A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
We just got back from a vacation in Arkansas. It was great. It was our 4th of July trip.
Bentonville, Arkansas, is lovely. As you enter town, there must be at least three golf courses in a row. There’s a Walmart on the edge of town. Almost hidden in the heavily-treed hills above the golf courses, there are the homes of the wealthy. The Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art houses a fine permanent collection, and draws visiting shows to enhance it’s offerings with artistic breadth and historic perspective. We stayed at a hotel, the 21c Museum Hotel, which is, as its name indicates, a hotel within a museum. On the way out of town, we stopped off at the Cooper Memorial Chapel, one of the E. Fay Jones “crystal chapels”, set in the woods in such a way that the chapel seems to grow out of the ground.
The town square is quaint. It’s like it was lifted straight out of a Sherwood Anderson novel. There are the quaint shops, the courthouse. At the center of the square is a statue of a Confederate soldier. Lest there be any question, it was surrounded by nine American flags.
We’re from St. Louis. Missouri’s divided history notwithstanding, we personally view a Confederate statue as vaguely sinister. We were struck by the fact that a mixed race couple cuddled in the square. Times have changed. Nonetheless, there was a time when this town was quite comfortable with slavery. The 4th of July fireworks were as arresting as any big city fireworks display.
About those quaint shops around the town square. Walton’s 5 & 10. Sam Walton’s original store is now a museum, a kind of paean to capitalism in general, the Walton empire in particular. Bentonville is the world headquarters of Wal-Mart.
In the Walmart museum, there is a brief movie of Sam Walton receiving the Presidential Medal Of Freedom. George H. W. Bush says, “The story of Sam Walton is an illustration of the American Dream.” That we could live with. But when Daddy Bush went on to say, “His success is our success…,” our response was, quite simply, no. No, it isn’t. Not anymore. Sam Walton is undeniably an American success, but our discomfort derives from the impact of that very success on all Americans, on those who shop at Wal-Mart, but especially on those who work there.
All this – the museums, the hotels, the luxury – is based upon the fact that in north St. Louis there lives a Wal-Mart greeter working 38 hours a week, no benefits, minimum wage. That’s what the museum doesn’t say. That WalMart is selling t-shirts made in a hazardous Central American factory by a worker who doesn’t make enough money to even shop in a WalMart.
Museum’s are educational institutions. But museums can teach as much with what they say as what they don’t say. The story this museum teaches, with great clarity, is that Sam Walton had one great insight about retail marketing success: buy your goods at the cheapest price possible. He did just that. His wife talked about how, when he just had this one store, he drove all the way to Tennessee to get a great deal. Sam Walton was ambitious and successful. But now, that very insight, that made him and his family a great fortune, has also created great pain. This the museum passes over in silence.
Walmart is saving a bundle on labor, but at what cost? The cost is felt in the poverty of the workers. Now all American taxpayers are paying for the food stamps and the Medicaid for those Wal-Mart workers. Why? Because Sam’s descendants continue to exercise that one insight of retail, “Why pay more if you can get it for less?” But there is another old American adage, “You get what you pay for.” And that is what all of us have to consider now. Rock-bottom wages may produce rock-bottom prices at Walmart. But it also means that all of those workers, who don’t have the dollars that stimulate growth, are at rock-bottom of the economy.
Alice Walton is Sam’s daughter. To Alice Walton’s credit, Crystal Bridges is giving something back. Entry to the museum is free. The grounds are beautiful. The museum is striving to be first-rate, and the funding comes in large part from Alice Walton’s considerable private fortune. But every dollar in her personal fortune is tainted by where it comes from. When that fortune is wrung from those, who labor at wages so low they are unable to feed their children without government support, then something is very wrong. If we place on one side of the scale Crystal Bridges Museum, and on the other, all of the poorly compensated workers, I think we all know it does not balance out.
The museum makes Sam Walton come across as a nice guy. The picture we got was of a nice guy who was personable, hard working, and untroubled. We have no reason to doubt this, especially the bit about untroubled. Ours is not an indictment of the wealthy. (“Some of our best friends …”, as the saying goes.) Ours is an indictment of the unthinking, the untroubled. Because the problem is not wealth. It’s wealth without a conscience. The problem is wealth that is untroubled by the fact that some people are inordinately rich because some people are inordinately poor.
As we left the museum, from which we learned a great deal, we wondered if it ever struck Sam Walton that the Walmart, on the edge of Bentonville, would have impoverished Walton’s 5 & 10 in the town square? In the end, the quaint little 5 & 10 was as vaguely sinister as the Confederate statue. And for the same reason. This is a town that’s now comfortable with wage slavery.
by John Samuel Tieman and Phoebe Cirio