Buy Stuff, Be Happy, We’re at War





Mr. Stearns is provost and professor of history at George Mason, and the author of Consumerism in World History: The Globalization of Desire (Routledge, 2002).

We all noticed the anomaly. In the wake of one of the worst single-day tragedies in the nation's history, we were told that our chief patriotic obligation lay in revving up our consumerism. Spend frivolously, buy on credit, just get out and shop. Yet at the same time, we were told, and are told, that we're at war.

Clearly, some standard relationships between war and consumerism are being reversed. Traditionally, wars cut into consumerism, often deeply. Often in the past, the regional ravages of an invading, plundering army led to severe shortages in basic necessities. Wartime taxes, even in such distant struggles as the Hundred Years War, could cut in further. In our own century, what has been called total war impinged still further. The sheer cost of modern weaponry and mass mobilization diverted normal production and required extensive rationing.

At the worst, consumer hardships in modern war could lead to dislocation, rising death rates and popular anger - as in Russia in 1917. Recent research shows how even obedient Japanese rejected official messages of self-sacrifice during World War II, to participate in massive black market activities. But impacts could also be more subtle. When war cut into consumer passions, but without jeopardizing subsistence levels, the result could be invigorating. Families and communities could feel a sense of participation, even a certain nobility. American civilians in World War II, carefully saving tinfoil scraps and doling out meat supplies, enjoyed feeling part of a war effort. There was even a certain relief at escaping the superficialities of the spending parade, for contemporary consumerism always harbors a darker side of disgust.

But now, in a series of limited wars, the United States seems to have cut loose from older paradigms. We restrict deaths of our own nationals to almost nothing, and we urge on consumerism. The contrast with the past- except in some limited imperialist engagements in the past - is striking. But with innovation come questions. Can we make sensible decisions about a war that seems to impose no hardship at home, even as it inflicts abroad? Can we sustain a sense of noble purpose, after the first easy victories, when there is no shock to routine? Don't we hunger, once in a while, for some collective purpose that can take us off the consumerist treadmill? As is often the case, history sets up the questions; it does not answer them; but we can watch for results, and ideally improve them by dealing more explicitly with the issues involved.


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amber dawn davies - 10/17/2002

I think this statement pretty much sums it all up. We get so upset when our lives our disturbed and we really don't care about the lives our country disturbs every day. Fisher is also correct in making the comment on putting stickers on SUV's. How is that supposed to help anything. Terrorists arn't going to stop attacking us because we are "patriotic". In my book it shouldn't even be called patriotism anymore. The majority of the flag wavers in our country don't really know what is going on in other countries. They wave the flag because it is a fad. Our patriotism is only blinding us. We need to stop playing the petty flag waving games and get down to buisness.


amber dawn davies - 10/17/2002

I think this statement pretty much sums it all up. We get so upset when our lives our disturbed and we really don't care about the lives our country disturbs every day. Fisher is also correct in making the comment on putting stickers on SUV's. How is that supposed to help anything. Terrorists arn't going to stop attacking us because we are "patriotic". In my book it shouldn't even be called patriotism anymore. The majority of the flag wavers in our country don't really know what is going on in other countries. They wave the flag because it is a fad. Our patriotism is only blinding us. We need to stop playing the petty flag waving games and get down to buisness.


amber dawn davies - 10/17/2002

I think this statement pretty much sums it all up. We get so upset when our lives our disturbed and we really don't care about the lives our country disturbs every day. Fisher is also correct in making the comment on putting stickers on SUV's. How is that supposed to help anything. Terrorists arn't going to stop attacking us because we are "patriotic". In my book it shouldn't even be called patriotism anymore. The majority of the flag wavers in our country don't really know what is going on in other countries. They wave the flag because it is a fad. Our patriotism is only blinding us. We need to stop playing the petty flag waving games and get down to buisness.


Lawrence Fisher - 4/19/2002

Hardships at home! Shocks to my comfortable
routine! Stepping off the consumerist treadmill!

The stars and stripes now wave fore and aft from
flags and decals on my SUV? I don't know about
you, but that that's enough for me!

Be reasonable, would you? You ask too much, mon!
Hey, I'm an American! On 9/12, President Bush
vowed, "This will not change us!" Freaking-A! I
will not change! It's my God-given right to be
fat, happy, clueless, selfish and self-absorbed.

You'll have to excuse me now. I need to paste
another decal on my SUV. Don't want to be
considered unpatriotic!

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