Our first entry from Kitty Sonic!
A Hobby Lobby Discussion
Hello, Punx in Solidarity readers; my name is Kitty Sonic. I am a digital artist, crafting maven, and communist agitator who’ll be contributing to Punx in Solidarity from time to time. For my first visit with you, I wanted to discuss something that probably seems oddly specific—i.e. a chain craft store—but I feel like the issues I have with Hobby Lobby are applicable to a majority of American corporations and the people who control them, both today and in America’s past. That being said, Hobby Lobby has received far more of my hard-earned money than I’d care to admit. Why would I shop there, given that most of what they sell is conservative racist Christian nationalism and farmhouse décor?
Let’s explore Hobby Lobby’s history, America’s history, the Green family, and the ethics of shopping.
Hobby Lobby, or as I like to call it, HL, was founded in 1972 by David Green along with his devoted wife Barbara in Oklahoma City, OK, with the company’s current president being their son, Steve Green. Their other son, Mart, owns a Christian entertainment company, and their daughter, Darsee Lett, is HL’s creative director. Their website notes that HL is committed to “honoring the Lord in all we do by operating the company in a manner consistent with Biblical principles.” Which is kind of funny because a) Jesus was a communist; and b) they wouldn’t know how to ethically run a company even if Jesus showed up at their Oklahoma City headquarters and handed them a step-by-step how-to guide.
HL currently has stores in 47 states, selling a massive variety of craft supplies; home décor tchotchkes, particularly of the farmhouse chic and Christian varieties; and seasonal bullshit centered around farmhouse chic, Christianity, and a red pickup truck. In fact, my partner viscerally hates HL almost wholly due to their creation and subsequent dissemination of the red pickup truck with giant-sized holiday emblems du jour in its bed (pumpkin? Throw it in the bed! Valentine? In the bed! America? Throw it on in!).
Image: Kitty Sonic.
Their big selling point, at least for me, is that every week they put certain departments or brands on sale for 30-50% off the regular price. The sales rotate week by week, so within about a six-week span most departments/brands have been on sale at least once. This is fantastic if you’re a petty dabbler in eleven or so different craft pursuits, as I have the tendency to be, and you have a budget, as I think most people probably do.
HL is also the biggest privately-owned craft store in the world and is the second-largest craft retailer in America with over 900 stores (Michael’s is the largest, and JoAnn’s is a very close third place). Thus, it is quite likely that: you have an HL near you; that it may be more convenient for you to go to HL; they have a better selection of certain craft supplies; or they’re appealing because of their low cost/high quality products. It’s something I’ve struggled with for a long time. Like, am I concerned that I’ve spent enough there that I’m worried I’ve personally financed at least a dozen of the scandalous cuneiform tablet fragments discussed later? Fuck yeah I am. But also, I don’t like it when my beads fall apart (look. Just because it’s been like six incident-free years since that happened doesn’t mean I’m ready to let go of my bitterness).
So essentially, HL has some good things going for it—it sells good quality crafting supplies and home décor on the cheap, and they’re convenient for a lot of people. Unfortunately, along with that goddamn red truck, HL has some other unsavory things about it, mostly concerning the founding family, the Greens, who would likely be honored to find that I refer to them as the First Family of Christian Nationalism.
One Big Happy Fucking Family of Smuggling Christian Nationalist Racist Elites
A timeline of HL’s recent foibles, frauds, and fuckery
I’m sure you’ve heard leftists saying shit like “there’s no such thing as a good billionaire,” and I think David Green and his family support that maxim perfectly. At a staggering net worth of somewhere north of $7 billion (different websites have different estimates, with the highest number I found being $14.4 billion), Dave is one of the wealthiest people in the world, and he and his family are on a mission to use that money to glorify God! Or to buy stolen antiquities for their Bible Museum. Or to sue the government. Or for any number of other reprehensible things.
What follows is a list of HL’s notable offenses in recent memory. Funnily enough, I found a few nicely compiled lists in like 0.002 seconds on Google, which I feel like really says something about HL and the Green family.
2012: in reaction to Obamacare, HL sued the US government for the right to deny paying for health insurance that provides contraceptives to employees, since contraceptives violate the Green family’s religious rights and beliefs. And realistically, forcing people to conform to their religious beliefs is probably more in line with the Greens’ beliefs anyways.
2013: accusations of antisemitism arose after a New Jersey HL employee told a Jewish shopper that HL “doesn’t cater to your people” when the shopper asked if they sell Hannukah decorations. Mr. Green apologized to the Anti-Defamation League and said that HL is absolutely not antisemitic, they swear. To be fair I have seen Hannukah decorations at HL, but I still think it’s kind of emblematic of the corporate culture. Like, clearly the antisemite employee felt protected enough that they had no problem spewing antisemitic bullshit in their place of employment. They felt like their job was secure enough that they could say that at work, so one really has to wonder about the corporate culture.
2014: HL attempted to spread their brand of Christianity to students in the public school system by having their Museum of the Bible, which was still under development at the time, create a textbook for a high-school-level elective class. The town of Mustang, OK’s high school adopted the curriculum after a secret meeting with Mr. Green, who claimed the course’s aim was to “expose more children to the Bible by using it to teach archaeology, history, and the arts.” People got pissed and the course was canceled, but holy shit! Does the separation of Church and State not apply when the Church is represented by a huge corporation?!
Also 2014: Remember how in 2012 HL sued the government? In a 5-4 Supreme Court ruling, HL won their suit and created exemptions for religious companies to not pay for contraceptives. Because of this, numerous faith leaders wrote to the White House urging President Obama to create exemptions for faith-based organizations to be allowed to discriminate against people based on their sexuality. If you give a mouse a goddamn cookie…
As an aside, David Green is apparently a massive donor to the National Christian Foundation, which is America’s eighth-largest charity and a proponent of anti-LGBTQIA+ and anti-Muslim causes, amongst other nasty things, I’m sure. Basically, it’s a “charity” whose sole job is to collect money from its donors and then disburse those funds to charities that the Foundation and its donors feel are deserving. Note that the donors themselves have a say in where the money is funneled. According to the Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), from 2014 to 2017 the National Christian Foundation donated $56.1 million to 23 nonprofits identified by the SPLC as hate groups. So basically, it’s a way for Conservative Big Business to donate to morally reprehensible causes and keep their hands clean. It’s like money laundering disguised as charity to fund hate groups.
2017: the Greens were found guilty in federal court of smuggling 5,500 artifacts–namely, cuneiform tablet fragments–out of Iraq with the intent to display them at their holy brainchild, The Museum of the Bible, which was close to completion at the time.
If you’ve forgotten this part of middle school history class, cuneiform tablets were the ancient Mesopotamians’ written records. Mesopotamia was located between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers in what is now Iraq and was an early emergence of a large-scale permanent human civilization. The Mesopotamians’ cuneiform writing system is currently the oldest-known form of writing, which came into use around 3400 BCE. What the Mesopotamians would do is take a stylus and carve symbols into wet clay tablets, then throw them in a kiln to fire them and make the record permanent. That’s why archeologists, treasure hunters, and unscrupulous antiquities buyers end up with cuneiform tablet fragments—because the clay tablets broke apart over time.
It appears that the Mesopotamians first developed the cuneiform writing system to track commercial transactions. This evolved to allow written storytelling, which allowed the creation of permanently recorded cultural traditions (rather than relying on oral tradition and storytelling to convey things like poetry and religious beliefs). The most important literary work from Mesopotamia was the epic of Gilgamesh, which was written on cuneiform tablets. That’ll come up later.
Anyways, this wasn’t a simple mistake. The Greens didn’t accidentally pick up 5,500 rocks during the Annual Green Family Vacation and later discover they were actually cuneiform fragments that they should store in their museum for safekeeping. They had a smuggling operation. They shipped the artifacts to their OKC headquarters in boxes labeled as “ceramic tile samples,” after plonking down a cool $1.6 million for them. The Court fined the Greens $3 million and ordered them to return the artifacts. Of course, the Greens were like “omg we had no idea these were illegally obtained!” But here’s the thing. If you had the forethought to lie about what was being imported, and you said that they were tile samples and not priceless cuneiform fragments, you knew it was wrong. It’s not like when you order shit from Amazon, and they accidentally label a product wrong, and you end up getting a crate of cuneiform fragments instead of the tile samples you ordered.
It kind of makes me sick, as I think about how there are entire sections of every Hobby Lobby store devoted to “we love the military” paraphernalia, which if I had to guess, is mostly purchased by Amerisexuals and military families. Fun fact: according to the FDA, in 2019 the number of SNAP (food stamp) beneficiaries included 22,000 active-duty service members, 213,000 members of the National Guard or reservists, and 1.1 million veterans, and I’m certain that the number was greater than or equal to that at the time of the Greens’ conviction in 2017. So the Green family, with their extreme excess of wealth partially made by enticing military families into buying a military-themed whatnot with what little money they had, was able to just LOSE $4.6 million (between the purchase price and the fine) over artifacts smuggled out of war-torn Iraq. The country that the US military war-tore up. It seems kind of like war profiteering, in the guise of religious fervor.
Also 2017: the Green family’s magnum opus, the crowning achievement of Steve Green (recall–the son of Dave and current HL president) and his obsessive collecting of biblical artifacts, the Museum of the Bible (owned by Hobby Lobby itself), opens in Washington, DC. Critics call the museum “Christian ministry disguised as a museum,” which, FUCKING DUH! Apparently people also had problems with “allegedly” pro-slavery imagery (which really came down to an exhibit with the heading “pro-slavery” and apparently explained how the Bible was pro-slavery) and the display of a “Slave Bible,” which had the majority of the content cut out, with just the submissive/pro-slavery parts left in.
It was about this time (Fall 2017) that HL started carrying raw cotton in their floral section as a décor item, which some people took exception to, though most people were like “nah, Hobby Lobby isn’t being racist with their raw cotton!” I mean, maybe the raw cotton really is just a farmhouse chic floral arrangement.
It probably started out as HL just selling some raw cotton left over from their PRO-SLAVERY EXHIBIT.
2018: the Greens learn that some of the Dead Sea Scroll fragments on display at their ministry–ahem, museum, were fakes. Oops!
FYI, the Dead Sea Scrolls, if you don’t remember, are fragments of parchment and papyrus scrolls dating from around 800 BCE to 1100 CE containing text from the Tanakh (AKA the Hebrew Bible, parts of which make up the Old Testament of the Christian Bible), other religious texts (hymns, prayers, etc.), and writings regarding the lifestyle of the community the scrolls were written by. The first batch were found in jars stored in caves in the Dead Sea region, located in present-day occupied Palestine with other scrolls located in various areas around the Dead Sea.
Apparently Dead Sea Scrolls are fairly easy to forge, and due to their extreme timespan (approx. 1900 years or so) the forgeries can be difficult to catch at first glance. From what I recall from watching a PBS documentary on this subject, you just find some ancient parchment or papyrus (so you can pass a radiocarbon dating test and get that authentic retro look) and then write in ancient Hebrew with an ink appropriate to the time period. The writing style and the ink are where most forgeries are picked up – the ink itself doesn’t pass dating tests and/or it isn’t made of the correct materials, and the style of the text characters themselves can also betray its modern creation. Unfortunately, the PBS special is no longer available to stream, but if you happen to see it listed for your local station you should totally watch it—it’s season 46, episode 20 of “Nova,” titled “Dead Sea Scrolls Detectives.”
2020: further investigation proved that in fact all the Dead Sea Scroll fragments at the “museum” were forgeries. And that some of the forgeries remained on public display. Double oops! Of course the Green family released a statement that they had no idea that they’d been duped. Poor dears.
Also 2020: the Greens, out of the Pure Christian Goodness of their hearts, announced that they’d be returning 11,500 artifacts to Iraq and Egypt. Steve Green (recall he’s the second-gen Green who’s currently running HL) explained that he was suuuuuper sorry; when he first got into collecting antiquities 11 years prior and went on a world-wide smuggle-spree, he just had no idea that provenance (i.e. the well-documented origins of an artifact—which also proves the legality of ownership of the artifact) was at all important. Ummm…. You didn’t… you didn’t think that was important, Steve?! You didn’t think the fucking LEGAL DOCUMENTS showing you legally purchased really old and really expensive ANTIQUITIES would be important?!
Literally, here’s what he said: “I trusted the wrong people to guide me, and unwittingly dealt with unscrupulous dealers in those early years.” Fuck you, Steve Green. Fuck you. I’m appalled that people would actually buy that dumbass excuse. I’ll never have $4.6 million to lose, but even I know that provenance is vital when you’re buying antiquities. Like dude, I save receipts for things I pay like $50 for—I’m definitely getting all the paperwork if I’m throwing $1.6 million on some really valuable ancient artifacts from another country. And Steve Green’s telling us he runs a huge fucking company but doesn’t know he needs the paperwork?! Additionally, anyone with an ounce of sense can tell when something shifty is going on; Steve had to have some kind of idea that things weren’t quite on the up-and-up. Again, you run a huge fucking company and you couldn’t tell you were getting ripped off?! No fucking way. Steve’s just sorry he got caught. Or he’s the most gullible person to have ever existed and I’m shocked he’s lived this long.
Still 2020: remember that one time, when there was a pandemic and most non-essential businesses shut down for a hot minute, either voluntarily or by city/county/state/federal mandate? Yeah… HL stayed open everywhere they could. They didn’t even need to bother trying to come up with how they were an essential business—in a lot of places (especially conservative areas), they operated illegally if their staying open was prohibited by law.
You see, Barbara Green (the matriarch of the Green family and co-founder of HL) received a Message From God. Here–I can’t make this shit up–this is literally what Mr. Green said to his employees, in an email, telling them that they get to keep playing the “will I get Covid?” game:
[T]he Lord put on Barbara’s heart three profound words to remind us that He’s in control. Guide, Guard, and Groom. […] We serve a God who will Guide us through this storm, who will Guard us as we travel to places never seen before, and who, as a result of this experience, will Groom us to be better than we could have ever thought possible before now.
I can’t say that if I were an HL employee that I’d be comfortable with the oppressive deity of my corporate overlord grooming me for shit. But it gets BETTER:
While we do not know for certain what the future holds, or how long this disruption (ummmm, a DISRUPTION?! You call the death of millions a DISRUPTION?!) will last, we can all rest in knowing that God is in control. […] To help ensure our Company remains strong […] we may all have to ‘tighten our belts’ over the near future.
What in the fuck was that even supposed to fucking mean?! “Tighten our belts”?! Nah fool, you tighten your belt. Mr. “We can afford to lose 4.6 million dollars” can afford to pay for a skosh bit of sick time; maybe even some, I don’t know, paid leave during store closures… But I totally see how the better investment was collecting counterfeit biblical paper scraps.
The real “fuck the workers” tidbit is that HL only offers paid sick leave to salaried employees (managers and corporate types), not hourly employees (the people who make the store run). They did not alter that policy during the pandemic. In fact, David Green told managers to “make every effort to continue working the employees” after refusing to pay for covid sick leave. Not even regular sick leave, covid-specific sick leave.
If you rely on your job as a Hobby Lobby cashier, or stock worker, or warehouse worker to survive, are you really inclined to call out sick, with no paid sick leave? No, you’d risk the odds—chances were that it wouldn’t be a bad case of covid, so if you called out but only had a mild case, you’ve lost out on, say, eating for a week. For nothing. How many people were covid statistics because some poor HL worker had to risk it and some old lady really needed one more skein of yarn? All because God didn’t broadcast “paid sick leave for all” in their celestial radio transmittal. What a pity the Bible didn’t specify to treat your employees with dignity and respect. But maybe, God thought treating your employees with respect shouldn’t have needed a special transmission or a special mention in the Bible.
Then, HL did an abrupt about-face a month later and announced that they’d be closing all their stores and furloughing all of their employees. One employee told Business Insider that “The line our manager gave us [from corporate] was, ‘The employees got what the employees wanted; the stores were closed. My question was, ‘Did God tell them they needed to close the stores and not pay us?'”
I don’t know about you. But I cannot worship a version of a god that requires human death and suffering because the Holy Craft Store was ordained to stay open, then closed in what amounts to the capitalist version of “let them eat cake.” Neither a religion nor an economy should be built on the blood and bones of the poor or the workers.
Also still 2020: the hits just kept coming for poor Steve Green, when the DOJ seized a piece of the epic of Gilgamesh that was on display at the “museum.” Allegedly the Gilgamesh Dream Tablet, as it was known, was smuggled into the US by an antiquities dealer and then sold to HL, with Steve not knowing that the tablet was acquired illegally. Weird how smuggled cuneiform tablets KEEP COMING UP. This just happened to happen to a known smuggler?! Steve Green just randomly happened to run into an underhanded antiquities dealer in like the produce aisle of the grocery store, and he just happened to have an illegally-obtained chunk of the Epic of Gilgamesh? And Steve Green–who was literally convicted of running a smuggling operation through his corporate office–didn’t realize that his new friend maybe wasn’t 100% above-board?
Dude. Steve. Get some new friends and send all your “museum” shit back from whence the fuck it came.
2022: remember that time in 2012 that HL sued the US government, and then in 2014 when the US Supreme Court ruled in favor of HL not having to pay for contraceptives in their employee health insurance offerings? Well, it turns out that HL had some forewarning about the Court’s decision. It’s a little hearsay-ish, but basically an anti-abortion activist named Rev. Rob Schenck came forward and said that he was told about the verdict weeks before it was announced and told HL, which gave HL’s PR machine time to prepare for the media blitz that occurred after the decision was announced. Apparently, some friends of his had dinner at Justice Alito’s house, and Alito informed his guests about the decision. They in turn informed Rev. Schenck, who then informed David Green. I mean, I guess it’s not that big of a deal (how many times have we been thankful for a head’s up in our everyday lives, right?), but it gave HL time gird their loins against the outcry they knew would come. It gave them an advantage in the Court of Public Opinion. And it kind of just… speaks to the incestuous intermarriage of Government, “Justice,” and Business in America.
That brings us to the present. The racism-purveying, vengeful god-peddling, antiquity-smuggling Greens remain as powerful and important as they’ve always been, if not more so. There’s nothing to me that’s more emblematic of Hobby Lobby’s clout than the fact that their name is carved into the “Ring of Honor” of the Oklahoma State Capitol rotunda, which is filled with the names of the 13 donors who gave $1 million or more towards the construction of the Capitol building. They’re there alongside Halliburton, Phillips Petroleum, Conoco, General Motors, and a couple individual rich Oklahomans. The “people of Oklahoma” are there too, but they only contributed $1.25 million. Losers. I’m glad the OK State Representatives know who pays their bills.
A Tale of Two Industrialists
The Greens, the Gilded Age, and good old-fashioned greed
Part 1: What in the filthy rich fuck?
Aside from the scandalous behavior outlined previously, there is this… event… that I find interesting. It’s not a scandal per se; it’s more like David Green created this situational diorama showcasing his hypocrisy, his greed, and his extremely scary (to me) mission.
Recall that in 2022 the founder/owner of Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard, decided to join a recent rash of billionaires and give away his business to a charitable trust to help combat the climate crisis—which is so on-brand for Patagonia. If you’re anything like me, you probably heard that and were like “omg that’s so nice! And so… Patagonia!” And we do that because Patagonia has been so successful in making its brand, and Chouinard himself, synonymous with eco-consciousness. While I’m sure we were all surprised, it’s not really surprising.
Now the whole Patagonia episode is addressed so nicely by Adam Conover in his YouTube video “Why There’s No Such Thing as a Good Billionaire” that I’m not going to discuss it here. Except to say that when David Green announced a month later that he was so inspired by Chouinard that he, too, decided to give his company away… to God… I’ll admit it, I was skeptical. On multiple levels. Green announced this in an op ed for Fox News (of course), saying “I chose God” before going on to explain his decision further—I’ve got the good parts parsed out for you in order to spare you the discomfort of reading the entire thing:
The thought process reflects a basic competition of ideas that I think every business leader should reflect upon. What is the true source of your success? […] The Bible says in Deuteronomy 8.18 that it’s God who gives us the power to make wealth. […] For me, my source of truth has always been prayer and the Bible. […]
For instance, the Bible talks about giving a tithe or 10%. In fact, tithing is one of those areas where God specifically challenges us to give and see if he won’t throw open the windows of blessing (Malachi 3:10). Can you imagine what would happen if every top leader in business became a tither? There would be literally billions available for good work around the world. […]
But perhaps the biggest challenge is to ask the question of whether you are an owner or a steward – a manager of what you’ve been entrusted with.
As an owner, there are certain rights and responsibilities, including the right to sell the company and keep the profits for yourself and your family. As our company grew, that idea began to bother me more and more. Well-meaning attorneys and accountants advised me to simply pass ownership down to my children and grandchildren. It didn’t seem fair to me that I might change or even ruin the future of grandchildren who had not even been born yet.
As I considered my path, I realized that all my success had come from God. My wife, Barbara, and I had started this business with a $600 loan and I don’t think anyone would have bet on us to become successful.
But from the very beginning our purpose was to honor God in all that we did. We worked hard and God gave the results. As we were blessed by God, we saw it as a great privilege to give back. We’ve been able to provide hope through supporting ministries and planting churches all over the world.
That bigger mission and purpose helped me realize that I was just a steward […] That stewardship gave me a greater responsibility. I wasn’t supposed to take the profits of the business and use them for myself. I also had a responsibility to the employees that God had put in my charge. This is why our company pays a minimum wage of $18.50 per hour, why we close on Sunday (which had been our most profitable day of business), and why we close by 8 p.m. every day.
More importantly, I was responsible for the mission and purpose of what I’d been given. When I realized that I was just a steward, it was easy to give away my ownership. […]
Best of all, when I made the decision to give away my ownership, similar to Patagonia’s Yvon Chouinard, it allowed us to sustain our mission and purpose. It gives me a bigger purpose than just making money. Like Chouinard said, “Instead of ‘going public,’ you could say we’re ‘going purpose.’”
Apparently I wasn’t the only person who went “whuuuuuuut the fuck?” so Green went on some Fox News show to further explain himself. So here’s some additional information from the accompanying Fox Business article that explains Green’s decision further:
Green, who said 100% of the company’s voting stock has been moved to a trust where the ‘stewardship’ can continue to pass on to one person from another. […]
‘We do something real novel: you get what you earn. If you don’t earn anything, you don’t get anything… But no one actually creates a lot of wealth. […] Wealth can be a curse; we all do well, working in the company and get[ting] paid for what we do. So we see ourselves as, really, stewardships of the profits that we earn.’ […]
Varney asked Green if customers can expect Hobby Lobby, with its 969 arts-and-crafts stores in 47 states, to fund Christianity and ministries across the country — to which the founder replied with an emphatic ‘yes.’
‘Exactly, that’s the way it’s going to be from now on. That’s the way it’s set up. There’s no buyout [possibility]. We get joy in doing what we do in terms of our giving. […] At some point, there’s just nothing more that this world has that I want,’ Green continued. ‘So why would I not have joy in giving what we have? We actually give 50% of our profits every year. And we have no debt.
Let’s look at the positives: gold star to HL for paying their employees well. $18.50 an hour is nothing to sneeze at! No really. Don’t sneeze on the employees. Remember: they don’t get sick time. And it is cool that the stores close at 8pm and they’re closed on Sundays. So really as long as an employee can hold it together ’til 8pm every weeknight they’re fine! And hey, on Sunday they can be sick all day if they want to be!
Maybe I’m missing another silver lining in this cloud of noxious billionaire bullshit, but I think that sums up the positives section.
Without rehashing all of the incidents we’ve already covered, I feel like every layer of this “give it to God” move is rife with hypocrisy. There’s David Green himself, whose existence seems like one hypocritical moment after the next, with his extreme conservative Christian values clashing with pretty much everything right and good in the world. Next, there’s the inherent hypocrisy in Christian Nationalist organizations, which I would guess are reaping the benefits of HL’s Christian goodness. I shudder to think of how much money is being funneled into Christian extremist organizations, every one of which is rife with hypocrisy in and of itself. Then on top of that, you’ve got the hypocrisy of the Green family pretending that they’re sacrificing so much as they hand over their profits to charity. All the Green family has to do to keep milking that HL cash cow is to continue hiring themselves and their relatives. Because remember, their salaries are considered an overhead cost (the equation you should keep in mind is: earnings – overhead = profit), so even though the family is no longer getting any of HL’s billions of dollars of profits, they’re still getting what likely is millions of dollars per year in an annual salary. Plus whatever “perks” the position comes with, like company transportation (for us peons that would be like a 2015 Toyota Prius with 130,000 miles. For the Greens it’s probably like a new Leerjet or something).
Not to mention the fact that this move avoids death/estate/gift/all the other taxes that would be incurred either by giving the business to Steve and his siblings, or upon the deaths of David and Barbara. Saving them billions of dollars. And withholding that tax revenue from the local, state, and federal infrastructure that they benefit from more than most taxpayers.
What’s interesting to me though, is that all of this feels like a farcical performance of Gilded Age values playing out in real time.
Part 2: Ah yes, Saint Andrew
The Patron Saint of Libraries and Negligent Homicide
As a lifelong student of history, I started getting a déjà vu feeling when the billionaires started giving away their piles of wealth, and indeed their entire business, to charity. As I was on the long, lonely drive to Pittsburgh one day, the reason why finally hit me.
Andrew. Fucking. Carnegie.
If you’re not familiar, Andrew Carnegie is one of America’s Favorite Industrialists from the Gilded Age. He’s probably the most fondly-remembered person from the Industrial Age (…if you’re a capitalist, anyways), and his legacy lives on today through the fuck ton of libraries he funded the construction of.
Importantly for our purposes, Carnegie wrote an article called The Gospel of Wealth in 1889, which kind of became the foundation for the philosophy of corporate philanthropy. I found an article for us that summarized Carnegie’s and his Gospel of Wealth’s cultural impact, which is good because it’s so difficult for me to write positively about industrialists. What follows are excerpts from “Deconstructing the Carnegie Libraries: The Sociological Reasons Behind Carnegie’s Millions to Public Libraries,” written by Michael Lorenzen and accessed on Illinois Periodicals Online at Northern Illinois University Libraries:
Andrew Carnegie was a Scottish immigrant to the United States in the mid-19th century. He was poor and was working full time at the age of 12. Despite his poor background and the discrimination he faced as an immigrant, he built an industrial empire based on the manufacturing of steel. When he sold his business empire and retired he was worth an estimated $400 million. His rags to riches story led him to believe that America was a meritocratic society where anyone who worked hard and smart with a little luck could be successful.
[…] Carnegie believed that accumulation of wealth by a few was inevitable in any capitalistic society. Further, this concentration of wealth in the hands of a few was necessary for democracy and freedom to prevail and for the whole of society to be prosperous. Any attempt to circumvent this system would lead to anarchy and tyranny. However, Carnegie believed that those who did make it had a moral obligation to give their fortune away before they died to benefit society. In particular, this money was to be spent in a way that did not encourage laziness (charities that only dealt with symptoms and not the problem) but that created institutions that made opportunities for anyone with the right character to be successful and rich.
This philosophy of Carnegie was translated into a wide variety of areas. He gave away $333 million of his fortune on various activities, including an attempt to simplify spelling, helping churches, endowing (and in some cases founding) institutions of higher education, and supporting the arts. However, his largest gifts were reserved for libraries. Carnegie gave money to build 2,509 libraries throughout the English-speaking world, including the British Isles, Australia, and New Zealand. Of these libraries, 1,679 of them were built in the United States and in American possessions that were later incorporated into America proper (Alaska, Hawaii, Puerto Rico, Samoa, and the U.S. Virgin Islands). He spent more than $55 million on libraries alone and he is often referred to as the “Patron Saint of Libraries.”
Carnegie had two main reasons for donating money to the founding of libraries. First, he believed that libraries added to the meritocratic nature of America. Anyone with the right inclination and desire could educate himself. Second, Carnegie believed that immigrants like himself needed to acquire cultural knowledge of America, which the library allowed immigrants to do.
Carnegie indicated it was the first reason that was the most important to him. As a boy working a hard job with long hours, he had no access to education.
However, a Colonel Anderson started a small library of 400 books, which he lent on Saturday afternoons to local boys. This is how Carnegie educated himself. […] Carnegie is quoted as saying, “In a public library men could as least share cultural opportunities on a basis of equality.” Through the library, all could educate themselves enough to share in America’s richness if they so desired.
The second reason Carnegie invested a large portion of his fortune into libraries was the cultural education of immigrants. He believed immigrants would use the library like he had, and the result would be a more homogenous American people. Carnegie is quoted as saying, “Show me the man who speaks English, reads Shakespeare and Bobby Burns and I’ll show you a man who has absorbed the American principles. He will most likely read also the Declaration of Independence and Washington’s Farewell Address.”
It is only fair to add that any contemporaries of Andrew Carnegie found a third reason why Carnegie gave away his money. In essence, they believed Carnegie was an egotist who liked the attention giving money got him and that he relished having thousands of buildings named after him.[…] Mark Twain always addressed Carnegie as “Saint Andrew” in jest for this reason. Andrew Carnegie always referred to Mark Twin as “Saint Mark” in return. It is only fair to further note that regardless of any egotism on Carnegie’s part; he did give away 90 percent of his fortune in his lifetime. Had he lived another decade, he probably would have given it all away.
And I have to tell you, when I first learned Andrew Carnegie’s story, I liked him for it. I mean yeah, he was one of the elitest of the elites, but here was a guy that was trying to use the system he had clawed to the top of to effect change. He was a self-made man. A Scottish immigrant. A genius. A businessman who understood his responsibility to his employees and the world at large, at least on some level. Carnegie was the grandfather of Corporate Responsibility, which any employee of a corporation will tell you, is now its own tab on most companies’ intranet landing pages. And it does give me some kind of (cold) comfort to know that my corporate overlords are “contributing to our communities” when I’m mentally preparing to sell eight hours of my life five days a week.
But seriously — Carnegie was one of the “good” industrialists, right? He planted libraries like David Green is planting churches. Who doesn’t love libraries? Anyone will tell you that libraries are an integral part of any community, for so many reasons. Most liberals and left-leaning people would probably protect libraries with our fucking lives if it came down to it. As the memes will tell you, there’s a lot of bibliophiles who are still pissed about the Library of Alexandria, so I can’t imagine going after libraries in the communities of those bibliophiles.
In addition, Carnegie brought so many jobs—both in his own time and for future generations—in my home region of the Rust Belt and made it possible for so many people—Americans, immigrants, the poor and the new working class—to work in skilled occupations in the steel industry.
But have you ever heard of a place called Johnstown, PA? Their Carnegie Library came at far too high a cost.
Part 3: Well Dam(n)
Never Trust Rich People With Upkeep Projects
In 1889 (the year Gospel of Wealth was published) Johnstown was a thriving town of 30,000 on the Little Conemaugh River that was reaping the benefits of the burgeoning steel industry. Along with bustling factories and a railroad in town, another symbol of the Gilded Age was just a scant 12 miles upriver: the South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club.
The South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club was a members-only, member-owned “club” for wealthy industrialists from Pittsburgh and the surrounding areas to enjoy “roughing it” while hunting, fishing, and recreating with their families on the banks of Lake Conemaugh–the lake formed by the South Fork Dam, which the Club owned, on the Little Conemaugh River.
Amongst the Club’s members was, coincidentally, one Andrew Carnegie. While Andrew didn’t spend much, if any, time at the Club, he was a dues-paying member, as were several higher-ups in the Carnegie Steel power structure and many of Carnegie’s business associates. People like:
- Henry Clay Frick: he’s got a park and a museum in Pittsburgh, and was basically Carnegie’s business BFF/right-hand-man for a long time;
- John George Alexander Leishman: president of Carnegie Steel and also BFFs with Carnegie and Frick;
- Andrew Mellon: a business associate of Carnegie’s;
- Robert Pitcairn: Carnegie’s childhood friend from the Pittsburgh slums, who also became an industrialist;
- Col. Elias J Unger: an early business partner of Carnegie’s and the Club’s second president.
Most of the members were from Pittsburgh or the surrounding region, so this gaggle of industrialists was made primarily of steel magnates or leaders in associated industries (like coal and construction). These kings of industry and their families flocked to the Club to stay in “cottages” on well-maintained grounds resembling a natural landscape.
Well… it was all well-maintained to an extent. They did not do a good job maintaining… the dam.
This is a multifaceted tragedy that I could discuss for hours, but let me give you the salient points for our current discussion:
- Following several days of above-average rainfall, South Fork Dam broke due to years of poor maintenance and unsafe structural changes to the dam (for cosmetic reasons and ease of access). The ensuing flood created a 60 ft tall wall of water moving approximately 40 mph that hit about six other towns/villages before making its way to Johnstown. One of the villages was destroyed so completely that only the bedrock remained.
- Because of all the debris in the water (from the homes and buildings of the demolished towns, with some buildings still whole; livestock; trees; several trains; a railroad bridge/viaduct; miles of barbed wire; and whatever else it had managed to pick up, along with A LOT OF FUCKING PEOPLE), the water became dammed by a railroad bridge on the outskirts of Johnstown. So all the water, all the debris, all the humans and animals… that debris flow just flowed right on through Johnstown and then got stuck.
ONE of the trains in the debris flow. Can you imagine fighting for your life against a goddamn TRAIN?!
- The situation escalated further because the flood waters had created their own current—and their own whirlpool. And since the flood waters had literally picked entire buildings up and taken them downriver—and some of those buildings had lit stoves in them—there were fires, with no shortage of fuel sources. So, the Huge Fucking Flood also had a Fucking Fiery Death Whirlpool.
- 2,208 people died, making it one of the deadliest disasters in American history. 99 families were entirely wiped out. 396 kids were killed. 98 other kids were orphaned. 124 women and 198 men were widowed. 777 bodies were unable to be identified—be that because everyone who knew those people were dead, or because the bodies were in a terrible state, they’re all buried in a mass grave you can still visit in Johnstown.
The debris left when the water receded.
- This literally happened because the Gilded Age’s Captains of Industry couldn’t be bothered to maintain a dam they owned.
Cambria Iron Works after the flood. Interesting side note: the general manager of this company was extremely concerned about the condition of the dam in the years prior to the flood, even offering to personally finance part of the repairs. The Club refused.
Survivors filed lawsuits, but the Court found that the Club and its members could not be held legally liable (responsible) for the disaster, basically because the plaintiffs (the people doing the suing) couldn’t prove that any one Club member had acted negligently. So because they couldn’t prove which particular industrialist was negligent, none of the industrialists were held responsible for the disaster their pleasure lake caused.
That’s the part of the case that captured the nation’s attention, anyways. I’m sure the headlines probably sounded more dramatic that way. In reality, the main reason the cases were unsuccessful was because the defendants (the entities being sued) had built the Club in such a way that the members’ personal assets weren’t connected to the Club. That’s basically how corporations work though. Most capitalists form their corporation as a separate entity, which according to law makes it its own person basically. So that corporate “person” (I like to call it an entity; it sounds more like a demonic force so it’s a more accurate description for corporations) is a totally separate entity from the actual person who owns the business. It shields the business owner from being personally liable for the entity’s missteps.
This meant that the Club as a corporate entity—because corporations are people too!—and its one-percenter members were off the hook for paying any damages (monetary compensation) to the people whose lives (and probably livelihoods) were ruined. And of course, they were protected from facing any sort of, I don’t know, negligent homicide charges. Because, you know. Money and privilege. That being said, the plaintiffs’ plight did inspire the nation through those dramatic headlines. The plaintiffs’ failed cases inspired codification of law regarding strict liability, which basically is meant to protect consumers and citizens from hazards caused by certain acts, environments, or entities. The Flood victims’ loss wasn’t totally in vain, but it certainly didn’t give the victims any justice.
But it’s totally cool though.
Water under the bridge, as it were, I’m sure.
Because Andrew Carnegie built Johnstown a new goddamn library.
Coincidentally, that library is now the home of the Johnstown Flood Museum.
I feel like Carnegie building a fucking library in the town his country club decimated was just another way for an elitist to kick the working-class people of Johnstown when they were down. Like… you and your buddies couldn’t compensate the victims of the flood, but you can BUILD A GODDAMN LIBRARY FOR THEM?! I mean, books are essential and all, but they can’t be used to purchase things, like a house. Or to pay for burial expenses. Or to compensate people for their lost wages.
I do love that the library building now houses a museum containing all the facts that recast Andrew Carnegie and his cronies as the villains they were. The divine retribution of facts. The museum made an Academy Award-winning documentary about the Johnstown Flood that I would encourage you to watch for further information on this not-often-enough-discussed subject. It’s only 26 minutes long, and it’s on YouTube: https://youtu.be/pPhyMOhNc48.
Part 4: Pretty In Pinkerton
The Homestead Strike of 1892—Or, Carnegie’s 1892 Summer Vacation
Unfortunately, the 2,208 lives lost in the Johnstown Flood weren’t the only lives Carnegie played a role in ending. In 1892, there was a labor dispute between the company and the union at Carnegie Steel’s Homestead, PA plant on the banks of the Monongahela River. Carnegie was on vacay or something in Scotland, so he told his BFF (and fellow South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club member!) Henry Clay Frick to basically break the union by whatever means necessary so that the workers didn’t strike. Frick started by presenting a wage CUT to the union. I’m guessing the union reps were like “nah dude, you can shove that right back where it came from,” because they sure did reject that offer. What a surprise, right?
Frick then decided to up the ante and followed that up by locking the workers out of the mill, while erecting a huge fence topped with barbed wire around the perimeter of the factory. The workers called it “Fort Frick.” But Frick didn’t stop there. A few days later, he went ahead and fired all 3,800 employees. Now at this point Frick must have realized that he was courting trouble, so he hired 300 Pinkerton agents to occupy the factory.
FYI, the Pinkerton Detective Agency was a private detective/security firm—America’s first, in fact—that became infamous for their employment by industrialists to break strikes. Fun fact: they are still often employed by industrialists to break strikes, now as a division of Securitas.
The workers figured that Frick was fixing to bring in scabs once they found out the Pinkertons were involved, so thousands of workers, along with their families and friends, stormed the pier where the Pinkertons were trying to dock. Both sides exchanged “intense” gunfire, according to Encyclopedia Britannica. The Pinkertons surrendered to the workers, who escorted them off their barges and to the town jail—for their safety. I’m pretty sure once they reached they jail they were good to go, since they were put on a train back to Pittsburgh in the dead of night. But they did get severely beaten on the way there, and they had to leave via train because their barges had been burned by the workers.
All told, 3 Pinkertons and 7 comrades were killed in the battle.
The workers briefly took control of the factory, but the PA governor sent 8,500 National Guard troops to intervene. The occupiers surrendered the mill to the troops peacefully, scabs were brought in, and it was back to Big Business as usual.
That is to say, Frick continued his merciless attacks against the workers. Following an unsuccessful assassination attempt against Frick by a Russian anarchist unconnected with the union, coupled with the mistreatment of the Pinkertons after they surrendered, public opinion turned against the workers. Scores of workers, and importantly, scores of union leaders, were arrested and criminally charged. Most were acquitted, but the process kept the union leaders away from their members when they needed their leaders the most.
Things took a further turn when Frick figured out how to weaponize the fact that the union didn’t allow Black members (yes, there was segregation in Pittsburgh, which is so far north that it’s only 135 miles from the Canadian border. But it’s only 50 miles from the Mason-Dixon Line). Frick started hiring Black men from the South, who would make more money working in a steel mill as a scab at reduced wages than they would working as sharecroppers. Violence broke out between 2,000 white union members and Black scabs and their families, in which several people were severely wounded.
Within the same month, the strike was over. Some workers reapplied for their old jobs, but with 12-hour days and reduced pay. Frick, and by extension Carnegie, won.
Not the greatest chapter in American Labor history on so many levels; however, the only person in that whole episode who was utter shit from start to finish was Frick. Carnegie’s BFF. The dude he told to do whatever he had to do to break the union.
My grandmother always said you can tell a lot about a person by who they’re friends with.
Part 5: A Mound of Fucking Problems
Now, in this last scandal, nobody dies! The most egregiously victimized people in this scenario were already dead.
Like the Green Family, Andrew Carnegie also decided that he needed a museum, and since the greater Pittsburgh region has been inhabited by humans for approximately 19,000 years (according to the Carnegie Museum’s most recent estimates) and is a very interesting region from a geologic perspective as well, a museum or two would not have gone amiss. Thus, he founded the Carnegie Museum of Natural History.
The museum’s first excavation project was a local one: McKees Rocks, a town right outside of Pittsburgh, just happened to have an ancient burial mound atop a bluff overlooking the confluence of Chartiers Creek and the Ohio River. McKees Rocks is on the outer edges of what used to be populated by the Adena culture, who lived in the area around 500 BCE – 100 CE. The Adenas covered a territory which is centered in modern-day Ohio and stretches into Indiana, Kentucky, West Virginia, and southwestern PA. They lived in villages comprised of circular homes with conical roofs, and subsisted through hunting, fishing, and gathering plants. Notably the Adenas also had an extensive trade network, which tells us a lot about human and cultural movements in early American history. They’re perhaps best known for their burial mounds, which were multigenerational communal burial sites that can still be seen in some areas today. Not this mound, though.
In 1896, Carnegie’s archeologists went ahead and took apart half of the mound, dug up some of the people interred there, took them and their shit, and put it all in their museum. They left the other half of the mound alone and went back to their museum with the remains of 33 members of the Adena culture and all their burial treasure.
So right there we’ve got kind of the typical “rich white dude in the late 19th/early 20th century” vibes: desecrating ancient tombs of subjected peoples, looting said tombs, and then taking the loot back to their chosen museum. To carry it further, once these “archeologists” were done completely obliterating half of an ancient burial site, they literally just fucking left. No safeguarding the site, no putting up a plaque, no nothing. Just “bye bitch!” and gone.
Now the first problem in this scenario (other than the overt institutionalized racism inherent in rich white dudes desecrating sacred sites without regard to its cultural and historical significance and then stealing the human remains) is that archeology at that time was not at all like the archeology we have today. Preservation techniques now exist, and of course there’s a bevy of tools available today that weren’t even dreamt of back then (like radiocarbon dating and shit). Probably there’s a little bit more protection against the desecration of the graves of Native Americans (maybe? At the very least more people give a shit), and there’s also sometimes repatriation efforts that occur (although there seems to be mixed success—and no success for the descendants of the Adenas). So I do recognize that Carnegie’s archeologists were products of their time, blah blah blah, but still. It doesn’t seem like much of a leap to think the archeologists could have spared a second to think “oh hey, maybe we shouldn’t completely dismantle half of an American Indian burial site, remove the sacred remains of the tombs, take all of the artifacts we can find, and then leave the other half completely unmarked and unprotected from man and nature.”
The second issue literally made me physically ill.
Sometime during the 20th century, the municipality of McKees Rocks needed a new hill to quarry for supplemental macadam (crushed up rock used to pave roads). Basically, they needed to choose a hill to grind up to make paving material for their local roads. They chose the bluff for their quarry. After enough of the bluff was ground up, they put a cement production facility there as well.
As you would imagine, the quarrying activity basically dismantled the bluff itself, and completely obliterated whatever was left of the mound. In fact, the cement factory is where the mound would have been if it still stood. The primary article I used for research on this event was written by a local historian who became involved with the Seneca Nation’s attempt to have the mound preserved. Until they actually went to the bluff and discovered the mound had been replaced by a cement factory. Can you imagine the fucking gut punch that must have been? To discover that this ancient sacred site had been erased from the face of the earth and replaced by a cement factory?
This is so wrong on so many levels. Carnegie’s museum, the town government of McKees Rocks, and the locals could have preserved this sacred resting place, the oldest parts of which were constructed around the same time as the Roman Forum (which is beloved by western civilization). They could have preserved that space for future generations—for future archeologists to study with better tech, and for all of us to better understand the history of the North American continent. They could have treated it with the same respect and decorum that they treated their own cemeteries. I understand that not every single historical thing can be saved in the never-ending march of progress, but I would think the mound would have been a prime candidate, especially seeing as how it was the largest one in western PA.
It’s worth noting that National Parks had been invented by this point, and the first National Park established specifically to protect Native American ruins was created in 1906 (Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado). I don’t expect that half a burial mound would warrant a national park, but the point is that the spirit of preservation and conservation existed at the time that the mound was excavated, and it only gained steam in the decades that followed. If the museum, the town, or the local population had given half a shit, which wouldn’t have been out of the norm, the mound could have been protected.
Ironically, the only reason we know anything about the McKees Rocks Mound today is because of the museum’s excavation.
The thing that’s haunting me is… if Carnegie’s archeologists “excavated” half of the mound, and there were 33 people in half of it, then wouldn’t that mean… there were people in the other half? Maybe dozens of people? And then the mound was left alone on the bluff, which was obliterated to pave roads, which destroyed the mound, and then the ex-bluff was quarried so much they built an on-site factory to process the excavated ex-bluff into macadam, and the factory is where the mound used to be… does that mean… that McKees Rocks’ roads contain the crushed up bones from the Adena remains that weren’t stolen from the mound? That can’t be what that means, right? RIGHT? I’ve driven on those roads. Oh God.
OH GOD PLEASE SOMEONE TELL ME THAT ISN’T WHAT HAPPENED.
Part 6: “Good” Industrialists Are Bad Human Beings
No, You Don’t Get Extra Brownie Points for Building Libraries
Remarkably, in all of these scandals, Carnegie was never directly involved. Johnstown Flood—he just happened to be a member of South Fork Hunting and Fishing Club, but had rarely or never personally been there. Homestead Strike—he just gave carte blanche to Frick to do whatever was necessary to get the union to fall in line. McKees Rocks Mound—he just founded the museum, it’s not like he was in charge of their day-to-day, right? Dude seriously knew how to keep his hands clean, and to this day I think that most people still view him as the Father of Corporate Philanthropy.
I think Carnegie has blood on his hands. Sure, he didn’t personally put the kibosh on dam repairs. He didn’t tell Frick to go full-on Captain Unionbuster. He didn’t tell his archeologists to demolish half a burial mound and abandon it. He wasn’t even alive when the town ground up the remainder of the mound.
The thing is that he financed and underwrote all of these things. He never once lifted a finger to stop any of it. He had to have heard about the dam’s condition—the outcries from Johnstown prior to the dam’s failure would have likely reached him, since the main voice in the outcries was the manager of an ironworks plant and would have known how to reach the Club members, especially since he actually joined the Club to reach them, so I feel like the dam’s condition wasn’t a secret. And come on, it had to have been discussed over cigars and port between him and his buddies. Or maybe he really didn’t know the dam was fucked. Maybe he was just as surprised as most everyone else. But he (and/or his legal team) certainly went out of their way to ensure that the victims weren’t compensated for the damage that Carnegie’s club did to their lives. And I can’t find any records indicating that the Club members pitched in to help the relief efforts (although Rockefeller’s Standard Oil Company sent a carload of kerosene, so I guess an industrialist helped…). A. Library. Was. Not. Enough.
And like I said, it’s not like Carnegie gave Frick explicit instructions on how to bust the union. Carnegie just gave him a blank check. Clearly Frick was a really fucked up dude with a deep-seated hatred of the working class. Some of the shit Frick pulled during the Homestead Strike was flat-out cruel. And it got so quickly out-of-hand I would have thought the business owner would want to get involved, at least for damage control. But nope, Carnegie was just living his best life in Scotland. There’s nothing to indicate he ever told Frick to tone it down either. So through his delegation and subsequent silence, we can infer that Frick had Carnegie’s full auspices to act as he did. And again, Carnegie had to have known. Like, you aren’t tight with someone like that—and you definitely don’t make someone your business ride-or-die—without knowing they’re batshit crazy and/or ruthlessly cruel. Carnegie knew what he was doing when he turned to Frick to handle the Homestead Strike.
The only thing I feel like is something to lay at Carnegie’s feet in terms of the McKees Rocks Mound debacle is the excavation and abandonment of the site. It was handled with so little care and respect, and given that this was the first excavation the museum performed, Carnegie had to have been made aware, if only so that he could further bestow his financial benevolence upon the institution he founded. Kids always run up to their parents to show them their gold star and get their allowance, and it’s (unfortunately) the same for charitable institutions with their benefactors. So Carnegie knew about the mound, but did nothing to ensure its continued existence.
Now that we know the good (woooooo libraries) and the bad (boooooooo floods, strikes, and tomb raiding!), we can reflect upon Carnegie’s life and legacy. He didn’t directly do anything wrong, but he definitely left the world a worse place than he found it upon his departure from life in 1919. Sure, in the 100+ years since his passing the 2,509 libraries, the museums, and the institutions of higher learning that he founded have probably helped innumerable people. Hell, I benefitted from my hometown’s Carnegie Library.
But just as he didn’t directly hurt anyone, he didn’t directly help anyone, either. He could have chosen to help people affected by his actions/decisions—but rather than taking any sort of direct action, he let the conditions in each scenario we’ve discussed worsen exponentially before it resolved without his intervention.
Andrew Carnegie funded organizations that inflicted harm—harm to his community, his workers, and history itself.
Image: Kitty Sonic.
Part 7: In Closing, This Reboot Sucks Ass
Apparently We’re Doomed to Repeat History Even If We Learned It
Now you understand why Andrew Carnegie has been on my mind. David Green reminds me of him, with his declaration of “growing purpose” or whatever. Very “Gospel of Wealth.” And like Carnegie, on the surface has the Green family done anything wrong? Even though the Green family is much more hands-on with being shitty human beings, all of the scandals we talked about could be written off as mistakes (…if you’re a gullible fool…). They donate half of HL’s profits to charity already, and now they’re throwing the whole kit and caboodle to charitable causes.
David, and the Green family, are trying to convince us all that they’re “good” capitalists like Carnegie, funding the things that are important to them. For Carnegie, it was cementing and funding the future of capitalism through education—which at least does have a goodly amount of positive impact outside of Preparing Tomorrow’s Workers (unintended, I’m sure). For David and the Green family, it’s cementing their own corporate nepotism and binding HL to funding the growth of Christian Nationalism, anti-LGBT+ groups, anti-Muslim groups, and who the fuck knows what else, for the rest of HL’s existence. I imagine their charity choices read like a mix of MAGA-affiliated groups and the SPLC Watchlist.
David Green is funding organizations that inflict harm—harm to his community, his workers, and history itself.
There is no such thing as a “good” industrialist. The fact that we live in an era where there are people who are so fabulously wealthy that they can lose millions of dollars, be federal felons, fund what I would call terrorist organizations, and have government protection while doing so is astonishing to me. Because humanity has already gone through this era and it sucked! The Gilded Age saw the first crop of obscenely wealthy capitalists doing whatever they wanted to, with a complicit government and rampant worker abuse. This is just a bad reboot of that era.
Image: Kitty Sonic.
How The Hell Can I Shop At HL?
Exploring ethical consumption
After everything we’ve discussed, I think I actually hate HL’s existence more than when we started. I don’t really shop at HL anymore—but that’s more due to proximity rather than feeling like I’ll barf if I walk into one and see cotton and Bibles everywhere. So why do I still entertain the idea of shopping there? Why do I still drive by an HL and scream “HOBBYLOBBYYYYYYYY!!!!!! Canwego?! Pleasepleaseplease?!”
One of the ideas to fight back against the capitalist machine that’s come up in the past few decades is the idea of “ethical consumerism,” a type of political activism in which people believe that buying a good or service sanctions the good’s manufacturing process and the corporation’s behavior, and thus you should buy things that are manufactured ethically from stores that behave in an ethical manner. Ethical consumerism has given rise to things like conflict-free diamonds, fair-trade coffee, cosmetics not tested on animals, sweat-free clothes… basically the shit that gives us warm fuzzies when we buy it because nobody/nothing died to make it. Which is good, obviously. I love sipping my extremely necessary morning coffee and looking cute without cosigning off on abuse of workers, animals, and/or the planet.
The basic action item for ethical consumerism is for consumers to force corporations to act ethically through boycotts and spreading information, to make other consumers aware of the reasons behind the boycott. It’s a way for consumers to make their voices heard locally and worldwide and provides an avenue to affect change in other countries. Encyclopedia Britannica sums up the thought process nicely:
Underpinning the practice of ethical consumerism is thus the presumption that consumption, a process driven by the global distribution of wealth, can serve as an effective surrogate for other, more traditional forms of democratic representation, such as voting.
So basically, you’re voting (internationally even) with your money.
Now this sounds like a fantastic idea, right? We should be voting with our dollar and not shopping at Hobby Lobby until they start behaving appropriately. We should organize a movement. We should spread the word about the evils of HL and get other people on board with a boycott, and then a public campaign, and media attention, and then HL will surely change their ways!
Or not. Because for all the good that ethical consumerism has brought us, conflict diamonds still exist. Free-trade coffee still exists. Cosmetics tested on animals still exist. Clothes made in sweatshops still exist. In fact, I’d say that (at least for coffee, cosmetics, and clothes; Millennials are killing the diamond industry so hopefully that problem is solving itself) the unethical alternatives are far more numerous and still sell better by leaps and bounds.
So we see that while ethical consumerism does make changes, we also see that the changes don’t really matter.
To see this play out, let’s look at a couple of examples. For this first one, pretend that we live in a Perfect Capitalist World.
I’m mad because BigBox sells shirts made in a sweatshop. I decide to boycott BigBox, and then I tell everyone about it. I write a blog about it. People join me in the boycott. The boycott becomes bigger as people tell their family and friends, and it grows exponentially. BigBox is like “oh no! People are boycotting us! If we want to keep making money we need to stop selling shirts made in sweatshops!” They go to their supplier and tell them that they aren’t going to continue selling their shirts unless the supplier treats their workers well and adheres to a code of ethics. The supplier goes “oh no! If I don’t comply then I’ll lose BigBox’s business! I better start treating the workers well!”
Everyone wins. Hooray.
Now let’s apply the ethical consumption model to crafting, since HL is a craft store, using an example based on real-world facts and my experiences.
I sometimes teach children how to bead (i.e. making jewelry by stringing beads). When I bead by myself I mostly use glass beads, but when I teach kids, I use plastic pony beads. Plastic beads are mostly manufactured in China, because of course they are. But they don’t start there. The material that becomes plastic beads first has to be extracted from the earth, since it’s an oil byproduct. Then that gets converted into plastics (polystyrene and polyethylene) and shipped to a factory in China. There, the plastics are turned into beads by workers whose earnings are directly based on how much they produce. From there, they’re shipped to the US, likely via a ship that docks in the Port of LA/Long Beach. The cargo is offloaded using massive cranes, then placed on a train or a truck for transport to its final destination, which in our example is a Hobby Lobby warehouse.
From there, warehouse employees offload, sort, and store the beads until an HL needs stock, at which point the beads are loaded onto a truck with all sorts of other crafting crap to be sent to the appropriate HL. Then I hop in my car, drive to HL, buy my plastic beads, teach kids how to make something, then these kids and I make shit that they’ll probably wear 24/7 until it falls off—sleeping, eating, bathing, and living in that adorable little bracelet or necklace they made.
Unfortunately, I’ve just devastated the earth and probably given myself and those kids I was teaching some kind of cancer.
At every step of the way, there is something unethical happening:
- Oil drilling – what isn’t evil there;
- Shipping – so much transportation on gas and diesel-powered things, polluting land and ocean;
- Industrial and product safety – someone did a study on the effect of Mardi Gras bead necklaces on the environment and found toxic levels of lead in the soil lining the Mardi Gras parade routes. It was from Mardi Gras beads, which were found to contain toxic levels of “lead, bromine, arsenic, phthalate plasticizers, halogens, cadmium, chromium, mercury and chlorine on and inside the beads.” Plastic craft beads can’t possibly be too far removed from Mardi Gras beads from a manufacturing perspective. So that adorable little bracelet that my five-year-old cousin can’t stop playing with and sucking on when she’s anxious might be depositing who the fuck knows what into her bloodstream, her bones, her organs, her brain.
- Labor practices – well, in China they’ve got teenagers manufacturing beads out of poison which does somewhat dwarf the domestic HL labor concerns, but of course those concerns are also valid.
So after I find all of this out I start looking into other beads, from artisans, small businesses, and ethical companies on the internet (because if plastic beads are toxic, glass beads probably have some undesirable things in them as well, right?). I tell everyone I know about the evils of plastic beads and that they should also look into other beads. But holy hell, ethically-sourced beads are expensive. Cost-prohibitive, even. For beads that look nearly identical to the ones at HL (to the point where I wonder if they’re actually from the same factory). I keep shopping at HL because that’s what I can afford (avoiding plastic beads), but I constantly look for the more ethical options. I try shopping at Michael’s, but one of their beads – the centerpiece of a waist-length statement necklace that was made with seed beads (which are teeny tiny and can take hours to string a 20” strand of, let alone several feet of them) – breaks clean in half. I become embittered for the next several years.
HL eventually introduces the bead equivalent of fair-trade/organic alternatives, made from recycled paper by a collective of women in Ghana to support the cost of educating their children, and they’re only priced slightly above cancer plastic beads. The great thing is that these beads are fairly durable and big enough for little fingers to use! I buy all of them every time I see them. I teach kids how to bead with them, and we talk about how these beads are made, about the global economy, and the benefits of supporting collectives. I tell my beading friends about them and they start buying them up as well. I start to see less and less of them, so I think “fuck yes, they’re selling so well they can’t keep up with demand! This means we’ll get more alternative choices!”
As it turns out, I’m seeing less and less because HL isn’t selling many of them, so they stock less. Now that could be because they displayed them at the bottom of the bead section where you really had to look to find them. It could be because the paper beads have a distinctive look. It could be that there was a price increase compared to regular beads. For whatever reason, it is not profitable for HL to continue stocking these ethical beads. So they stop.
I go to great lengths to continue purchasing ethically-made, sustainable beads, but due to the cost and lack of local availability, it becomes increasingly difficult and time-consuming. A lot of online retail outlets are just selling the same beads that HL does, but for more money. And HL feels absolutely zero impact from my efforts. They keep stocking beads of questionable origin and people keep buying them.
I realize that beads are probably the least concerning thing that might contain toxins and are made/sold with questionable corporate ethics. Maybe I should be more concerned with, I don’t know, anything made of plastic, like cups, or plates, or baby bottles, or my loofah, or my cats’ food bowls, or my coffee maker, or medical devices. Or the fact that all of those toxins are likely already inside my body because of toxins in the soil and in drinking water, deposited there by uncaring corporations who give no fucks about the health of their neighbors. Or the fact that the overwhelming majority of the shit we buy is manufactured in places with few or no safety standards for workers, ingredients, or consumers.
I realize that buying unethical beads isn’t the problem.
Maybe I’m jaded, but I think the whole idea of agonizing over where I shop has grown kind of ridiculous. It doesn’t matter where I shop, or what I buy. Because it’s all unethical. Ethical consumption is just attacking symptoms of the disease, not curing it. The disease being capitalism, obvi.
Ethical consumption can’t bring about meaningful change because we don’t have a unified, worldwide movement to make all consumption ethical. The capitalists have constructed a world that is so fucked that there is no way to ethically consume anything in a developed nation. The food we eat. The clothes we wear. The tech we use. The makeup we wear. The little plastic doodads that make our lives that much easier. The things we do for fun.
People would argue that just lil’ old me doing my best to make changes in my personal life “has an impact.” What impact? The impact to my wallet because I’ve spent so much money buying groceries at Whole Foods that I can’t afford to buy sweat-free garments? And consider the fact that Whole Foods, one of the top purveyors of ethical consumption, is owned by Amazon. Amazon, the company that is currently waging an all-out war against unionization of its employees.
The hard truth is that regardless of the warm fuzzies we get when we shop ethically, the corporations aren’t going to stop using sweatshop labor (at home and abroad). They’re not going to stop treating employees like shit. They’re not going to stop testing on animals. They’re not going to stop poisoning our bodies. They’re not going to stop robbing us of our time, our freedom, and our health. They’re not going to stop wringing everything out of us until they’re made to stop.
Andrew Carnegie and his cronies were stopped from abusing the workers by a large-scale labor movement. Those OG labor unions, the Marxists and unionists and anarchists who organized them, and the socialist uprisings during the latter part of the Industrial Revolution are the reasons why we have any sort of protection from our employers; why we have 8-hour workdays; why we have days off; why there are safety regulations for workplaces; and why we have healthcare paid for by our employers. All of which are great things! Unfortunately, after those milestones were reached, the labor movement quieted down. They could have continued towards a full-on Communist uprising and spared us all the bullshit of late-stage capitalism, but here we are.
Thus, history proves to us that we need to spend less time worrying about what we’re buying and more time doing something about it. We need to stop worrying about the paradox of ethical consumption in an unethical reality and start reshaping the world to benefit PEOPLE, not corporations, and not the capitalist overlords. The 99%, not the 1%.
So, because HL has a multitudinous selection of good-quality crafting supplies on the cheap, because I don’t want to spend all of my paycheck on beads, and because I currently live in a world in which capitalism infects every aspect of life, I’m not going to throw all of my HL crafting supplies into a bonfire (and also because throwing wood, natural and synthetic fibers and fabric, acrylic paint, spray varnish, and plastic and glass beads into a fire would probably release a toxic death cloud). In fact, I will probably still shop there. Being able to exercise my creativity while being able to afford to pay the bills and eat is important. And the hard truth is that HL just does certain things better. Beads, yarn, seasonal crafting supplies (not Halloween though, since it’s against God), crafting tools, specialty crafting supplies… Michael and JoAnn are catching up, but it’s slow.
However, because I also have emotions, morals, and beliefs, I don’t want to give the Green family more money that I need to. I don’t want to think about how many smuggled cuneiform tablet fragments I funded (seriously, when you break the $1.6 million down to the cost per fragment it’s only like $290 per piece). I don’t want to think about how my money goes towards funding churches and organizations that don’t want me to exist (as a member of the alphabet mafia), and legitimately might try to cause harm to me or people like me. I don’t want to pay the legal fees of HL’s attorneys to rob me of my reproductive rights. I don’t want to fund racism that hurts people I care about. I don’t want to fund mistreatment of workers like me. And I don’t want to think about that shit while I’m buying supplies for hobbies I love. I don’t want to think about the hypocritical, abusive, manipulative elites who I’m essentially paying to fund activities in direct opposition to my personhood and my beliefs. Money might not mean much to HL, but it means a lot to people like me who work really hard for 40+ hours a week at jobs they hate and are just eking out enough of a living to have a hobby, since our money is much more of a commodity than it is to a billionaire. So do I really want to give my precious commodity to someone to weaponize against me in exchange for good quality crafting supplies?
There’s no good answer for the here and now. My personal plan is to not buy any crafting crap for now, since I have far too much that I’ve hoarded over the years. But once I do start buying crafting crap again, I think I’m going to try and only buy things from HL that I can’t get somewhere else for similar quality and price, or that I can’t make myself. So while there is no such thing as ethical consumption, I can at least not contribute more than necessary to HL’s Christian Nationalist crusades.
Plus, I love the delicious irony of knowing that all the shit I buy at HL will help me make gay feminist communist craft projects.
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