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This afternoon Angela Ahrendts, Senior Vice President of Retail at Apple Inc., said of Apple stores, “we don’t call them stores anymore, we call then town squares, because they’re gathering places.”
Ahrendts' comment could simply be written off as hubristic marketing-speak, but to me it's an unwittingly sad comment about how, in the current age, a luxury goods story can and does serve as a rough proxy for a public square and how, concurrently, civic society continues to be degraded.
While a small number of very rich people have always been able to keep themselves separate and apart from the masses, a larger and larger number of people are using money, technology and education to insulate themselves from the sort of everyday life all citizens once lived. Elite status, VIP sections, priority lines, “Cadillac” healthcare plans, private schools and all manner of other luxuries available to the professional and technological classes create a situation in which a larger swath of the well-educated and at least moderately well-to-do have created what amounts to a separate class apart from the rest of the country. A class that carries with it insidious assumptions, conscious or otherwise, that the affluent and educated are demographically superior to the poor. Or, perhaps, that the affluent and educated are the only people who even exist.
While, admittedly, there has always been some semblance of a class system in this country, the instances in which people come together in commons spaces -- in train stations, post offices, hospitals, libraries, public schools, museums and retail spaces -- has decreased dramatically. What's more, there was once a time in this country where the class divisions we had were at denied and diminished out of either shame or idealism born of the notion that the United States is not a class-based society. Today that conceit has been disposed of almost entirely, with “success” being increasingly equated with one's ability to buy one’s way out of the public sphere altogether.
We live in isolated and increasingly homogenous and cloistered communities. We have made it so that those with access to the gifts of the technological age can do their shopping, their banking and their interaction with the government via electronic means without ever having to encounter the general public or, at the very least, the part of the general public unlike themselves. The increasing power of a small handful of technology companies is exacerbating this trend, turning even basic acts of life, such as buying groceries, into a class-based pursuit.
As a result of all of this, the public sphere of life has broken down in many important ways. We do not come together as a society across economic classes in anything approaching the way we did even as recently as the early 1980s, let alone the way we did in previous decades. This is bad for democracy and social health because, when we do not interact with the whole of society in meaningful ways, we are no longer truly stakeholders in the whole of society. We are, at best, voyeurs, intellectually lamenting that which has befallen our fellow man, yet not really being invested in it in any real sense. When you encounter those in different circumstances than yourself only virtually, you can simply click away. Or you can just choose not to click in the first place.
Which brings me back to Apple. The nearest Apple store to me is in a place called Easton Town Center. It's a mall, but one of those outdoor malls that apes a cityscape, built on what used to be farmland out by the freeway outerbelt. There are storefronts and parking meters and sidewalks and all of that, but it's all private property. While it's a fake city, it holds the sorts of community events -- Christmas caroling, arts fairs, outdoor performances and the like -- that once took place in my town's real public spaces. Except it's not truly a community event given that no one has much business being there unless one is shopping or dining out at one of the luxury goods stores on its premises, and that's obviously not for everyone. And, of course, since it's private property, they can kick out anyone they want to for basically any reason or for no reason whatsoever.
Which certainly puts Apple's claim that its stores, a great number of which are located in places like Easton, are "town squares" in a different light. A light that is sadly telling of what our society has come to in this day and age.
Happy Labor Day: America's most overlooked major holiday.
It's understandable why so many people view Labor Day as not much more than day off from work and an excuse to have a cookout. Generally speaking Labor Day is a reflective holiday, not a celebratory one, and if a holiday doesn't involve gifts, celebrations or specific, defined acts like putting flowers on a grave, people tend to have a hard time knowing what to do about it.
However it's also overlooked by political design. Indeed, the obliteration and demonization of the labor movement is one of the most successful political operations of the past 40 years.
The major components of this operation have been the wholesale scaling back of workers' rights, benefits and protections and the claiming of a greater and greater cut of revenues by ownership over the past several decades. Dealing with that remains the most pressing issue for workers going forward, obviously. It's worth noting, however, that obliterating the very history of the labor movement in the United States has been a key part of that as well.
Even most of those who stop for a moment to acknowledge Labor Day are likely unaware that its institution was something of a cynical, political act, taken by politicians and business owners in order to appease workers they had just murdered and brutalized. It was also established in September in order to separate it from the larger international workers' day of May 1. The holiday itself was something of an apology, but also a means of blunting the edge of the labor movement. Those who see workers as the enemy as opposed to a critical part of the American fabric are quite happy that most of us think of today as a day to fire up the grill and go to the pool as opposed to thinking about America's workers. They have made it a point to do that, in fact, and they have been wildly successful in doing so.
Not only does organized labor makes up a smaller portion of the workforce than it ever has, and not only do workers suffer worse conditions than they have in decades, but even pointing this out has come to be seen as somehow subversive. Even a great many of the people who do the working in this country have bought in to the notion — propagated by those who profit from labor — that unions are tools of the communists and giving any lip service to the rights of workers is a suspect and even un-American pursuit. Good, secure jobs with good pay and benefits have come to be seen as rare luxuries for which it is rude to ask, let alone expect. What's worse: many workers themselves have adopted the language of the rich and powerful in this regard, having been convinced that their need to hustle harder than they used to in order to make less in real dollars than they used to is somehow a good thing.
I'm not sure what to do about that, as it's a massive problem with many causes and calls for a host of actions in response to remedy it. But in the meantime, we should do whatever we can to at least commemorate and acknowledge a national holiday devoted to laborers in at least close to the same way in which we mothers on Mothers Day, fathers on Fathers Day, our loved ones on Valentine's Day, our veterans on Veterans Day and those who have died for our country on Memorial Day.
And make no mistake: workers have died for our country too. People die on the job every day and you likely cross a bridge, enter a building or drive on a road that was paid for, in part, by workers' lives every day. People have likewise died in the name of worker’s rights and in the name of keeping more people from dying on the job. Beyond all of that, labor built this country. The labor movement has saved lives that would have been lost and has elevated the standard of living of families. Odds are that, whether you accept it or not, labor and workers in your own family allowed you to get where you are now.
It's worth a day of remembrance, reverence and reflection, at the very least.