It’s pretty clear: if you wanted Joan of Arc to appreciate the difference between her world and ours, you’d take her to the nearest walmart.
A critically acclaimed 1989 cinematic masterpiece. The Incredible Adventures of Bill and Ted, two bums from Southern California must pass their history class or one will be sent to a military school in Alaska. Sounds unremarkable until you realize that if they break up, then their band Wyld Stallyns will not lay the musical foundation for a future utopia.
Wanting to protect their present – and Bill and Ted’s future – the people of 2688 send Rufus back in time to help them with a history report. Bill and Ted travel through the past, assemble a motley crew of famous historical figures, and return just in time to talk about what Socrates, Beethoven, Genghis Khan, Joan of Arc, Napoleon, Sigmund Freud, Billy the Kid and Abraham have been up to. Lincoln was thinking about their hometown of San Dimas, California in 1988.
Now imagine being assigned to accompany this group to your hometown in 2023. If you had to give Joan of Arc an idea of how different our world is from theirs, where would you take them? You loaded up a time traveling phone booth and headed to the nearest Walmart. Bill and Ted took the team to the mall. Walmart makes the mall even better by bringing everything under one roof and allowing you to buy everything in one trip to the checkout. The sports goods and keyboards you can buy at Walmart may not be as good as one of the specialty stores in the mall. Self-help books available may not be as good as a visit to a psychologist. However, they are a pretty good substitute, and what makes a trip to Walmart most noteworthy is the fact that this place is crammed from floor to ceiling with food, clothing, electronics, stationery, and all sorts of other merchandise available to people with modest income. funds at low prices every day.
Please note: The piano keyboard you can buy at Walmart for $119.99 (about four hours of labor at the average American wage) may not sound as good as the best piano Beethoven has ever played, but it does the magic of music accessible to almost everyone. Indeed, on the Walmart website, I saw (and almost ordered) a 61-key keyboard that, after taxes, will be delivered to my home for less than $26.
Combine that price with the many free tutorial videos on YouTube and you have a world where anyone can learn to play the piano for practically little money. Recorded music makes the best performances of the greatest works easily accessible to everyone, and streaming services mean people can enjoy virtually unlimited libraries of great recordings for pennies a day.
What I think is most striking about Walmart — and I hope Joan of Arc, Genghis Khan, Socrates and others will notice — is that the floor-to-ceiling cornucopia is not limited to the elite. You don’t need to be a party member to shop at Walmart. You don’t need to be a titled lord or dame, emperor, despot, or ironclad commander to enjoy (literally, in some cases) the fruits of worldly labors. You just need a few dollars, which in a commercial society you earn by creating value for others.
And here’s the great thing: if you think Walmart is clunky or tasteless – I’ve seen a bumper sticker that calls it “your home for cheap shit” – you don’t need to shop there. You can pay extra for higher quality in fashion stores. Are your favorite high-end fashion stores going bust from competition from Walmart, Target, and now Amazon? It may be unfortunate, but in a commercial society, every dollar you earn actually allows you to “vote” on what should be produced, where, when, how, and for whom. You Lost: The hoi polloi vote with their hard-earned dollars for Walmart, and it’s hardly clear that it’s your prerogative to override their judgment and suppress their voices.
Do people make bad, tasteless choices? Yes. They always have been, and they always will be. I do this regularly, like when I decided to watch a BBC adaptation of Shakespeare or some hack like Citizen Kane instead of 2020s Bill and Ted Face the Music (which I haven’t seen yet). To paraphrase what I first read in Sheldon Richman, just because some people cannot be trusted with freedom does not mean that others can be trusted with power. It was freedom, not power, that gave rise to the modern cornucopia, so much so that a prosperous life, rich in meaningful relationships and experiences, is available to almost everyone. I would like to think that Joan of Arc would appreciate it.