What’s the McFuss about?

"Let me speak up for the millions of Scots … everywhere in expressing our annoyance at McD's for taking our surname prefix 'Mc' and turning it into a cheesy signifier for tasteless globalized pap.”…Owning your own restaurant is really the ultimate "McJob."

National Post
November 24, 2003

What’s the McFuss about?
Colby Cosh

The Vancouver Sun printed snippets yesterday from an interview with West Van author Douglas Coupland on the occasion of a word he devised — "McJob" — being inducted into Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary. Reporter Douglas Todd extracted a priceless money quote from Mr. Coupland without acknowledging a signal moment for an underappreciated, if perhaps overexposed, Canadian writer. (He is wrongly — though it's his own fault — treated more often as a goofy hipster futurist than as an excellent novelist.) Adding a thread to the tapestry of the English language is no mean feat: It is the nearest thing to secure immortality reachable in ordinary literary life. A "Bravo!," or some subtler Canadian equivalent, is in order. "Good goin'," maybe.

Mr. Coupland was asked to react to news that the chairman of McDonald's, Jim Cantalupo, had angrily urged Merriam-Webster to remove "McJob" from its card file as a slander on an upstanding worldwide family of burger-flippers. Turning the tables, Mr. Coupland said, "Let me speak up for the millions of Scots … everywhere in expressing our annoyance at McD's for taking our surname prefix 'Mc' and turning it into a cheesy signifier for tasteless globalized pap." I can't help appreciating the barb (the name "Cosh" lost its original "Mc" only a short time ago), although the author's scornful coinage would seem to leave him somewhat complicit in the cheesification process.

McDonald's shouldn't try to bully scholars: as bad corporate behaviour goes, it is arguably more serious than mere embezzlement or pollution. By the time a word like "McJob" makes it into the dictionary, you have — by definition! Tee hee — lost the public relations battle anyhow. The word found purchase with the writing public only because it referred to reality. Everyone knows that working at McDonald's doesn't pay lavishly, doesn't advance one's social standing, is a tad undignified and won't get you into a corner office in a skyscraper. That's not what working at McDonald's is for; it serves a different, valuable purpose in the transitional working life of, notably, young people and immigrants. Denying the facts of their business model only makes McDonald's executive management look gormless and defensive.

Anyway, the whole point of the word "McJob" (used by Mr. Coupland in his 1991 novel Generation X) was that, in his view, globalization brings McDonald's working conditions to other business environments — companies which have no similar reasons for regimenting and lowballing their employees. His argument carried no necessary implication that working at McDonald's can or should be anything but a "McJob." I believe it would be a much crueller world if there were no McJobs in the zone between benefit-endowed full-time careers and the dole.

You probably won't hear McDonald's complain much about less adversarial references to its brand. Consider the term "McWorld," famous from Benjamin Barber's 1996 book Jihad vs. McWorld. Mr. Barber's variant on the evergreen Clash of Civilizations trope (cf. Thomas Friedman's The Lexus and the Olive Tree) is now firmly established as a meme. Barber himself considers McDonald's global reach to be lamentable, but in the popular version of his antithesis, McWorld must signify mostly positive things. It's the realm of liberal democracy and prosperity. Before the World Trade Center was wiped out, the prevailing tendency among intellectuals was to solemnly observe that McWorld is saddled with technological anomie, social isolation, a crisis of meaning, all the exaggerated (if not invented) sins in the Rococo Marxist decalogue. Now, anyone who tries to argue the compensatory benefits of living on the "Jihad" side risks being dismissed as a buffoon.

We are never going to stop regarding large corporations without suspicion, nor should we, but one wishes the "Mc-" prefix could be used in other, gentler ways. A 1998 collection of anthropological essays called "Golden Arches East" pointed out that tidy restrooms were all but unknown in Hong Kong restaurants before the global McMenace arrived with its nitpicky customer service. Maybe a well-kept bathroom should be called a McJohn? In Russia, customers of the first Moscow McDonald's had to be told that the personnel weren't mocking them, but were merely offering an unfamiliar Western treat — service with a smile. Snort if you like, but how much less tolerable would our emotionally frosty McWorld be if food servers were encouraged to show their true feelings at all times? Can we consider praising friendly business establishments for their McPoliteness?

And let's note that, in one clear sense, Mr. Coupland's "McJob" is a bum rap. I find it decidedly odd that McD's should have become such a notorious symbol of globalization, considering that it's a franchise operation. When irony-deficient anti-globalization protesters trash a McDonald's shop front, they are usually venting their australopithecine rage on a locally owned business. The evil Golden Arches have provided financial independence and hands-on business training to tens of thousands of homegrown entrepreneurs in every corner of the globe. This is not to be dismissed just because one doesn't like the sauce on a Big Mac. Owning your own restaurant is really the ultimate "McJob."

© Copyright 2003 National Post


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