Why I Challenge You to Think Like Me

I challenge the country to think of me as a citizen first, a consumer to improve the economy second. I challenge you to think like me.
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I was a twinkle in my mother's eye on January 20, 1961 when President John F. Kennedy orated his first inaugural address, reciting those historic words, "Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country."

I'd like you to consider an idea: JFK's words are outdated and Barack Obama would be a fool to echo them.

By means of an example, after listening to life coach Jackie Woodside talk to a local writers group several hours ago about energy management practices and aligning one's inner chi, I perused through one of her resource books, written by Tom Wessels, that was full of highlighted passages.

My eyes stopped at two sentences in chapter 4 of The Myth of Progress:

An economy is supposed to serve its people; however, in the world today, people are to serve the economy. This may be why our leaders often refer to us as consumers rather than citizens.

Shortly after moving to Newburyport, Massachusetts in September 2007, I entered the City Clerk's office and filled out a voter registration form and requested a parking permit for my neighborhood's streets. These two actions effectively prove I am a voter and a citizen.

So why, during the subsequent municipal election season, did campaign signs sprout up around town? Why did I receive unsolicited postcards and flyers about meet-the-candidate coffee hours and fundraisers?

Last I checked, government was about something much more respectable than treating citizens like consumers.

If JFK's words ring true today, then citizens should vote for peers and elect them into office. Why is the concept of money and material goods necessary for an election? Doesn't that stink of NOT doing something for the country but doing something for the self?

Do you think like me? Could Wessels be right--and JFK be wrong?

A Google search introduced me to University of Maryland professor Benjamin Barber and his groundbreaking book last year, entitled, Consumed: How Markets Corrupt Children, Infantilize Adults, and Swallow Citizens Whole, which was reviewed in the Washington Post:

In a never-ending effort to make consumption the centerpiece of every American's existence, marketers have succeeded in infantilizing adults ("kidults," Barber calls us). We're increasingly governed by impulse. No wonder consumer debt and personal bankruptcy have never been higher. Feeling dominates thinking, me dominates us, now dominates later, egoism dominates altruism, entitlement dominates responsibility, individualism dominates community, and private dominates public. Imagine having the ship of state guided by leaders elected by a nation of 12-year-olds. That, according to Barber, is what we've got.

Reviewer Barry Schwartz continued:

The Reagan revolution convinced us that turning the market loose would be good economics and good politics. Barber, in contrast, argues that "Once upon a time, capitalism was allied with virtues that also contributed at least marginally to democracy, responsibility, and citizenship. Today it is allied with vices which -- although they serve consumerism -- undermine democracy, responsibility, and citizenship." In other words, in the modern era, it's not so much democracy and capitalism as it is democracy or capitalism.

As a high school student in suburban Boston in the early 1990s, I was never offered a civics class. The closest I came was a class on U.S. history. I surely never learned civics in grade school. Did you?

That is a serious question identified by a Seattle school parent in an op-ed from 2002:

Consumers are people who have their emotional needs met by buying stuff. Once people are focused on their roles as consumers, they forget about their roles as citizens.

The purpose of public schools is to develop a respect for the intellect, rather than cultivating an unquenchable desire for products. Another important purpose of schools is to acculturate our kids to their roles as citizens.

A consumer is not a citizen. As a faculty member at the University of Washington, I love the students who arrive in the classroom with an attitude of citizenship. They're there to help the class come together and work to learn about the topic. The students who arrive as consumers are there to be taught the topic, and they'd better darn well get their money's worth.

With the United States preparing for its quadrennial inaugural celebration, I refer to MSNBC journalist Bob Sullivan who spoke to Ralph Nader two months ago. In the final paragraph of a report on consumerism and Wall Street, the former presidential candidate is quoted:

Perhaps (Obama) will rise to the occasion ... but he does not have a challenging personality, that's why he always talks about unity...

I challenge Obama to challenge JFK.

I challenge the country to think of me as a citizen first, a consumer to improve the economy second.

I challenge companies to mimic this challenge for the country, and think of their customers first, and their products and profit second.

I challenge you to think like me.

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