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A dedicated lefty finds himself in the belly of the capitalist beast.

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The guilt hits me as soon as I pull into the parking lot. What am I doing here? This is wrong. I know better than this.

But I don't let it get to me. I try not to think about the array of security cameras scanning the parking lot for unsavory characters. I look straight ahead and slip through the front door, along with everybody else. I've got my list. I know what I need. Get it and get out as fast as you can.

"Welcome to Wal-Mart."

I smile politely at the grinning old woman in tortoiseshell specs whose job it is to greet people. Truth be told, she doesn't say hello to everyone, but who can blame her? Her job makes me think of life in the old Soviet Union, when the state paid meager salaries to the elderly for helping people on and off escalators — anything to claim that it's employing folks, taking care of them.

I really should know better. I consider myself an educated progressive. I read Noam Chomsky, Molly Ivins and Howard Zinn. I get online and check out at least once a day. I know how Corporate America is having its way with Lady Liberty. I even voted for Nader.

And I know the truth about Wal-Mart. The biggest private sector employer in the United States (nearly 1 million employees, three-fourths of them women), Wal-Mart is the largest, most profitable retailer in the world (nearly $4 billion last year).

I know all about the store's predatory pricing: how they build two big boxes in a small area so they can be their own competition, then typically close one down, leaving it empty for years; how 80 percent of their clothes are imported, often produced by child labor in horrible sweatshops in the Third World, despite its "Buy USA" mumbo jumbo and the over-the-top nationalism; how a study showed that three local jobs are killed off for every two that Wal-Mart offers; how they hire many workers on a part-time basis so they can avoid full benefits (a la Microsoft).

I know a massive federal lawsuit was recently launched against Wal-Mart alleging rampant discrimination against their female employees. The case — which potentially represents as many as half a million women — could prove to be the largest discrimination case of its kind in American history.

I know all of this and yet still I shop there. I shudder with guilt. Why don't my actions express my beliefs?

I move around inside the belly of the beast, snatching up what I need, eager to leave — shampoo, a window shade, dog food, light bulbs, cereal and milk. Everywhere I look is an advertisement for something. Pictures of happy people enjoying products. Plenty of red, white and blue. The message is loud and clear: Freedom is about consumption. The more you buy, the freer you are. It's not about democracy anymore; it's about lower prices.

Wal-Mart has a way of making me feel like Winston Smith from "1984." At any minute I expect O'Brien to step out from behind a display of cheap, sweatshop-produced undershirts and haul me off to the Ministry of Love for some good, old-fashioned rehabilitation.

Real capitalism is about real competition, a level playing field, and doing right by your workers. Capitalism this ain't. The poster child for big business at the dawn of the Corporate Age, Wal-Mart is something else entirely — something that smacks of Orwell or Huxley, something sinister — economically and culturally.

I get in line like I'm supposed to, pay for my things, and slip back out into the world.

Behind me, a mob of shoppers files into the megastore. I'm one of them, I think. The asphalt stretches to the horizon. Where did I park?

The latest news has it that the Arkansas-based giant is kicking off a campaign to dominate the grocery-store industry with its "Neighborhood Markets." It's been reported that Wal-Mart is gearing up to open as many as 30 groceries a year — perhaps coming to a neighborhood near you.

Wal-Mart is not the inspiring story of an entrepreneur who invented a better mousetrap. It's the sad story of we mice who know better but walk right into that trap anyway — thinking only about the cheese, the glorious, glorious

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