Opposing Wal-Mart doesn’t make you a Nazi

 

I’m a radical, yes. An environmentalist, yes. A small-is-better zealot, yes. A feminist, a fierce supporter of independent bookstores, a rabble rouser. I've been called a Chicken Little who shrieks, "The sky is falling!" I admit to all those labels. What I am not, and this is the second time in a decade I’ve been smeared with the word, is a Nazi.

The local development cabal flung the first glob of muck when a few of us began to organize to stop a hustler from plunking a gated golf course "community" around a rare wetland. "Eco-terrorist tree-hugging b...ch," began to echo in meeting rooms and country club bars, or so it was reported to me by more than one source. I regarded the epithets as a badge of honor, a sign that I was living right.

This month, though, I was not alone in being vilified. Wal-Mart used a photo of Nazi book-burners in a full-page ad in our local paper to attack all the citizens who were pushing for an initiative that would block the mega-corporation from building a Supercenter. The company has since promised to publish another full-page ad to apologize for the first.

Good, but not good enough. I am 65, a woman of the generation who was alive during the true horror of Nazi atrocities. According to my Random House Collegiate Dictionary, a Nazi was: "a member of the National Socialist German Workers’ party, which, in 1933, under Adolf Hitler, seized political control of Germany."

I read the bland definition, and I remember the older members of the Jewish Community Center in my Northeastern hometown. To a man, to a woman, they were all short; more than a few favored long sleeves; more than a few seemed old and worn out beyond their years.

"Malnutrition," my friend told me, "long sleeves to hide the numbers tattooed on their wrists. They have lived 50 lifetimes to our one." Her grandmother had been in the camps and survived. "I will never forget," my friend said, "I will never forget what my Bubba has told me I must not forget."

Does Wal-Mart think we forgot? Did their public relations department decide that we are simply thoughtless, or, worse yet, afflicted with a comfortable amnesia for the past?

I remember the villages decimated by the Nazis. And I cannot help but judge Wal-Mar’s myopic arrogance and disrespect for the people of my town. I think of an article I read recently in The New York Times, an article that mourned the loss of a beloved painting from the New York Public Library. No thief had taken it; Wal-Mart heir Alice Walton paid $35 million for the painting by an American artist, "Kindred Spirits," which had to be sold to buy books. Walton intends the painting for a hypothetical Walton museum, to be built in Bentonville, Ark.

Hypothetical supercenter; hypothetical museum. But real money. Call me a small town hick, but the first question that comes to mind is: Why didn’t Walton endow New York’s public library with the money? My second question is closer to home: When will enough be enough?

My next question arises from my belief that, in some strange irony, Wal-Mart’s destructive attack in a small Southwestern paper, and Alice Walton’s insatiability in the Big Apple, have created a true global village. Flagstaff, Ariz., and New York are neighbors. All towns are a mere village compared to the power of Bentonville, Ark.

Here is the third question: Who are the Waltons’ kindred spirits? I know mine: New Yorkers, Mom and Pop store owners, Jews, an impoverished library Board are now kin — linked not by blood, religion or even residence, but by the greed and overweening reach of one family. It is as if, not long ago, you and I might have lived in the Russia of the czars.

My fourth question: Will your town be next? My fifth: Will you collaborate? No less social commentators than the makers of the cartoon series South Park asked this question last year. Kenny and the gang are sent on a search for the heart of Wal-Mart. They find it hanging on the wall next to the television department. It is a mirror.

It reflects, perhaps, our willingness to take part in our own exploitation. As though the members of a village agreed to being marginalized, and so doing, filed obediently toward their own disappearance. Call me what you will.

Mary Sojourner is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). She is a writer and environmental activist in Flagstaff, Arizona.