Wal-Mart:: The High Cost of Low Price

Oct 09, 2006

I’ve known since I was a wee tot that I am on the wrong planet. I’m no longer bitter about it; I see it now for what it is: cosmic slapstick, nothing more. The universe, wearing laughably over-sized pants, was trying to balance too many trays of lemon meringue pies and it slipped in some doggy doo and—blamo—I inexplicably fell out of a chute and wound up here. Because of this ontological accident, my life has been, among other things, a comical series of awkward social confrontations wherein my Eldritch alien ways are sharply rebuked by the indigenous earth people. And somehow, through it all, my alien brain has remained astonished each and every time this happens; as though I have a case of perpetual amnesia and can’t remember to just keep my yap shut. But I don’t think I’ve ever been quite as astonished by the censure I’ve endured from my earth neighbors as when I recently found myself at a party and being scolded for acting antagonistic and generally smarty-mouthed towards the most flabbergastingly gargantuan company in the world, Wal-Mart. And I have been pilloried for this “offense” not just once, or twice, but several times over the last year or so. Cornered like the Elephant Man by otherwise perfectly reasonable and intelligent people, all of them demanding to know just what the hell my beef is with the kindly huge store that sells us pickles and underpants and lipstick and Josh Groban CDs for dirt cheap. Judging by the bark in their eyes and the snapping of their mandibles, you’d think that my off-hand comments against the super-sized store were meant to tear apart the very yarn that lovingly holds this proud society of ours together.

Most horrible of all, though: I didn’t have any snappy Bill O’Reilly-esque answers to give them in rebuttal. No facts or figures or pie charts demonstrating the verisimilitude of my position. Instead, I sputtered and mumbled in rhetoric that had all the assertiveness and focus of a bad impressionist paining; talking in runny, inexact language about my intuitive distrust of anything that becomes just-too-fucking-plain huge and how gigantism is, in general, not a healthy thing. If you can’t see it in über-enormous corporations, I argued, then surely you can see it in examples of human gigantism. Look at the lurching, sickly lives of Robert Wadlow or Andre the Giant or Robert Earl Hughes or Rondo Hatton, all of whom left their deformed, monstrous shells at an early age. Or go take a whiff of the corruption emanating out of the fleshy folds of Poison Idea’s gigantic guitarist Pig Champion. Or even look at Johnny “The Wadd” Holmes, whose celebrated giant pee tube allegedly had little or no feeling in it—because it was just too damn big. For God’s sake, what good is a “wadd” with no feeling?

But each time I tried to present my simple, folksy warnings against severe disproportion, my wispy abstractions did little to sway the “cheap underpants” crowd. They were looking for something more crisply defined, some “truth” that resonated as deeply as the truth of the pennies jingling in their pockets—the pennies they saved by shopping at the Great Store. Maybe they were simply looking for something more “fair and balanced.” Whatever it was they wanted from me, I wasn’t giving it to them and they let me know it. In a last ditch effort, I vainly grabbed into my little bag of quotes and tried to move them with offerings like Lao Tzu’s recommendation to “value smallness” and Lord Acton’s warning that “power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” No dice. These defenders of the Great Store were obviously kinfolk to the “backlashers”; the growing political contingent in this country whose hackles have been raised and whose “response to the power structure is to make the rich richer,” as Thomas Frank writes in his book What’s the Matter with Kansas? They are the Little Guys who, as they are being stepped on by the Big Guys, cheer on those same Big Guys—and they are, to my alien mind, utterly inscrutable. It’s little wonder that each of these “confrontations” came to such a lurching halt. Talking about the pitfalls of socio-economic acromegaly to these defenders of giants is like talking to Stockholm Syndrome victims. What I needed was info-byte-sized factoids and the gaudier, the better.

So I decided to finally check out the documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, just to see if my suspicions were as wildly off the mark as, say, G.W.’s notions of Iraqi WMDs. If this particular documentary is to be believed—and if they’re only half right, they still make one damning case against the Mega-Mart—then it appears my instincts and horse-sense are not as wayward as the earth people might have me believe. For me, this documentary wasn’t so much a case of preaching to the choir as it was arming the choir to the teeth. Next time I’m cornered by angry drones wearing “I (Heart) Smiley Face” shirts I’ll be able to pepper them factoids about Wal-Mart’s dirt poor “associates” (aka: low-rung employees)… so strapped for cash that they can’t afford to eat lunch… encouraged by Wal-Mart to go on welfare… forced to rely on WIC, food stamps, Section 8 Housing and Medicaid… so broke that the only place they can afford to shop is at Wal-Mart…. And I can quickly follow all that up by mentioning that Wal-Mart had $240 billion in sales just in the year 2003 and that the Walton family is the richest family in America, worth $102 billion… and that Wal-Mart costs taxpayers $1,557,000,000 to support its employees.

How’s that for Severe Disproportion for you? And that’s just the tip of a very ugly iceberg. But while I’m sure there’s way more than a grain or two of truth to everything presented in Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, I’m also sure that some fast-talking Wal-Mart shill could, and probably will, counterpoint and spin doctor it all away and seem very credible while doing so. Though I haven’t seen it yet, I’m pretty sure that’s what the documentary Why Wal-Mart Works and Why This Makes Some People C-R-A-Z-Y. is all about. But that’s just a hunch.

The problem, as I see it, is that all of this is talking about the symptoms more than the disease itself. So ultimately, I come back to my original gut feeling: that Wal-Mart, by virtue of its grotesque size and its never-ending desire to grow even bigger, is not only stomping out the mom and pop competition, but it’s stomping out pluralism on multiple levels and replacing it with standardization, homogenization, and blandness on a gargantuan scale. And it’s all being done to provide you, the budget-minded consumer, gloriously convenient one-stop shopping—or so they’d like you to think. And in this, they are following the infamous advice of Joseph Goebbels when he said, “What you want is ostensible diversity that conceals an actual uniformity.” In other words, what Wal-Mart is peddling, more than anything else, is insipidness. And if a product doesn’t meet their standards of insipidity then they resort to their own special brand of strong-arm censorship and bullying techniques.

When you’re that blastedly huge, just scratching your nose ends up bullying someone. And that just shows that something is horribly out of whack. I don’t need any documentary to point that out to me. Some things are just plain as day. Any company that uses what is perhaps the most thoroughly insipid icon in all of Americana—the ‘70s Smiley Face—as its mascot, is a company that brandishes its own blandness almost as a weapon. Wal-Mart is like a giant dim-witted leper covered in little yellow smiling tumors and it wants to rub up against you. Whether you decide to let it or not, is up to you—providing you can think beyond the rush of saving a few cents on toe nail clippers or VapoRub or squirt guns or teething toast or Larry the Cable Guy DVDs. If we are well advised to “look where we worship,” then I’d say, in this Shoppers Gone Wild society of ours, that that’s tantamount to looking where we consume. Buying a cheap bag of underpants is one thing, but buying it without giving the slightest thought to just who or what is getting your money, is a whole other thing entirely. That’s a self-imposed blindness where the Dead Kennedys’ “Give Me Convenience or Give Me Death” slogan has suddenly—and dangerously—lost its sarcasm. –Aphid Peewit (www.walmartmovie.com)