I remember in college encountering many a left-winger who had a ready mental list of proscribed products. Products that he or she boycotted because of some moral or political stain that attached to them. Some of the popular causes that inspired these boycotts were animal experimentation, un-P.C. hiring practices, and nefarious dealings in various third-world countries.
No doubt some of these causes were good, some were bad, and some were just silly. But the impression I walked away with was that this person must have an astonishing amount of free time. I mean, who has time to research each and every product to discover if the company that manufactures it might have done something I wouldn't approve of?
There tends to be an aura of self-righteous Puritanism surrounding this kind of moral exhibitionism. H. L. Mencken defined Puritanism as 'The haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy.' In this case it's the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be enjoying a consumer product guilt-free.
Part of the explanation, no doubt, is the leftist opposition to corporations, especially multinational ones, and the culture of 'corporate branding' associated with them. You are more than what you consume, the critics say, and who could disagree? I don't define myself by what I purchase. But I still like to be able to purchase a wide variety of useful products.
Well, now the Right, and the pro-war crowd generally, has gotten into the political boycott game. What kicked it off was the fact that the French government declined to go along with American and British plans to invade Iraq. That the French decided this was immoral, or perhaps just not in their national interest, was simply too much for the true-blue red-blooded American hawks.
Several campaigns have sprung up to boycott France, French companies and French products. Here are just some of the products you should avoid if you want to be a good American: Air France, Bollinger champagne, Car and Driver Magazine, Dannon Yogurt, Hennessey whiskey, Jerry Springer (!), and Zodiac inflatable boats. Who knew the perfidious French had the fingers in so many pots? Sinister!
Well, excuse me, but isn't there a fundamental confusion here? Even if we concede that the French government is behaving badly, why does it follow that we should try to punish French companies and French workers? Have we forgotten that there is a distinction between a people and its government? I sure wouldn't want people to boycott U.S. goods every time our government did something they disagreed with (if they did, we'd largely be selling things to ourselves).
And then there are the Dixie Chicks. One of the members of this popular country group had the audacity to publicly criticize Our President with respect to the war in Iraq. This led to a torrent of criticism, radio stations boycotting their records, and even ex-fans throwing Dixie Chicks CDs on a heap to be run over by a bulldozer. Not since the Kinks were pilloried for playing South Africa has there been so much political outrage directed at a pop music act. (As a counteroffensive in the P.C. onslaught, the paleocon magazine Chronicles is offering the Dixie Chicks' latest through their website)
Look, I'm not denying anyone's right to boycott any product or artist that offends their sensibilities. In a free market everyone makes the economic choices that best suit their preferences. And each person's conscience may dictate that he or she avoids certain products. But the insistence that every purchase, every act, every thought reflect some political position saps much of the joy from life.
One of the great conservative insights, which seems to have been lost by many who sail under that flag, is that there's much more to life than politics. Art, culture, religion, commerce and family are the stuff that real life is made of. These are the things that provide us with the most lasting satisfaction. It is the Left that has historically tried to politicize every aspect of existence ('the personal is the political,' remember?).
The marketplace, as a sphere of life independent from politics, is where people come together to exchange goods and services in a mutually beneficial way. And they usually do this without regard for the political beliefs of those they trade with. This is why, as the philosopher Voltaire saw, the market is a great mechanism for creating tolerance. "Go into the Exchange in London,' he wrote, 'that place more venerable than many a court, and you will see representatives of all the nations assembled there for the profit of mankind. There the Jew, the Mahometan, and the Christian deal with one another as if they were of the same religion, and reserve the name of infidel for those who go bankrupt."
We need less, not more, political interference in the other spheres of life. Let the killjoys of the Left and Right spend their time tallying the products they have to avoid in order to stay politically pure. Instead, I think I'll put on a Dixie Chicks CD and enjoy some French champagne, maybe in my Zodiac inflatable boat.