Starbucks (Yay!) is Still a Corporation (Boo!)

A lot of corporations do things that are bad for the world, whether that’s the environment or people or both. Starbucks is not an exception to that.
 
In doing racial bias training in all their American stores, they are doing the right thing, insofar as there is a right thing. Yes, it’s PR. Yes, they should already have done it, and every company in America should start doing it yesterday and 20 years ago and 60 years ago, in perpetuity. 
 
If you are of the opinion that Starbucks shouldn’t exist because of your opinions about corporations in general, I don’t expect you to be happy with them. Nothing will make you happy about their behavior except for closing their doors.
 
If you have a less condemning view of Starbucks, you will appreciate the difference between Starbucks’ response and any major airline’s response to racist behavior on the part of their employees in the last couple years, or any police force after the summary execution of an unarmed black man or woman. You know that corporations are haneously bad at responding to backlash. You are relieved that Starbucks isn’t haneously bad in this way.
 
There are layers to this. Starbucks’ exploitative practices in sourcing and their use of non-compostable plastics is bad. They are doing a thing, unrelated to those bad things, that is not bad, at the very least, better than average.
 
The question for you, especially if you mostly don’t mind corporations, is whether or not to lean into the other layers. The other layers require something of you. If corporations are problematic, so might be how you spend your money on them. If Starbucks is exploiting POC in Central and South America and contributing significantly to our plastic problem, should you support them with your dollars? That’s a good question to ask yourself.
 
And I get that this is complex, that there are many, many people who depend on Starbucks for jobs and meeting places, and wifi. I get that condemning a corporation as whole runs the risk of, in fact, disenfranchising marginalized groups who use and depend on the services the corporation is providing.
 
I confess to not liking Starbucks’ products, so I do not personally spend my money there (side note: I am calling a moratorium on the practice of giving Starbucks gift cards as office gifts; please, get anything else at all). But Starbucks is inescapable in the world, especially in Seattle, so I know I have to contend with them one way or another.
I don’t feel like I have clear guidance or an opinion on this issue. Rather it has simply struck me as I see some of social media feeds consumed with debate about this that there is a difference between saying “oh that is better than usual; I will save my outrage,” and “corporations are bad; this is no time to let this one off the hook.” I’d even go so far as to say they are not mutually exclusive. I don’t think there is ever a good time to let a corporation off the hook, but just like with the airlines, I feel completely powerless to steer the fundamental function of the business model. If I don’t have to be outraged over their response to an employee calling the police on two black men for absolutely no reason (especially because I am already furious that the police were called in the first place), I will keep living my life, which includes not buying Starbucks 99.9% of the time.

If Everything is Awesome, Everything is Awesome

In order for this post to make sense, you must first read this one: If Everything is Awesome, Nothing is Awesome: The Lego Movie, the Death of Resistance & Transcendence, and the Only Way Out (Part 1).

There are couple things that I think matter regarding my own perspective of this film.

The first is that I have a somewhat more human connection to it than I have had to nearly any other film. I’ve met one of the producers. She is young and vivacious, and when I told her how much I enjoyed The Lego Movie, she responded graciously and then dragged her thumbs across each of her wrists in a slicing motion, saying something like, “It was like months and months of just slitting my wrists.” Normally, this would be off-putting and creepy, but she was way too charismatic for that.

In talking to her, I learned that this box-office hit was the brain-child of filmmakers batting in the biggest game of their lives so far (she’s part of a list of 18 producers). This was not pumped out by a corporate machine; Lego resisted making it. Lives were sacrificed, marriages neglected, health forgotten. So, my frame of reference for the making of this film has to do with people, not crunching box office numbers and Lego revenue.

The second thing is that I know a little history. Lego might have ceased to be. They were floundering with their old model of “build whatever you want with this set of bricks.” But cross-licensing was born in 1999 to revitalize the Lego brand and continue making Michael Chabon’s children’s pastiches possible.

There are a couple things I’ve noticed people are really, really good at: creativity and connecting to narrative. I’m not going to get into the nuances of what constitutes art—largely of sanity’s sake—but I think that there are a lot of films that qualify. I also think that The Lego Movie is one of them. What’s more is that I think that sometimes people who build things with Legos are making art. So there’s art.

Then, there are corporations, Lego (actually family owned), to be exact, possibly Warner Bros., too. Corporations are systems. They are chock full of resources and operations that allow those resources to be moved around. They are completely inferior to individuals in practically every way, except that it is these systems that allow for individual creativity, ingenuity, and art to be created and then experienced by other individuals.

They are, at their root, subverting typical toys by delivering them to their customers in the form of interchangeable pieces.

I think there are (for lack of a better term) bad people who run bad corporations whose chief operation is taking advantage of a lot of individuals for the benefit of just a few individuals (insert I am the 99% reference). Maybe this cross-branding and metatization is part of that evil (what an earlier generation would call selling out). Maybe the problem isn’t just that The Lego Movie exists, but that this kind of thing exists in too many areas of our lives.

The truth is, though, that Michael Chabon’s children did no better a job rebelling against the system than the Lego Movie did. The Lego Group knows that people often follow their instructions once and then build whatever they want after that. That is the genius of their toy! They are, at their root, subverting typical toys by delivering them to their customers in the form of interchangeable pieces. They also happen to have a brilliant marketing plan to go with it (connecting people to both narrative and the potential of creativity), one that will last through yet another generation—namely Michael Chabon’s children.

The Lego Movie is not attacking Lego as a corporation/authority. The Lego Movie is blasting individuals (President Business/Will Ferrell) who take such a narrow view of the world as to think that Lego creates instructions intending exclusively for them to be followed. And I think it is meta, post-modern genius, because Lego makes fun of itself in the process. I don’t care if it’s the same circus. I like this seat better.

If you want to actually rebel, you have to stop playing with Legos altogether. You have to go off the grid. You have to stop talking to other people, possibly find a completely different universe. If you aren’t prepared to do that, your idea will be co-opted. Someone who lives in a similar world, with similar experiences, will write about those experiences and they will show up in books, on the big screen, on the internet, and in toys. This is the result of our systems (and our creativity). This is the result of individuals who love to create and connect to narrative. This is the result of individuals who die unless they connect with each other. What is Lego? What is The Lego Movie? They are ways for us to connect.

So, about bad corporations: these are things we should rebel against. Not because systems, operations, and resources are bad things, but because we should create systems that are reflective of our need to create and connect. It’s ok to do as you’re told as long as what you are being told is good or produces goodness.