SHOPPING as a moral duty. Economic patriotism. The virtue of spending. Since September 11 the United States has plunged into such in a frenzy of consumerism, cynics have dubbed the trend 'Shop till bin Laden drops'.
Buying more stuff -- whether patriotic, militaristic or sentimental -- is the new credo to jump-start the sputtering economy and prove al-Qaeda can't usurp the American way. As Barbara Bush, mother of the leader of the free world, recalled in a recent speech to college students: 'I asked the president, 'What can we do to show support for America?' He said, 'Mom, if you really want to help, buy, buy, buy.''
Never before has the USA, the land of the shopping spree, been so bedecked with red, white and blue. And with just hours of Christmas shopping left, it's brutally clear that this gung-ho affluenza is silly, tacky, disturbing and wasteful, a rhinestone Remembrance Day poppy.
Conserving petrol or electricity? Victory gardens? Rationing? Not when fashion designer Ralph Lauren has sheets in red, white and blue. In Bloomingdales, the Yankee equivalent of Harrods, is a $100 Lycra and cotton T-shirt with a sequined flag. 'Together we can rebuild America' is on six-foot banners amid the perfume and socks in a downtown branch of Macy's, Manhattan's most famous department store.
In full-page newspaper adverts, Macy's is pushing the usual blizzard of gift ideas -- black, push-up Wonderbras or saucepan sets for $499 -- with a post-terrorism message, 'more unity'. Presumably by shopping. If you donate $125 to the Red Cross, Macy's will 'reward' you with 10% off until January 11. Why the deal ends that day, four months after thousands were incinerated, is not answered.
According to opinion polls, two-thirds of Americans, emboldened by military success, want the war expanded beyond Afghanistan. Lowe's, a DIY warehouse, donates $2 to the armed forces emergency services for every sale of a $9 'flowers of pride' plant in a flag-wrapped pot: 'Even more beautiful is what it does for our military families,' reads the label.
To assuage guilt among the pious, a Tennessee company has rushed out a red, white and blue Bible. It is sold out. 'Let freedom sparkle for the holidays' suggests an advert for 'brave heart,' a sparkling $34 stars and stripes Christmas tree bauble. Profits go to the American Red Cross. Not to be outdone, French crystal company Baccarat has a 'hearts united, puffed heart' paperweight for $95, of which $50 goes to the twin towers fund for the families of New York's firefighters and policemen. 'Baccarat is committed to America's rise to recovery,' potential buyers are assured.
A tenth of proceeds from a pricey North Beach leather flag jacket, with Old Glory as big as a truck on the back, is for the same fund. For the frugal, a mail-order American freedom flag collection is $14.95 -- two weatherproof plastic flags for the family's two cars, a lapel pin and four 'peel-n-place' window stickers.
So au fait is heroism, lawyers for New York's police and fire departments have had to send out 'cease and desist' letters to enforce their copyrights and trademark.
Unauthorized street vendors, gift shops and internet sites have cost the public agencies more than $20 million since September 11.
To fight back, the fire department will soon open a FDNY fire zone boutique in Bloomingdales, to benefit public safety programs. While air strikes have pummeled the Afghanis, FDNY and NYPD have morphed into a brand like DKNY. Surely no proceeds go to charity from Frederick's of Hollywood, which has a patriotic thong decorated with flags and the sexy words 'America the Beautiful'?
Other uncharitable items are T-shirts for tourists emblazoned with a flag: 'These colors don't run. God bless America' or 'Fear no evil. United we stand.' Another popular T-shirt, made in once war-torn El Salvador, depicts two black F16 fighter jets, the stars and stripes and the promise: 'Justice will be done.' Especially note worthy for a disturbing sentimentality is Ashton-Tate Galleries' $80 'Devil pup' doll. The wide-eyed blond-haired chubby toddler, in a military outfit, has a tiny fist raised in defiance. 'He's always faithful ... to the dream of being a marine!'
In the New Yorker, the literary magazine of the chattering classes, Glendale iron works advertises a four-foot high 25-pound wall sculpture of Manhattan's pre-attack skyline for $500. Also offered is a new-agey 'twin towers angel' pendant -- a bargain at $500. On his web-page, jeweler Gordon Gustin notes: 'After the initial shock, I designed this piece to commemorate the victims and to create a symbol of light and strength to represent the hope that this dark day has brought.' General Motors has interest-free car loans: 'Keep America Rolling,' GPD Wireless phones are for 'freedom of expression' and American Express declares its travelers' checks 'indestructible'.
Gateway Vacation Travel's Caribbean cruises are on sale 'Because of our confidence in America!' Or shoppers can jet into New York with a bucket-shop package to help Manhattan's bottom line. 'The whole argument illustrates our level of servitude to the consumer economy,' sighs Bill McKibben, author of Hundred Dollar Holiday; The Case For A More Joyful Christmas. 'If helping one's neighbor is an offshoot of indulging one's own urges, then we have deeper problems than we suspected.'
For John de Graaf, co-author of the new book Affluenza, out in the UK from Penguin this spring, such profiteering in these times is predatory. 'It's a shallow way to try and bring the country together. People are already indebted and losing jobs.' For the sixth year straight, in 2001 more Americans declared bankruptcy than graduated from college. None of which seemed to bother Democratic Senator Patty Murray when she proposed a war-time 'holiday' from sales tax.
'I know my daughter and I, from the time she was little -- when, you know, we were in the blues or in the dumps -- we would say, 'OK, let's go shopping'. It is a psychological boost, which gives everybody an excuse, and it gives them a benefit, a real benefit.'
Nor should Willie Brown, the mayor of San Francisco, be forgotten in the stampede to the cash register. His 'America: open for business' shopping campaign has been picked up from coast to coast. Its poster sums up the USA's new morality: the stars and stripes with shopping bag handles.
©2001 smg sunday newspapers ltd