Thursday, Aug 23, 2018
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It's Thursday, August 23, 2018. I'm Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
The emerging corporate conscience: What is behind a shift in Walmart’s strategy when it comes to social issues?
One of the distinctions of our contemporary time is, the politicization of virtually every dimension of our national culture. We should note that this is neither an illusion or a longs standing pattern. Throughout most of American history there were understood to be certain dimensions or sectors of the culture that were decidedly, if unofficially, non-political. That apolitical space was understood to be necessary in order for society to function well. The danger being, that if divisive and contentious controversial political issues were brought into every sector of the society, then society would begin to break down in, every dimension, into different political factions. So even as an American public life there is a certain equilibrium between the liberals and conservatives. Democrats and Republicans.
There was also a general consensus that certain sectors of the society were off limits. One of the most interesting of those dimensions was American business, big business. The consumer society was often considered to be rather separate from the contentious public square of the politics. To state the matter even more clearly most business leaders were absolutely determined not to take controversial political positions, that might alienate either their stockholders or their customers. The impulse and intuition of business leaders was to avoid controversy, in order to avoid the kind of loss of market share or consumer base, or for that matter, what we might describe as damage to the brand. So that intuition was to avoid being identified with either side, in so many of the big controversial issues that might frame the political reality at any given time.
But as you might have noticed, all that has changed. It has changed in the shareholder meetings of major American corporations. It has changed in the advertising of America's consumer culture. It's also changed in the mentality and intuitions of America's CEO's. If you're thinking about an American corporation, an American retailer right at the center of America's consumer culture, that might have the most to lose and the least to gain by being politicized, you might well think of Walmart.
Recently the Wall Street Journal ran a front page story with the headline, "To Win More Fans, Walmart Takes a Stand on Politics." The subhead, "The World's Largest Retailer is Carefully Weighing in on Guns and Immigration." Sarah Nassauer reports this front page story, and I quote, "Political divide in the country is creating a new landscape for business, in which fierce debates often lead consumers and employees to demand that corporations and chief executives take positions on big issues. That is increasingly," she tells us, "pulling Walmart, the world's largest retailer and largest private employer, into weighing in on issues such as immigration, the Confederate flag and gay rights. Generally," she notes, "after other companies or politicians have done the same."
Now you're talking about rarefied media real estate when you're talking about the front page of the print edition of The Wall Street Journal. If this story is of that kind of interest to The Wall Street Journal, it should be of interest to us. In this case, the fact that it also deals with the world's largest retailer and the nation's largest employer, well that just makes the story more interesting. But of course the hinge in the story, what makes it interesting, the journalistic hook, is the fact that this represents a change in the philosophy of Walmart.
Looking at the larger issue of the traditional corporate avoidance of any kind of controversy, The Wall Street Journal cites Lawrence Parnell, Associate Professor of Strategic Public Relations at George Washington University, who pointed out in the past, "The CEO rule was basically, keep your head down, stay out of complicated issues, because there were opinions on both sides of any issue" But he went on to say, "It's no longer a question of if, but of where, when and how to engage on these issues and what type of topics to engage on." He went on, "There are new challenges and things CEO's and boards never had to deal with before so they are struggling."
Speaking specifically of Walmart, Nassauer writes, "Under its 51 year old chief executive, Doug McMillan, Walmart has often taken a more liberal stance on issues in recent years. A gamble," notes the paper, "for a company based in red state Arkansas. But," the article goes on to say, "executives see its approach as part of its mission, to let potential shoppers and employees know the company aims to be socially engaged." The Journal continues, "It's a big change for a company that built itself as a ruthlessly efficient business focused on affordable shopping, and that generally avoided taking a stand on political issues. In some cases," said the paper, "the company's embracing public relations as part of its efforts to enhance its reputation."
Now, as the article goes on, it indicates that Walmart in recent years has been trying to rebrand itself, and to do so largely politically. It has seen political engagement on controversial issues, as a way of changing its reputation. There's something else embedded in the text I read. It underlines the fact that Walmart is concerned about the future. It's concerned about rebranding itself, or re-envisioning its brand, with younger and potentially new customers. That also has a great deal to do with explaining this particular profile of political change.
This corporate transformation is decidedly taking Walmart into assuming more liberal positions on social and controversial political issues. You'll notice that's a direction. It's not merely a change in policy. It's a change in policy, with a rather clearly acknowledged political direction. But that raises another question deep in worldview analysis. How would the company know that it should do this, on what basis is it making this change in methodology and strategy, and how exactly is it going to measure whether or not the strategy is effective? Well, it shows up in the article.
I quote "Today around 72% of Walmart shoppers want the company to," and this is a quote from the policy statement, "take a stand on important social issues. 85%," we are told, "want the retailer to make it clear what values you stand for." Those are quotes from Walmart's Chief Marketing Officer, Tony Rogers. He made those comments in a June presentation to reporters. Now, just wait a minute. Here you have the authority cited about making this change, the Chief Marketing Officer of the corporation, Whether or not it was intended, that actually reveals a very great deal. That tells us that the impetus behind this is actually marketing. That's implicit in the article, but it's explicit and many references as well.
So that raises an intriguing question from the Christian world view and that is this, what does Walmart really believe? And of course here we are abstracting this to such an extent, we're talking about the corporation as a person, but as a brand that is exactly how major corporations now present themselves. As if the corporation has a mind or for that matter, a conscience, and that conscience going together with political positions, sometimes positions on moral issues. Walmart is now following a strategy which is directed by marketing, so we simply have to wonder, do we really know what Walmart executives believe?
Or again, to follow the abstraction, what does Walmart really believe? Is it marketing, or is it some kind of genuine moral impulse? In the end, we will probably never know, but the corporate impulse, as is reflected in this story, is to position the brand and the company towards consumers looking to the future, hoping for more. This change in the strategy of Walmart came to the attention of many in 2015, when the company CEO took a position against a religious liberty bill in the state of Arkansas, the company's home state.
The CEO, explained that he was taking a position against the religious liberty bill, which would have, in the words of the Wall Street Journal, "Allowed people to refuse service to a customer, based on their own religious beliefs. Because," he said, "it threatens to undermine the spirit of inclusion present throughout the state." Now that's about as politically correct a statement as you might imagine, but you'll also note that the Wall Street Journal wasn't particularly most accurate in describing the religious liberty bill. It would not actually, as proposed in 2015, had allowed in general terms, people simply to refuse service to a customer. Rather, it was rather limited in its application.
But it went too far for Walmart. Interestingly, the article sites an opportunity when Mr. McMillan, the CEO of Walmart, was speaking in Arkansas to a group identified as mostly local Southern Baptists. He said, and I quote, "There is not a part of me that says 'That's political, I'd love to get involved in that.'" But he said, "Society expects things of leading companies, and sometimes we should take a stance on something." Interestingly, according to the journal, he went onto say that, some public statements as compared to others are easier for us.
He went on to describe the easier public statements for Walmart, as related to supporting environmental sustainability and military veterans. But in the CEO's words, "On social issues, it gets tougher." He continued, "Ideally we wouldn't lead on very many things." We should also know what's not in this article, even as the article does deal with a reputational scale and evaluation of American corporations. We should note that there are LGBTQ activist groups, that rate corporations based upon their own criteria. And threaten to bring either public or shareholder action against corporations, that are seen to be insufficiently supportive or celebrative of the moral revolution.
But as we're thinking about cultural and moral change in the United States, it's significant to think about this recent front page article in the print edition of the Wall Street Journal, and recognize that it is not coming from Manhattan. It's not coming from Seattle or Portland, not from San Francisco or Los Angeles or even from Atlanta and Austin. It's coming from Northwest Arkansas. And it's not a corporation that had historically been tied to controversial political positions. But it has not escaped the interest of the Wall Street Journal, that Walmart is now. You might think of it this way, when this kind of moral revolution brings this kind of strategy change, at a company located in Bentonville, Arkansas, then the moral revolution has arrived everywhere.
Rodgers and Hammerstein meet the sexual revolution as ‘Oklahoma’ gets overhauled
But next, as we're tracking how a moral revolution works, we've noted that the logic and imperative of a moral revolution eventually has to work its way through the entire culture. That's why you're looking at institutions such as schools and universities being targeted. That's why we just looked at corporations being targeted. But we also have to understand that every dimension of the arts and culture will also be targeted. That raises a really interesting question. What do you do with artifacts of the culture that already exist?
Artifacts of the culture that might come from, oh, say the time of Shakespeare or for that matter, the middle of the 20th century, that reflected a very different civilization, and a very different moral understanding. Speak specifically a very different understanding of marriage and romance, and gender and sexuality. What do you do with them? Well, as we have seen repeatedly in such events as Shakespeare in the park in New York City, you rewrite Shakespeare.
Romeo and Juliet is rewritten in order to allow for the LGBTQ understanding and relationships. But not only that, recent headlines have indicated that even the venerable Broadway musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein are being rewritten, in order to bring about conformity with the moral revolution. As you might expect, this is a really interesting story. In order to understand it, we need to step back for a moment outside the headlines.
In this case, by the way, the headline is in a recent addition of the New York Times. It's an article by Laura Collins Hughes, the headline That Bright Golden Haze, Change. The subhead, A 21st Century Update for Oklahoma, Same Sex Leads. Well, why Rodgers and Hammerstein? Why is this important? It is because, if you want to understand this moral revolution, let's go back to the middle of the 20th century. What did these Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals mean? What did they mean to American culture?
Well, let's remind ourselves that during the 1940s and '50s, there emerged the team of Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II. Hammerstein wrote the lyrics, Richard Rogers wrote the music for some of the most memorable shows both on Broadway, quickly spreading throughout the United States, and most of them also showing up on the big screen as movies. In many ways you could say that Rogers and Hammerstein wrote the song book of America at the middle of the 20th century. Musicals like Carousel, and Oklahoma and the Sound of Music became not only the narratives for much of America, but the entertainment, the tunes, the music of much of America.
Rodgers and Hammerstein presented, what many have described, as light opera. Those who went to the shows and to the movies probably did not think of them as like opera, but they follow a basic operatic structure. Even though, of course, they are in their vernacular and music that is considered in the contemporary context, or at least was then, popular and current. But that should remind us of something else. Most historic opera, and I'm an opera fan, emerged from a culture and at a time in which the people who heard the operas understood the language, they were able to follow the narrative and the Libretto, and furthermore, the music was often itself popular.
It's even more complicated than that because, even as most people think of opera as deadly serious, some of the most famous of the operas, for example, of Mozart, were really comedic. And as you're looking at the Broadway shows and the movies have Rodgers and Hammerstein, most of them, even though they might be more serious, ranging all the way to those who were more comedic or humorous, the reality is, they were telling narratives that were solidly in the center of the American Psyche and American culture.
They represented American self-understanding, and help to present that on the big screen and the stage, at a time when America was emerging from the Second World War as the great international world power. One of the interesting aspects of the Rodgers and Hammerstein stories is, that they almost always included romance, and that romance was decidedly, unapologetically heterosexual. It was boy and girl, man and woman, and generally, even though there was a romantic storyline that often was the main storyline, it was relatively chaste. There was nothing explicit, nothing overtly sexualized.
But of course, if you're a moral revisionist, critical of the kind of stereotypical representations of male and female at mid century America, you're likely to find the classic example of those stereotypes right in the films and the stage shows of Rogers and Hammerstein. But that then takes us to this headline story in the New York Times, where one of the most famous and popular of the Rodgers and Hammerstein movies, both as a Broadway show and later as a big screen movie, has been rewritten, As the subhead of the article says, "To update the musical for same sex leads."
The story comes from Ashland, Oregon. Collins Hughes writes, "The idea came to Bill Rausch in the early 1990s. What if he directed a production of Rogers and Hammerstein, Oklahoma, where the lovers were same sex couples?" The article continues, "A gay man in a committed relationship, at a time when marriage equality seemed like an impossible dream. He was sure that it would be regulatory. He was equally certain that he would never get the rights to stage the musical that way. For more than 20 years, he did not dare to ask."
But the reporter goes on to tell us, "But on an August afternoon, two summers ago, at Oregon Shakespeare Festival where he is the artistic director, Mr Rausch watched a version of his vision unfold, onstage in costume behind music stands, actors gave a public reading of the show. And Oklahoma, where Curly and Laurey, the central couple were women. And the secondary romance was between two men, Will Parker and Ado Andy, changing the original Ado Annie."
The article is truly interesting. It tells us how this particular production was allowed, by the estate of Rogers and Hammerstein. That's a fiercely protective enterprise by the way, but evidently the moral revolution is proceeded so far, that that protective enterprise did not see preventing this kind of same sex production as being in its interest. Instead, it went ahead. The article tells us that the production of the same sex revision was timed for the 75th anniversary of the musical Broadway opening.
We are told that the revised Oklahoma quote sticks as close as possible to the original, whose character's much of the audience already knows to root for. The article continues, "Within that faithful framework, altering genders and the sexual orientations makes the musicals familiar elements, including Agnes de Mille's, Dark Dream Ballet, where Laurey is stalked by a new kind of dread, reverberate in surprising ways, even as the show makes an organic case for the notion that love is love."
Speaking of the same sex male couple, that is the secondary romance in this newly revised production, The New York Times article tells us, When Will asks for monogamy from the habitually available Andy, for example, it carries a different charge, than when another productions Will ask the same of Annie." What is that telling us? It's telling us that not only, as if you could even say not only, the genders and sexual orientations of the leads have been changed, but also the moral background is now changed. Because monogamy takes on an entirely different, and that's to say the very least, meaning when it is changed into male, same sex relationships. That's just a documented fact.
But as you're thinking about the moral revolution, you have to ask the interesting question. When a revolution like this is unfolding before our eyes, how would even a revolutionary production stay on the front end of the revolution? To state the matter clearly, this production knew better than to stop before T as in LGBT. The article tells us that one of the central characters, Aunt Eller, has now been transformed into a transgender woman, played by a transgender woman.
The article continues giving us more information, but all along or rather predictable theme. As it turns out, one of the challenges was the pronouns in the narrative of the story, that's no surprise. But if you changed the pronouns, of course, you're changing the story. And if you're changing the story, at least in terms of the LGBT revolution, you do have to change the pronouns. But one of the more interesting aspects of this is, to step back for a moment and recognize, this is a story that is datelined from Oregon. It's about a production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's musical, Oklahoma. It appears on the front page of the arts and leisure section of a recent print edition of the New York Times.
Why would all of that be important together? It's because the New York Times is one of the leading engines of this moral revolution. It's looking for stories that demonstrate how the entire culture is being transformed. What caught the attention to the New York Times was, a production of Rogers and Hammerstein from Oregon. Why? Because that production was the first to be licensed to change the leading roles into same sex relationships, and of course you have to add to that, that the entire presentation is celebratory.
It's as if this is a wonderful cultural change, it's a wonderfully revised version of Oklahoma that the entire society should simply celebrate. The fundamental issue in this development is, understanding that in the midst of a moral revolution, nothing is off limits. Not corporations, or in this case, even Broadway shows. Sometimes it turns out, it's just not true to say that show tunes are merely show tunes.
Prestige vs. Popularity: As Oscars seek to reverse declining ratings, many in Hollywood push back
But finally, as we're thinking about understanding the culture and specifically entertainment, here's a headline for you from just a few days ago, in the Wall Street Journal. The headline is this, "Oscar's remake produces drama." Eric Schwartzel tells us that, "Critics and Hollywood are against proposed changes, and the Oscars telecast, including the introduction of a new award for Popular Film." Schwartzel tells us, "The Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences usually rewards drama. But in recent days the academy has created it."
He continues, "The organization behind the Oscars faced widespread criticism within Hollywood, and also outside the industry, after announcing earlier this month it would overhaul it's telecast to add a new category for 'Popular Film.'" Popular Film put in quotation marks. "Few details," says the journal, "have been offered since, including what categories will be removed from the telecast to shorten its running time."
Now, the Oscars I one of the most famously narcissistic television productions in American history. It is Hollywood congratulating Hollywood for being Hollywood. It has also been over the last several years in steady decline, both, as you're thinking of the viewership, and the advertising revenue that goes with it. The complaints are pretty common. The show is just too long. By the time you get to the major awards, viewers have had to wait through hours of awards that don't mean anything to most Americans, very inside Hollywood.
A lot of that had to do with technical expertise, and is one authority mentioned in this article pointed out, Those would be of interest to the very same people, who go to see a movie in order to see the credits at the end." But in cultural and worldview analysis what's most interesting in this story is, the push-back to the academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, for coming up with a new award that they think will attract viewers. And that award is, for the picture to be honored out of the category of Popular Films.
Now, wait just a minute. Doesn't Hollywood want to make popular films? Well, as it turns out, some in Hollywood do want to make popular films. They're the ones who especially want to make money out of films. But much of Hollywood really isn't about making popular films at all. This tells us about different sectors of society. There are those in Hollywood, who would consider themselves an absolute failure if the American people liked their film. Further reality behind this issue is, the fact that Americans have been buying tickets by the millions to see the movies that Hollywood doesn't like when it comes to the Oscars.
You could put it the other way. Americans aren't buying millions of tickets, to the movies that Hollywood's elite seems really delight. Eric Schwartzel reports in his article, "Many in Hollywood view the idea of differentiating A Best Picture winner from a Popular Film as insulting to the industry, because it could imply that a movie must be one or the other."
Dan Jinks cited in the article, as a producer and a former winner of an Oscar for best picture in 2000, for the film American Beauty, spoke against the new Popular Film category by saying, "Giving an award for most popular feels like it is pandering. Yes," he said, "they need to think about ratings," speaking of the program of the Academy Awards, but he went on to say, "it should never forsake the prestige of what the Academy stood for." This points to a historic pattern, going back at least partly all the way to the renaissance. In which some artists, considering themselves elite over the culture, found themselves horrified and disappointed if the culture actually liked their art.
But it is interesting that Hollywood, which has been sending to America moral pollution and all kinds of progressivist messages for a very long time, now thinks that it might be that having a popular film category would speak to popular interest. And it goes on also to reflect the fact that the academy believes that it's problem is the length of its television program. It may well be that Hollywood's not even the most self-referential sector of our society. They just appear to be the sector of society most honest about it.
Thanks for listening to The Briefing.
For more information, go to my website at albertmohler.com. You can follow me on Twitter by going to twitter.com/albertmohler. For information on The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, go to sbts.edu. For information on Boyce College, just go to boycecollege.com.
I'll meet you again tomorrow, for The Briefing.