Tuesday, September 14, 2004

The Subject was Wal-Mart, Part II

Class has finished early and I've been reading e-mails and the news, and I'm weary of fretting over Ivan's progress across the Gulf (Ivan concerns me because, no matter where it makes landfall in the Gulf, it will affect my children and their mother). And, I am certain my legions of readers are hoping for a fresh post. So, here is a story that ran a few days ago on CNN's website. As long-time (whatever that means for a 7-month-old blog) readers know, I have a complicated relationship with Wal-Mart, and speaking for myself, while Wal-Mart finds certain financial benefits accrue to it as a result of this relationship, the ethical conflicts I endure are not beneficial to me.
So appears this story on CNN. I have had the thrill of standing on the pyramids mentioned; aside from the park's museum and some paved roads and some small farm houses, the view from those pyramids is sweeping, pretty much uninterrupted by large modern structures. It ain't 1000 AD, but neither is it urban sprawl.
So, it saddens me that, the next time I visit (summer of next year), this store will be THE dominant feature in the vista. Bad ol' Wal-Mart, I want to scold, and I start ticking off the usual arguments against globalization. But. The story makes clear that at least some of the residents there WANT the store. We may question the wisdom of their decision, but the decision is theirs to make. They are adults, and Mexico is not exactly an innocent place.
I think the people who oppose globalization are thoughtful people, and certainly businesses who don't act in the best interests of the nations they locate in and the people who work for them should be targets of more than criticism; law (ours or those of other nations) shouldn't be rewritten so as to excuse or ignore abuse. But I found myself wondering if anti-globalizing forces, at their most extreme, run the risk of being perceived as infantalizing the people(s) they purport to speak on behalf of. People act, results both good and bad accrue as the results of those acts, and they plot future behavior based on what they learn. Most people in this country, it's my sense, began scrutinizing Wal-Mart's policies regarding its workers and its effects on rural areas mostly in retrospect: when it became this nation's largest retailer. THEN we paid attention; THEN we discovered things about the store we didn't like. As a result, as the article notes, resistance to Wal-Mart in the form of zoning laws and (as the article doesn't note) lawsuits about its promotion practices begin to arise. Although it'd be nice to urge Mexicans to look to that resistance and anticipate beforehand what Wal-Mart will work on them, the lessons will stick more if they experience them on their own.
But even as I say that, I think, How fatalistic does THAT sound. That's not my intention, though. And in any event, given the choice between appearing to sound fatalistic and indeed sounding paternalistic, I'll choose the former.


Anonymous said...

I'm sorry but did it really say that Mr. Olivas has to drive for 10 minutes to get to the nearest Wal-Mart? Is that far???

I'm always puzzled by how large-scale operations like this seemingly seek out historical or natural monuments as sites for their constructions. Surely there must be suitable areas in Mexico which are of little or no historical value?

It made me think of the Kárahjúkar project in Iceland, going on not so very far from where I was born (for info here are a few articles Google found for me: 1, 2, 3).

The huge fuss that ensued when the plans were made public was quite reminiscent of the after-the-fact-ness (if you'll allow me to coin such an unwieldy and undoubtedly redundant word) you mentioned. I confess I'd never even heard of the area, much less visited it, until people started campaigning for its preservation. But it is unquestionably beautiful, and just because I hadn't heard of it, that's not sufficient reason to destroy it, it seems to me.


Alex said...

I think we are in the midst of "what goes around comes around." Weren't the first organizations "nation states" and then coalitions of nation states called countries and now "corporate states" such as Wal-mart?? What's wrong with Wal-mart being close to a pyramid?? How would people find it otherwise??

Anonymous said...

Why can I never proof-read my comment before posting? I'm as bad as raminagrobis! =)
It should, of course, be 'Kárahnjúkar' — 'hnjúkar' being the plural of 'hn(j)úkur', meaning 'peak', and 'Kára' being the genitive of 'Kári', a boy's name and the name of the North Wind, although I don't believe that these particular peaks are named after it.
Nor are they named after me...

John B. said...

Thanks for the thoughtful comments.
FS--Thanks for the links. I'm a big fan of stark landscapes, so I found the Iceland pics to be beautiful, just as you said. The land around Teotihuacan isn't especially beautiful; it's a rather small but broad valley surrounded by mountains. What's appealing to me about it, though, is that, as I said earlier, it's farmland and small villages. It retains something of the character that the builders of the pyramids there would recognize, were they here. The Wal-Mart's presence disturbs that aesthetic.
And therein lies the rub in complaining about the store's being built there. My sense of the essence of the protesters' complaint isn't that the store will cause environmental damage or that the decision to allow its construction wasn't entirely on the up-and-up (though in Mexico both are very real possibilities); the complaint is that the store will disrupt something that I find myself wanting to call a historical aesthetic: it's an intrusion into the visual space of the valley as seen from the pyramids. And, as Alex seems to be suggesting, it sounds like a rather petty argument, despite (or perhaps because of) its obvious appeal.
How to say this? My sense of Mexicans, derived from having lived there for two years, once upon a time, and having made a fair number of visits, is that they are justifiably proud of the remains of their indigenous past, but they want the same things we do: access to cheap goods, huge selections, one-stop shopping. More often than not, the desire for the latter outweighs pride in the former. Enter Wal-Mart, which selects sites based on potential traffic flow. It so happens that the pyramids aren't that far away from a major highway.
As FS says, it seems crass that a store with as big a footprint as this one would choose this site. And I think it's Wal-Mart's corporate crassness that is at the heart of my dislike of it. There's something of the "Company store" writ large about it.
Something about globalization is forming in my head, but it'll have to wait a while.