Friday, October 30, 2009

Great Suburban Traditions No.8: Going To The Mall

If you wanted to put a positive spin on a trip to the mall, you could point out that it’s full of lovely young women flashing you friendly smiles. But don’t delude yourself that they’re up for the kind of water closet cubicle fun that the seasonally employed, nihilistic main character of ‘Bad Santa’ indulged in with middle-aged housewives during his lunch break. These are commercial smiles aimed at dislodging only hard cash from your trousers, and presumably it still works. For a tight-fisted misanthrope, though, the real fun part of going to the mall is to talk to a Young Flashing Smile for five minutes, buy nothing, and then watch the tortured way she will try but fail to bid you a friendly goodbye.

I was at the mall yesterday, and even though the Financial Times is claiming on today’s front page that the US economy is now in recovery, that news has yet to manifest itself in the nation’s sanitised kirks of commerce. Customers were scarce, but there was an abundance of sales people, and those on the open concourse with their market-style stands were the most desperate of all. Years of looking away from hard men’s stares in English pubs hasn’t quite trained me well enough to avoid the lurking eye of the commission-hungry, artificially fragrant, high-heeled harpie who insists on telling you that Mrs. Pop would love this revolutionary new nail varnish.

“Why is it revolutionary? Does it make you take to the hills with an armed militia and plot the overthrow of the military-industrial complex?”

“Hey, what’s the accent? Are you from Australia?” is usually the response to that kind of comment. Training taught them to keep the smile big, but the talk must always be nice and small. It’s around this point, as they guess that you might be mildly insane, that the veneer of civil discourse starts to betray its first cracks in the sales assistant’s voice. At the same time, your presumed madness might be their best chance of a sale today, so they’ll make one last effort by halving the price.
This happened yesterday when I walked into a posh chocolate shop. Following the statutory agreement that we were both doing fine, I didn’t make an immediate grab for the shop’s most expensive items, so the saleswoman told me that Halloween goodies were two for the price of one. I bought some stuff as a salve for my girls’ football team, because they’re all mewling that they have to play on Halloween. Then the saleswoman charged me full price. “Er, didn’t you just tell me they’re two for price of one?” I asked. “Ha ha, so I did,” she laughed, almost hysterically, like she’d been saying it was just a generous offer on the spur of the moment, but she didn’t really mean it. So could you pay the full price? Pleeeease?

It wasn’t so hectic in the bigger shops, where staff are possibly less concerned about the faceless parent company going bust. The reason I actually went to the mall was to buy a roasting dish on offer in one of the department stores. I couldn’t find the one I wanted, and the only person visible was a teenage sales assistant, who ignored me because she was too busy texting. One day it will occur to American retailers to train their staff to help people, but without all the oily pushiness and naked insincerity. That day will be when we’re all up in the hills having a hell of a nice day with our armed militias.

Monday, October 19, 2009

Bigotry's Bad For Business

Extreme right US radio host Rush Limbaugh was last week pushed out of a prospective ownership group aiming to buy National Football League team the St. Louis Rams. Several black players, recalling Limbaugh’s hateful on-air race-related outbursts, said they’d never sign for a team that counted him as a part-owner. Other team owners, none of them exactly renowned for their social radicalism, balked at the idea. The league itself distanced itself from the bid, citing Limbaugh’s “controversial” remarks. And finally the bidding group’s lead investor, Dave Checketts, dropped Limbaugh, euphemistically calling him “a complication and a distraction.”

Limbaugh knew exactly where to lay the blame for all this. “This is about the ongoing effort by the left in this country,” he said, “wherever you find them, in the media, in the Democratic Party, or wherever, to destroy conservatism, to prevent the mainstreaming of anyone who is prominent as a conservative. Therefore, this is about the future of the United States of America and what kind of country we’re going to have.”

I’d have nothing against a future where conservatism is destroyed. It will be a truly wonderful thing for the vast majority of the world. However, the idea that the Democratic Party or the media in their current forms could directly bring this about is as delusional as most of Limbaugh’s twisted caterwauling. The ironic thing for raving Rush is that conservatism is far more capable than either of the above two institutions at destroying itself. The NFL probably does not care about civil rights, as such. But it does care about protecting its image, and it really, really does care about losing money. The threat of a sponsors’ or a consumer boycott is easily enough to slap the league into a decent stance on facing down bigotry.

There was a similar case in the UK last week, when Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir wrote that the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gately in Mallorca should not have been classified as down to “natural” causes, as stated in the coroner’s verdict (he died of heart failure), because his death followed a night on the town with his husband, they may have been smoking cannabis, and they had invited a third man back home with them. The outraged reader reaction to this unfounded, bilious, and entirely unnecessary opinionating caused several companies to pull their advertising from the Mail’s website.

In years past, the Mail would have taken pride and delight in provoking and offending so many people. Nowadays, immediate commercial pressure can force them into thinking again when they run such naked bilge. So even if odious, poison-pushing wasters like Moir and Limbaugh don’t change their views, and bleat in their next six columns or broadcasts that they’ve been deprived of their freedom to stoke the fears and prejudices of little-minded morons, at least the world won’t have to bear the publicised contents of their sickened minds.

It’s not exactly change wrung through storming the corridors of power, as visualised by generations of fist-clenching idealists. Rather it’s a lesser radicalism achieved through the exploitation of capitalism’s sensitive side, born of the belated realisation among corporations that (big surprise here), black people, gay people and left-leaning people all have money too, and they can all choose where to spend it. But before business realised that bigotry’s bad, it took years of lobbying by those heinous forces of idealism – the ones Rush probably thinks are out to destroy him - to illustrate why unfounded hatred on the grounds of gender, race or sexuality is nowadays unacceptable to those of us in the quiet majority too old and comfortable to storm the barricades, but with a molecule of power in our pockets.