Good and Bad Goldberg

Among writers I read and admire, my Atlantic colleague Jeff Goldberg achieved a rare distinction lately: in the past fortnight he has written two of the worst columns I have read all year and one of the best.

The really good column was about Islamists and the Arab Spring--Was the Arab Spring a Victory for Extremism?--a subject that other commentators on the Middle East have been rather shying away from.

In many ways the Arab Uprising -- or Arab Awakening, or Arab Spring; freedom means we can call it what we want -- should thrill the American soul. Millions of Arabs, their fear of torture and persecution finally conquered by anger at the regimes that oppressed them, rose up and, in countless acts of astonishing bravery, defeated or are attempting to defeat the despots and the massive secret police apparatuses under their command. The protesters sought dignity and respect and the freedom to choose their own path, and these are things that resonate with Americans.

Then came a problem. It turns out Mubarak was right. The only thing standing between Egypt and the rise of fundamentalist Islam was ... Mubarak. The path the Arab people seem to want, at least for the moment, is the path of Islam.

The big news out of Cairo late this fall was not the Muslim Brotherhood's triumph in parliamentary elections, even though the Brotherhood-affiliated party took 37 percent of the popular vote. The main news was made by the more extreme Nour Party, which is affiliated with Egypt's Salafists. The Salafists, who believe that the world should be made over to look as it did during the time of the Prophet Muhammad, took almost 25 percent of the popular vote. In other words, the majority of voters in the Arab world's most populous country chose either a party whose motto is "Islam is the Solution" or a party that believes that medieval Arabia is an appropriate state model.

In contemplating this prospect, Goldberg recommends a heavy dose of analytical humility, and patience. Wise advice.

The terrible columns were a two-part assault on Wal-Mart, starting with a diatribe against a Wal-Mart heiress who has built a spectacular new art museum near the firm's home town in Arkansas. This exercise in conspicuous philanthropy only compounds the family's heinous crimes, Goldberg believes. The firm strives to keep its workers in poverty and "systematically disfigure" the American landscape. These are among the angriest attacks on the company I can recall reading, which is saying something. Coming from a writer I think of as a fount of common sense they shocked me.

The brand-new Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art in the small northwest Arkansas city of Bentonville is the creation of Alice Walton, the daughter of the late Sam Walton, who founded Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the largest retailer in the world.

Alice Walton, who is worth about $21 billion, has achieved her dream of building a top-tier museum that unabashedly celebrates American art in the American heartland. Crystal Bridges, in many ways, is an aesthetic success.

It's also a moral tragedy, very much like the corporation that provided Walton with the money to build a billion-dollar art museum during a terrifying recession. The museum is a compelling symbol of the chasm between the richest Americans and everyone else.

A moral tragedy? Good lord.

Mike Kinsley has written a reply, which I recommend even though it's too mild: In Defense of Wal-Mart, or at Least Its Heiress. (A better if older text would be Jason Furman's article, Wal-Mart: A Progressive Success Story.) Kinsley asks, "Does anybody really love Wal-Mart?" Well, I do. I really love it.

By doing what it does best--delivering goods at astoundingly low prices--I'd guess it has done more to improve the living standards of poor Americans than any other US corporation. I'm a regular at the Charles Town, WV branch. It's hundreds of dollars a year cheaper than buying elsewhere--which may not matter all that much to my household but sure matters to the typical West Virginia Wal-Mart shopper. Yes, the firm pays low wages: retail in general pays low wages, and in this respect Wal-Mart is not much out of line. Yes, when Wal-Mart moves in, it puts a lot of small local stores out of business, but let's not be too urban-sentimental about local small-town stores. They can be good, and when the good ones are driven out of business it's a shame. Many more, in my experience, cannot be driven out of business a moment too soon.

The jobs that disappear when that happens were not on the whole better jobs than the ones Wal-Mart offers. If forced to choose between an entry-level job at a Wal-Mart and helping out at the local lightly-used-clothing-and-distressed-grocery store, I'd pick the Wal-Mart like a shot.

I think it's safe to assume that everybody working at Wal-Mart does so because that is the best available alternative. Rather than attacking Wal-Mart, it would make more sense to attack every other enterprise whose offer to employees is evidently less attractive than Wal-Mart's--worse wages, worse benefits, worse working conditions, or no offer at all.

Wal-Mart is not a monopoly. General-merchandise retailing is one of the most competitive industries around. And cost control through competition is just another way of saying "capitalism"--a system which, compared to the alternatives, has been found to work pretty well. Deplore capitalism, if you want to do that, but don't pick on its exemplary exponent as though it is somehow cheating.

Poverty in work is a huge problem, to be sure, but it's a moral blight on the nation, not on Wal-Mart, which serves us best by dealing with the world as it finds it. If we wish to raise the incomes of the poor by subsidizing their wages--as I think we should, and far more generously than we do at present--that is an obligation we should accept as taxpayers. To put the blame on Wal-Mart's "exploitation" of working Americans is feeble-minded nonsense. Wal-Mart is the best friend working Americans ever had.