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November 26, 2013

Instead of boycotting, buy locally

By Cary Brunswick
The Daily Star

---- — Buy Nothing Day, that international day of protest against rampant consumerism, is traditionally reserved for Black Friday in the United States and for the next day, Saturday, in other countries.

After this year, however, there will be a lot of pressure to turn the effort into a two-day event because of all the major retailers that can’t wait until Friday to lure shoppers away from their families and into stores.

But, no doubt, Black Friday will remain the focus, as surveys show that about half of the nation’s consumers shop on Friday.

I continue to have mixed feelings about Buy Nothing Day, but not because I want to shop and spend. I do believe it is a great way to encourage people to stop and think about the annual shopping frenzy, and how they are led to follow Walmart, Macy’s, Best Buy and the other pied pipers of consumerism.

Granted, the hardcore activists of Buy Nothing Day may tell you to do a total de-tox on Black Friday and “lock up your wallets and purses, cut up your credit cards and dump the love of your life — shopping.”

But I prefer to see it as an educational tool. After all, the vast majority of shoppers are not buying for themselves; they are buying for family and friends. So the message also is that you should reflect on where you shop and what you buy.

That means you can try to avoid the corporate department stores and instead visit hometown merchants where much of the merchandise is not from China or sweatshops but made locally and certainly in the U.S. In this way, Black Friday could be the impetus for developing a long-term consumer conscience that would be good for our economy, the environment and the working conditions in developing countries.

•••

Last week, an important milestone in the changing character of our nation was broadcast live from the White House when President Obama awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom to 16 recipients.

The significance was not the awarding of the medals. The nation’s highest civilian honor has been presented to Americans for 50 years now, initiated by President John F. Kennedy.

It was not the fact that seven of the 16 honorees were from minorities, or that five of them were women. 

And it was not because some of the recipients were singled out for their courageous efforts in opposing the government’s policies on civil rights, secrecy and censorship. Though you do have to admit this was a big deal.

No, what really stood out was the presentation of awards posthumously to Sally K. Ride, the first American woman astronaut to travel into space, and Bayard Rustin, an African American civil rights leader who promoted nonviolent protest alongside the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.

You see, Sally Ride and Bayard Rustin were gay, and on hand to receive their awards on their behalf were their surviving “lifetime partners,” as the president referred to them. 

I can’t imagine this major public acceptance of gay partners occurring in our society in the past. In some ways, we really are changing for the better.

•••

Our developing high-tech society took another hit last week, perhaps not surprisingly, during the presentation of the National Book Awards in New York City.

The growing electronic-book market usually gets smacked around during any event that’s focused on books and writers, and this year’s book awards function was no different. 

E. L. Doctorow, who was awarded the Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters, was the main culprit with an acceptance speech laced with criticism of technology, government surveillance and the Internet.

“When was the last time you heard the word mouse and thought of a small, gray rodent,” Doctorow asked. “When was the last time you heard the word Web and thought of a spider?”

Ordinarily at such events, it’s the MC who gets to have the fun of poking jabs at the changing trends in book reading. This year, however, Mika Brzezinski of MSNBC instead focused on reminding the audience how important books are in our society.

The rest was left to Doctorow. “Text is now a verb,” he said. “More radically, a search engine is not an engine. A platform is not a platform. A bookmark is not a bookmark because an e-book is not a book.”

For the record, James McBride won the National Book Award in fiction for “The Good Lord Bird,” a novel narrated by an escaped slave. In nonfiction, George Packer won for “The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America,” a book that “traces the painful dissolution of much of our economic infrastructure.”

Cary Brunswick, of Oneonta, is a freelance writer and editor. He can be reached at brunswick@earthling.net. The views expressed in this column do not necessarily reflect those of The Daily Star and its editorial board.