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American Quarterly 56.1 (2004) 213-221
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From Sit-ins to "Shirt-ins":
Why Consumer Politics Matter More than Ever
Kathy M. Newman
Carnegie Mellon University
A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. By Lizabeth Cohen. New York: Knopf, 2003. 576 pages. $35.00 (cloth).
In early March 2003, just before the start of the (second) U.S. war on Iraq, a sixty-one-year-old lawyer, Stephen Downs, and his thirty-one-year-old son, Roger Downs, went to the Crossgates Mall in a suburb of Albany, New York, to have some T-shirts made that expressed their views on the impending conflict. At a small store called Mugs and More, they had one T-shirt made that said "Peace on Earth" on the front and "Give Peace a Chance" on the back. The second shirt said "No War in Iraq" and "Let the Inspections Work." They put on their new shirts and headed for the food court. Soon they were approached by a security guard, who told them to take off their T-shirts or leave the premises. Roger took his off, but Stephen Downs refused. The security guard came back with a police officer, who told the elder Downs that he would be arrested if he did not take off the shirt. Downs, who was wearing the shirt that said "Peace on Earth," was obstinate: "All right then, arrest me if you have to." They handcuffed Downs and took him away.
This incident gestures toward the possibilities—and the limitations—of political activism in the arena of mass consumption. Importantly, Downs did not get arrested entirely by accident. A lawyer on the verge of retiring, Downs had read that a group of shoppers wearing antiwar T-shirts were asked to leave the Crossgates Mall in December [End Page 213] of 2002, and thus he and his son staged their "shirt-in," in part, to test the limitations of the free speech of individuals in this particular mall. Two days following his arrest, a group of nearly one hundred supporters descended on Crossgates Mall demanding that the charges against Downs be dropped; soon after, pundits around the country—and the world—took up Downs's cause. The charges against Downs were quickly dropped, and subsequently he was interviewed by Connie Chung, News Australia, the BBC, and even, with some sympathy, by the conservative American radio commentator Bill O'Reilly. The irony of Downs's situation—the fact that he was arrested by mall authorities for wearing a shirt he had purchased at the mall—was not lost on any of the commentators or, of course, on Downs. The discussion of his arrest started an international debate about whether or not shopping malls should limit the free speech of public citizens. 1
This incident captures the tension implicit in what Lizabeth Cohen has dubbed the "Consumers' Republic." In her impressive new book A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, Cohen argues that we have largely ignored and/or misunderstood the political significance of the consumer culture that has held us in its grip since the middle of the twentieth century. She uses this history to challenge three widely accepted bodies of conventional wisdom about the consumer culture that supposedly emerged in the 1950s. First of all, she argues that it actually emerged in the 1930s. Secondly, she challenges the idea that the mass consumer culture has been homogenizing. She argues that mass culture quickly turned to market segmentation, leading to increasing market (and social) segregation. Finally, she challenges the idea that the mass consumption has been inherently depoliticizing. On the contrary, Cohen shows that Americans have understood consumption in political terms—and have used consumer-based tactics to fight for broader political rights.
Cohen starts her book in the throes of the Depression—not far from where she left the workers she chronicled in Making a New Deal: Industrial Workers in Chicago, 1919-1939. 2 When these workers were not fighting for their rights on the...