CapitalismEventsFeatureLiberal Democracy in Question

Refashioning Patriotism

Selling Fear as Part of The War On Terror

Less than one week after the World Trade Center attacks, campaigns for the restoration of the American economy and the recovery of the former consumer confidence and spending habits proliferated across the country. By transforming the national tragedy into a commodity, these campaigns initiated a discourse of patriotic consumerism and deliberately fueled a xenophobic sentiment that reached epidemic proportions in the national consciousness. In what follows I will argue that the growing public sentiment of xenophobia and the market-based rationale –triggered by the consumer logic of the post-9/11 political culture and exacerbated by media forums — not only redefined the meaning of national loyalty and reoriented the practice of patriotism, but also renegotiated the boundaries of diversity. Most importantly, the cynical way that the concepts of xenophobia and consumerism were treated by advocates of market fundamentalism and the cultural elites of the country has prevented the promotion of egalitarian beliefs, essential for preserving a democratic public sphere. The purpose of this article is, primarily, to give an account of the relationship between the formation of the American patriotic identity and the post-9/11 consumerist campaigns, with special focus on fashion consumerism. Secondly, this article will shed light on the ways in which political and media responses to the national crisis within the context of these campaigns embedded totalitarian policies in the notions of freedom and safety and became synonymous with the subversion of the democratic process. Finally, this article will briefly reflect on how Donald Trump’s election signals the revival and continuation of fears associated with the post-9/11 American patriotic identity and how the post-election situation creates new fears about the destabilization of civil society and democracy.

America’s response to the trauma of the terrorist attacks of September 11 signified an unprecedented sense of unity and solidarity that was in no way limited to flag-waving displays of patriotism. Under the guise of national survival and economic revival, the authorities of the country — following the market fundamentalist principle that the resurgence and expansion of the economy contributes to the preservation of democracy and civil liberties — encouraged the consumer-citizens to go out and shop for their country. In fact, the authorities legitimized ‘spending’ as a symbol of morality and civic duty, through creating a climate of consent around central moral values, like the so-called American lifestyle, which Americans were told was under threat in the age of terror. Thus, patriotism became most clearly manifest in purchasing, in shopping the country back to its rightful place in the world order.[1] The commodification of the national tragedy has managed to intertwine economic and civic duties by exalting economic activity to a universal social good. This newfangled concept of market-based patriotism soon developed into an uncritical support for national policies and practices, and ultimately into a threat to democracy.

The post-9/11 fashion consumerism, above other kinds of consumerism, is an illuminating site of inquiry for tracing the origins of the market-based patriotism. To establish a clear link between the fashion consumerist campaigns and the formation of the post-9/11 American patriotic identity, I am going to unfold my argument beginning with three of the most representative moments of that period: 1) President George Bush’s call towards Americans urging them to “go about their daily lives, working and shopping and playing,” and “[refuse] to give terrorists the power,”[2] 2) New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s speech, announcing the launching of the “Fashion for America: Shop to Show Your Support”[3] campaign at the VH1/ Vogue Fashion Awards[4]: “freedom to shop is one of the fundamental liberties that terrorists want to deprive us of,”[5] and 3) A New York Times Magazine article in which the fashion journalist Amy Spindler asks the readers to “imagine… spending a day in the pale blue burkas worn by women under the Taliban in Afghanistan.”[6] Given the fact that such a scenario would be inconceivable for many of her U.S readers, Spindler continues, “The freedom of women and men to express themselves through their dress is a trifle, of course, until it’s taken away. Just as laughter is a trifle.”[7]

Each of these articulations reveals the efforts by political and media authorities to invoke the civic dimension of the task of restoring economy and the American lifestyle. Freedom to shop and the freedom of self-expression through fashion were glorified through a set of dichotomies rooted in the logic of the earlier articulations: playing vs. terror, self-expression vs. oppression, and self-determination vs. Taliban ideology. Minh-ha T. Pham writes,

Fashion came to matter as an emblem of democracy because journalists strategically and successfully positioned fashion against the burqa, which was widely denigrated and dismissed in the national imaginary as the material sign and symptom of gender-repressive anti-liberalism, or what one fashion journalist brashly called ‘anti-civilization’.[8]

Drawing on cultural prejudices, like “women of cover”[9] being oppressed and excluded from the realm of fashion, and exploiting collective fears, like the fear of the veil, of terrorists, of immigrants or of the ‘others,’ these political and media responses encapsulated the “fashion-as-a-right discourse”[10] in order to strengthen people’s morale and sense of democracy. Of course, this was just an ideological construction, mobilized by the authorities to mask other realities, specifically the Afghanistan war. Furthermore, what this ideological construction of “fashion-as-a-right discourse” intended was firstly to reestablish solidarity and unity among compatriots through demonizing the other, the culturally diverse, the ethnically exotic, the religiously clashing other; secondly, to rebuild trust between consumer-patriots and the state by building and fostering trust for the marketplace. But, how did individuals come to be perceived as unifying and unified social units during this national crisis, when national security and defense were prioritized at the expense of civil liberties? How could democratic ideals be preserved when solidarity and trust were replaced by conditions that encouraged social antagonisms instigated by displays of purchasing power?

Indeed, the identification of the state with the market and of national loyalty with consumerism has not only rendered self-care equivalent and comparable to nation-care. It has also redefined past practices and remodeled the structuring of the public sphere, the ground where civil society and the state meet. It has, ultimately, produced consumer-patriots who were controlled through their notion of market-based freedom. The new consumer patriots viewed shopping as a measure of and a means for upholding their Americanness, the preservation of which will in turn secure, so they believed, the freedoms of self-determination and self-expression that the burqa was imagined to deny.

The understanding of freedom as the freedom to consume, and similarly the perception of burqa as the ultimate opponent of this market-based notion of freedom, enslaved and alienated Americans rather than liberating and uniting them. In the same way that the “fashion-as-a-right discourse” arrived at the criminalization of the other by problematizing burqa, it eradicated every hint of social and individual agency by justifying the spending of money as a form of free speech; a form of autonomy in the face of terror. Therefore, as the misplaced trust in the market trained Americans to spend instead of think, it left no room for any coherent sense of free will. To the contrary, the market became the only organized and legitimized community through which the individual consumer-patriot experiences himself and conceptualizes the other. And thus, market-based (ir)rationality inevitably became the only motivating force of collective public action.

Although it remains doubtful whether the consumerist campaigns have proven effective at restoring the economy and the American lifestyle, it is unquestionable that they have succeeded in one thing: besides creating gender, cultural, and ethnic stereotypes (e.g. regarding American Muslim Women, especially veiled ones), besides creating unstable identities that are founded on the fallacy of market fundamentalism, the campaigns succeeded in restoring class power. Class, social status, and power, Max Weber averred, are closely tied to consumption practices, not only because spending capacity is contingent upon the individual’s resources, but because they reflect the individual’s stand in the national economy.

Weber perceived a distinctive relationship between economy and society, and between markets and social stratification. For Weber, class situation is, indeed, market situation. It is through the market that an individual realizes and experiences his membership in a class. Therefore, class, as a base for communal and societal action, becomes the result of the economy being embedded in social structure and market being embedded in social relations, which can serve to explain the utopian character of the post-9/11 consumerist campaigns and their failure to preserve a democratic public sphere centered on critical thinking.

Patriotism, in the context of the post-9/11 national crisis, sits uneasily with notions of solidarity, trust and American unity. By equating patriotism with consumerism, the campaigns obviously failed to create an inclusive goal-based conceptualization of national identity and moral integrity essential to a diverse civil society and the prosperous functioning of democracy therein. Indeed, inasmuch as governmental and media reactions are stimulated by totalitarian beliefs, such that heterogeneity is believed to imperil national safety, intolerance will be tirelessly reproduced. Wherever democratic governance is aligned with ideologies that jeopardize economic, political and cultural justice, inequality of conditions, in addition to class power, will be securely reconstituted through the power of ideology. Inasmuch as the marketization of the state involves the financialization of moral values, such as national loyalty, civil liberties will be increasingly — and unknowingly — constrained and threatened by the diffuse and manipulative fear of terror.

Fifteen years later, the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump revived the totalitarian beliefs associated with the post-9/11 xenophobic sentiment; his full-of-hateful-rhetoric campaign endorsed discriminatory behaviors; his contentious victory legitimized them. Consumer-patriotism evolves into hyper-nationalism, perhaps chauvinism, in the post-11/9 period. Hate crimes, reminiscent of Jim Crow America and Nazi Germany, signal the termination of tolerance. Faith in fellow-citizens vanishes overnight. Fear wins. America is divided again. A new period begins — the post-11/9 period. Whither democracy?

Footnotes

[1] Scanlon, Jennifer. “‘Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore’: U.S. Consumers, Wal-Mart, and the Commodification of Patriotism,” in The Selling of 9/11: How a National Tragedy Became a Commodity, ed. D. Heller (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005), 175-199.

[2] Quoted in Pham, Minh-Ha. “The Rights of Fashion in the Age of Terrorism,” Signs, Vol. 36, No. 2, 2011, pp. 385-410

[3] In response to the terrorist attacks of September 11, the Council of Fashion Designers of America in collaboration with Vogue Magazine and the country’s leading retailers launched the Fashion for America: Shop to Show Your Support campaign in an effort to restore the American economy, stimulate the consumer confidence and at the same time raise money for the Twin Towers Fund.

[4] VH1/ Vogue Fashion Awards is an event that celebrates fashion designers and fashionable rock stars.

[5] Quoted in Pham 386.

[6] Spindler, Amy. 2001. “O Fashion, Where Art Thou?,” New York Times Magazine, October 21, p. 66.

[7] Spindler 66.

[8] Pham 388.

[9] This neologism was repeatedly used by President George W. Bush in many of his post-9/11 speeches and it is assumed that he coined the term probably on the analogy of “women of color”. See Shah, Purvi. “Envisioning Subjection: Afghan and Muslim Women as Objects of Art and Analysis,” in J. Hobson (ed.), Are All Women Still White?: Rethinking Race, Expanding Feminisms (Albany: SUNY Press, 2016), 143-159.

[10] Pham 386.

Maria Christoforou

  • Joe Detroit

    Personally, I think the word “consumerism” hides more than it reveals. In your discourse it’s very equivalent to the way the burka is perceived by western critics. Consuming, or choosing a material object for use, always occurs through a rich set of social relations and a rich set of symbolic associations, as Daniel Miller has highlighted in his anthropology of shopping, or Dick Hebdige has shown in his study of subcultures. The writer displays the same abstract contempt towards the choices of shoppers that the so-called advocates of consumerism display towards the burka, seeing its users as only passive victims of a controlling ideology, not exploring the rich cultural associations used and created by the individual in their social context.

    As a term Raymond Williams tells us, “consumerism” implies a superficial desire to “consume” or use up goods only for the status or empty egoistic pleasures the object is able to offer. Typically, consumers are seen as hedonistic individualists or mere passive victims of advertising campaigns that supposedly instill false selfish needs. Moreover, obtaining a product on the marketplace and therefore buying a “commodity
    is seen as implicitly participating in the corrupt controlling system, but really there is no replacement for the market as an economic distributive mechanism in modern society.

    • I think that Christoforou does not engage in a blanket critique of consumerism, as she doesn’t make an empty critique of neo-liberalism. Rather she shows how consumerism has been used as an active ideology, imagined as a weapon in the clash of civilizations. By making this move, she reveals and analyzes the depths of the dangers, demonstrating the conflation of patriotism and consumerism after 9/11, connecting it to the dangers we now face after the 11/8 election of
      Trump.

      • Joe Detroit

        Great point, thanks

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