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Of chastity and vegetarianism and Wal-mart

When I was in high school I was first introduced to Anton Chekhov and thereby, one of my favorite quotes:

Reason and justice tell me there’s more love for humanity in electricity and steam than in chastity and vegetarianism.

I have to admit that, at the time, I really didn’t have a clue what it meant, it just seemed sort of contrarian.  I suppose that, as a victim of a completely out-of-control hormone storm (i.e. a normal adolescent male desperate to get laid) I was also predisposed to like anything that seemed to be anti-chastity.

Beginning in high school, I wrote my favorite quotes on 3×5 note cards.  I kept a pack of them in a cigar box along with movie tickets, political cartoons I had clipped from the newspaper and other assorted memorabilia.  I used to drag them out for nostalgic purposes occasionally through the long dark night that was my life as a leftist.  Most of them were the sort of inanities and platitudes that get passed off as profundities by the folks (throughout the political spectrum) who honestly believe that a) wisdom will actually fit on a bumper sticker and b) displaying bumper sticker “wisdom” demonstrates one’s moral and intellectual superiority.

Throughout that time, this Chekhov quote always made me kind of uncomfortable.  I thought I got the chastity part.  Chastity was so 19th century.  Electricity and steam power would have been modern and progressive and making life better in Chekhov’s time.  I just couldn’t get comfortable with the vegetarianism part.  In my world, vegetarianism was progressive and enlightened and I didn’t know how to reconcile the apparent contradiction.  And, like most of my young leftist friends, while I was deeply enamored of the idea of profound, philosophical reflection and discourse, I didn’t actually do much of it, preferring to get my enlightenment from bumper stickers.

30 years on, I am no longer a leftist.  I suffer from no delusions about the depth of my thought.  I am smart enough and/or experienced enough to have gleaned a bit of wisdom here and there, and am no longer surprised that absolutely none of it came from a bumper sticker.  I’ve learned that we “often pass up the truth in favor of something more intellectually stimulating¹. ”  And, at this point, I think I may finally get the electricity and steam thing.

I think what Chekhov was driving at was that there is a fundamental difference between electricity and steam on the one hand and chastity and vegetarianism on the other.  Chastity and vegetarianism, in their purest form, are about an exercise of personal will. They are considered virtuous by some because when you commit to one of them you are, for ostensibly noble reasons, denying yourself something that is part of what it is to be human. I guess the nobility is supposed to accrue from overcoming your baser instincts. In less pure forms they often seem to be attention-seeking acts of self-congratulatory mental masturbation.  In any form they are primarily internally focused activities with (primarily) individual consequences².

Steam power and electricity, on the other hand were both the means to achieve and symbols of progress and improving the lives of thousands of people.  Individuals created the means to use them, thereby improving conditions for others.  The difference seems to me to be one of internal vs. external focus.  I’ve come to believe that what Chekhov was saying is that for all the alleged moral superiority involved in chastity and vegetarianism, electricity and steam do more good for more people.

So.  Wal-mart.

This is a post about Wal-mart.

Rat Jr. tells me that recently they closed the Wal-mart in her area for a few days because they were afraid the roof might collapse due to heavy snow.  When she was able to go shop at Wal-mart after it was re-opened, the shelves we considerably less full than they usually are.  Apparently, folks waited to do their shopping until Wal-mart was re-opened, creating a run on their inventory.

Now, Wal-mart is evil.  It isn’t elegant.  It isn’t politically correct.  Our intellectual and social betters don’t like it because it isn’t unionized, doesn’t provide lavish health care and benefits for its employees, and is, frankly, so very common and vulgar, catering, as it does, to the unwashed masses.  But, given a choice of shopping at more politically correct establishments, organic grocery stores and high-end boutiques, hundreds of people in Rat Jr.’s area chose to wait to spend their money until Wal-mart was re-opened.

Why? Because for all the crap our intellectual and social betters heap on Wal-mart, it provides decent products at good prices.  In short, all those people who waited to shop know that their money goes farther at Wal-mart than at other, “better” establishments.

My point is that like electricity and steam before it, Wal-mart, in some way, makes life better for thousands (or more likely, millions) of people³.

Given a choice between the warm, fuzzy, morally and intellectually superior feelings I might get by embracing chastity and vegetarianism (or for that matter, organic groceries, “fair trade” merchandise, and exclusively upscale, “progressive” merchants) or the reality of getting more food for my money by embracing Wal-mart, I’ll take Wal-mart every time.

1 – Probably not an exact quote as I can’t find my copy of “Das Energi” by Paul Williams.  It was, however, the one true thing he said in an otherwise steaming pile of mindless drivel and new-agey bullshit.

2-I say “primarily” because of the obvious exceptions like radical fundamentalist Christians in the chastity arena and radicals like PETA in the vegetarian arena, the similarities between the two proving, in my mind, that they are all religious nut jobs.

3-No, I am not accusing the Walton family of anything remotely resembling unbridled love of their fellow man.  Neither am I suggesting that the men who utilized steam and electricity to improve the lot of their fellow man did it for any reason other that the expectation that there was money to be made.  None the less, steam, electricity and Wal-mart all made things better for people.

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