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Dimed Out

Today is “Not One More Damn Dime Day,” when conscientious objectors to four more years of our fratboy-in-chief’s Excellent Adventure are supposed to rage, rage against the machine by participating in “a 24-hour national boycott of all forms of consumer spending.”

(As opposed to, like, non-consumer spending. You know, consuming without spending, like those supermarket shoppers who discreetly graze their body weight in grapes or those income-challenged art students who subsist entirely on gallery-opening canap├ęs and Concha y Toro.)

By refusing to underwrite the permanent war economy, even for a day, NOMDD refuseniks hope to monkeywrench the machinery of consumer capitalism and give Dubya the malocchio, into the bargain.

“For 24 hours, please do what you can to shut the retail economy down,” the boycott’s website exhorts. Don’t spend money on “toll/cab/bus or train ride money exchanges.” (What, pray tell, is a “train ride money exchange”? Is this alt.-ese for subway fare?) Don’t go to any big-box retailers (“please boycott Walmart, KMart and Target”), nor to “the mall or the local convenience store,” and for chrissakes “please don’t buy any fast food (or any groceries at all for that matter).” Subsist, like the pious anorectics of medieval Christendom, on the manna of your moral superiority. Or, better yet, fast, in the time-honored tradition of self-flagellants everywhere. “The object is simple. Remind the people in power that the war in Iraq is immoral and illegal; that they are responsible for starting it and that it is their responsibility to stop it. […] ‘Not One Damn Dime Day’ is about supporting the troops. The politicians put the troops in harm’s way. […] The politicians owe our troops a plan—a way to come home. […] There’s no rally to attend. No marching to do. […] On ‘Not One Damn Dime Day’ you take action by doing nothing. You open your mouth by keeping your wallet closed. For 24 hours, nothing gets spent, not one damn dime, to remind our religious leaders and our politicians of their moral responsibility to end the war in Iraq and give America back to the people.”

Why, as a fellow traveler who heartily agrees that our ill-conceived adventure in nation-building has become a slaughterbench for army reservists and a recruitment tool for jihadis, do I find myself so wildly irritated by this thing?

It being eagerly granted that War is Bad, Peace is Good, and the morbidly obese millions would be the better for a day away from the Arby’s trough, what is there to argue with in this earnest attempt to Fight the Power by “doing nothing”?

Let me count the ways:

  • First, the whole business reeks of bobo sanctimony and cultural elitism. Any member of the Adbusters-reading, Supersize Me-watching leisure class who honestly believes she can Stick It to the Man by keeping her dimes firmly in her hand-knitted Guatemalan rucksack, right beside her manically underlined copy of Chomsky’s Hegemony or Survival: America’s Quest for Global Dominance, is unlikely to be seen rolling a 55-gallon drum of Miracle Whip out of Wal-Mart or rejoicing in fried offal at the local McDonald’s. The NOMDD demographic consists largely, if not entirely, of inconspicuous consumers. It is axiomatic, at this late date, that the higher a certain sort of overeducated, deeply principled American climbs on the socioeconomic ladder, the more likely he is to camouflage his status and laminate his common-man credentials with the appearance (at least) of a virtuous proletarianism. This, after all, is America, where none of the children are above average. Our deep-dyed populism demands that all poll respondents, whether homeless or richer than God or Gates, insist they are “middle class.” Historians of consumer culture, such as Stuart Ewen, have traced the evolution of what were once called “overalls,” mass-produced for the working class, into the designer jeans I saw recently in a boutique on New York’s dizzily wealthy Upper East Side. Artfully distressed and fastidiously shredded, they bore a price tag in the high three figures. All of which is my usual digressive way of saying that the well-educated, well-rewarded class whose Volvo-driving, Fair Trade coffee-buying legions are most likely to support the NOMDD boycott don’t shop at Wal-Mart or eat at McDonald’s anyway. They’re too busy fondling the heirloom tomatoes at the farmer’s market or gnawing their cuticles to the quick over the question that continues to vex the ecologically correct: Cloth diapers or disposable?
  • Second, Not One More Damn Dime won’t work, for the obvious reason that it has niche appeal, and niche appeal only. A dated, they’ve-got-the-guns-but-we’ve-got-the-numbers attempt to pour sugar in the gas tank of the road-hogging, gas-guzzling SUV of consumer capitalism by refusing to buy a new cruelty-free loofah or foregoing that appointment with the feng shui consultant, NOMDD needs mass support to get off the ground. But mass support implies mass appeal. If you’re going to sell a holy war, you need rousing, to-the-ramparts rhetoric, not some flabbyassed assurance that the faithful can “do something by doing nothing.” (Although I have to confess, right about now, that NOMDD’s Zen koan speaks to my Inner Slackivist). If your shock troops are going to suffer on behalf of your sacred cause, you need to make palatable, even desirable, the world of pain they’re about to enter. Appealing to their better angels is fine (“Ask not what your country can do for you…”). Subliminally seducing them by playing on their naked self-interest is even finer. As in: “Rise up, o ye faithful, against the Great Satan and his Zionist puppetmasters to prevent our sacred sands from being defiled by the boots of the infidels! (Did I mention that every martyr who straps on a suicide belt and blows himself to chum gets to spend eternity in the Garden of Unearthly Delights, boinking dark-eyed virgins?)” By contrast, the left (among whose endangered numbers I count myself, I should probably emphasize again) hasn’t managed, in recent history, to make either its public persona or its ideas sexy to the masses. Ensuring that you’re synonymous, in the public mind, with hair shirt-wearing self-denial and granitic humorlessness (think Kerry, Gore, Dukakis…) is not likely to win the hearts and minds of Middle Americans, most of whom shrink from things like the NOMDD Day because they sound like the political equivalent of the gray, gluten-free, sugar-free, fun-free snack foods drearily gummed by vegans and other humorectomy sufferers. A mass boycott that mandates total self-denial and, by default, sentences the participant to house arrest in order to avoid spending a plugged nickel, let alone a thin dime, is a mass boycott doomed to failure.
  • As well it should be. Because if it did work, it would injure the very nickel-and-dimed working class whose members have so disproportionately suffered in this misbegotten war. As the editors of the Urban Legends Reference Pages write in their brilliant retort to NOMDD,

    boycotts succeed by causing economic harm to their targets, thereby putting them out of business or at least requiring them to change their policies in order to remain in business. But the target of this boycott isn’t an entity that has the power to bring about the desired resolution (i.e., the government)—those who will be economically harmed by it are innocent business operators and their employees. These people have no power to set U.S. foreign policy or recall troops from Iraq, but they’re the ones who would have to pay the price for this form of protest, incurring all their usual overhead costs (e.g., lighting, heat, refrigeration) to keep their businesses open and paying employees’ salaries, all the while taking in little or no income. (And no, it doesn’t all even out in the end ? restaurants, for example, aren’t going to recoup their lost business through boycott participants’ eating twice as much the next day.)

    Somebody say Amen. There is exactly negative zero connection between sticking it to Apu down at the Kwik-E-Mart and inflicting a mortal wound on Dick Cheney and the Masters of War over at Halliburton. (For that matter, can somebody please explain to me how “our religious leaders” are supposed to end the war in Iraq?)

  • Finally, there’s one last reason NOMDD Day and the hole-in-the-forehead cultural logic it represents must die. Like Buy Nothing Day and Turn Off Your TV Day, it cedes too much cultural territory to the enemy. It’s about denial, refusal, withdrawal. It’s craven. It’s feckless. It gives off the sour stink of defeatism, and self-defeatism at that. This way lies Ted Kaczynski’s cabin, the Shaker community, the ascetic’s cell. Masochistic at heart, faux protests such as NOMDD Day are the political equivalent of a pillow-biting hissy fit: I’ll show them! I’ll never leave my bedroom! If they’re going to make me eat Brussels sprouts, I’ll never eat again, as long as I live! Do NOMDD participants truly believe that the chairman of Archer Daniels Midland or the CEO of Wal-Mart is losing any sleep over the fact that they’re not buying that Ani Difranco CD they’ve been jonesing for?

Too long have the censorious, humor-impaired wings of the left&#151the Dworkinite penis-is-a-weapon paleoconservative wing of feminism; the beige, Organization Man policy wonks; the excruciatingly earnest shoot-your-TV neo-Luddites—been the left’s public face. We need an Xtreme Makeover. More profoundly, we need to stop embracing the politics of denial and withdrawal. Show me a left-wing call for social justice and economic democracy that nonetheless embraces the vulgarian pleasures of junk culture, and I’ll show you a fanfare for the common man that is also a battleplan for handing the right’s self-appointed morals czars their heads. In contrast, NOMDD’s rearguard action is the thin bleat of a bugle blowing retreat: Forward, into the past!