The United States of Shopping Makes Peace Not War

It is an August night in Times Square. The air is not the steamy sullen soup it was just a few days ago. The weather has cooled, the humidity near gone. Tourists crane their necks to gawk at the LED videotrons that rim Times Square bright as daylight. Adding to the mutter of trucks and taxi cabs is a mashup of strange tongues from Brazil, France, Germany, Serbia, Ecuador, Britain, and Atlanta.

Everywhere you look, people carry shopping bags by the fistfuls. They gobble up Levi’s, American Eagle, GAP, and other totems of American culture because they mean something: freedom, independence, disposable income, empowerment, capitalism, consumerism, and more.

This reminds us that not only is the world decidedly flat, but the influence of American culture spreads like water. Our ideals are without boundaries. Nothing expresses independence, freedom and equality more than the ability to buy what you want, where you want, when you want it. American culture is available to all, to be embraced, enjoined, enjoyed, and spilled into the world mix: hence the cultural irony of people wearing Hollister t-shirts during the Spring revolution in Egypt, or otherwise naked kids in Amazonia sporting Nikes.

Although isolated by two large oceans, American culture is a global community. The Japanese collect Fender guitars, Brazilians chow McDonald’s, Chinese grin as they nibble KFC. We do not just propel profits, we propel culture. But the strength of any culture, to rewrite James P. Carse, is its ability to find visions that promote still more vision.

For pan-Americana, the meaning of value is a double-sided ideal, as political as it is economic. It helps shape a community with shared beliefs: a culture. Cultures are not geographies with borders, they are geometries that flex and expand with enough suck to absorb whatever rubs against them. While borders can be broken, cultures seep forward. This is the lasting power of American hegemony: a culture that stretches beyond dollar devaluation, trillionated debt, and footsore armies. Here in Times Square, the Others are gobbling up the totems of those things that represent our freedoms, our independence and American spirit of individuality. Fashion. Electronics. Music.

These Times Square visitors from Ukraine, Slovenia, Ecuador, Brazil, China, have been democratized, in part, by our icons of consumerism. Watches, purses, shoes, shirts, cell phones, blue jeans, etcetera. Not only are they familiar with the American context, they consume and expand it. They buy it, they carry it back home with them. That’s not just a t-shirt, it’s a flag.

A few blocks away, a pod of young people from Eastern Europe cluster shoulder to shoulder in a hotel lounge, checking off shopping lists. Together, they buy jeans, iPads, smartphones, Barbie® dolls, and other consumables that represent what they imagine we are. They pack them into suitcases, then ship them back to the mother country. Their black market profits are enough to let them remain in the United States. In a sense, they embody the ultimate American Experience: they live to shop.

It is the same all over the world. In China, American visitors giving a marketing workshop describe American values. Foundational American ideals, they declare, are “freedom” and “democracy”. The Chinese shake their heads and retort, “capitalism” and “consumerist economy”.

We must be wary of jingoistic notions of America’s global influence. Yet, as we try to influence with surveillance satellites and remotely controlled robotics, perhaps our stealth bombs are not really guns and steel, but the pyrotechnics of rock anthems, soft drinks, fried chicken, running shoes and Twitter. Can owning a smartphone be as transformational as a voting booth? As revolutions sprout in Egypt, Libya, Tunisia, as the jobless riot in Britain, France, and Spain, as people transcend national identities to get their global fix, we must remind ourselves of the possibilities of the possible. Shopping bags are concentrations of meaning that declare our ideals of freedom, equality, and independence: shopping for all. Today they buy our t-shirts, tomorrow they change their world.