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Who decides what’s morally correct in this country today?

It’s not the pope, nor the president, nor the PTA. Would you believe? It’s Wal-Mart!

Yes, the world’s largest retailer – with more than 1 million employees and more than 3,400 stores nationwide – has set itself up as the country’s new culture cop. From now on, Wal-Mart will decide what’s good for us and what’s not. And, especially, what we can read and what we can’t.

Last month, in response to complaints from religious conservative customers, Wal-Mart pulled three men’s magazines – Maxim, Stuff and FHM – from its shelves. This week, after more complaints, it announced it would shield the covers of four women’s magazines sold in checkout counters.

Now, to be honest, I’ve never seen the banned men’s magazines. Not my style. If they are, indeed, pornographic: no problem, ban them. Pornography has no place in a family store.

But the four women’s magazines are about as far from pornography as “The Cat in the Hat.” Redbook, Cosmopolitan, Marie Claire and Glamour are four of the oldest, best and most popular women’s magazines on the market. Sure, each has spruced up its image recently to appeal to younger women – they are, after all, in business to sell magazines – but they are far, far from what anybody could define as obscene.

This month’s cover of Glamour, for example, features a fully-dressed country music superstar Faith Hill, surrounded by blaring headlines: “Great Summer Hair, Skin & Body;” “She’s 22 With One Month to Live;” and “15 Sexiest Things Women Do Without Knowing it.” Surely, any self-respecting woman could spot those headlines in a checkout line without feeling the need to rip off her clothes and suddenly attack the nearest salesman.

Or check out the latest Redbook. I did. It prides itself on offering stories about “Real Life for Real Women” in three categories: family; love and relating; and health and well-being. And these are the magazines some women say they can’t even cast their eyes on without being offended? Next thing you know, they’ll be demanding that Wal-Mart ban Reader’s Digest because of an article on breast-feeding – and Wal-Mart would probably go along.

Why is it that some people want this country to look more and more like what Afghanistan used to be? Did we liberate them into order to enslave us? And who appointed Wal-Mart the new American Taliban?

Obviously, as a business, Wal-Mart has a right to sell, or not sell, whatever product it wants. My father used to operate his own gas station. He had the right to sell Exxon, or Texaco, or no gas at all. But to let a handful of super-sensitive religious zealots dictate what all Americans can buy at Wal-Mart, or any other store, is dangerous.

For starters, who decides what’s decent and what’s not? Sam Walton himself never claimed such divine powers, so I doubt he handed them down to his heirs. Or will Wal-Mart appoint a committee of smut police? If so, how do you qualify? And what’s the definition of indecency? What’s indecent in one person’s eye is decent in another’s.

As an occasional Wal-Mart shopper, for example, I can’t stand the sight of gun magazines. Seeing men in camouflage with assault weapons on the cover of some monthly rag offends me deeply because, as a Christian, I think killing is indecent – a lot more indecent than sex. If I complain to Wal-Mart, will they ban all gun magazines?

As an environmentalist, I’m also offended by the huge mega-stores Wal-Mart is trying to force on small communities like Hood River, Ore., and Westerly, R.I. If I find bigger stores indecent, will Wal-Mart stop building them?

Finally, as a fair-minded person, I’m offended that Wal-Mart consistently pays its women employees less than men – for the same job – and fails to promote women to managerial positions as often as men. According to documents filed by women workers against Wal-Mart, the average salary for male store managers is $105,682; for women managers, it’s only $80,280. Male sales personnel take home an average $16,526; women, only $15,067. Now, to me, that’s really obscene.

Wal-Mart should clean up its own life before trying to clean up ours.



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