Wal-Mart Guilt

The guilt hits me as soon as I pull into the parking lot. What am I doing here? This is wrong. I know better than this.

But I don't let it get to me. I push it away and think of other things -- like how do they stack those red and blue coolers so high, or how much does Coca Cola pay that race car driver to use his photo on their soda machines?

I try not to think about the array of security cameras scanning the parking lot for unsavory characters. I look straight ahead and slip through the front door along with everybody else.

"Welcome to Wal-Mart."

I smile politely at the grinning old woman in tortoise-shell specs whose job it is to greet people. Truth be told, she doesn't say hello to everyone, but who can blame her? Sometimes she just nods. Other times she wears an empty expression, staring into the middle distance. Her job makes me think of life in the old Soviet Union, when the State used to pay meager salaries to the elderly for helping people on and off escalators -- anything to claim that it's employing folks, taking care of them.

Everywhere I look is an advertisement for something. Pictures of happy people enjoying products. Plenty of red, white, and blue. The message is loud and clear: freedom is about consumption. The more you buy, the freer you are. It's not about democracy anymore; it's about lower prices.

The "Wal-Mart TV" blathers incessantly, as does the kitsch Muzak (I wonder if there are subliminal messages in there). And wherever you look up, the Eye in the Sky is looking down, watching.

Wal-Mart has a nefarious way of making me feel like Winston Smith from 1984. At any minute I expect O'Brien to step out from behind a display of cheap, sweatshop-produced undershirts and haul me off to the Ministry of Love for some good old-fashioned rehabilitation.

At other times I'm John Savage from Brave New World, just a few Shakespeare quotes away from knocking over the display for Britney Spears' new CD. I'd stomp on the cardboard cutout of Britney and her air-brushed cleavage and holler: take that sanctimonious grin off your face, you corporatized tart!

As Mr. Savage, I imagine myself running all over Wal-Mart, dumping all the CDs, paint cans, garden hoses, fishing poles, 2-litres of soda, Go NASCAR t-shirts, and whatever else I can find into a monstrous pile. I climb to the top of the pile and cup my hands around my mouth and yell to all the shoppers: Wake up! Wake up! Don't you see what's going on here?!

In my fantasy I am met with an constellation of confused stares from Alphas to Epsilons. They don't get it.

A Wal-Mart fellow wearing one of those elf-like vests tosses a net over me and I'm left mumbling something like: Take your paws off me, you damn, dirty ape!

In reality, I don't attract attention to myself. Like a good little shopper, I get in line like I'm supposed to, pay for my things, and slip back out into the world with a collection of blue plastic bags clutched in each hand like so many dead chickens.

Behind me, a mob of zombie shoppers files into the megastore. I'm one of them, I think. The asphalt stretches to the horizon. Where did I park?

I really should know better. I consider myself an educated progressive. I read Noam Chomsky, Molly Ivins, and Howard Zinn. I listen to Alternative Radio. I voted for Nader. I know how Corporate America is having its way with Lady Liberty.

And I know the truth about Wal-Mart. The biggest private sector employer in the United States (nearly one million employees, three-fourths of them women), Wal-Mart is the largest, most profitable retailer in the world (nearly $4 billion last year).

I know all about the store's predatory pricing: how they like to build two big-boxes in a small area so they can be their own competition, then typically close one down, leaving it vacant; how 80 percent of the clothes they sell are imported, often produced under horrible conditions in sweatshops in poor countries, despite that "Buy USA" mumbo jumbo and the over-the-top nationalism; how a study showed that three local jobs are killed off for every two that Wal-Mart offers; how they hire many workers on a part-time basis so they can avoid full benefits; and even if they can get it, the employee health care plan, with its mammoth co-pays, is too expensive for most of the workers.

I know that a massive federal lawsuit was recently launched against Wal-Mart alleging rampant discrimination against their female employees. The case -- which potentially represents as many as half a million women -- could prove to be the largest discrimination case of its kind in American history.

I know all of this; and yet still I shop there. The guilt is palpable, yet for some reason it doesn't stop me.

Capitalism is about real competition, a level playing field, and doing right by your employees. Capitalism this ain't. The poster child for Big Business at the Dawn of the Corporate Age, Wal-Mart is something else entirely -- something that smacks of Orwell or Huxley, something sinister.

Wal-Mart is not the inspiring story of an entrepreneur who invented a better mousetrap.

It's the sad story of us mice who know better but walk right into that trap anyway -- thinking only about the cheese, the glorious, glorious cheese.

Coy Barefoot is a writer based in upstate New York. His next book, Thomas Jefferson on Leadership, will be released by Penguin Putnam in the spring of 2002.

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