I plowed right through Marjane Satrapi's Persepolis this week, in its English translation. It's a tremendous book, about Satrapi's experience growing up in Iran from the late 1970s to the early 1990s. In many ways, Persepolis is typical Bildungsroman: Satrapi starts as a remarkable child, gifted and willful, and ends up derailed or disillusioned when she is sent by her parents to Vienna at the age of fourteen, to be kept safe from both the Iran-Iraq war and the increasingly repressive Iranian government. Satrapi isn't edified by this time abroad, however, and it is only when she returns to Iran that she begins to patch herself back together. This is a story that could easily have been a narrative of victimization, but it's not: it's a narrative of disrupted formation in a time of conflict and political repression, and it's truly wonderful.

That said, what's most important about Persepolis might be what it accomplishes politically. The version of Middle Eastern culture that is presented in North American media is, as goes without saying, grossly simplified. Even setting aside flatly offensive depictions of people of the Middle East as the enemy, the other -- there are few if any mainstream sources that account even for regional or national differences, let alone for the real experiences of individuals or groups within regions. And there are real differences. If I'm going to insist on difference between Canada and the United States, or Canada and Britain, it's equally important for me to insist on differences between Iran and Afghanistan, Egypt and Algeria. And yes, these differences are far, far easier to quantify.

Satrapi is concerned with Iranian culture, language, and history, and makes it clear that it's distinct, in important ways, from that of the rest of the region. Her characters are compelling, nuanced, and (with a few exceptions) totally 'modern'. This is a thoughtful, first-hand historical account, and one that I doubt could be read by somebody with a limited awareness of Iran, or the Middle East in general, without shaking up their concept of a homogeneous Middle Eastern culture. And I guarantee that most of you have such a concept of Middle Eastern culture.

Reading and writing, it bears saying again, always have a political purpose. If you want to be really politically and culturally aware, you should be reading not outsider accounts (or not only outsider accounts), but cultural documents from inside a region. If thoughtful, human, politically-aware books like Persepolis were typical on North American curricula, it'd be much harder to convince us of the abstract wickedness of people "over there", wherever the "over there" of the moment happens to be.

Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices

How uncomfortable it can be to encounter troubling rhetoric, or simply bad evidence, used in the service of a good cause. When watching Michael Moore's Sicko this summer, I was struck by how much of his evidence was strictly anecdotal, and by how easily including a few hard figures would have made his argument work. I left the theatre with a lot of sympathy for Americans who lack proper health coverage, and a lot of resentment for insurance companies who profit from others' illness -- but I felt that way when I entered the theatre, too. Nothing in Sicko would have converted me into a believer in universal health care had I not been a believer to start with.

Robert Greenwald's 2005 documentary Wal-Mart: The High Cost of Low Prices suffers from similar problems. In some ways, this is a difficult film to criticize. It covers many of the right bases in its criticism of the company, railing against its poor wages and limited benefits for employees, its exploitation of foreign workers, and its devastating effect on small businesses. As with Moore's documentary, however, the evidence in this documentary is almost strictly anecdotal. I've checked reviews at rottentomatoes.com (where the film is rated 92% 'fresh'), and many in fact praise Greenwald's approach, suggesting that it's preferable to a detached, "analytical" or "intellectual" approach.

I can't agree. I feel great sympathy for the workers and owners of now-defunct small businesses who shared their story in this documentary -- but that's always been my inclination. As I watched the film, however, I became increasingly uncomfortable with many of its underlying ideas. Perhaps it's a brilliant move to frame Wal-Mart as a fundamental threat to traditional American values and a traditional American way of life, rather than attempting a more typical leftist, anti-corporate tack. Perhaps it's simply smarter to try to win people with such an argument, rather than asking them to reconsider both Wal-Mart and American identity at the same time. And the fact is, of course, that the business practices of Wal-Mart and similar corporations are a threat to a traditional American (or North American) way of life. As the film suggests, the outsourcing of production to China has had bad effects for both the American economy and criminally underpaid Chinese workers. American families do strain to make ends meet on Wal-Mart's minimum wage. Small American businesses do collapse when Wal-Mart moves into town, and the downtown cores of small towns do lose much of their vibrancy.

But -- much of this criticism is wrapped up in an abstract, paradisical concept of "America". Most of the commentators in the film speak as they go about daily tasks that are emblematic of a traditional American lifestyle (e.g. duck hunting). One woman who petitioned successfully to keep Wal-Mart out of her town gazes tearfully at the flag at the front of her house as she speaks of Wal-Mart's threat to the freedom defended by the country's founders; one man speaks of Wal-Mart as a company that isn't really American, but instead "Chinese with an American board of directors". There's also an extensive section that details Wal-Mart's failure to respond to the high crime rate in its parking lots, talking of thefts and rapes and murders, which seems to me to be a kind of fear-mongering often associated with less-than-noble political agendas.

I don't wish to denigrate this film as a whole, but I'd like to ask -- do people find this appeal to an 'imagined' America as an entity under threat effective? Or, if only by association with the ways it's been used in the past, do you find it distasteful, if not dangerous in itself? Part of me is delighted by the subversiveness of turning the rhetoric not on a threat from without, but a threat from within. But there's a xenophobia and a blind patriotism that underpins this rhetoric, no matter how it's used, and in the end I feel that this is a film that asks people to reject Wal-Mart's corporate practices for the wrong reasons. (Although, as I've said -- for the right reasons, too.)

A better take on this issue can be found in Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town, which was shown on PBS a few years ago. Rather than taking anecdotal evidence from a confusing array of sources, this documentary focuses on the single case of Ashland, Virginia. I remember this as a genuinely moving documentary, one that captured the unresolvable, conflicting interests of people in small-town America, and one that very successfully personalized the issue. Method-wise, the comparison between these two documentaries is instructive: better to do a detailed case study than to take evidence willy-nilly from a whole country.