Taking Off Kim Jong-un’s Silk Stockings
I recently came across a Letter to the Editor in The Washington Post in which Lamar F. Neville suggested that the United States bring newly declared leader of North Korea Kim Jong-un (also spelled Kim Jong-eun) to our friendly shores and give him a tour of the fun spots, such as Disney World and Bourbon Street in New Orleans. Though the letter seemed a bit facetious, I honestly would not be surprised to know that there are still Americans who believe that an authoritarian dictator will miraculously turn a new leaf once exposed to the sunnier side of life. What really struck me, though, is the fact that our notion of the “good life” in a democratic society is linked to material culture and consumerism.
Arguably, a lot of American “Cold War” cultural propaganda was focused on the evils of authoritarian no-nonsense cultures and the fear that they would squelch our free-loving spirits, either via a nuclear bomb or a strategic takeover. Quite a few points of separation between “us” and “them” involved consumerism and appearance; Russia’s work-related economy and strict distribution of resources contrasted sharply with our consumer-driven economy, our continuous access and exposure to luxury and unnecessary goods, and our dog-eat-dog capitalist system which supposedly grants every man, woman, and child a chance at fortune and fame. Several analysts, including Stephen Cohen, a Russian Studies scholar, have argued that the U.S. government is currently waging a new Cold War: one with Iran and North Korea, as well as one with Russia. That war is still fueled in part by a firm belief that our decadent way of life is infinitely better than being a member of the proletariat.
When President George Bush Jr. infamously urged Americans to go out and shop after 9/11, it was a pitiful reminder of the extent of the United States economy’s reliance on consumers. For several decades now, in a bid to turn that reliance into an advantage, activists have urged their fellow Americans to become conscious consumers, exercising the power of their purses to influence business decisions about anything from labor policy to environmental standards. Anti-consumerism movements have fed on an adverse reaction to the consumer economy. Protests such as the Occupy movement have gained traction due to negative perceptions of wealth and material luxury. Mitt Romney has struggled in his presidential bid to convince voters that he can be down-to-earth and prefer the same sorts of foods and entertainment that the hoi polloi do.
Americans are starting to acknowledge and counter not only the adverse effects of consumerism at home, but also abroad. As foreign policy makers have sought to spread democracy around the world, businesses have been spreading McDonalds, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Gap, Levi, and other chain stores that often spell disaster for local economies, diets, and cultural traditions. Many US history textbooks now detail the aggressive pursuit of resources that led to American involvement in several major wars and the subtle effort to control regions of Central and South America and the Middle East.
In the film Silk Stockings, a charming American producer making a film in Paris woos a straight-laced Soviet officer and eventually convinces her that the Western world offers her a better life. In a pivotal moment, the Russian woman puts on silk stockings, earrings, and a form-fitting dress, signaling that she is acknowledging her femininity, her sexuality, and her acceptance of material culture.
While many people, including celebrities, have defected from authoritarian regimes and settled in the land of the free, no dictator worth his or her salt is about to give up a powerful reign for Western goods, silk stockings included. No, consumerism is not going to win the fight against communists, dictators, foreign spies, or bland-looking state-issued uniforms. I suggest that before we continue that fight, we reexamine our way of life and ask ourselves if it’s really a good idea to inflict it upon others when so many people at home are working to change it.