We’re Citizens, Not Consumers (Updated)

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A progressive talk show host who I admire recently stressed the importance of protecting the rights of the consumer. While I applaud his message, I bristle at his use of the word “consumer”.

We’re citizens, not consumers, but Madison Avenue has pursuaded us to see ourselves as some sort of new species. When did a human behavior (consuming things) become a universal human classification, and why do so many of us embrace being a consumer as a badge of honor?

Deep in their labs, diabolical ad execs created the proto consumer – tall, smart, attractive, savvy, intelligent, buff, wealthy and well proportioned – while working to make the rest of us feel pretty silly by comparison. Then they conspired with the money men to make it as easy as possible for us to part with our cash past, present and future, all in relentless pursuit of this false expectation. They fed us – and we ate – their formulas for smart consumption.

So we wait all night in cold lines for the right to stampede through department stores snatching up Black Friday holiday bargains. We wrap our kids in pure-profit bolts of colored plastic on Halloween night, stitched together by sweatshop labor in some distant land, because we’re too busy working to pay for that costume to make one ourselves. At home. With our kids.

Choosy mothers choose Jif, and on good days we listen to at least nine out of ten doctors.

We’ve learned to pride ourselves as “power shoppers” and “ultimate consumers”, never stopping to wonder where these words came from. We buy whole books and magazines filled with reports for consumers! We actually pay to be told how to buy things!

Whenever I hear someone – a living, breathing, human someone – refer to themselves as a power shopper or ultimate consumer, I want to give them a spiritual slap. Wake up! Consumers have power only within the context of the rules that Madison Avenue has invented. And by their rules a good consumer is simply anyone with a pulse, a need and a credit card.

Is our government on board with the program? You betcha. Remember the prescription that George Bush offered after 9/11? He implored us to get on with our lives and buy more stuff. In so many words he told us, “If you stop buying then the terrorists have won.” Likewise, in 1999 then-mayor Paul Schell kicked off the holiday shopping season in downtown Seattle, with protesters and anarchists on every corner preparing to unleash violent waves of anti-WTO mischief. Schell essentially welcomed them by saying, “Enjoy our great city, spend money, and please behave.” History tells us they did not behave. Meanwhile, mainstream media capitalized on riot photo ops rather than exploring the root causes.

Well, I love my country and I’m not an anarchist, but I’m not consumo-sapiens either. It’s time for us all to celebrate our common humanity and citizenship, and stop branding ourselves with some corporate hot-iron reflecting how we should behave or even worse, who we belong to.

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