Nov
01
2001

Patriotic Shopping

Media define citizenship as consumerism

A number of pundits and politicians offered Americans a simple solution to the helplessness and anxiety they were feeling in the wake of the September 11 attacks: Go shopping! Vice President Dick Cheney (L.A. Times, 9/17/01) described it as a way for ordinary citizens to "stick their thumbs in the eye of the terrorists and say that they've got great confidence in the country."

Some outlets broadcast such calls virtually unquestioned. "Americans need to go out and spend. That's the message," said NBC's Tom Brokaw (9/24/01), introducing a report from Anne Thompson that concluded, "American companies waving the red, white and blue, trying to keep the economy in the green."

And some added justification, like Reuters' 9/29/01 "Shopping as an Act of Patriotism," which explained that though "it might seem cold-hearted to be out spending when families are mourning nearly 7,000 people dead or missing, massive rubble piles scar lower Manhattan and U.S. troops are heading off toward likely military action," Americans "are being reminded that the U.S. economy...could do with some consumer exuberance."

Some analysts thought the attacks could "tip the U.S. into recession," reported the Kansas City Star (9/13/01), but countered that "others believe that anger and resolve will encourage people to show the world the United States won't be bullied, even by attacks on the heart of America's financial district."

Syndicated gossip columnist Liz Smith declared (9/18/01) that "the most important thing for citizens of any age--for themselves and for their Uncle Sam and as a tribute to the thousands who likely died--would be to call a broker and buy stock in American companies this week, and next week and the next." She chided those who might hesitate: "This...is a time to stop worrying about your future, your 'career,' your nest egg."

"Neither caring nor moral"

The idea of asking individuals to play the post-attack market with their retirement funds as a way to say "Go USA" was too much for some, particularly business reporters and analysts who couldn't ignore the idea's illogic. CNNfn Moneyline anchor Lou Dobbs told the New York Times (9/18/01) he'd tried to "temper" such calls, saying, "It's very difficult to make the argument that out of patriotism a small investor should put money on a market that's falling precipitously."

Financial journalists also acknowledged that "markets are neither caring nor moral" (Jane Bryant Quinn, Newsweek, 10/1/01), and that the drop in consumer spending has to do with climbing rates of personal bankruptcies and indebtedness--things that can't be exhorted away.

But a clear-eyed view of market workings only meant criticism of the details of the call to shop, not of its underlying premise--that the most meaningful way for Americans to engage as citizens is through consumerism, and that holding up the economy is somehow our job. Robert Reich's eminently sensible comment that "we don't live to support an economy. The economy exists to support us" (L.A. Times op-ed, 10/19/01) was a voice in the media wilderness, rather than the premise of discussion.

More than that, some media took the opportunity to suggest that, just as U.S. foreign policy must not be challenged at this time, so U.S. economic policy should now be beyond argument. "As much as the terrorists attacked us, they were attacking capitalism, which they view as evil," asserted an Atlanta Journal & Constitution editorial (9/18/01). It was hard to miss the implied corollary, that criticism of capitalism is pro-terrorist.

"Don't confuse buying stock with patriotism," counseled a piece in Long Island Newsday (9/30/01). But "remember, the U.S. capital markets are the central nervous system of the economy that underlies our democracy. Let's not let terrorists bind even one finger on the invisible hand that guides our freedom."

The U.S. economic system has been attacked and therefore the "U.S. economy" had to be supported. Corporate media, never quick to acknowledge the unequal burdens and benefits of that economy, aren't about to start now.