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Values Voters, Desperate Housewives and Sweatshop Tacos

We’ve all been hearing a lot about “moral values” of late. According to the conventional wisdom these days, some Americans remain proud guardians of our moral heritage–good, simple, common sense folk, mostly from rural communities–while others have somehow gone astray–anything goes, arrogant, anchorless city people who have lost touch with our country’s “traditional values”.

It’s metro versus retro, Andy Warhol versus Winslow Homer.

This much-reported cultural war over moral values has grown so intense that a significant number of people profess to have voted for one political party over the other in the recent election based on their perception that the party they chose somehow held a more legitimate claim on those values than the other.

Funny thing, perception.

While the Republican Party was in fact the party of choice of the vast majority of “values voters,” Republican leaders have proven themselves over and again at least the equals of their Democratic rivals in crimes of moral turpitude. Adultery (Republican pols Newt Gingrich, Henry Hyde, and Bob Livingston, just to name a few), sexual harassment and fornicating with prostitutes (Republican pundits Bill O’Reily and Dick Morris, respectively), and drug abuse (none other than Rush Limbaugh), are just some of the many perversions that well-known Republicans have been caught enjoying in recent years. Why even Republican Representative Bob Barr–sponsor of the Defense of Marriage Act and a famous tormentor of President Clinton for his dalliance with Monica Lewinsky–has been married three times and had a long-term adulterous relationship with the woman he eventually made his third wife. Barr’s ex-wife in fact accused the Congressman from California, one of the most vocal opponents of abortion in Congress today, of paying for her abortion.

So you see, perception can be tricky, especially when it has to do with a thing like “moral values.” People being people, money being money, and sex being sex, things are never quite as they seem.

Take, for example, Yum Brands–the largest restaraunt corporation in the world, owner of Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, KFC, Long John Silvers and A&W Family Restaraunts. A recent article by Sarah Posner, “Leading Like Jesus,” examines some of Yum’s less-than-moral business practices and provides another great example of just this kind of disconnect between perception and reality–a disconnect, much like those mentioned above, that is probably best called by the good old fashioned word: “hypocrisy.”

You see, Yum Brands CEO David Novak is a member of a very large evangelical church, Southeast Christian Church, the largest church in all of Kentucky. Southeast Christian is a beacon for moral values. As Ms. Posner mentions in her article, Southeast Christian sent busloads of people to lobby the Kentucky legislature in favor of an anti-gay marriage amendment this year. The pastor of Southeast Christian, Bob Russell, said during the recent presidential campaign, “We [evangelicals] have more reasons to start a revolution than they did in 1776… I don’t see how you can be a dedicated Christian and remain neutral.” Mr. Novak is also is a proud and vocal evangelist of what he calls “Jesus-Centered Leadership,” joining Reverend Russell to stage motivational workshops on the topic for thousands of people at a time.

Outside of church, David Novak earns millions and millions of dollars for his work running the world’s largest fast-food company. Because that company targets the youth demographic–young people from the ages of 16-30–David Novak markets his product on the television shows that young people watch. That’s just good business.

But young people watch bad things. In particular, young people like sex, so Yum Brands spends a lot of money advertising its product on television shows that are very sexually explicit. In short, Yum uses sex to sell its product. This contradiction got David Novak and the company that has made him a multi-millionaire into hot water with Mr. Novak’s evangelical friends, the American Decency Association, who threatened to boycott Yum if the company didn’t agree to pull its ads from a popular new show–popular because of its frank sexuality–called “Desperate Housewives.”

Yum Brands, ever the moral company, quickly bowed to the demands of the threatened boycott and pulled its ads. No hypocrisy there–or, at least, once Yum’s hypocrisy was discovered it was quickly dealt with.

But Yum’s morally-correct reaction to the threatened boycott raises some interesting questions. For example, what about MTV, one of Yum’s principal marketing partners? Quick–think of MTV… what comes to mind? Young, scantily-clad people shaking their booties, right?

Think they’d ever show MTV’s “Summer Beach House Dance Party” up on the big screens in David Novak’s mega-church, Southeast Christian, in Louisville? How about MTV’s “The Real World,” with its weekly serving of kids having sex in hot tubs, their naughty bits demurely, digitally blurred? Do the precepts of “Jesus Centered Leadership” permit its proponents to profit from sexually suggestive images when those same images would send people running from the pews if they were ever broadcast in church?

Yet even after pulling its ads from “Desperate Housewives,” Yum continues to sell tacos to teenagers drawn to MTV by its strong sexual content and frank discussion of sex, sex, and more sex. Yum has probably sold billions of dollars of food thanks to MTV.

Of course, worse yet is the contradiction discussed in Posner’s article itself–the fact that Yum Brands gave in to the mere threat of a boycott by the American Decency Association, but the company has refused for nearly four years now to deal with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers –a grassroots farmworker organization based in Florida–on the barbaric farm labor conditions behind the national Taco Bell boycott.

Florida farmworkers who pick tomatoes for corporations such as Taco Bell have faced 25 years of nearly stagnant wages. Today, a farmworker must pick and haul 2 tons of tomatoes to make $50 in a day without even the most basic worker protections, including overtime pay or the right to organize. According to the US Department of Labor, the median annual income for farmworkers is an appalling $7500 per year, lagging far behind the official poverty line. Worse still, the CIW has uncovered and helped prosecute 5 modern-day slavery rings in the Florida agriculture industry, liberating over 1000 captive workers and garnering national and international attention to the issue of American indentured servitude in the 21st century. For Novak and Yum Brands, a little PG-13 titillation is clearly out of bounds, but grinding poverty and decades of the worst labor exploitation this country has to offer, well, that couldn’t possibly be their concern.

Posner’s article does a great job of unpacking that contradiction, so I won’t go into it further here. But the whole episode that gave rise to the article truly does put the suddenly red-hot issue of so-called “moral values” into question. Just what are moral values? Are they absolute, or are they only applicable when you get caught violating them? And what do the steady revelations of undeniable hypocrisy, repeated over and over again from the White House to the Board Room, tell us about our values? Who gets to determine which values are in fact “traditional values,” values that demand some degree of universal recognition and respect? And are moral values exclusively about individual behavior, or do issues such as the exploitation of labor, poverty, and human rights also figure in the discussion about this country’s “traditional values”?

These days, the stakes are just too high to let demagoguery–on the campaign trail, in our churches, and in our homes through out television sets–distort our perception and allow us to get carried away … yet again.

SEAN SELLERS is co-coordinator of the Student/Farmworker Alliance (www.sfalliance.org), based in Immokalee, Florida. SFA is a national network of students and youth in solidarity with farmworkers as they struggle to end sweatshop conditions and modern-day slavery in American agriculture. You can reach him at sean@sfalliance.org.

For more info about the CIW and the Taco Bell boycott (including the upcoming 2005 Taco Bell Truth Tour), visit www.ciw-online.org.

 

 

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