Tuesday, July 4, 2006

Bon Appétit

It's been a while since I've posted -- a few days after moving to Washington, I was rudely interrupted by an intestinal thing that landed me in the hospital for a week and kept me in serious misery for several weeks afterwards. I'm better now, and back to blogging.

Apropos of nothing, my topic for the day is inspired by several things, among them, local news coverage of a battle to keep Wal-Mart out of a nearby town. For the record, I'm not a big fan of Wal-Mart; to some extent, I agree with the critics that there is a societal cost to the downward pressure Wal-Mart exerts on wages, and to the negative effect Wal-Mart has on local businesses who cannot compete.

That said, however, I cannot alienate myself from Wal-Mart entirely, because the arguments against Wal-Mart are so frequently couched in terms of the soul-less corporation, the evil empire, the greedy bastards who want to eat your lunch. I can't hate Wal-Mart for those reasons, though, because, to me, it's perfectly understandable why they'd want to eat your lunch, and I can't blame them for it.

Why? Well, let me explain.

I'm from a small town in southern Arkansas, not far from the Mississippi Delta; my cultural background is probably best-described as 'Deep South'. In other words, although my culture has its own pejorative descriptions (e.g., redneck, Bubba), I'm not a hillbilly. The difference in this may seem like pointless semantics to those unfamiliar with the region, but in spite of the frequency with which negative stereotypes about ignorant Southerners feature in the national consciousness, the hillbillies of the Ozarks have always had the worst of it.

To see this in action, think of The Beverly Hillbillies. Or, better yet, think of Deliverance. "Deliverance did for them [North Georgians] what Jaws … did for sharks." [1] And of course, there were endless critical cartoons depicting Bill Clinton as a hillbilly president, although like me, he is from the southern coastal plain, and therefore, Clinton may be a Bubba or a redneck, but he most decidedly is not a hillbilly. This matters because, apparently, hillbilly was one of the most derogatory things Clinton's critics could think of to call him. A recent attempt by CBS to create a reality-based TV show called The Real Beverly Hillbillies shows another example of the ways hillbillies are viewed in wider culture. In this case, CBS planned to choose a family from the hills of Arkansas, West Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, or Kentucky and set them up in a luxurious house in California, presumably for the purpose of laughing at the foibles of ignorant rubes.

The show generated protests from many, but even in their opposition, some critics revealed incredibly negative attitudes about the culture of the southern mountains. Critics from outside the region such as Christopher Caldwell of the New York Press, who was against the show, illustrate this attitude:

... Caldwell argued the show could not possibly be realistic for the network would not dare show the mountaineer family as it really would be — rabidly Pentecostal, anti-semitic, violently homophobic, and interested only in sex and drugs. More in keeping with earlier comedic depictions, a story in E! Online News called on would-be applicants to “brush your tooth” and warned that “livestock” would not be counted as a member of the multigenerational family. The article also questioned the efficacy of CBS's hotline to field calls from applicants because there is “no word on how many members of the Deliverance set have phones." [2]

And what does all this have to do with Wal-Mart wanting to eat your lunch? Well, if it isn't obvious, Sam Walton, who was from Oklahoma, started his retail business in Arkansas. And in an interview with CNN Money, former Wal-Mart CEO and chairman David Glass, who was from Mountain View, Missouri (and another hillbilly), pointed out something that, perhaps, isn't obvious:

Discount chains like Kmart and Korvette bought from wholesalers, and that was a big benefit [to the merchant]. The wholesaler came in, wrote the order for you, and when the merchandise arrived, he'd come in and put it on the shelves for you, and that was great. We never considered that here because there were no wholesalers available for us. So from the beginning we had to be self-sufficient. [3]

As Glass indicates, self-sufficiency was important to the success of Wal-Mart because there was literally no alternative. I have personal experience of this; my little Arkansas town was the beneficiary, and I don't use that word loosely, of one of the earliest Wal-Mart stores. And before it arrived, we used to drive the 50 miles to Harrison (location of the second Wal-mart store), to eat at Pizza Hut and go to Wal-Mart, or visit the grandparents in Little Rock, where there were both department stores and discount stores like K-Mart. That's right; we didn't have a pizza place or a department store at all, and the closest thing we had to a discount store was a derelict Ben Franklin. When Mr. Sam (Walton) opened the Wal-Mart in Mountain Home, he was opening what, to us, *was* a local store. If the Wal-Mart put any other local shops out of business, and it may have, it was likely to be the crappy Ben Franklin -- a "foreign" franchise. And it was no great loss.

So, when I hear people ranting about the evils of Wal-Mart, I remember all the demeaning comments I've heard about hillbillies, and although, intellectually, I don't love Wal-Mart, some small part of me feels the tiniest glow of satisfaction -- Wal-Mart represents the hillbillies; the ones everyone else loves to ridicule -- and I think maybe, in the end, your lunch may be a fitting payback.

And that, in a nutshell, is why I can't altogether hate Wal-Mart.

Happy Independence Day!

"Live free or die."

- General John Stark

1. Anthony Harkins. Hillbilly: A Cultural History of an American Icon. Oxford University Press, 2004. p. 206.

2. Ibid. pp 223-5.

3. CNNMoney.com. April 5, 2004.

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