When you get up in the morning, do you EVER think, “Ah, what a great day it is to be an American consumer?” Who wants to be a consumer? Since when were we stuck with this label? Does what we ingest, what we purchase, what we acquire really define us? And if it does, how deeply sad is that?
In his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, President Obama used a different word, one that’s come to sound a bit old-fashioned: Citizen. Try that on. “Ah, what a great day it is to be an American citizen.” Maybe you don’t feel that way every morning of your life. But wouldn’t you rather wear the label, “Citizen,” with all it implies?
A citizen sounds like someone worthy of respect. A consumer sounds like an appetite housed in a body.
A citizen sounds like someone who cares what happens to our country. A consumer sounds like someone who cares what happens to him or her self.
To be a citizen is to be a citizen OF a specific place. To care about a community larger than yourself. To live the belief that investing in the common good enriches our individual lives, too.
It’s pretty simple. Citizens vote; consumers buy stuff.
In his convention speech, President Obama called citizenship, quote, “a word at the very heart of our founding, at the very essence of our democracy; the idea that this country only works when we accept certain obligations to one another, and to future generations.”
The “heart of our founding,” the “essence of our democracy,” is not just about us, it’s about ALL of us. I like that Obama said this out loud. I am glad we are not just consumers to him, we are citizens who care about making this country a better place.
We Americans like to trumpet individuality, entrepreneurship, freedom, gumption, the myth of the self-made man or woman. We grow up wanting to be cowboys and cowgirls. But then we do grow up. And we acknowledge we might need help with a few basics, like roads to drive on, police to protect us, electric power, running water, emergency rooms, firefighters, public parks. Oh: and an education.
One of the Democratic Convention warm-up speakers was Costco co-founder Jim Sinegal, who said in his speech, quote, “we did not build our company in a vacuum, we built it in the greatest country on earth.”
A country where citizens have rights and responsibilities that go far beyond shopping at Costco or any other store.
Take Lilly Ledbetter. Best known as the woman whose name became the title of the law signed by President Obama that finally guarantees women equal pay for equal work, Ledbetter brought down the house in Charlotte with the story of her fight for fair wages at the Alabama tire plant where she worked for 19 years. But as she said, quote, “This cause, which bears my name, is bigger than me. It’s as big as all of you. This fight, which began as my own, is now our fight.” Ledbetter never collected back wages. But she made the future brighter for our daughters and granddaughters. Ledbetter is a citizen, not a mere consumer.
The stirring speeches of the conventions are over. Now, the long slog to Election Day in November begins. There will be robo-calls; there will be inflammatory ads; there will be constant media coverage. But if we can think of ourselves not as passive, mindless consumers but as citizens who care about the future, maybe we can get through this fall without going crazy.
There are still some seats available in my Intro to Memoir Writing class, which starts September 26. 6:30-8pm, SCCC campus. Join us!
Radio lovers: you can hear the Restless Nest commentaries every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., Thursdays at 4:54 p.m. and Fridays at 4:55 p.m. on KBCS, streaming online at kbcs.fm and on the air at 91.3 in the Seattle area. Podcasts available.
Here’s nest artist Kim Groff-Harrington’s website.