Attention Christmas Shoppers: What You Buy Is Not A Moral Choice
At the dawn of this decade, President George W. Bush invited heaps of scorn when he exhorted Americans to “go shopping” as a patriotic duty. My, how things have changed in the ensuing nine years! For the same bobo elites who chortled at Bush’s crass plea for more commerce now treat their shopping habits as profound moral choices.
To be sure, since at least the European early modern era, people have defined themselves in part by their consumer habits. Simon Schama’s magisterial history of the Dutch golden age, The Embarrassment of Riches, for example, describes how the elite public sphere in seventeenth century Holland defined itself by its sense of “taste” – that is, by what it consumed. (How else can we explain the use of the word “taste” to describe consumer preferences that extend far beyond food and drink?)
But there is a stark contrast between the way those choices are viewed today, and the way they were in times past. For until very recently, consumer choices were considered aesthetic choices – ones’ taste in food, clothing, or art said something about how refined ones’ palate was. Today, consumer choices are meant to say something about the morality of the buyer. This is a profound and disturbing shift.
Consider the way our major corporations shill their products these days. Boutique retailers like American Apparel and the Body Shop have long marketed themselves based on dubious claims to a higher morality, but these days, even the most mainstream of corporations are getting in on the act. Target’s brand image is partially based on its reputation for social reponsibility. Even the dread Wal-Mart, the largest retailer in America, positions itself as a force for social good now: it claims that its presence helps to lower costs across the country, and that it is now officially a “green” company.
Our elite media organs further amplify this attitude. I’ve long used the online magazine Slate as a barometer for whatever trends are currently en vogue among the squishy American center-left. Sure enough, just yesterday, the ostensibly contrarian magazine ran a piece describing how to “support a worthy cause by buying cool products.”
All of this obscures the plain fact: shopping choices are not moral choices. They’re just what they the term indicates: shopping choices. Nothing more. And to add insult to injury, many of the allegedly “moral” choices people make with their dollars do harm rather than good. Consider: the ‘buy local’ movement is a self-righteous mask for tribalism, a retrograde attitude that has bedeviled humanity for far too long. And the push to buy products made in America is predicated on the toxic notion that Chinese workers are less deserving of work than Americans.
Perhaps most disturbing is the fact that “shopping” has become a cheap and easy substitute for real, meaningful social change. If you think you are doing good by merely opening your wallet, what is your incentive to actually get in the trenches and do the hard work of activism? As Yours Truly put it in the New York Press earlier this year, “fair-trade” coffee fanatics “believe that they can satisfy their craving for improving the world by simply satisfying their craving for a latte.”
Christmas is two days away. So, to quote our much maligned former president: go shopping! Enjoy yourself! And don’t fret about the “morality” of the products you purchase.
Merry Christmas to all.