lawsuit is pending, alleging Wal-Mart discriminated against female employees. It could represent as many as 1.6 million women, making it the largest private civil rights case in U.S. history.

Community groups such as ACORN, which represents low-income families, are most interested in Wal-Mart's improving its wages and health benefits. The company offers health benefits to full-time employees, but critics say the coverage is skimpy and expensive.

In an internal memo leaked to the press this year, Wal-Mart told its directors that about 5 percent of its workers rely on Medicaid, and 46 percent of workers' children are uninsured or rely on state programs for health care.

The retailer has since introduced health insurance with lower premiums but higher deductibles than some other plans.

In 30 states, including Missouri, bills were introduced last legislative session to require large companies to disclose how many of their workers are enrolled in state health care assistance programs. Four states, including Illinois, have passed the legislation, Blank said.

In St. Louis, a joint task force of area UFCW workers and grocers is asking Missouri legislators to approve such a bill and eliminate certain tax breaks for big-box retailers.

"For a movement to be successful, it has to continue to mobilize new people," said David S. Meyer, an associate professor of sociology at the University of California at Irvine. "It has to draw from mainstream politics and speak back to mainstream politics. The challenge is always getting a broad coalition to agree on a near-term agenda."

Resisting temptation

Coalition members face one common - and steep - hurdle: the lure for shoppers of Wal-Mart's low prices and sprawling selection.

Most Americans shop at Wal-Mart. A recent nationwide survey of more than 2,000 people by Maritz Research found nearly 60 percent plan to do some holiday shopping at Wal-Mart. Target Corp. came in second with 38 percent.

"No one else even came close" to Wal-Mart, said Gloria Park Bartolone, vice president of the retail group at Maritz, which is based in Fenton.

The pastor of Lane Tabernacle, the Rev. James Morris, described his wife as a "Wal-Mart queen," though he said he was trying to get her to change.

Others at the meeting Wednesday night said that they tried to stay away but that it could be tough, particularly when money's tight and Wal-Mart sells many products for less than its competitors.

Among the stalwarts are Rosie and David Alexander of Breckenridge Hills, who haven't shopped at Wal-Mart in six months.

Rosie Alexander said she quit shopping there after listening to her pastor preach against the company.

"It was my favorite store," she said. But "if you're going to put a business in a community, it should help that community."

What a coalition. This sort of thing can be done, and must be done -- whether or not it's successful against Wal-Mart doesn't matter. What does matter is that, in moral arguments such as these, our side has joined with the good part of their side. There is an irreconcilable difference between fundies and the Republican Corporate elite on many issues. Fundies aren't all bad people: they have morals and principles that aren't all about profit and cutting the other guy's throat. They care, in their own way, about the community. Lefties should have a heterodox view of fundies; it's the rightwing elite, the Corporate goons, the "Return to the 19th Century" fuckwads, the neocons, the "There's no such thing as society!" bastards who are the real evil in the body politic. We have to have a big tent before we can crush them.