Friday, June 8, 2007

My Son the Starbuck(s) Scholar

Niall came with me (and then we treated my dad for-- in South OC-- a rare find, lunch at a non-corporate, family-owned restaurant chosen by him and not my wife after a preliminary visit to Chowhound! Commercial break-- shameless plug: visit her site Manifeasto via my link, and bug her to post more) to hear a presentation by the student end-of-term fourth team for the course Technology, Culture & Society on Starbucks.

The four seniors analyzed the cultural, psychological, environmental, and business impacts of this quintessentially boho (to use it in the David Brooks neo-con sense) sign of hipster commodification. Well, that's how the chattering classes would put it. One of these fellow scribes, Michael Hoover of Seminole CC (in Florida, surprise), wrote for the socialist (formerly communist as I recall pre-fall Berlin Wall) Monthly Review a concise overview of this earnest Seattle corporation.

Now there are 7600 stores. (By comparison, McD's has 30,000, half of those abroad; local faves In n' Out "quality you can taste" have in the two hundreds, let's say novenas that the heiress' granddaughter does not franchise its Double-Doubles all over creation). Trader Joe's, now caught up in its own imperial phase, sold out to a German conglomerate, and Tesco's is counterinvading soon with its Fresh and Easy mini-stores to battle TJ's on its home turf!

As with In n' Out's fresh products and Christian ethos that blessedly leads to fair wages, worker benefits, and satisfied customers-- even Eric Schlosser admits if you have to eat a burger after reading his "Fast Food Nation," they'd be the reluctant choice of the best by far of a much worse (feed)lot-- not to mention Starbucks' insistence upon its sustainable policies and CAFE standards and full-page ads insisting against unseen foes its unassailable ecological virtue and morality as pure as its Ethos brand water, now we have Tesco's following with recyclable packaging, natural lighting, and chilled rather than frozen products for sale.

Hoover's skeptical about this puffery at Starbucks. Reminds me of when you have a law that all employees working 40 hours get such and such, you make a cut-off for the majority as wage slaves clocking in at 37. Not to forget the sudden promotion of managers to avoid unionizing those hapless enemies who find themselves suddenly given supervisorial duties over some underling, thus earning enmity of those downtrodden toilers and their supposed betters living large as the 2% of our nation are apparently who have the cash to blow on $600 bottles of $30 liquor and hire a woman to lie naked on a table adorned with sushi (which is extra). A report on a new hotel in San Diego with stripper's poles, fur cuffs, and see-through showers next to ample beds targets the suits who philander and party like its 1999 still, news to you and me, I assume if you're stuck home as I am Friday night typing this.

We beaten-down, indebted products of a liberal education gravitate now to an activism that shows itself at the checkout line more often than the protest march. In the image above, those waving placards (snapped for the MR site) that "Starbucks chose Israel, we choose [unintelligible other place" and that care for children presumably means no fraps for toddlers are in the non-silent minority but outnumbered by those who'd rather look cool. Of course, the Consumer Whore sticker symbolizes the crux.

Being seen cradling and sipping and blowing over a literary allusion, if now cropped and no longer buxom, let alone with aureoles, nipples or curves, the double- flippered siren of Starbucks graces a far simpler logo. She has been downsized and censored to meet the demands of the moral police from both left and right, I suppose. Holding a cup with that tastefully natural-textured paper ring denotes sensitivity. The fact you pay more for a cup o' suds or smoke rather than a McD's percolated spout or Dunkin' Donuts downmarket dribble connotes a class distinction.

A Mexican student commented how in Guadalajara the Starbucks had valet parking and the drinks were twice the US price; McD's there is a dress-up spot where a couple of Big Macs and a drink or two of the soda fountain type'd set you back equal to US $20. A Puerto Rican student told how there vanilla beans and whipped cream were extra or unavailable. In Durango, a third commented, they charge more for a McDonald's burger that does not meet the usual assembly line prep, or lack of such. Apropos, the McDonalds' manager in our class commented on his employers' summer campaigns for teen coffee drinkers, cold blended drinks, redesigned labels, softer store colors, breakfast confections, and tastier than the competition's black coffee. McDonalds opposes frou-frou foam, microwaved croissants, and promises no new Macca (first OBE of the week's blog-- see below for his pop successor) CD laded out to the goateed and tattooed across the street! How sick will the impecunious non-union "partners" be of the Cute One's croon? Or the patrons, encouraged as they are to hang out and blog and wifi and sip and as the new billboards urge us, to "Meet Me at Starbucks."

I heard Bono on NPR today, purveyor of his own combo of fashion and conscience with the RED label. Post-Wall fall, U2 achieved what few musicians could: they reclaimed a decade after they hit the charts the top of critical and popular acclaim. My attitude towards our market economy is resignation rather than enthusiasm. I admire such PR, and he plays into the "counter-cultural" zeitgeist that Michael Hoover analyzes in his Monthly Review piece, which although obviously on the left side makes its points clearly and fairly. He cites David Brooks and Thomas Frank fairly. (I also critiqued on Amazon Frank's "What's Wrong With Kansas?" but received an enormous amount of negative ratings for having the temerity to give a mixed review for his lack of in-depth analysis as opposed to Overland Park suburban summer anecdote. Please look my comments up on a search engine and restore my good name in the other Seattle behemoth's standings.)

Frank and Brooks represent despite their differences the dominant current criticism of our capitalist juggernaut. The resistance to The System comes not so much from a practical alternative as an admission that we have to keep the brakes on the Hummer now and then or risk obliteration. Beyond that, I lack faith in the dictatorship of the proletariat, the withering away of the state, the messianic era of Schneerson or Moschiachs of any name, or the ecotopian recovery of innocence. Unless, as James Tiptree, Jr. (sic) mused in a memorably grim fable, a demonic doctor on a mission of mercy jet-sets for a month and wipes us all out in 28 days by a chain of contagion from his wonder pathogen of doom, so as to save Gaia or Peggy Suicide.

Julian Cope represents this attempt at reclaiming this ancient wisdom. See his Head Heritage site. Bono, on the other hand, unlike his former contemporary in the post-punk early New Wave British (sic) era, opts for the corridors of power and National Public Radio. Usually I avoid the mealy-mouthed tones, but the classical station bored me. This morning, he talked sensibly and with knowing self-deprecation in just the right amount, about the G-7 conference. Again our fearless leaders debate what the rest of the world should do to clean up our mess. WTO redux, protests galore. As it should be, but like the placards above (a typical shot from such media as MR; their rivals would also earn my rebuke as anyone does who reduces complex issues to bumptious slogans and bumper stickers) and the recently announced British academic union's boycott of the Zionist entity as the Worst Nation Ever, the myopia of certain self-labelled progressives in ignoring Darfur, the Congo, Rwanda, Bosnia, Cambodia, East Timor, or China by comparison reveals marked lack of acuity. Or at least scale of perceived atrocities.

Back to a more experienced if as self-absorbed public activist, Bono does possess a winning sense of his own incongruity on the diplomatic stage. His doppelganger (and more recently band editor- biographer) Neil McCormick in his memoir "Killing Bono" (see my Amazon review) documents firsthand so well how U2 stays ahead of the fickle curve for two decades. I'm not even a real fan of the band, but I recognize their ability to extrapolate from the present curve's direction and chart where their advance should turn. Like Gordie Howe with the puck, they do not look at where the puck is at, but where it will be next. Their savvy, for me, makes Mick J look the jowly if buff dinosaur he is and Macca the predictably well-meaning but often sappy pop dittyist he always returned to being best (in a manner of singing/speaking/being).

I guess I begrudge (great Irish pastime) U2 for semi-morally jumpstarting the Irish musical and cultural and economic scenes although I do wish dear dirty Dublin was less frenetically eurotrashed, overrun, and trafficked. Signs of a thriving capitalism but also of a dangerous hubris. Do we need another cellphoned, gridlocked, packaged, and relentlessly retailed down into the hinterlands that fill up with malls, tracts, cement, asphalt, and bulldozed farmlands? A million and a half people filling up Meath, down to Wicklow, back past Fingal near to Newry? Tara's threatened by the motorway to speed more commuters-- see my earlier "Save Tara" post two months ago. Perhaps Julian Cope prayed to the right Peggy of his 1992 vision; a recent dig found another ancient monument directly in the way of the motorway immediately after excavations commenced; may the eternal curse of Macha resound further south on evil hordes who caused and began this destruction of our ancient legacy.

Back to a more immediate voice resounding from Ireland on the radio, I admit that I recognized that a Dubliner was speaking. This even though I did not know it was Bono for a long time into the interview I wandered into. I impressed myself if not captive Niall with this dialectal identification!

A third of all Irish, and a third of los chilangos irlandeses by now Litvaks or Nigerians or Chinese perhaps, now in el districto federal, but it's telling, as we discuss on globalization in an Irish perspective, that the accent is creeping more into the mid-Atlantic softening and elongating of the Anglo-American drawl elided by so many of Bono's own ilk and those who followed his success into the roaring Tigger that U2 helped themselves fund and goad along the past two decades. As for Paul Hewson, no brogue, steady soft regional tone similar to many Brits, but the lilt and the rhythm distinguishes our second OBE of this week's blog to be straight outta Ballymun-- home of our blog's recent "Irish Heritage" cover girl as our very recent First Communicant.

The late Bewley's in Dublin was founded in the middle of the 19c by Quakers, one of the rare Christian groups with a social conscience during the Famine. Coffee and other Third World stimulants we First Worlders crave, as in Elizabeth Kuti's recent play "The Sugar Wife," carry fraught connotations of exploitation that its importers and purveyors must overcome or ignore. Lessons for those of us who idolize the marketplace too. By consuming so much coffee, sugar, tea, cocaine, marijuana, Chinese electronics, Bangladeshi-sewn cotton clothing, Polish-outsourced tech support, migrant-labor processed ground beef, what are we doing to accelerate these habits? Ireland's an intriguing cause-and-effect as both software producer and hirer of immigrants to feed its voracious demands pent up after centuries of suppression.

Much as I suspect big business, at least the firms I have been discussing above try now to divert, or better, finally begin to lessen, the tide of destruction all of our greed has unleashed. Shade grown plantations. How that noun contends against its modifiers. Fair-trade. Workers loaned money and equipment by the corporation. Students asked if this was liberation or indentured servitude. Who owned the land if the farmers reneged on their loan from Howard Schultz? Could the shade-growers trade fairly elsewhere, or were they locked into serving Starbucks? The company pays 75% more than the (probably very low) standard rate for coffee, to its credit. If another buyer offered to match the Seattleites, would the farmers have a sustainable choice? Questions we did not have answers to, and good food for thought. Goats ate beans, got frisky, farmer noticed this, ate beans, got frisky. Port of Mocha, near Mecca. Arabian blends. Traders met and drank. Dinner was in mid-day, but as work filled the hours of budding capitalists, the time got pushed back further in the day. A few decades or reigns later, dinner blurred into supper. The workday for London's predecessors to Wall Street extended all day. Got frisky. Coffee fueled colonialism.

In 1999 at the WTO protests in Seattle, fewer vendors of the black bean roasted with clear water, but there must be hundreds of coffehouses in its birthplace, I wonder? This image from the site above is of Seattle's finest protecting the outpost of hipsterati against trustafarians. The other image's a classic illustration of a "Classics Illustrated" Moby Dick, as my son answered a presenter's inevitable question: "Does anyone know how the store got its name?" I raised my hand, only since none of the students had, but so did my boy! And he was right: S. served the crew coffee, as first mate.

I have only been in one twice, once to get Leo a drink with a $5 gift card I was given by a publishers rep after I had lobbied for adoption of a textbook when such actions were still possible before my own institution's standardization and the unfortunate "chain store mentality" of limiting our own textbooks to one book mandated for the whole system occurred. The second time was wretched. My dear spouse got us hopelessly lost and going the wrong way on the 10 on a 100-degree plus day, into the heat of the Inland Empire where it was 108 last July one day after we had seen my dad and had already been on the road hours on end. We staggered off the San Berdoo Freeway into oven-temperature Chino and entered merciful air-conditioning. I think I had a vanilla frappucino, according to my son's masterful recollection, but all I recall was froth and sugar and sweetness. The calories, we found later when examining its content, were enormous. I wonder, vs. McDonald's, if it's worse than their chemically-laden vanilla shake?

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