Purchasing Morality: What Happens When “Buying Local” Itself is Marketed?

This is the first of a regular column on Myth and the Global Consumer in the 21st Century.

I write from Jerusalem, where next door in Egypt, Obama recently delivered his Cairo speech. The question of how much relative credit and blame he gave the Palestinians and the Israelis is being hotly debated in the Israeli media. “You should buy the newspaper that tells the real story about what Obama said,” I overheard one Israeli woman in a café say to another deliberating over which newspaper to purchase.

“You should buy…” A very important set of words in a global consumerist economy. I began to think about those words again as I picked up a pamphlet this past evening on a Palestinian cultural center in Bethlehem. In addition to selling Palestinian artifacts, embroidery, and pottery, they provide basic information on ways of life that might be lost if not preserved by cultural historians like those at the center. The pamphlet continued: “The exhibition contains many parts: mainly the traditional living room, a furnished Bedouin tent, library, exhibition of traditional items, and a gift shop.”

The center even provides a place where visitors can dress up like authentic Palestinians and be photographed. I note my distaste at this last aspect but quickly move on, with a reminder to myself: of course I have my own associations with such “tableaux-like” objectifications, such as those at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893. But a Palestinian-owned cultural center in Bethlehem has a right to market itself any way it chooses.

Oddly enough, it’s the final sentence in the brochure that I can’t forget. I realize that I am reading the entire brochure with the sentences already formed in my mind. Having seen so many pamphlets about cultural preservation before this one, I think I know what it is going to say. And I turn to the final panel of the brochure, which states that the center’s objectives could be summed up in the following points, among others: “the preservation and promotion of Palestinian folklore heritage”; “the documentation and preservation of Palestinian cultural heritage and history”; “the promotion of Palestinian culture to young Palestinians as well as to tourists and visitors”; and “to exhibit authentically designed pieces.”

These objectives I heartily support. They make me want to visit the place. And they lull me into an expectation of what the final sentence might say: “to revive the beauty of Palestinian tradition so it could be available for all to…” And here I anticipate a word: enjoy, appreciate, understand, know… any number of verbs will do, but none is the word given. The word is: purchase. As in: “To revive the beauty of Palestinian tradition so it could be available for all to purchase.”

Even here, I quickly overcome my own negative response to the phrasing. Of course, I said to myself after a moment, the word should be “purchase,” and not “enjoy” or “appreciate” or even “know.” Because this center is about one of the things that matters most: the local self-empowerment of a struggling people in peaceful, creative, and productive ways that also respect tradition.

But then the questions emerge: Is there something inherent about purchasing that involves cultural value and heritage? Is this the same thing as being told by George W. Bush, after 9/11, that shopping is a patriotic duty? Or the same as buying Cisco systems internet equipment, which promise to create the meaningful global village between shepherds in China and peddlers in Peru? And if it’s not the same, why not? Even more, is there a moral element to the economic act of buying that is now part of our very social fabric as global citizens?

Slogans like “buy local” or “buy American” have been with us since the at least the middle of the twentieth century, if not earlier. (We could take the Boston Tea Party as an early example of the sentiment, if not the slogan.) And in this economy, such slogans are taking on a newly urgent tone. Some of that tone is pragmatic and environmental. We know that local food costs more to us but less to the environment because it does not require 1500 miles of fuel to ship across the country. And we know that buying American cars actually has a different meaning than it used to. As a 40-year-old blogger at “My Ford Dreams” writes,

Over the years many people including the media have made the slogan “Buy American” seem like a Protectionist phrase spouted by Right Wing loonies and Pro-Unionists. But in the new reality, it’s actually more important than that. It’s about the fact that most of us are part-owners in the American auto industry, and if we want our 401Ks to be worth anything, we should buy American.

The blogger goes on:

It’s you and I, folks, it’s our Pension Funds, Annuities, and Retirement portfolios, even if you didn’t check the box saying I want to invest in the auto industry. Even if you drive a Honda or Toyota or BMW, you have money invested in the domestic auto industry, like it or not. And let’s not forget that with Chrysler and GM you’re going to be de facto part owners as well.

So buying local is about saving fuel and being honest about where our money is going when it comes to the failing auto industry. It’s about “you and I, folks,” as the blogger puts it so affably. And it is surely crucial to put faces on economic transactions in these times. The lack of such face-to-face interaction is the very thing that Margaret Atwood argues was behind the bank collapse: the lack of personal engagement in a lending structure that had gotten so complex, and so out of control, that there were no human-to-human interactions and accountabilities behind it. It was not grounded in humane morality: the basic understanding that we should not borrow or lend more than we can reasonably afford.

So there are indeed times when it is a moral thing to purchase, and to do so meaningfully in a way that keeps a local economy vibrant. Who could argue with wanting retirees to live in comfort and our children to have a productive future? Who could argue with the preservation of a fragile culture? And if, as all good thinking global citizens, we care about local economies, then purchasing in this way is indeed the moral thing to do.

Most importantly, buying locally can remind us that purchasing itself is a mythical act—one that cements us to community in some magical way that means we have more than a transaction on our hands. Rather, we have a relationship. Bronislaw Malinowski understood this function of mythical acts quite well when he defined myth as a social charter: a guide of moral and social rules in how to act with other people, other families, other societies.

In his essay “Myth in Everyday Life” Malinowski tells the Trobriand myth of the flying canoe: a man who tries to make a canoe fly but cannot because he has not followed the appropriate inheritance rules, given by his maternal uncle, concerning magical knowledge about the canoe. What is more, the man’s attempt to trade overseas is a disaster as a result the fact that he has not inherited his magic appropriately. In the myth of the flying canoe, we can see how, for the Trobriand Islanders, local relations matter even in international trading expeditions. And the myth was retold in Trobriand society to reinforce the case. We might even glean some basic wisdom for our times from such a myth: “Trade globally; inherit magic locally!”

But Malinowski’s idea of myth as social charter only gets us so far in how we as global consumers understand our world. However far their trading routes took them, Trobriand Islanders still existed locally, without the pressures of the kind of faceless international trade we see today.

Today consumers face a more insidious question: What if the very morality of such a “local” act is being marketed in its own right? What if we are told in advertising campaigns that it’s about participating in a “local” culture which is “authentically” ours, when that culture is neither local nor authentic? The problem for global consumers today is that all marketplaces are not equal. What is more, the magic used to participate in them is not necessarily subject to social control like the flying canoe was. Instead, in answering the words I heard in that Jerusalem café: “You should buy,” I think we face another kind of moral dilemma; one that is far more subtle and difficult to resolve. The dilemma is not whether purchasing is inherently a moral act.

George Bush was only underscoring the pseudo-participatory nature of global capitalism in claiming such a thing after 9/11. The more difficult question is: in which market places is the morality of the local itself being advertised as a fundamental aspect of a product? And how do we know in which market places this claim might be true, and in which marketplace is the claim an invidious attempt to put a “face” on a product where no face actually exists? Where is the “local” truly local, and when has it become a tool to make a product more marketable?

The thing is, I do believe the Palestinian brochure—that a visit to that center in Bethlehem will in some meaningful way help a local heritage. I even believe that Palestinian goods should be purchased and not just appreciated. But I retain the right to be skeptical of, if not downright resistant to, the Cisco commercial that claims that same thing: that buying and building Cisco power lines brings small communities together in meaningful, face-to-face ways across the globe.

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