A Straight Shot of Politics

A blog from a gentleman of the Liberal political persuasion dedicated to right reason, clear thinking, cogent argument, and the public good.

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Location: Columbus, Ohio, United States

I have returned from darkness and quiet. I used to style myself as "Joe Claus", Santa Claus’ younger brother because that is what I still look like. I wrote my heart out about liberal politics until June of 2006, when all that could be said had been said. I wrote until I could write no more and I wrote what I best liked to read when I was young and hopeful: the short familiar essays in Engish and American periodicals of 50 to 100 years ago. The archetype of them were those of G.K. Chesterton, written in newspapers and gathered into numerous small books. I am ready to write them again. I am ready to write about life as seen by the impoverished, by the mentally ill, by the thirty years and more of American Buddhist converts, and by the sharp eyed people [so few now in number] with the watcher's disease, the people who watch and watch and watch. I am all of these.

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Of Red America, Wal-Mart, and Starbuck's

I live in one of the towns of the Blue Archipelago, Columbus, Ohio. In the now famous map of the counties that gave a majority to John Kerry, Columbus, Dayton, and Athens, Ohio are forlorn little Blue islands in a sea of Red. Lately, much has been made about the Red America surrounding towns like mine--they call them the exurbs and they are supposedly the growing tip of what used to be called the Emerging Republican Majority.

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.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

I dunno, Joe. Raised in a blue-collar, union-supporting, classically liberal mold, and now calling myself right-of-center, I'm a middle class typa-gal, I can't abide Starbucks coffee. To me, it tastes over-roasted, and I get no thrill at overpaying for the privilege of drinking it. Give me 7-11 coffee everytime.

I also can't abide Wal-Mart and would rather suck asphalt than shop there.

So, where does that put me? I dunno, but I think it puts me squarely outside any sweeping generalizations about red/blue people. And I can't help think that you are off track on your assessment of the "Dream Home" people, as well.

When my elder son was little we were still adjusting to the loss of my salary (I decided not to return to the workforce) so we would clean the houses of the wealthy out on Long Island's East End in the summertime, thus earning enough money to pay for the boy's pre-school tuition.

I came to love the East End, particularly what was left of the private beaches at Montauk, but I couldn't help but note that all the people snatching up the waterfront property and erecting what you would truly call a "dream homes" were also erecting ten foot fences and 20 foot privacy hedges. Yes, these folk were overwhelmingly white, and they wanted no part of the Hispanic folk and the "non-english" speakers (unless they were delivering something or installing something). These were the rich white folk from NYC, who didn't want anyone not of their ilk to trespass their line of vision. And in 2000, when I took a few days off to visit Montauk's beaches, they all had GORE bumperstickers on their cars, and in 2004, the bumperstickers read KERRY. You know. Starbucks coffee drinkers. I'm sure I would never bump into one of them at my local 7-11...where the hazelnut coffee is quite good. :-)

But they are the folks who would call ME narrow, bigoted, elitist, etc. Very likely as they drove past my middle class neighborhood on their way to the East End, they smirked to themselves about retarded, unsophisticated Wal-Mart/Home Depot customers and suburbanites and worried that they might not find a proper Starbucks if they really needed a coffee.

I just don't think these red/blue generalizations work. And I am not sure what they serve, except a need for folks to feel superior to others...and I mean that from both sides. There are red staters who make these generalizations about blue staters so THEY can feel superior, and vice versa...and it all leads, where? What is the point of drawing all these lines of distinctions? What is the point?

Can't we all get along? :-)

The world is all screwed up! :-) And I'm still sick! Cough, cough. Sniffle.

1:52 PM  
Blogger The Anchoress said...

Ooops, I don't know how that came out as ANONYMOUS...that's me up there, Joe! :-)

1:54 PM  
Blogger Joseph Marshall said...

Actually, Anchoress, the overall phenomenon as I have described it does not really apply as neatly East of the Appalacians.

Underneath this particular burst of "exurban" sprawl lie two hidden historical facts: the EWNS grid system of land surveying, dating from the Northwest Territory and starting in Central Ohio, and the Expressway Ring By-Passes built around major cities in the heartland in the 1960's and 1970's.

The first of these facts created the spiderweb patterns of two-lane roads radiating from every county seat along which are strung the advance guard of Dream Homes (most of which, by the way, are quite modest middle-class houses--the dream is the seculuded location).

The second of these facts turned cities like Columbus literally inside out economically. Instead of a large business and shopping concentraton in the center city, the business and economic power now lies on either side of the outer expressway ring.

Consequently, there is a distinctly different urban culture (politically predominently "Blue") that lives inside the ring even when it works and shops in businesses next to the ring, and a corresponding exurban culture along the two-lane highway spider-web (politically predominantly "Red") that almost never penetrates into the central city beyond the expressway ring business district.

And, considerations of coffee and cheap Chinese dry goods aside, Starbuck's is about packaging and merchandising that urban culture, and Wal-Mart is about making exurban living convenient and comfortable. Both are huge successes, and both are a tribute to the transformation of the Land of the Free into the Land of Customer Service and McJobs.

Keep your spirits up and look forward to the New Year.

7:01 PM  
Blogger The Anchoress said...

Hey, Joe...I saw your very kind and compassionate response to Wolfgang's terrible missives, just wanted you to know how palpable I found all of your inherent kindliness and goodness. Isn't it odd that in a medium that keeps us all mostly hidden (by our own choice) there is still so much self-revelation going on...and this machine, which would seem to promote nothing but coldness is often the vehicle for so much that is warm and true. Wolf is in trouble, I think...and beyond prayer, I have no idea how to help him out of his funk.

12:50 PM  

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