Ah, the American press. The third estate. Delivering the hard journalistic facts to an information-starved American public. Okay, so those are the ideals that the more idealistic fools among us would wish upon U.S. journalism. Instead, we have programs like Meet the Press, now hosted by renowned Beltway fluffer Chuck Todd, who, like famed NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby, has two first names. In a recent segment in which he discussed the upcoming 2014 midterm elections, the goeteed sage decided to frame the current political narrative through the lens of that most American of institutions: fast-food. You see, Todd believes that the current liberal-conservative divide in American politics has split the country into a “Starbucks Nation” and a “Chick-Fil-A Country.”
Quick question: what makes a man? Is it, as the Big Lebowski famously quipped, “the ability to do the right thing?” In that context, manhood is defined through deeds and actions, but is that all there is to being a man? After all, the idea of a blanket definition of “masculinity” in the 21st century is patently absurd, resting as it does on the assumption that human identities can be shaped by a singular cultural experience or molded via the reigning social values that are inevitably dictated by those who hold power in any given society. The former sentence is a highfalutin way of saying that men, just like women, are all individuals who develop in a vast number of ways depending on a vast number of experiences. The idea of complexity in gender identity, however, has historically not meshed well with rather simplistic cultural notions of American masculinity.
If you think that the idea of Christmas commercialism is something new, then you haven’t checked out the 19th century recently. Follow this link to Salon where I discuss why the “War on Christmas” is utterly bogus.
The scene of perhaps 200 confused, yelling white people gathered at the grounds of the World War II Memorial and the White House was indeed stirring. The most notable antecedents of these Tea Party dingbats, the Confederate revolutionaries who rebelled against the federal government from 1861-65, would be proud to see their torch being carried by such valiant souls.
On October 13, 2013, this group of motley rebels convened on Washington D.C., carrying the Confederate battle flag, of course, to complain about the World War II monument and other federal sites being closed due to the Republican-led shutdown, which started over Obamacare, then descended into a mindless brouhaha of conservative hen pecking. Leading these fearless warriors was Sen. Ted “Filibuster, but not Really” Cruz, the de facto figurehead of the shutdown itself. Sarah “Caribou Barbie” Palin, former half-term governor of America’s largest welfare state, tagged along — because why not. Despite being rallied by Senator Cruz, the guy who engineered his party’s shutdown of the federal government, the Tea Partiers blamed the shutdown on President Obama — because why not.
“Main Street” is one of those apple pie invoking, corn-cob pipe toking, patriotism stoking, nostalgia choking symbolic themes in American culture that lacks a clear definition but with which most Americans are intimately familiar. I’m not talking about the actual street called “Main” that runs through your particular town or city. Rather, I mean the idea of Main Street U.S.A., also known as Small Town U.S.A., or, in recent political terms, Real America. You know what I’m talking about: its the America defined by a lily-white demographic, at a least a partially agricultural economy, Mom and Pop stores (no Targets allowed!), old guys sitting on porches, lots of churches, and a penchant for traditional values, whatever those might be.
The United States has always had an uneasy relationship between capitalism and patriotism. As residents of the world’s preeminent materialist, consumer-driven society, Americans have often bent over backward to sanctify the act of consumption as a badge of honor and even American identity. After all, what could be more American than scoring a completely necessary 10 gallon tub of processed, imitation mayonnaise from Sam’s Club for the always low price of $15.95? Lets see some communist bread-line society compete with that kind of freedom!
Yet somehow, the notion that patriotism and freedom can be equated with capitalist consumption has never been wholeheartedly accepted by all Americans. This was especially true in Civil War Mississippi, a state where Confederate civilians and government leaders equated material sacrifice with patriotic devotion. Such an ideal meant making homespun, jarring your own food, and, in general, learning to live without as a way of mirroring the sacrifice of Confederate soldiers who gave their lives for their country on the battlefield. If those left on the home front, especially women, couldn’t give their lives, they could at least sacrifice material luxuries by not shopping at cities like Memphis, Vicksburg, New Orleans, and Natchez. And there was a very particular reason why good Confederate patriots shouldn’t shop at those urban centers: by 1863, all were controlled by the occupying Union forces. Thus, to buy goods at Union lines was colluding with the enemy.
Fast forward a century and the ideals have been reversed: now its seen as patriotic to shop. In fact, it’s so downright American that malls might as well be secular places of worship, where every red-blooded American is baptized with the ring of every cash register and the swipe of every over-maxed credit card. The idea of “patriotic shopping” really took hold after the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks. Heeding President George W. Bush’s urging of Americans to continue shopping lest the terrorists win, publicans like Salon posed the question “Is Shopping the New Patriotism?” In order to bounce back from the attacks, Salon stated, Americans needed to shop:
The question is, how exactly will people bounce back? There is no clearly defined enemy, as in World War II, that can compel citizens to volunteer for the armed forces. There is no pressing need to save every shred of rubber or paper to contribute to the war effort. How can Americans express their patriotic fervor? How will they pull together?
Maybe, by remembering what makes this country’s economy great — shopping. The suggestion may sound facile — but it also carries with it some possibilities for pyschological satisfaction. Resolute Americans can stand tall by refusing to despair, by holding on to their stocks and heading to the mall — by continuing to shop, even in the face of unthinkable terror.
While most Americans seemed all too happy to equate patriotic sacrifice with their inalienable right to super-size their order of six-piece McDonalds’ coagulated chicken globules and update their wardrobes with the latest designer shirts stitched together by non-unionized Third World toddlers, some were nonetheless uneasy about the idea of “patriotic shopping.” Writing for Mother Jones, Ian Frazier mocked such “all consuming patriotism” as an insult to his patriotic Civil War forebears, especially Union women, who “sewed uniforms, made pillows, held ice-cream sociables to raise money, scraped lint for bandages, emptied their wedding chests of their best linen and donated it all.” In comparison to this type of material sacrifice, Frazier viewed “patriotic shopping” was utterly hollow to the core. Commenting on his photo collection of American “patriotic consumption,” photographer Brian Ulrich similarly mocked the idea that “We need to call on the nation’s best shoppers to fight the terrorists.”
Frazier’s and Ulrich’s concerns about the absolute non-sacrifice of material consumption when measured up against “higher” ideals such as patriotism would have rang true in Civil War Mississippi. In this Union-occupied state, issues of consumerism and sacrifice were a source of intense wartime debate, particularly regarding how good Rebel women should show their Confederate patriotism.
From the moment the Federal army established itself as an occupational force in 1862, Mississippi women traded commodities like cotton at Federal lines in exchange for Union Greenback notes or other consumer items. They did this in defiance of Confederate law that explicitly forbade trading with the Northern enemy. To staunch Confederate nationalists, trading with the Yankees filled the enemy coffers with valuable cotton, but more symbolically, buying and trading at Union lines evidenced an unwillingness to make material sacrifices for the Confederate cause. Put simply: shopping at Union lines meant you weren’t a good Confederate. This was especially true for women, long idealized in popular culture as the true keepers of the South’s patriotic ideals.
Mississippi Governor Charles Clark said as much in his 1863 inaugural address when he told women that “the spinning wheel is preferred to the harp, and the loom makes a music of loftier patriotism and inspiration than the keys of the piano.” Confederates like Clark wanted women to show their patriotic sacrifice by relying on homespun rather than committing the treasonous act of buying and trading from Union lines. But Mississippi’s women didn’t abide. By 1864, the Daily Clarion newspaper out of Meridian, MS complained that “the rustling of fresh silk, the snowy handkerchiefs, the love of a bonnet, the light tap of prunella boot heels on our pavements” demonstrated women’s refusal to forgo shopping at Union lines in the name of Confederate patriotism.
Confederate women were all too happy to acquire good from Federal lines, even as they mouthed pro-Confederate sentiments. In a series of letters to her daughter, Raymond, MS native Eliza Sively berated fellow women who traded with Union forces at Vicksburg for being “crazy about Yankee goods” to the point of ignoring their sacrificial duty to the Confederacy. Yet, Sively apparently saw no hypocrisy at work when in June 1864 she told her daughter, Jane, “I will try and…get you some muslins from Vicksburg, you ought not to wear all your clothes and have them all ruined.” A month later, Sively scored calico dress patterns, shoes, corsets, and “a rite pretty pink muslin” for Jane —all from Yankee lines at Vicksburg and Memphis.
Amanda Worthington, a Washington County, MS planters’ daughter, claimed that “rather than go back into a union” with the Yankees, “I would have every man, woman and child in the Confederacy killed.” Nevertheless, when her sister went shopping in Union-controlled New Orleans, Worthington was overjoyed to get a copy of David Copperfield, photographs, linen dresses, two pairs of shoes, handkerchiefs, stockings, perfume, jewelry, fancy hats, and two custom-made silk dresses.
Natchez, MS resident Louisa Lovell, the hard-line Rebel wife of a Confederate colonel, justified her mass consumption in New Orleans by claiming, “we did a good deal of shopping as our wardrobes needed replacing very badly.” These women remained loyal Confederates, but they didn’t accept the notion that equated patriotism with material sacrifice. They recognized a certain absurdity in the idea that shopping had anything to do at all with patriotic devotion to one’s country, regardless of what blustery Confederate boosters advocated.
In the decades after the Civil War, as the pace of American capitalist development accelerated into the twentieth century, the association of American identity with consumerism only became more entrenched. Contemporary Americans now invoke their right to drink a Big Gulp from a 7 Eleven as evidence of their perceived cultural superiority over other nations. Just as it did for women in Civil War Mississippi, however, the notion of “Patriotic Shopping” still rings hollow — at least a few Americans. What exactly constitutes true patriotism is worthy of discussion, and is something I don’t have any easy answer for, but let’s shelve the idea that buying a discount dress from Macy’s is as much a patriotic duty as it is an act of good ole’ American vanity. Seriously, the terrorists don’t care what you wear.