My Word

December 3, 2005

Stop Feeding Goliath

By Sharon Bass

Showtime was at 6 p.m., Dec 1. Hamden activist Marjorie Clark had organized a screening of the new Wal-Mart documentary preceded by a politically correct, informative and engaging animated feature called "The True Cost of Food."

It all took place at Thornton Wilder Hall. The audience was thin. Only about 10 made the effort to see Robert Greenwald's "Wal-Mart: the high cost of low price." And that was too bad. Greenwald tells it like it is. He doesn't hype it up. His films honestly portray how corporate America operates. How it rips off people. How making the almighty buck is oh so much more important than people's welfare and security. And with no distortions. He uses no tricks. Greenwald offers the real deal. And few in Hamden cared to listen.

Clark partly blamed the dismal turnout to not enough publicity. I blamed it on apathy and maybe fear of learning the truth.

Although Wal-Mart's despicable employment and business practices have been widely reported -- and substantiated by lawsuits and communities petitioning hard to prevent another huge smiley face from taking over their territory -- people still want to shop there. Ignorance allows them to. With all the bellyaching about taxes, you'd think knowing that a healthy portion of Wal-Mart's full-time employees are on Medicaid, food stamps and even welfare -- yes, even welfare -- would enrage the most conservative. But that would only happen if eyes and ears were open. So much for low prices. We're all subsidizing this obscenely wealthy corporation through our tax dollars. It's pure myth that prices are rolled back. Pure myth, Greenwald is trying to tell you.

When a Wal-Mart moves in, the mom and pops are for the most part wiped out. Greenwald's film highlights a 40-year-old family grocery business that went belly up when Goliath came marching into town. It also shows what happens when Goliath decides to pack up and split. It leaves behind an ugly, massive structure that becomes its own ghetto. These towns are usually too small and the empty Wal-Mart buildings too big for reuse. So they decay -- town and building. The small businesses that were killed off can't reappear like magic. Many proprietors went broke while trying to keep their shops afloat after the invasion.

Another thing Wal-Mart shoppers should know is that billions of dollars of the merchandise the huger-than-life retailer pushes is made in China. So much for the company's all-American rhetoric. Greenwald takes us inside the Wal-Mart factories overseas. Workers get paid peanuts and toil seven days a week, 12 hours a day in truly prison-like conditions.

While I have certainly done my homework on Wal-Mart, I still learned a new thing or two from the documentary. For instance, I didn't know about the epidemic parking-lot crime. Wal-Mart has known all along -- according to internal memos Greenwald was able to dig up -- but made the deliberate decision to look the other way. A staggeringly high percentage of murders, rapes, burglaries and assaults regularly occur in its lots. Yet, Wal-Mart confines its security measures to inside the store to protect its precious, tax-subsidized, made-in-sweatshops merchandise.

Summing up. The behemoth retailer wipes out small businesses, which in turn destroys the close-knit fabric of communities. It underpays its employees and offers little to no health insurance, so we, the taxpayers, have to foot the bill. When it decides profits are not sky high at a location, it closes shop and leaves behind a huge, empty building and scores of jobless people. It shows blatant disregard for mankind in its employment, production and (lack of) safety practices.

Wal-Mart exemplifies everything that's wrong with this country. It does nothing right, in my opinion. That Barbie doll is not cheaper there. The real cost is hidden.

I had a dream the day after Thanksgiving. For a fleeting moment, I thought maybe the Wal-Mart on Dixwell Avenue would not be stuffed with people.

November 19, 2005

I Confess -- Can You?

By Sharon Bass

I admit it. I read those Hamden message boards. You know, those ones online? I know you know.

Well, I agree they can get tedious. Someimes they make you pretty mad. And there's never any happiness or warmth on those sites. The running rule seems to be "don't say anything if you can't say anything bad."

So why do I and many others peek in? Definitely the gossip is fun to listen to. Sometimes you get little newsy tidits. Oftentimes you get fiction. And it can also feel kinda homey in there with the dysfunctional families batting it out.

Like it or not, outgoing Councilwoman Ann "Hamden Women" Altman and resident Matt "9DR" Whalen give us an opportunity to be one big fam. And we like or want it or something, because otherwise we'd stay away. I think lots of folks find it nice to come home to at the end of the day, though some of the posters seem to live in the "rooms" a good part of their day.

For those who have never logged onto Hamden Women for Honest Government or Hamden Town Square, I'll give a brief tutorial of what goes on inside. Although I don't think many readers will learn anything new.

Altman started Honest Women, I believe, about four years ago. Whalen's just debuted a few months ago. You see, Altman kicked Whalen out of her cyberhouse. It was something about something someone said to Whalen about his wife (this happened before I moved to Hamden, so I might be a little off on this), and the way Whalen reacted. Altman reportedly got ticked off and kicked his butt right out of her fam. Whalen struck back by giving birth to Hamden Town Square.

On both sites, here's what the fam does. One member starts a topic (thread) to which people respond and have these "respectful discussions" (enormous sarcasm, to those who are "Hamden cyberhouse" virgins). Posters can get mighty nasty. Mighty. You're allowed to log on anonymously -- which the vast majority does -- and so people say whatever they damned please.

Also, a good portion of the regulars uses multiple monikers. To the casual visitor this might not be apparent. But the "in crowd" can usually spot the multiples pretty fast and expose them and then thrash the posers' body parts around.

Even posts that start off sincerely optimistic turn quickly into raging differences, often over something or someone that has nothing to do with the original thread topic. Sometimes it's pretty funny. Someone will write about how well a town employee treated her and the next post might say that person's an idiot and a liar. Then someone will respond by calling the poster the idiot and the liar. And it keeps escalating until it plays out.

The funniest message I've read so far was very recently posted on Altman's site.

Councilman-select John Flanagan is a regular there. He posts under his own name (some say he has aliases, but I honestly have no real knowledge of that), and more often than not he pisses off people. Flanagan writes long posts. He's sometimes quite witty and funny. He sometimes grandstands a bit too much. And he virtually always gets into a highly spirited argument with some of the other posters.

Anyway, Flanagan apparently just took a brief leave of absence from Hamden Women, and a reg, who typically fights with him, posts that he misses Flanagan because things got too quiet and boring without him. I really got a kick out of that.

Besides Flanagan, former Mayor Lillian Clayman and a few others use their real names.

Over in the Whalen e-household I really get into the pics he's put on the walls, accompanied by his thoughts. Some are pretty hilarious. He's drawn some Altman regulars, but most have chosen shared custody. While the theme of Altman's site is in-your-face pro-Henrici and very, very, anti-anti-Amento, Whalen's doesn't appear to have an agenda and he doesn't seem to edit posts. Whatever, it's all fam, right?

And there's this stigma about admitting you're reading those boards. Tons more people read than post. It's like an addicted TV watcher not wanting people to know how many hours he spends in front of the tube. Altman-Whalen family members don't want to admit they spend much time -- if any -- communicating with each other on the boards. I often hear, "Well, once in a while I go on there, but my husband never does." Yah.

OK, I'm off to see what's happening in Hamden. That's right -- by visiting Altman's and Whalen's virtual homes. See you there.

November 6, 2005

It's the Person Stupid, Not the Party

By Sharon Bass

I am still too new to Hamden to put my John Hancock on any one candidate. I believe endorsements serve a purpose, but they can be misleading and unhelpful when made by journalists who don't know the political scene well.

It's not that I'm not tempted to voice my opinions. I regularly go to Legislative Council meetings and other town committee meetings, including a few Board of Ed. I've talked to many candidates -- some numerous times. I definitely have opinions.

But a funny thing happens sometimes. Just when I'm sure this is the right woman or man for the seat, I hear or intuitively discover something that changes my mind. Again, it's my newness here.

So my Election Day message is simple. It's universal. It's not unique to Hamden.

Vote for the person, not for the party.

Now, I know this will anger some party animals. That's too bad because on a local level, party affiliation is not that important. We deal with property taxes and town policies, not abortion, war and the appointment of federal justices. There's often no clear definitive line between parties on local issues. Not really. It all comes down to the candidate's -- not the party's -- agenda. For me it's about who really cares how Hamden grows versus who's more interested in the politics of it all.

Besides in Hamden, there are quite a few Repubs in Dem frocks. Dems far outnumber Repubs, as most know. Therefore it's easier to get elected with a D rather than an R or third party after your name. So voting for a Dem doesn't even mean you're really voting for a Dem.

I hold no party affiliation. Partly because of my career. But mostly because I'm not a follower. I enjoy my independent status, feeling free to vote for whoever seems the best choice. That said, as many know, I am very liberal politically and socially. I have never voted for a Republican in a national or state election because on those levels, there are some significant differences and I more often agree with the Democrats' positions. True, the two major parties are looking more and more alike these days. As the Bush Administration is finally getting its comeuppance for all the (in my opinion) illegal and inhumane acts it's committed, Republicans in Congress and in the Senate are distancing themselves from the prez and his men. Of course, one motive is they want to retain the White House and Congress after Bush is out. But I would also like to think that they too are seeing what a fine mess he's gotten us in to and it tugs some at their conscience.

Back to Hamden. While I said I'm not going to make any endorsements, I do want to make note of one politician, whom I admire. He's up for re-election.

That would be Republican Councilman Ron Gambardella. I'll tell you why. At nearly every meeting he asks real questions, respectfully, intelligently and thoughtfully. He never grandstands. He doesn't get up and down a million times during meetings. He does what he was elected to do.

I also think it would not be in the best interest of this town to stack the Council with members of the same party. There needs to be diversity. When I arrived here at the tail end of the current Council, it wasn't hard to detect the deep fracture among the Democrats. The infighting took away from what is best for Hamden. While politicians play games, the true work of the town is put on hold. When motions and votes carry intentions other than to best serve the taxpayers, we're in trouble.

I urge people to think really hard and honestly before casting their votes Tuesday. A Legislative Council of people with different ideas, of people whose hearts are into the job and of people who are accessible to their constituents and show up at meetings is the way to go. Voting party line won't ensure any of that.

And that I can pretty much guarantee.

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