Bentonville, Ark., is home to Wal-Mart Corp. Wal-Mart, referred to by some as the ''Beast of Bentonville,'' is ubiquitous. We all shop there, even liberal employment lawyers who cannot say anything of a salutary nature about the place. Wal-Mart pays substandard wages, aggressively opposes union organizing efforts, prevents most of its employees from working full time and enforces tough labor policies in its stores. It dominates and saturates markets and unflinchingly squeezes out competitors. And, as a series of nationwide raids by federal agents suggests, it may have something of an illegal immigrant problem, as about 250 who worked cleaning Wal-Mart stores were seized.
Despite all of this, Wal-Mart is your headquarters for good old-fashioned Americana, served up in oversized plastic containers. It is the last retail stop on a long train ride to the end of what used to be known as the American dream. Its bright corridors are crammed with merchandise churned out in the sweatshops of Central America or Southeast Asia. While in a Wal-Mart, one encounters little yellow ''happy-face'' signs, busily engaged in ''price rollbacks.'' It is a multibillion dollar enterprise that, manifesting no sense of irony, fancies itself to be a champion of ''Christian values.''
At the same time, it censors artistic material, refuses to sell certain music CDs and bans ''risque'' magazines like Maxim, FHM and Stuff, apparently believing that pictures of pretty girls pose a grave danger to the purity of our souls.
Having said this, I still find myself shopping there on occasion. A few months ago, I was walking through a Wal-Mart store on Route 309, on my way back to Bethlehem after a day in court in Philadelphia. What I saw there could conceivably, depending upon the eyes of the beholder, be viewed as an affront to one's sensibilities. It was an enlarged color photograph of President George W. Bush standing on that aircraft carrier in the Pacific Ocean off San Diego. It was taken on May 1, and it depicted Mr. Bush dressed in a flight suit, holding a jet pilot's flight helmet. On that day, he announced an end to major hostilities in Iraq. It has become an officially famous picture. At the time, I was reminded of Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart's concurring opinion on the definition of obscenity in Jacobellis v. Ohio: ''I know it when I see it.''
After selling this photo of the President, Wal-Mart then decided to cover up the covers of certain terribly naughty women's magazines like Elle, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue, because of racy or suggestive images allegedly appearing on their covers. It would be fascinating to interview the Wal-Mart magazine censor to find out what sort of pictures would have to grace the cover of a magazine to warrant a plain brown cardboard cover. I wanted to place a plain brown wrapper over that aircraft carrier photograph of President Bush, but obviously that would not have pleased Wal-Mart's security officers.
Incredibly, Wal-Mart's pseudo-Christian, true-blue, patriotic-American, moralizing-crusader mindset blends well with its vigorous gun and ammunition sales and gun magazines, not to mention its glossy photographs of presidents striking faux warrior poses.
Wal-Mart likes to show off its smiling employees in advertisements. Meanwhile, it continues creating harsh working environments. Behind those smiles, we can see a company pursuing a policy of intolerance and censorship, listening too closely to certain elements of the religious right, such as the Rev. Donald Wildmon's Mississippi-based American Family Association.Wildmon's minions are gravely concerned about sexy pictures, naughty words and any form of misbehaving. Wal-Mart, which is far too solicitous of the opinions of people like Wildmon, is making sure that when little Billy waits in its checkout lines with Mommy, he won't have to see Sarah Jessica Parker's cleavage.
Just when I thought that Wal-Mart's ambitious journey into the heart of censorship darkness couldn't get any more intriguing, I learned that Playboy magazine is planning to do a photo shoot entitled ''The Women of Wal-Mart.'' The boys in Bentonville are going to be utterly horrified by such sinfulness on the part of their female employees who participate in Playboy's endeavor. Someone at Playboy must have a good sense of humor; but I hope the magazine pays these women well. They are going to need the money. Their futures at Wal-Mart, to put it delicately, might be somewhat in doubt. Self-expression, fully clad or not, doesn't play well in the face of corporate heavy-handedness.
Wal-Mart pays substandard wages, aggressively opposes union organizing efforts, prevents most of its employees from working full time and enforces tough labor policies in its stores.