Monday, January 30, 2006

Hidden "Cache:" The Shape of Things to Come?

Playing now in Palestine and Iraq

CACHE Repeat Performace: Now in Your Neighborhood

Sometime in the early 1980's I was watching the film Battle of Algiers in a small movie theatre in Jerusalem. The West Bank and Gaza were relatively peaceful and quiet at that time, and when the movie ended I suggested to my companions that, you know, this could happen here. An uprising a la Algeria. They all thought that I was out of my mind. Since then we've been seeing that movie twice -- in Palestine and Iraq.
I was thinking about the way the "Battle of Algiers" -- which was directed by an Italian communist -- provided us with warnings about our current reality, as I watching over the weekend the French film Cache in a big movie theatre in Bethesda, Maryland. It's directed by Michael Haneke with the magnificent Daniel Auteuil and Juliette Binoche in the central roles(above). It's a thriller and so I won't spoil it for you. The two play a middle-aged, successful literary couple that seem (!) to be terrorized by an Algerian man and his son that hold grudges against the husband (for something he did when he was a child). The movie was produced before the recent riots in Paris and some the scenes take place in those ugly apartment buildings where the Arab immigrants/rioters live. Forget about the political message of the film (that the French people need to feel guilty about their colonial past) and pay more attention to the mood the novie sets, that of fear. It's Europe's fear of the Moslem enemy within, of the barbarians who have broken through the "security fence" protecting the peaceful Parisian neighborhood, and threatening the middle class way-of-life and western civilization. It makes us conclude that the Battle of Algiers is now taking place in Paris, Iraq, Gaza (we watch the couple watching television images from these places). And there is not much that we can do to prevent that clash of civilizations that reflects our troubled history from taking place. The only good news that it's all going to be taped and being shown on television.
And if I were watching Cache in Jerusalem I would consider the following: There is something comforting in the non-romantic nationalist vision that Sharon has projected and that Olmert and his political allies want to implement: A compact Israeli state protected by a security fence, a strong military and a few nuclear bombs that has a clear Jewish majority and is continuing to be supported by the United States and the West. In a way, it’s an “isolationist” vision that assumes that Israel could “disengage” itself from the old Middle East and all those crazy Arabs, including the angry but weak Palestinians that will reside in a congested Gaza and in a few Bantustan-like small and dispersed cantons in the West Bank. According to this least bad scenario, the Jewish Commonwealth will live in security – but not in eternal peace – and focus its energy on building a sophisticated economy that could on day become an associate member of the European Union. The problem is that while the United States could in theory disengage from the Middle East and that the Europeans, notwithstanding their large Arab immigrant population have the luxury of a Turkey and the Mediterranean separating them from the Arabs, Israel is an integral part of the Middle East and is located right smack in the center of the Arab World. Even if the Israelis were to withdraw unilaterally from the West Bank, as they had done in the Gaza Strip, the Jewish state will still have a large minority of close to 25 percent consisting Palestinian-Arab citizens. These Arab citizens make up a majority in the Galilee and areas and who enjoy very high birth rates -- “Ahmed” is now the most popular name for Israeli babies -- and will insist on maintaining their cultural and political autonomy and perhaps even try to attempt to secede from Israel. And will the more than two-million Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza just disappear into the Middle Eastern sunset? Against the backdrop of growing economic desperation, political chaos and rising level of crime, the militant Hamas has now gained power, and Israel will be discovering -- like the couple in the movie -- a time bomb ticking and ready to blow up right next to its security fence. Even nuclear bombs wouldn't be able to deter these forces. The deep hatered that is grounded in history, culture, religion is probably very difficult to contain even in this age of globalization and high-tech. In fact, as "Cache" demonstrates this high-tech -- in this case, a DVD player -- is used to re-ignite old conflicts. Like the husband in "Cache," the Israeli-Jews try to live a normal life in which the "Others" can disappear for a while only to return to haunt them again and again. It's a very, very depressing movie and one in which, I fear, we are going to watch for a long time.

And Now for Something Completely Different...

Yes, Wal-Mart. I've never done shopping there. But I can't figure out why so many people hate it. It's Big, they say. And so is Microsoft. So are we going to break-up Wal-Mart into little Wal-Marts? Someone responded to my article by arguing the following:
The point you missed is this: there is a visceral sense in 'small-town America' that the entire population of America has devolved into a certain gluttony. Wal-Mart promotes a mindless feeding frenzy- and an endless appetite for cheap crap. The rage against Wal-Mart has less to do with economics than a deep-seated fear of the loss of the American soul.

So now Wal-Mart is responsible for the loss of the American soul... First, no one forces you to shop there. And secondly, "soul" is something that houses of worship, literature, arts, music, etc. are supposed to nourish. If you don't have to spend a lot of money on buying underwear, you have more dollars to spend on the really important things. It seems to me that people who are failing to guide their kids are now scapegoating Wal-Mart for their problems. Here is my article:

Business Times - 27 Jan 2006
Why is Wal-Mart being regarded as despicable?
The world's top retailer benefits lots of people. So the issue isn't US jobs, but something else

FORGET about Osama bin Laden and his associates hiding somewhere. Pay very little attention to the growing nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran. And you should place concerns over the rise of China as a 'peer competitor' on the bottom of US policy agenda.

The Clear and Present Danger that is facing the American people has nothing to do with international terrorism, rogue regimes, weapons of mass destruction (WMD), or even the 'outsourcing' of American jobs to India.

It's Wal-Mart!

Are we talking about the world's largest retailer, with US$285.2 billion in sales in last year's fiscal year that employs 1.6 million associates worldwide through more than 3,800 facilities in the United States and more than 2,400 units in other countries? Is that the company that was founded by the legendary Sam Walton and which promises 'Every Day Low Prices?'

You may be one of the 138 million customers who shops at Wal-Mart in one of its worldwide stores every week, but you probably don't know what's good for you or for that matter, for the 'public'. So pick up the local daily newspaper in Small-Town America and you'll discover that Wal-Mart is the fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse. Indeed, it's riding into your neighbourhood and threatening to destroy jobs and prosperity and the American Way of Life. Be afraid - very afraid.

Just to make sure that this dire message gets across to the American people, there are quite a few consumer groups, lobbying organisations, websites and blogs that are leading a brutal campaign against Wal-Mart. Google 'Wal-Mart' and you'll discover Wakeup ('We are the ones who shop at Wal-Mart . . . Together, we have the power to change Wal-Mart. Together, we can hold Wal-Mart accountable and improve our America.'); (which 'invites your ideas, participation, and commitment to establishing higher standards for the world's largest company'); and ('The premise is simple; I hate Walmart! Walmart Sucks! Wal-Mart can kiss the fattest part of my xxx . . . This site will bring you the latest Wal-Mart news, allow you to post your rant in the public forum, and give you a warm fuzzy feeling inside. This website is dedicated to giving a voice to Wal-Mart associates. You deserve to be heard.').

And, hey, there is even a movie: WAL-MART: THE HIGH COST OF LOW PRICE. A feature-length documentary, produced by Robert Greenwald and which 'uncovers a retail giant's assault on families and American values' has been screened in movie theatres across the country to rave reviews. Ebert and Roeper gave it 'two thumbs up' and the New York Times called it 'breathtaking!' What's next? A television sitcom or reality show? A computer game? A hip-hop hit?

Just recently, the legislative assembly of the state of Maryland, in which I reside, became the first state in the nation to approve legislation forcing Wal-Mart to pay more for its employee health care, potentially paving the way for other states to follow suit.

The bill, which passed despite a veto by Republican Governor Robert Ehrlich, requires employers with more than 10,000 workers to spend at least 8 per cent of their payroll on employee health care or else pay into a fund for the uninsured. Only Wal-Mart is affected by the legislation. ('Guys, what about fixing those potholes on our roads?').

Critics of Wal-Mart allege that much of the company's financial success is due to business practices harmful to employees, the community, the American and global economy, and the environment. More specifically, American bashers of the retail giant have argued that Wal-Mart is responsible for the job losses in the US, an issue that was the subject of a recent Frontline documentary, Is Wal-Mart Good for America?, on US public television.

'Wal-Mart's power and influence are awesome,' said Hedrick Smith, a former New York Times correspondent who produced the programme. 'By figuring out how to exploit two powerful forces that converged in the 1990s - the rise of IT and the explosion of the global economy - Wal-Mart has dramatically changed the balance in the world of business. Retailers are now more powerful than manufacturers, and they are forcing the decision to move production offshore.'

Most of the experts that Smith interviewed agreed that Wal-Mart changed, if not revolutionised, the way business is done.

'Wal-Mart has reversed a hundred-year history that had the retailer dependent on the manufacturer,' explained Nelson Lichtenstein, a professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara. 'Now the retailer is the centre, the power, and the manufacturer becomes the serf, the vassal, the underling who has to do the bidding of the retailer. That's a new thing.'

To understand the secret of Wal-Mart's success, Smith travelled from the company's headquarters in Bentonville, Arkansas, to their global procurement centre in Shenzhen, China, where several hundred employees work to keep the company's import pipeline running smoothly. Of Wal-Mart's 6,000 global suppliers, experts estimate that as many as 80 per cent are based in China.

'Wal-Mart has a very close relationship with China,' said Duke University professor Gary Gereffi. 'China is the largest exporter to the US economy in virtually all consumer goods categories. Wal-Mart is the leading retailer in the US economy in virtually all consumer goods categories. Wal-Mart and China are a joint venture.'

Indeed, Wal-Mart estimates it imports US$15 billion of Chinese goods every year and concedes that the figure could be higher - some estimates range as high as US$20 billion or even US$30 billion. 'We do depend on products from around the globe to draw our consumers into the stores,' said Ray Bracy, Wal-Mart's vice-president for federal and international public affairs. 'We feel they need to have the best product, the best value, at the best price we can achieve.'

Which means that Wal-Mart has been doing exactly what American and global capitalism expects successful companies to do - that is, offer consumers a wide range of products at low prices.

There is no doubt that a dynamic free-market economy also produces some losers in the form of declining industries and unemployed workers, but the overall progress that results from Wal-Mart's operations in the US and around the world, including China, benefits a huge number of Americans and Chinese.

Moreover, as Thomas DiLorenzo - an economist with the Mises Institute and author of How Capitalism Saved America: The Untold Story of Our Country's History, from the Pilgrims to the Present (Crown Forum/Random House, August 2004) - notes, the campaign against Wal-Mart is 'primarily a labour union-inspired campaign against Wal-Mart employees', as well as the company in general.

Hence the main lobbyists in favour of the legislation passed in the Maryland assembly - which would force Wal-Mart to provide its workers with expensive, government-prescribed health insurance - have been the labour unions which provide financial backing to politicians in the state.

'The ultimate goal is to get the company to sign a union contract without ever involving the employees' themselves, according to DiLorenzo, who argues that the whole idea of a corporate campaign is based on a Big Lie: that the union is somehow concerned about the well-being of non-union employees at places like Wal-Mart.

'In reality, the objective of the union is to force every one of those employees to either join its union (and pay its expensive dues) or become unemployed,' he argues.

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