The Walmartization of America

21 11 2012

Of course Walmart will continue to flourish in spite of its deleterious effects on the American economy, on its own workers, on those who work in sweatshops around the globe for its suppliers, and on small businesses everywhere. It will continue to flourish because America is the Utopia of Pragmatism, which is by far the most deeply entrenched religion in the New World.

We believe in things that work, even if they work at our expense. We believe in the cheapest, most convenient path to happiness, even if it’s a counterfeit happiness that doesn’t linger beyond our short-term memories. Why we do we insist on this kind of living? Because in the face of such convenience and the possibility of acquiring something shiny and new, nothing else — not even the quality of our own lives — matters.

Walmart stands for everything that is wrong with America. This is why Romney almost won, in spite of the fact that he explicitly supported everything that got us into this economic hell hole to begin with. Because he promised a quick fix, and we Americans are like Pavlov’s dogs when the quick-fix bell rings: we salivate.

And so on black Friday, which has now become black Thursday (otherwise known as Thanksgiving), many will go out to shop for the best deals, the cheapest finds, the must-have items, because so many of us are powerless in the face of such a reality, entirely unable to exercise that most illusive of all virtues: restraint. Even if we are being led to the slaughter, we will, like sheep, willingly go, as long as the promise of the “best deal” is fulfilled.

And so we willingly allow Walmart to decimate the economic landscape, put millions of small businesses out of business, and co-opt our most sacred holidays, Thanksgiving being the last that still had a modicum of respectability. It was still, up until a few years ago, about family and friends getting together to give thanks for all the blessings we have incurred in this, the Land of Plenty; or at the very least, for the blessings we have reaped in the form of friends, and health, and life, even in the face of disasters and downturns.

But no more. Now Thanksgiving will be an addendum to the far more important tradition of Greed, a tradition that America not only invented in the form of boldfaced capitalism, but disguised and perfected under that name that is above all names: the American Dream.

To gain the world and lose one’s soul. How easy, how convenient, it turned out to be.

As for me? I’m relaxing with my family this weekend; going to my aunt’s and uncle’s on Thanksgiving, the Huntington Library and Gardens with my wife and son and daughter on Friday, spending the day together hiking in the San Gabriel mountains on Saturday, and then coming home, lighting a fire and eating Chinese food while playing a game or two of Yahtzee. Sunday morning we’ll go to our little church, and then it’s errands around the house and the yard in the afternoon, followed by a little 60 Minutes or AFV (depending on who wins the coin toss). Totally old school. Totally civilized. Totally can’t wait.

As for Walmart? Well, I guess it can take all the profits it robbed from the soul of America and go straight to hell.


Easy Virtues

6 03 2011


Modern culture increasingly connotes beauty with technology, goodness with gigabytes, truth with progress. America was built on a foundation of pragmatism, and we’ve made it as “far” as we have because we worship in the Church of Pragmatism. In other words, the sole criterion for what we deem valuable is how well something works. Forget whether it’s good for you, or the environment, or your soul, or if you need it, or should have it, or even want it. If it works, it must be good, and if it works really good, it must be better.

Some progress, of course, is nice. Cars that are more efficient, winter coats that you keep you warmer, coal that burns cleaner… all good things. But a faster car doesn’t mean a better car; more RAM doesn’t mean a better computer; a more lethal bomb doesn’t connote a better bomb… or does it?

Herein lies the problem. We’ve allowed science and technology to co-opt the word “progress” to simply mean faster, more powerful, more efficient, so that it’s become a word of quantitative and not qualitative value, bereft of any ethical or moral or spiritual substance. The iPad 2, then, is a must-have not because we need it, or because having it makes our lives measurably better in any way that truly matters, but simply because it’s faster, more powerful, more efficient, and (here’s the kicker) because it’s newer. Newer must be better, right? Newer iPad, newer wife, newer friends…

Having separated practical concerns from any moral or ethical considerations, we’ve morphed as a species from homo sapien (thinking man) to homo emptores (buying man) without so much as a blink of the eye. And Capitalism will tell you that this is progress, since the less we think, the less we question, and the less we question, the more impressionable we are, and the more impressionable we are, the more we buy, as long as we have half a reason ~ or even no reason at all ~ to do so (as long as the mammalian impulses in our brain light up like a Christmas tree).

All of this leads to the acquisition of easy virtues. Goodness is found in convenience (the easier the better), truth in power (which is computation ability in our computerized world), and beauty in novelty (the newest gadget). The transcendentals have become the elementals. We’ve reduced everything to its basest form, cut everything down to size. Life is defined on its own terms and virtues are accessible because we’re the final cause we serve.

And so progress moves along, unabated and unquestioned, and the iPad 2 comes out just in time for a mad rush of people who were silly enough to purchase the now old, antiquated, out-of-date, six-month old iPad. But get this… they left some things out of the iPad 2!!! Perish the thought. No SD card slot, no retina display, no NFC technology…

Is anyone over the legal drinking age actually naive enough to think that any company, much less Apple, would put everything they could into the latest iteration of anything? Where would that leave room for the iPad 3, or the Xoom 4, or the XBox 361… or… or….?? Sorry, but Pavlov’s dogs come to mind here. Don’t mean to sound so cynical, but the hard reality is this: technology survives off of consumers, but it thrives off of chumps.

Virtues help define a culture and shape a generation. What would happen, though, if the whole notion of virtues became passe, something so last century? Who needs virtues, after all, if everything becomes easy, and all is convenient? I’m reminded of a line from C.S. Lewis’s The Screwtape Letters:

“Indeed, the safest road to Hell is the gradual one — the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts.”

So feel free to move about the cabin, folks. Looks like we’re going to have a nice, smooth ride all the way to our destination.