Attention, Wal-Mart critics
If you're among the 100 million Americans who shop at Wal-Mart weekly, it probably never occurred to you that you're supporting a malevolent...
Special to The Times
IF you're among the 100 million Americans who shop at Wal-Mart weekly, it probably never occurred to you that you're supporting a malevolent institution described by critics as a new "Evil Empire." The retail colossus remains so popular and so powerful (its 1.2 million workers make it the nation's biggest private employer) that the persistent sniping about Wal-Mart's business practices inevitably sounds like irrelevant sour grapes.
Nevertheless, filmmaker Robert Greenwald has just unleashed a bitter documentary ("Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Price") that has been shown in November in some 3,000 private homes, union halls and churches across the United States before its general DVD release. Produced with support from labor organizations (which resent their inability to unionize Wal-Mart), and endorsed by Hollywood comedian-activists Al Franken and Jeaneane Garofolo, Greenwald's film accuses the company of exploiting employees, despoiling the environment, destroying small businesses, and flooding the United States with sweatshop merchandise from abroad.
Neither Greenwald nor his backers expect to connect with an eager mass audience; it's safe to say more people will visit Wal-Mart stores in any single day than will watch the film over the next 10 years. In fact, all the angry debates over Sam Walton's legacy occupy an elitist, abstract atmosphere utterly disconnected from the real world of shopping and spending.
"Progressive" activists may hate Wal-Mart, but they must recognize that if the company closed tomorrow it would throw hundreds of thousands out of work and make the lives of millions of customers vastly less convenient.
Critics insist they don't want the retail giant to fail: They merely want better salaries and benefits for workers. But even the most rudimentary understanding of economics indicates that paying more for employees leads inevitably to higher prices, leading in turn to less business, less growth and fewer new jobs — particularly the entry-level jobs our economy so desperately needs.
If critics challenge Wal-Mart's business model as woefully misguided, they should be able to press rival companies to deploy their more enlightened notions, thereby displacing the Bentonville behemoth from its position of dominance.
At Arkansas headquarters, corporate leaders aren't exactly holding their breath, but they do seem annoyed by the latest attempt to discredit their brand name. Their public-relations firm has researched Greenwald's filmmaking background and focused new attention on his long-ago creative triumphs such as "Portrait of a Stripper" and "Beach Girls," along with Greenwald's one big budget film, "Xanadu" (which made the dishonor roll in my own 1986 bad-movies book, "Son of Golden Turkey Awards").
More recently, Greenwald has focused on unabashedly left-wing documentaries, including last year's "Outfoxed," an angry "exposé" of Fox News Channel — another profoundly profitable institution that has earned enthusiastic support from the American heartland.
In fact, a consistent contempt for ordinary Americans seems to connect both poles of Greenwald's career: In his earlier, populist "Portrait of a Stripper" phase, he attempted to connect with a mass audience by insulting its intelligence; in his more-recent work as a high-minded documentarian, he has portrayed the people as helpless boobs manipulated by evil corporations, and unable to make appropriate decisions about their own long-term welfare.
One of the sponsors of the new film's premiere, Liza Featherstone of The Nation magazine, begins one of her frequent diatribes against her least-favorite company by sniffing: "Wal-Mart is an unadorned eyesore surrounded by a parking lot, even its logo aggressively devoid of flourish." Of course, most middle-class shoppers will care far more about getting decent value for their money than a logo's flourish or a store's architectural amenities.
Intellectuals have always despised the "bourgeoisie" (In the '20s, H.L. Mencken ceaselessly derided the "boob-oisie") for its hard-headed practicality, refusing to recognize that most people simply don't have the luxury to look beyond narrow notions of self-interest and affordability.
It's true that thousands of (mostly well-heeled) liberals may find hours and dollars to sponsor showings of a new documentary looking down on Wal-Mart, but few of their fellow citizens have the inclination to join them. Most of us work too hard and save too little, struggling to pay credit-card minimums and hoping, some day, to finance braces for the kids.
In this context, it's still possible to walk into a vast, bustling sanctuary of a Wal-Mart store and feel dazzled by the startling array of products, reassured by the clockwork efficiency of the whole operation and, yes, unapologetically gratified by the low prices.Michael Medved hosts a nationally syndicated daily radio talk show, broadcast in Seattle on KTTH-AM (770), noon to 3 p.m.