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.


Jane Austen Jr. said...

You know what's annoying? I forgot to return the movie on time and now I have to pay a late fee for a terrible movie that I should've been paid to watch!!

Katie said...

I haven't seen the movie, but I agree that the argument based on erosion of "traditional American values" is flawed. However, it may strike a chord with more viewers by stiring up emotions than by presenting the issues in a more unbiased way. You contrast it with the PBS approach, which I also haven't seen, and from what you say, the PBS documentary does sound more effective.

I have yet to see Sicko as well (um...noticing a pattern here in my movie-watching or lack thereof...), but I find the same problem with all of Michael Moore's films; they are heavily biased toward driving home his point, often without satisfyingly presenting strong evidence or showing the other side of the issue. Those I know who have seen Sicko have said that Moore comes crusading into Canada and paints an overly rosy picture of Canadian Health Care, without acknowledging that any attempt at a universal system has its problems (though its ideology may be sounder than that of our US counterparts). It is a question of weighing the costs and benefits of various alternatives and deciding how to allocate available resources, always recognizing that access to healthcare in the big cities is almost always going to be far better than in remote rural regions. Let's face it, community health centres are not going to be equipped with specialists to do reliable diagnostic assessments, chemotherapy, dialysis, and rehabilitation. Specialists and equipment do not come cheaply.