I had intended to talk about #BuyNothingDay in a different context. Most days are Buy Nothing Day for me. Both because I hate consumerism and because I have no money for anything not absolutely essential. I’ve now seen two elections were the loser was installed in office so I feel strongly that voting is not something we do only on election day but also something we do everyday in the choices we make. I’m not perfect in this, by any means, and I live on a very tight budget so I often have to compromise on purchases.
Tonight I want to highlight the direct correlation between consumerism and terrorism. I drove home from my parents’ houses today so I didn’t quite buy nothing. I needed a sandwich and a tank of gas to get home on. Food for me and food for my car. My car is nearly 22 years old. It still gets pretty good gas mileage. I worry about it’s reliability. It has 360,000 miles on it. 576,000 kilometers. And I make these regular long drives alone across northwest New Mexico. It’s a beautiful drive. But it’s also desolate. There is no calling for help out there, no walking to help, only waiting for help and hoping whoever stops isn’t a serial killer. But I keep driving my old car. Because buying a new one is A) not in the budget and B) is a waste of resources. But I had a beautiful drive today, the visibility was perfect, the weather was perfect. Just my on Highway 550 behind the wheel of my ’96 Camry. I got home, unloaded and unpacked, checked messages, showered, all the good stuff.
Then I checked Facebook and learned that far, far from here hundreds of people were killed in their place of worship. And my heart aches for Egypt tonight. There really aren’t any words after such an atrocity. People going to pray turned into pools of blood. Human beings, human beings with families and friends and favorite foods and pets and hobbies and all the same feelings and needs and dreams we all have.
I strongly believe that giving attention to bodies, to carnage, to corpses only encourages more violence. (Alicia Schmidt-Camacho wrote a great essay on this, email or twitter if you want more info.) Dead bodies are too much like pornography for way too much of this f-ed up world. Dead bodies are what terrorists and soldiers and dictators and evil people want to see. And I see over and over and over again well-intentioned social media campaigns sharing pictures of dead people that completely fail and flop. People who are conditioned to consumerism see those pictures and consume them the same way they do advertisements featuring women’s bodies spread-eagled on the hood of an expensive car. Those pictures turn human beings into objects and I won’t participate in it. It’s only one of the links between consumerism and terrorism.
If I was a “good American” I’d have gone shopping today. That’s what “Black Friday” is supposed to be about, doing one’s patriotic duty to prop up the economy by spending money we don’t have on stuff we don’t need. I have clothes that say “Made in Egypt” on the tag. Not as many as say “China,” “Bangladesh,” “Honduras,” or “Guatemala.” And yes, I looked into this and labor conditions are terrible for the people who made those clothes. Every single one of us living in a “developed” country and benefiting from cheap consumer products has blood on our hands. We commit economic terrorism every time we hit the clearance rack or shop the Black Friday sales.
And the thing with consumerism is that participating in it creates a cycle where we literally wear the blood of other human beings and become completely desensitized to the parts we play in the cycle of global violence. Now, I don’t know about you, but I can’t even begin to keep track of all the violence in just my little city, much less the whole world. It’s overwhelming and impossible. I also know that the most violent neighborhood in my city is the one right next to the air force base. For some reason the violence on one side of the fence is considered heroic and beneficial while the violence on the other side causes a whole lot of political buck-passing and media bull-shitting. We idolize the military solution and look to a police state for security and miss the connection that violence can only beget more violence. More police and more military only makes the suffering of human beings worse.
And there’s nothing like media-grabbing terrorism to frighten people into placing their trust in a security state. But it never works. Over and over and over fighting terrorism with war only makes more terrorism, more anguish, more violence. We’ve come to define freedom as choosing which TV to buy on Black Friday and living behind walls and gates to protect that TV. That’s not freedom. That’s prison. Prison is where consumerism concludes. The more stuff we have the less freedom we have.
My sister says she’d pity anyone who tried to rob me because all I have is books. She’s right that I have more than my share of the books. It’s also an accurate assessment of my priorities. In addition to the antique car I have a 6 year old laptop I’m typing on and a 4 year old smart phone. And that’s the sum total of my valuable possessions. I don’t leave home for a few nights worrying about anybody taking my stuff because I have no stuff to take. (I do worry about my cats running out of food or getting lonely….) Yes, the computer is getting a bit slow and buggy and the the phone has had a cracked screen for three years and sometimes glitches out. Yes, it is annoying and having new stuff would be nice. But I don’t need new ones. These are still working well enough.
And the thing is that every not-really-needed thing I have means that somewhere in this world someone else goes without something they really do need. There’s plenty of resources on this planet for all of us to have enough to be comfortable. There are things I want, yes. If a million dollars fell out of the sky I probably would go on and make a few upgrades in my life. I’d do things like get my teeth fixed and pay for a passport and plane tickets and save enough for my kids and nieces and nephews to go to college. I’d be ably to really pay attention to where my clothes are made and where my food is grown. But I still wouldn’t have a television. I’d still want to make things with my own hands. I’d still want to live in a small house. Big houses are like more stuff. They hold you hostage to cleaning.
It’s supposed to be called “Black Friday” because the Christmas shopping frenzy kicks off and retailers supposedly move from losing money to making money. But it’s a black and evil day that sees hundreds of people mascaraed for going to pray. And it’s an evil day that celebrates consumerism. Consumption is an old name for tuberculosis. A disease that eats people alive and wastes them away to nothing, consumes them. And a lifestyle of consumption breeds selective outrage and the objectification of human beings. We don’t need more stuff at cheaper prices and we don’t need to brainwash ourselves with endless pictures of dead people. We need to know and love and care for live people. Living people. We need to hear the stories and see the faces of all those people living and breathing. Not see them as so much more human excess to consume, as exotic commodities to feed our fetishes but as people just like us who want the same and deserve the same basic respect and freedom we all do.
I’m going to beg you, dear world, to tell stories that show victims of violence as human beings. No more body counts or political games. Tell their stories. That is how people learn to care more about each other than about accumulating useless crap. Tell the stories. Share the stories. Feel the stories. And think really hard about participating in a culture where everything and everyone is for sale. Really, really think about the hypocrisy of valorizing militarization in the name of “security.” What do real peace and security look like? Do they look like hiding behind walls and fences and gates and guns? Do they look like more stuff and fewer friends?
Everything that happens in this worlds happens to all of us. We aren’t the isolated little individuals consumerism teaches us to be. Each and everyone of us is tied to every other. Even the terrorists, the serial killers, the tyrants and despots and dictators of this world are human just like you or I. We are all in this together. Go read the labels on all your clothes and imagine your life touching the lives of everyone who had a part in making them. Think about little kids picking cotton somewhere and slightly bigger kids working in a textile factory and their parents and siblings and what they’ll eat for dinner tonight. Every single time a life is ended too soon we all lose someone who could have been our friend, our brother, our daughter. Could have been us.
We can’t really have compassion for anyone if we see other people as objects. Pity, maybe, but never compassion. Compassion, loving-kindness, a willingness to feel another’s pain and respond with care and concern, is the antithesis of both terrorism and consumerism. That world where we all have real freedom and peace, where there are no walls or gates or fences, requires that we live lives of compassion and freedom and peace. None of us are really free or safe so long as any of us are not. This little blue space ship is the only home we have and we’re all riding it together. None of us is going to get out of here alive. You and me and all the people we most love are all going to die. And we won’t get to take any of our clothes or electronics or even books with us. What we have is this life here and now. This moment. You and I both have this moment to reach out and show someone we care, to share in the story of another human being who also lives and breathes and dreams and loves.