Washington's Jingoist Reaction to Olympic Uniforms Scandal Fails to Address Lack of U.S.-Made Garments

The torrent of patriotic indignity continued to stream from Capitol Hill this week over the revelation that the American Olympic team's uniforms, which were designed by American Ralph Lauren, were produced in China.

Democratic Lawmakers in Congress on Monday introduced a bill titled the "Team USA Made In America Act" that would require all U.S. Olympic team uniforms worn on the opening day of Olympics to be made in America. The bill was introduced even though the Olympic Committee apologized and Lauren had already promised to provide American-made uniforms at the next Olympics.

"I look forward to the quick passage of this patriotic jobs bill so that the United States never finds itself in this embarrassing situation again," said one of the bill's sponsors, Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey.

On Tuesday, Rep. Tim Murphy (R-Pa.) sent a letter to the Olympic Committee urging them to buy American. "The Olympic Committee's decision to use uniforms made in China, which has notoriously violated international trade agreements to the detriment of American manufacturing, is especially galling when 23 million Americans are out of work or looking for more work," the letter stated.

Wow. Doesn't that jingoistic "buy American" and anti-China lingo titillate your patriotic spirit and make you want to shout, "Hooray for the red, white and blue!"?

What's really embarrassing -- and sad -- is not so much that the Lauren uniforms -- highlighted by hideous French berets, double-breasted blazers and blinding white slacks -- were manufactured by Chinese laborers, but how our Washington continues to fail to address the really significant issue highlighted by this debacle: our dependence on importing our clothes from overseas.

Congress, President Obama and Mitt Romney should have used the issue as a jumping point to address the big problem of the lack of production of domestic textiles in the United States. What a perfect opportunity to point out that just 2 percent of the clothing is worn here is actually made here, and that clothing, especially high-technology gear like waterproof and windproof jackets, could reinvent clothing manufacturing on American soil.

Instead, Obama and Romney basically stayed mute on the issue. No bills were introduced in to help to jumpstart the U.S. garment industry, and there were no meaningful discussions about the terrible conditions, long hours and poor wages paid to textile workers in foreign sweatshops. No, elected officials in Washington seized the moment solely to play on the patriotic chi of Americans.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada led the charge, stating, "The Olympic Committee should be ashamed of themselves. I think they should be embarrassed. I think they should take all the uniforms, put them in a big pile and burn them, and start all over again."

The Chinese lashed back with the official Xinhua news agency citing the "ignorance" and "hypocrisy" of Reid and the lawmakers: "The Olympic spirit, which has nothing to do with politics, chants mutual understanding and fair play. So tagging the uniforms with politics by those U.S. politicians exposes narrow nationalism and ignorance."

The Chinese were right.

Does it really matter that our Olympic athletes are wearing foreign-made clothes when all of America, including every member of Congress, does the same every day?

Americans are spoiled when it comes to clothing. Because American clothing companies can manufacture garments more cheaply in Asia, our clothes come with a very cheap price tag for us consumers and a bigger profit for designers such as Ralph Lauren.

At this point, there's no business or regulatory incentive to start the manufacture of garments in the United States. But given the choice, most Americans would buy American-made garments if they were identified as such and were not much more expensive than imports.

The problem is that we don't often have that option anymore, and given the lack of meaningful discussion of this problem by Obama and Romney, as well as the stupid, shallow reaction Congress members, it will remain an Olympic hurdle to overcome.

Published in the Sun Sentinel on July 18, 2012

Steven Kurlander writes opinion columns for the Sun Sentinel and Florida Voices. He blogs at Kurly's Kommentary and can be emailed at kurly@stevenkurlander.com