NEW YORK -- "Aside from the overall overthrow of capitalism, we don't have an agenda." This past Sunday, on a bright fall afternoon, the Socialist Party of New York City gathered in their Greenwich Village headquarters to watch and discuss the new anti-Wal-Mart documentary.
The leader of the discussion addressed a group of about 20 revolutionaries of all ages who sat in folding chairs. He said that the socialists were proud that unions and other community activists were able to keep New York City free of Wal-Mart thus far. But, he cautioned, the tentacles of the evil retailer were closing in on the city, with stores in Long Island, Westchester, and New Jersey. "The barbarians, literally, are at the gates," he said.
Little did he know that the unshaven socialist sitting in the back of the room, who wore muddy hiking boots and hadn't showered that morning, was not a socialist at all, but your humble correspondent.
Over the next few weeks, activist groups throughout the U.S. will be hosting more than 7,000 screenings of the new film, Wal Mart: The High Cost of Low Price, as part of a grassroots effort to bring down the world's largest retailer.
The film is an amateurish Michael Moore-style documentary that replays the greatest hits of anti-Wal-Mart paranoia. Even somebody who is sympathetic to the film's arguments has likely seen them made elsewhere. Wal-Mart puts mom-and-pop stores out of business, rips off its employees, discriminates against blacks and women, and exploits third world laborers. Oh, and people commit crimes at Wal-Mart parking lots (as if other parking lots were not fertile ground for criminal activity).
The film is so overloaded with graphics and statistics flashing on the screen that one wonders whether Director Robert Greenwald just discovered a new feature of his editing software and decided to have fun with it. Otherwise, the film mainly consists of interviews with those who have a beef with Wal-Mart, including many current and former employees. With millions to choose from, it should be no big shock that Greenwald was able to find enough disgruntled workers to fill out a 98-minute documentary.
NOT SURPRISINGLY, THE DOCUMENTARY often manipulates the truth. For instance, it opens with the tale of H&H Hardware, a small Ohio store that had been family-owned since 1962, only to be put out of business when Wal-Mart came to town. Or at least that's the way it is presented in the movie. But the founder of the store has subsequently offered a different account. "I think Wal-Mart hurts a lot of small businesses," said Don Hunter, who started H&H in 1962. "But it's not the reason we closed." In fact, Hunter's business closed nearly three months before Wal-Mart opened in town. And last month, the hardware store reopened under new ownership.
The film also profiles a young Chinese woman who moved to the city of Shenzhen to work in a Wal-Mart factory, where she labors more than 12 hours a day for pennies per hour. This is sure to be unconscionable to any American audience, because Americans enjoy the opportunities that come with living in a capitalist economy. But China has been under Communist rule for over 50 years, so working in a sweatshop for 12 hours a day is actually an improvement over prior conditions. In fact, the woman who is profiled said that her mother asked her to move back to rural China to be a corn farmer, but she declined, choosing instead to remain at the Wal-Mart factory.
Of course, the audience of Greenwich Village socialists had a different perspective on the film.
One fact that got the audience's attention was that the Walton family has given less than 1 percent of its wealth to charity, but Bill Gates has given 58 percent. However, this didn't endear anyone to the founder of Microsoft.
"The idea that somebody with that much money can just give magnanimously to causes he chooses is insulting," one person said of Gates's philanthropy.
MORE THAN ANYTHING, the film was a call to arms. One audience member said that she was inspired by the end of the film, in which activists celebrate keeping Wal-Mart out of their towns and the word "VICTORY" gets superimposed all over the screen. But she wished there would be a greater movement for government to regulate Wal-Mart.
At first, I tried to keep quiet during the discussion, not wanting to blow my cover. If anybody had asked, I would have identified myself as an unemployed writer working on a novel about disillusionment, cynicism, and idealism within the consumer culture. My boots were muddy because I recently worked the grape harvest in Northern California.
I had brought some friends along for protection -- just in case some angry Bolsheviks came after me with sickles. But this nearly backfired when one of my co-conspirators decided to question whether a union worker, who is often stuck in the same job because of rigid rules concerning promotion, is really better off than a Wal-Mart employee who could be promoted to manager. I had to think fast or else the gig would be up.
"Well, that's only if you buy into Wal-Mart's propaganda that people can actually get promoted," I chimed in. "And God forbid you're black or female!"
A genuine socialist in the audience backed me up, saying that 99 percent of people don't get promoted in capitalism, and that the ones who do have MBAs from Columbia University. (If only he knew that one of my partners who was in the room does, in fact, have an MBA from Columbia and works for a leading Wall Street investment bank).
As the discussion came to an end, the leader of the group encouraged everybody to attend an upcoming rally outside of a Wal-Mart in Long Island.
He acknowledged that there were a lot of challenges to keeping Wal-Mart out of New York City. For instance, he said that when handing out anti-Wal-Mart fliers, he has been confronted by a lot of people who actually want a Wal-Mart in their neighborhood "because they want to buy cheap underwear." Heaven forbid!
When my undercover operation came to an end, I enjoyed getting home and having a close shave (with a Wal-Mart purchased razor blade, of course).
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