High on our list of favorites here in Oklahoma are Veggie Tales cartoons and big box discount retailers. At first blush, there is no obvious connection between these two, but the book, To Serve God and Wal-Mart: The Making of Christian Free Enterprise by Bethany Moreton, made me remember Madame Blueberry.
Let’s recall this all-time great Veggie Tales episode. This dramatic work opens with Madame Blueberry feeling very blue. She spends her days envying her neighbors, who have more stuff. Though she has a lovely tree house, she is very blue. An adventure ensues when three guys who resemble skinny green onions show up at her door representing a newly opened big box retailer, Stuff Mart. She immediately rushes to Stuff Mart where she buys all sorts of stuff. When she arrives home with her stuff, she discovers that her house can’t really hold it all, and that’s a problem when you live in a tree. It’s not a pretty picture. In the end, she learns that happiness does not come from a store, and sometimes, we would do well just to be thankful for what we have.
It’s a little odd, though, that the only person who learns a lesson here is Madame Blueberry. The skinny green onion guys are off the hook. No problem that they exploited her weakness (envy) to sell her stuff she did not need and could not even store in her small but charming tree house. No mention of easy credit made available to vegetables with insufficient incomes. No mention of overseas children working at slave wages to manufacture this unnecessary merchandise, the poor quality of the merchandise that will soon find its way to the landfill, or the wasted resources devoted to advertising all this. No, the only problem here is Madame Blueberry who should have known better than to buy all that stuff.
I’m not excusing Madame Blueberry, and I like Bob the Tomato as well as any other Oklahoman. And I am not really intending to disparage Veggie Tales. After all, it’s a thirty-minute cartoon intended for kids. The complexities of our globalized economy can hardly be dealt with in a thirty-minute cartoon.
But, we adult Oklahomans sometimes tend to look at complex situations armed with the intellect, moral judgment, and discernment of an 8-year-old Bible schooler. That is, we apply a Veggie Tales mentality to situations that are beyond the complexity of Bob the Tomato and Larry the Cucumber. For example, here in Oklahoma, our response to the sub prime mortgage crisis has been outrage. But outrage directed at whom? What I hear and see is disdain for the individual homebuyers who took out loans for a home, and were subsequently unable to keep up their payments. Negative comments about homebuyers who bought “beyond their means” abound. Same for those with staggering credit card debt. It is quite possible that many Madame-Blueberry-wannabes bought houses or consumer goodies that were simply beyond their families’ budgets. What about the loan officer or credit card company making this loan? Clearly those who are paid to loan money and assess the potential for repayment were asleep at the wheel. The lending institutions had the upper hand in a lopsided power relationship. Yet, one hears little criticism of these institutions here in Oklahoma. Like the skinny-green-onion-guys and Stuff Mart executives, they seem to be only sideline characters.
We tend to see many situations as a mistake by a single individual, even when a powerful institution (business or government) clearly had more power than the individual involved. Did Madame Blueberry cause us to see things this way? Of course not. But we tend to interpret economic circumstances as matters of individual action or choice, while failing to notice the influence of large institutions. Maybe we need to reconsider our analysis of Madame Blueberry!
Arden Rea lives in Oklahoma City.
This Little Kiddy Went to Market: The Corporate Capture of Childhood
by Sharon Beder, Wendy Varney, and Richard Gosden
Pluto Press , 352 pages
Released in May of this year, This Little Kiddy, gives parents some perspective on modern childhood. Oklahomans, and most Americans, will immediately notice the international flavor of the book. The authors are Australian, but rather than focus their analysis strictly on Australia, they spot trends from most English-speaking countries of the world. Beder, who wrote most of the book, has several books to her credit already, and all of them reflect an amazing ability to understand human nature across continents.
Early chapters deal with the ever-more-clever techniques used by advertisers and marketers to entice children. Most parents will recognize the “nag” factor when shopping with kids in tow. Of course, this is old news, but if misery loves company, U.S. parents may appreciate knowing they aren’t alone. Parents all over the English-speaking world share our pain.
Moving past these sad-but-all-too-familiar images, the subject becomes even more ominous. After a chapter on corporate-sponsored “educational” materials supplied to cash-strapped schools, we move to “Turning Schools into Businesses” in Chapter 6. This isn’t just your soft-drink vending machine type of school business, this is an exposé of for-profit schools. The reader learns of strategies employed by education entrepreneurs to undermine public schools, leaving a profitable niche for private schools.
The discussion moves on; we learn of methods used to influence policy for and in public schools. Exactly what do corporations want from public schools? Answer: a product⎯yes, a student is a product. Further, the type of product a corporations wants to “buy” (hire) is a compliant, docile, obedient worker who does not ask many questions! ‘
If you are of a left-wing political persuasion, you might say, “I knew this all along,” while those with more of a right-wing mindset may say, “Baloney/poppycock/balderdash!” The claims in the book are extensively documented (44 pages of footnotes to be exact).
Thus, this book is great food for thought for anyone interested in the next generation in this or any country.