Of Red America, Wal-Mart, and Starbuck's
Whether it is really very Republican or very much of a majority (except in the obvious sense that Republicans have successfully emerged as a majority in national political office) is a matter of debate. But it is unquestionable that the exurbs exist, that they are growing, that they gave critical support to George W. Bush, and that they are definitely different than the town in which I live and from most of the places which we now call Blue.
I go to them to shop at Wal-Mart, because that has been part of the success story of Wal-Mart--build your stores where land values are cheap but rising, like the exurbs. And Wal-Mart is the best metaphor I can find for the Red Half of what is a genuine, but ambiguous, cultural divide in this country and is now playing out in our politics. When I shop at my particular Wal-Mart, in the exurb of Lewis Center, Ohio, just across the Franklin County line from Columbus, I generally get a vente latte and a cinnamon scone at the Starbuck's across the highway.
Starbuck's is the best metaphor I can think of for my Blue little island. For the Starbuck's success story has been to embody the urban values of the Blue, commercially. Starbuck's are everywhere, like tiny Blue consulates and embassies doing diplomatic business (with hip Blue music in the background) in the vast sea of Red.
And it is the fact that Wal-Mart and Starbuck's are both purely arbitrary, commercial, and capitalist fantasies designed to sell goods and make money, and also are, in so many ways, identical, but still delineate our cultural divide, which makes them so interesting and useful as metaphors both of what unites us and what divides us.
I will compare them momentarily, but first I will speak a little of what I (definitely Blue and urban in attitudes and opinions) see in those Red exurbs. I've driven through them quite a lot over the past decade, for they are fascinating, and the most prominent thing about them, defining their character and the people who live in them, is the Dream Home.
The Dream Home is usually on a major state or federal two-lane highway and conveniently near enough to an expressway exit that to reach Columbus takes no more than one hour's commute. It is on a parcel of about 1/4 acre with a corn or soybean field at its back and it is a monument of one family's success in achieving a "quiet" and "rural" lifestyle while still connected to all of our modern urban toys.
You can watch over time as the Dream Homes begin to cluster into two's and three's, the first subdivisions move in, then the first new churches, the Shopping Mall is built (with a Wal-Mart), new strip malls spring up (often with a Starbuck's), and traffic finally congests enough that the old two lane highway is widened to four with more traffic lights, or a new spur of the expressway is built to serve the newly grown exurb.
The people in the Dream Homes (and the exurb itself) are overwhelmingly White. And the motive for the Dream Home is flight from all the diversity of darker skin, non-English speech, clashes of lifestyle and values, and commercial uproar that makes a city. It is a quest for "peace and quiet" which it ultimately futile, for we carry the city with us wherever we go and the Dream Home is destined to become just another house or, because of it's nearness to the main road, the offices of the top real estate agent or insurance agency in the new exurb, which will itself someday be a suburb.
The exurb is a self-defeating prison, with all the minuses of urban life, such as traffic congestion, and none of the pluses, such as interesting people, history, and particular culture. We can see the prisoners of the exurb in both Wal-Mart and Starbuck's. They are paternalistic companies, both, and working or shopping in them is about the work discipline of "service" in uniform.
This is one of the reasons I find murmurs of "boycotting Wal-Mart" among my fellow liberals a little silly--you can no more boycott corporate paternalism and its "padrones" than you can boycott Chinese goods in favor of American ones. In case you hadn't looked, America doesn't make goods anymore.
Whether we acknowledge it or not, we are a country of "associates" and "customers", to give us our names in Wal-Mart, or a country of "baristas" and "turistas" in Starbuck's. This is what is our common denominator beyond the Red and Blue cultural clash, and it is that common denominator, and its criminal waste of resources in pursuit of profit, which is slowly, but surely, destroying our countryside, our country, and our world. And all for a flight from the city and its conflicts which can never succeed and can only impoverish.
The uniform of Starbuck's is one with it's commercialization of the values of the city. Baristas must wear shirts of either black or white or official and logoed red for the Holidays (think of urban, hip, Liberal, "art vampires" at a big city gallery) against which the Starbuck's green aprons will not clash. The discipline is as rigid as Wal-Mart (which it must be for commercial success--nobody "off message") but it is presented in a way which mirrors "socially responsible values", along with the good health insurance and the "support of Fair Trade coffee growers" somewhere in the Rainforest.
The Progressiveness of the paternalism is real, but so is the iron fist of being "on message". It is a pleasant, comfortable place for the Red or the Blue to eat or drink. For the Blue urbanness of its message is satisfyingly low key, the quality of its music is so good that it almost makes you forget that the music itself is "forced entertainment", like the soap operas you are compelled to watch in your doctor's waiting room, and the presence of the rougher and more conflict ridden parts of the city are minimized. Ray Charles is there, but not the culture that made him The Genius, or the private pain of the life and times that put the soul into the music.
The uniform of Wal-Mart is a blue vest, on the back of which is the slogan, "How May I Help You?" It gives me chills every time I see it, and makes me want to spit on the person who thought it up. It is everything that is implied in the words "wage slavery" and is as blatant and nasty as the old practical joke of a "Kick Me" sign in the same place.
Work discipline is work discipline, "on message" is "on message". But in America, I at least, am used to the polite fiction that there is some part of my private person (such as my back) which is not completely purchased by the minimum wage, the polite fiction that I am actually a unique and individual citizen, whose culture and diversity matters in human terms, and not an interchangeable part in a machine, or a robot so automatically servile that "How May I Help You?" comes out of it's squawk box whether anyone is there to address the question to or not.
The Wal-Mart uniform is a complete abrogation of the polite fiction, which Starbuck's conversely attempts to cultivate, that the wage slavery and iron discipline of the service relation is voluntary, humane, and enjoyable.
Think I am overreacting? Then ask yourself how many times you get into polite chit chats with the Wal-Mart "associate" as the regulars like me always do with their favorite Starbuck's "baristas". And how many times do you heave a sigh of relief at having made it into the presence of the doddering "greeter" by the stacked up grocery carts, as you do in anticipation of the treat the barista is about to hand you over the polished marble oval or wood kidney bean at the end of the espresso machine?
Neither of these are the true values of the human beings in Red America or Blue America. And, in fact, logoed Christmas red in Starbuck's shirts and tasteful blue in Wal-Mart vests is an apt detail of the Transvaluation of Values in America. But there is no boundary between the Wal-Mart and the dreary exurb in which it stands and the point of the fiction of Starbuck's is that very boundary. And the true values of Red America are there despite the exurb, while the true values of Blue America are there because of the city.