It's the smell, if there is such a thing.

April 30, 2004

As a service to an infirm friend of mine, I recently had to spent some time in a Wal-Mart, and I don’t see how a human being with an ounce of empathy in them can walk out of a place like that and not be on the verge of tears.

The Wal-Mart chain is the Dresden of class warfare. The relationships between education and prosperity, between basic nutrition and prosperity are drawn stark in every aisle, so mercilessly clear that floors seem painted in the blood of the desperate and the resigned. I felt like Noam Chomsky was punching me in the kidneys. The line of doughy, slow-moving, slow-looking people queueing up to the mini-McDonalds near the entrance, the stacks of chocolate snacks and half-height cans of Pepsi destined for children’s lunches at the checkouts put a horrible gloss of inevitability over the experience that I’m still trying to shake.

There are people who protest, sometimes successfully, usually not, the impending presence of a Wal-Mart in a community, saying that it will put local businesses out of business, which it will, that it caters to the lowest common denominator, which it does, and that it will destroy the “civic life” of a community, something that’s never all that well defined, but if it means “getting out of the house, talking to your neighbors and playing some role in the fabric of your society”, yeah, it’ll probably do that too.

But none of that matters, because Wal-Mart is not the disease. Closing all of them, every last one, and all of their Price-Club, Costco ilk, would not change a damn thing. Wal-Mart is a symptom, not an illness, a very late symptom; burning them all right to the ground would feel good for a few people, for a short time, and that’s about it. By the time the conditions exist for a Wal-Mart to take hold in your community, you have already lost. Protesting the opening of a megastore is like treating malignant melanoma with makeup; all you’re doing is marching in favor of your right to keep your head in the sand a little bit longer. That store is a sign that can’t argued or denied that says “This is your fault. You’ve done this to yourself, and now here is the collective result of your decisions. Now get in line.”