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John Dicker looks at Wal-Mart and sees America

click to enlarge The United States of Wal-Mart - by John Dicker - (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin) - $12.95/paperback
  • The United States of Wal-Mart by John Dicker (Jeremy P. Tarcher/Penguin) $12.95/paperback

"I was trying to write at the same time for people who haven't ever read a book on Wal-Mart and people who pay attention to politics and culture," said former Independent reporter John Dicker of his recently released book, The United States of Wal-Mart.

Dicker's intriguing 213-pager is a spunky demystification of the most loved and loathed company's "low prices" and an intentionally irreverent deconstruction of how its corporate culture has recalibrated American culture at large.

"It is an examination of how one company has single-handedly altered our expectations of what we deserve as consumers and what we will tolerate as citizens," Dicker writes in the introduction.

Dicker tries not to lay all the blame on Wal-Mart. He provides plenty of examples of how other big-boxes similarly have implemented degrading policies. Still, Wal-Mart, the largest and wealthiest corporation in the world, clearly is setting the standards.

Early on, Dicker discusses what is perhaps the most striking change in contemporary consumerism: the rise of the private label, or PL. Gone are the middle-school days of kids teasing each other for donning big-box fashions. "Private-label merchandise is the new black," Dicker writes.

Dicker quickly gets through the numbers to tackle "the kind of bogus statements daily newspapers never pick up on." He goes straight to the source of spin, coining a shiny new term along the way: Wal-flack.

"I got very interested in their media spin, which became more interesting as they started to put more attention into it," he said. "Wal-Mart didn't have a PR person until they were 23 years old, which explains why they're doing so much damage control now ... There's so much doublespeak and duplicity that I don't think gets debunked by the media."

Before the birth of the Wal-flacks, Wal-Mart relied on its patriarch, Sam Walton, both in life and in death ("in the absence of the man, they'll settle for his ghost") to relay a deceptively pristine company image. Dicker dedicates an early chapter to "How Sam Walton Became an Ethos," providing helpful context and a smooth transition into a focus on the current obsession with thrift -- not only throughout Wal-Mart, but throughout America.

This cultural shift to thrift transcends political boundaries, which seemingly explains why so many "site fights" -- pitting individual communities like Monument, Woodland Park, Pueblo and Thornton against Wal-Mart -- have cultivated unusual alliances that bridge more than just progressive blue and green (labor and environmental) discord.

"One of the things I take on is this notion that people who take on Wal-Mart are liberal elitists, which I think is bullshit," Dicker said. "Very Republican areas are taking it on in ways that are not typical left-right politics. Wal-Mart doesn't necessarily follow the left-right divide."

But maybe Wal-Mart isn't bad for every community, Dicker warns, and he advises activists to pick their battles.

"Talking to activists, one of the things that I realize is that in communities taking it on, it's a bad idea to frame your site fight [simply as being] against Wal-Mart," he said. "County planners don't give a shit about our trade deficit with China."

Dicker's presentation marks a unique foray into the canon of Wal-Mart writings. While he doesn't unearth shocking new evidence to fell the behemoth (also providing a disclaimer that he doesn't intend to), he culls enough interesting facts from a broad spectrum to deliver sharp, witty and pragmatic analysis unlike any comprised before. Stylistically, Dicker closes in on literary non-fiction's "new New Journalists," delivering in a consciously strong voice and employing metaphor with a keen nod to popular culture.

Of the experience, Dicker said, "It was a wonderful exercise in self-loathing, and this one had a happy ending."

-- Vanessa Martinez

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