The Freedom to Shop

Charles2 at The Liberal Coalition has a short but thoughtful post suggesting that we have lost sight of what America used to mean.

I agree with Franklin that such people deserve neither, but what would account for otherwise intelligent people willing to do such a thing?Maybe it’s the season, when the old saying I used to title this post is used so often. But my thought was that Americans who have rolled over to BushCo. in giving up such fundamental (in the truest sense) rights such as freedom of speech and habeas corpus have lost sight of what it is that we are supposed to be protecting when we talk of saving America.

Maybe I’m getting bitter and cynical in my old age (OK, not maybe) but it seems to me that in the last 25-30 years conservatives have succeeded in redefining America as a consumer culture. America is now about protecting property and money. When they talk about “protecting our way of life”, conservatives are talking – just as they did in the days of the Cold War – about capitalism. The right tends to define – and certainly to think of – “Freedom” as the freedom to own things, the freedom to get rich, the freedom to go shopping.

In his first speech after 9/11 when the country expected him to announce the beginning of the Afghan War and tell us what we were going to have to sacrifice, Bush’s advice was to urge us to go shopping because that would prove to the terrorists that we weren’t going to change “our way of life” in the face of their challenge. Just this week, with Iraq melting down and body counts going up, with questions about what we’re doing there and growing calls for us to get out, his automatic advice to us was, once again, “Go Shopping”.

And too many of us have bought into this limited conservative definition of what our country means. It shows up particularly in visuals all the time: flag-waving videos, whether political or commercial, feature, above all, things. Cars, barbecues, wide-screen tvs, kids playing with toys, celphones and iPods and computers, a family standing with pride in front of their house. But things were what we were once expected to sacrifice for more important but intangible values: freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of thought, freedom from a govt turned tyrannical. Now it is all reversed: we are willing to give up the protection of habeus corpus because it might interfere with buying that new SUV and support an increasingly authoritarian govt if it will promise us that we’ll be able to keep our cable tv’s.

This myopic view of what America is is understandable, in a way. It’s a reflection of how we’ve been taught to deal with our world. We don’t go to school to learn about that world any more, to learn about ourselves, who we are and what we’re doing here and how to make the planet a better place to live on for our children and grandchildren. Now we go to school so we can get a job. In a global economy with the corporatocracy shipping jobs into low-wage countries at an astounding rate and automating everything that’s left here as fast as they can, just “getting a job” has become the single most important action you can take. Everything else pales into insignificance beside it. In such a world, the things that we can buy are at once a signal of our success and the only comfort we’re liable to have as our economic lives become less and less secure.

As understandable as it may be, though, it is still Pure D wrong.. The slightest and least important part of who we are – or were supposed to be – is the part that’s a consumer. It’s the by-product of a system which created the stability that allowed capitalism to flourish in the first place. Without its protections, the capitalism we love so much could descend fairly rapidly into a kind of feudalism with everything at the top, nothing at the bottom, and the rich controlling what we say and even what we’re allowed to think.

The conservative view of the world is, at heart, narrow, selfish, and anti-democratic. Yet we have accepted their “Look out for #1” Social Darwinism as if we had no choice. We have allowed them to convince us that any other philosophy is unrealistic, even dangerous.

But how you explain that to a badly educated population trying to hang onto what little they have as the plutocrats try to take it away and shift the burden of social costs onto their shrinking purses, I don’t know.

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