Monday, September 14, 2009

Does Starbucks Have a Right to Exist?

The leaves in Bloomington -- at least outside my door -- began turning color and falling last week. Fall isn't officially here yet, but it's beginning.

Naomi Klein was on Democracy Now! this morning, and the segment contained a delicious moment courtesy of the BBC. They played a clip of Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesman Yigal Palmor complaining that the Durban Declaration blamed all bad things on Israel. Julian Marshall of the BBC commented that the Declaration didn't seem to contain any such material. Here's the exchange:
AMY GOODMAN: And Naomi Klein, in your article in Harper’s, you quote the Israeli Foreign Ministry spokesperson Yigal Palmor. One day before the conference opened, he was interviewed by the BBC Radio. During the interview, he was questioned for asserting that the Durban conference declaration singled out Israel.

    YIGAL PALMOR: Look, in the previous conference, Israel was singled out as the most racist state on earth, probably almost the only racist state. And all the problems that we were facing here in the Middle East were not historical or political or military or geographic or anything else; they were all attributable to one unique factor: Israel’s innate racism.

    JULIAN MARSHALL: And this was speakers—

    YIGAL PALMOR: [inaudible] this is absurd enough—

    JULIAN MARSHALL: This was speakers, was it, at the Durban conference, rather than any final declaration?

    YIGAL PALMOR: No, it was also included in the final declaration.

    JULIAN MARSHALL: Because I’ve been looking at that final declaration, and I can see nothing that comes anywhere near to what you are saying.

    YIGAL PALMOR: I don’t have the text in front of me, but in all the—

    JULIAN MARSHALL: Well, I do have the text in front of me, and I can see nothing that comes close to what you are saying. I can see a final declaration that speaks out against anti-Semitism, that says we will never forget the Holocaust, that says we are concerned about the plight of the Palestinian people, but nonetheless recognize the right to security for all states in the region, including Israel, and call upon states to support the peace process and bring it to an early conclusion.

    YIGAL PALMOR: [inaudible] we talk about the same conference.

    JULIAN MARSHALL: That is a mention of Israel in the final declaration.

    YIGAL PALMOR: Right. I’m not sure we’re talking about the same conference, because even though I don’t have the text in front of me, I remember quite precisely some quotes that were completely contrary to those that you’ve just quoted. So we must be speaking about two different documents.

One reason this tickled me, aside from its inherent neatness, is that many Americans use a similar line about left critics of the US: they blame America for everything that goes wrong in the world. The best response is to ask such people for specific examples as Marshall asked Palmor, and let them squirm and try to lie their way out, because I don't know of any people who make such criticisms. It would be nice to know who they are, so I can criticize them too. I and the people I read and listen to are all very specific about what the US does wrong. ("But Mom! All the other murderous imperialist states are doing it!" isn't an acceptable excuse either, no matter how popular it is. It's interesting how easily the US and Israel go from being beacons of enlightenment and moral perfection to guys who are no worse than their enemies, as the necessities of debate require.)

Speaking of Naomi Klein, I have had Starbucks on my better-to-avoid list for years, ever since I read Klein's No Logo. The photo above is indicative: it's the Starbucks in Insadong, an artists' district in Seoul. According to my Korean friends, this is the only Starbucks in the world whose sign is in the local language -- company policy collided with Insadong's cultural protection policy which required the local language, and Starbucks capitulated. Avoiding Starbucks is easier since I don't drink coffee, but coffee places have their uses, especially for free wifi. In Bloomington we have numerous non-Starbucks coffee shops that I rely on for Internet connectivity and pastry, from the venerable Runcible Spoon to the relatively new Pourhouse Cafe. (I most often use the latter, despite its church connections, because the atmosphere isn't oppressively religious -- quite the contrary, it's comfortably secular -- and because it's nearby.) Jim Hightower renewed my distaste for the chain with the commentary I heard this morning, with an up-to-date list of the chain's offenses against humanity.
The corporation calls its workers "partners," but pays them only $15,000 to $20,000 a year for full-time work. Then there's the "optimal scheduling " policy, which means you never know when or for how long you'll be called in to work. Health care? Starbucks insures a lower percentage of its employees than Wal-mart does. And don't even think of talking union – you'll get harassed and possibly fired for that. Indeed, Starbucks is a leader in a corporate lobbying blitz to sidetrack the Employee Free Choice Act, which would give workers who want to form a union a way to stop the bullying, union-busting tactics of corporate bosses.
As I said, I'm not a coffee drinker, but everyone I've heard express an opinion agrees that Starbucks' coffee tastes burnt. So what's the appeal? Hightower went on to tout an online campaign called "Stop Starbucks!" which probably deserves support, but stopping Starbucks seems, I don't know, a little extreme, y'know? I'd think some harsh restraint would suffice.