The Wal-Mart Thought Police


Wal-Mart, America's largest retailer, prides itself on being a "family-friendly" store, with smiley faces guiding stressed-out breadwinners to a land of low-cost, guilt-free consumption.

Indeed, there are mega Wal-Marts that inhabit spaces the size of five football fields, and the total square footage of all of the Wal-Mart stores nationwide tops 25 million square feet.

As you have probably heard, the "everyday low prices" at these concrete boxes of utopian consumption have tremendous costs for our environment, our workers, our wages, our communities, and the public coffers. But they also come at the expense of free speech and artistic expression, as the corporation targets items that often include progressive criticism of conservative values.

Based in Bentonville, AR, the brand behemoth has become the self-appointed culture police by screening the music, books and magazines that many Americans will be able to access -- in a number of communities, Wal-Mart is the only convenient store in the area stocking culture products.

Take, for example, Wal-Mart's refusal to sell Sheryl Crow's self-titled album in 1996, citing objections to a lyric that criticized Wal-Mart for selling handguns (a practice that the chain has since discontinued), which they felt was "unfair and irresponsible."

Much as Crow probably appreciated the paternalistic advice, as the No. 1 CD retailer in the world (yes, the world) with sales accounting for 10% of total domestic CD sales, a Wal-Mart boycott can result in hundreds of thousands in lost album sales.

The record industry, never too proud to bend over for sales, has started issuing two versions of the same album, one "sanitized." Sometimes this entails altering the cover art, as John Mellencamp was asked to do for his album Mr. Happy Go Lucky, whose cover featured an angel and devil in the background. Nirvana actually changed its song title from "Rape Me" to "Waif Me" for the Wal-Mart version. Both they and the Goo Goo Dolls came under fire for portraying babies in their cover art as well. The cover of the Goo Goo Dolls album titled "A Boy Named Goo" featured a baby covered in blackberry juice; Wal-Mart banned it and only reversed its decision under pressure from the media.

Wal-Mart's official statement on music is as follows: "Wal-Mart will not stock music with parental guidance stickers. While Wal-Mart sets high standards, it would not be possible to eliminate every image, word or topic that an individual might find objectionable. And the goal is not to eliminate the need for parents to review the merchandise their children buy. The policy simply helps eliminate the most objectionable material from Wal-Mart's shelves."

Objectionable material like a book cover with a comedian posing with an American flag and a bald eagle? Actually, yes. The huge bestseller, America: the Book, featuring Jon Stewart, Stephen Colbert, and the rest of the Daily Show crew, was banned from Wal-Mart in 2004. Granted, the company objected to the infamous page 99 featuring obviously photoshopped naked pictures of Supreme Court justices (just think, now we can all look at Justice O'Connor's wrinkled, saggy flesh with great nostalgia.)

Stewart is not the only comedian with a book banned by Wal-Mart, though; a shipment of George Carlin's When Will Jesus Bring the Pork Chops was returned, citing a mistake in ordering the book in the first place. A mistake which probably had nothing to do with Carlin's cover of himself inserted into the Last Supper.

Perhaps there is some legitimacy (however hysterical) to their objections to irreverent images. Yet the political bias inherent in Wal-Mart's criteria became clearer when Wal-Mart's merchandiser for films found Robert Greenwald's acclaimed documentary, "Uncovered: The Whole Truth About the Iraq War," (produced with the support of the Center for American Progress) inappropriate for Wal-Mart. For no conceivable reason could a documentary involving no gratuitous violence, expletives, or sex be inappropriate, other than its criticism of a conservative political administration.

Pathetically, the rationale for these items is that they "would not appeal to the majority of our customers" or would offend those proverbial family values. Fine, if they know their designated market and have complaints pouring in from their consumers. Except that those two books were both fixtures on the bestseller list for months and Sheryl Crow, Nirvana and the Goo Goo Dolls are top selling entertainers. And those items that are not religiously objectionable demonstrate the degree of hypocrisy within the "family values" standards.

Even something as potentially broadly appealing, positive, and utterly non-offensive as a T-shirt reading "Someday a woman will be president" was pulled from the sales floor because "the message goes against Wal-Mart family values." So old school patriarchy and sexism are Wal-Mart values? Seems a little retrograde and moot in the age of "take your daughter to work day."

Frighteningly and hypocritically, the family-values red flag was absent for the notorious anti-Semitic forgery The Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion, which describes a vast Jewish conspiracy to rule the world. Booksellers like that do offer it at least include a disclaimer that describes it as a "pernicious fraud," and "one of the most infamous, and tragically influential, examples of racist propaganda ever written."

Wal-Mart's site, in contrast, says "If … The Protocols are genuine (which can never be proven conclusively), it might cause some of us to keep a wary eye on world affairs." Yet another example of the cloak of "family values" serving as a euphemism for a more sinister ideology. (If the book actually featured a cover image of Jews milking children for blood, then would Wal-Mart ban it?)

Furthermore, ever wonder who is buying those oversize drink coasters also known as Ann Coulter or Bill O'Reilly's perniciously partisan publications? Their publishers readily admit that Wal-Mart's merchandising and promotion basically fueled their bestselling runs.

The crown jewel of Wal-Mart's commercial triumph is the dystopic end-of-days series Left Behind. As reported in the New York Times, Tyndale House, publisher of the Left Behind series, credits Wal-Mart with a pivotal role in turning the evangelical thriller "Armageddon" (No. 11 in the Left Behind series) into the best-selling novel in the country.

As Melani McAllister wrote in The Nation, "these novels work [because] they seamlessly integrate an apocalyptic religious view with a strongly conservative political vision, and locate both in a universe of supernatural action adventure in which good and evil are fully and finally revealed." Left Behind books do not include any actual sex, except for when the faithful rail against abortion and immorality, though they include plenty of violence between good (evangelical warriors complete with fighter planes) and evil (the Antichrist fronting as a smooth-talking UN ambassador.)

Granted, the Left Behind series is hardly comparable to Maxim magazine, but really, it could be considered the equivalent of evangelical porn. Not to beat a dead metaphor, but they're all about self-gratification and ultimate rapture. As many have noted, a lot of purchasers for right-wing screeds probably buy them for the element of fantasy and self-affirmation, particularly those who believe that the war in Iraq and conflict in Israel herald the impending end times.

In all seriousness, the most self-defeating attitude for progressives would be to give an elitist sneer to those who shop at Wal-Mart, shrugging our shoulders not only at Wal-Mart's censorship but at its union busting, sex discrimination, and reprehensibly stingy health plans for already underpaid workers. To Wal-Mart shoppers: There's nothing wrong with wanting religious or G-rated entertainment material in your own home, and wanting to shield children from materials that you find offensive. But it is a problem when the biggest retailer in the country -- a staple for millions of people -- only offers up a sanitized world of culture that is comprised primarily of "Veggie Tales" videos and Toby Keith albums (wonder if they include the "gonna put a boot in your ass" lyric).

Still, this bleak picture seems to be changing, as anti-Wal-Mart groups gain strength and actually win some victories. In early August, reported on the increasingly successful anti-Wal-Mart publicity efforts from organizations like Wal-Mart Watch and Wake Up Wal-Mart. These organizations have been particularly successful in mobilizing union members while making the public aware of the costs of sustaining Wal-Marts, including the millions and millions spent providing public health care assistance to the thousands of Wal-Mart employees who do not receive company health care.

Political change is happening too on the state and local level. Legislative efforts are underway to prevent more Wal-Marts from moving into communities like Inglewood, CA, and to enforce stricter labor laws for those that already do exist. And far from being restricted to perceived "liberal, anti-corporate" enclaves, even conservatives such as the Republican speaker of the Idaho House of Representatives have started to address the financial burden Wal-Mart's health care negligence places on states.

Crucial, and hopefully successful, as these campaigns are, another lesson to take from Wal-Mart's censorship policy is the danger of corporate conglomizoration that stifles free media under the misleading name of radically conservative "family values."

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