A recent article in Bloomberg draws its readers’ attention to a new consumer trend in the US: the fad of purchasing military gear in anticipation of what many fear may resemble a civil war in the streets. Seen from another angle, it may be more about asserting a new lifestyle trend than fomenting internecine war, though the borderline between the two has become somewhat blurred.
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The lead sentence of the Bloomberg article sets the tone: “Conflict is on America’s streets in 2020, and ‘tactical apparel’ has become a lifestyle industry serving militarized law-enforcement agents and the freelance gunmen who emulate them.” US culture has always been about emulation.
Here is today’s 3D definition:
Clothing designed for military combat aimed at two distinct markets, the first being military and law enforcement prepared for confronting an organized enemy, and the second consisting of ordinary citizens with no enemy but the overwhelming need to believe they have one
Bloomberg alarmingly reports the fact that “online purchases have driven a 20-fold jump in sales of goods like the $220 CM-6M gas mask — resistant to bean-bag rounds — for Mira Safety of Austin, Texas.” The casual reader might assume that’s par for the course in Texas, but these are online orders that may originate from anywhere in the US. Another vendor expresses his surprise at seeing orders coming, for the first time, from Chicago, Manhattan, Queens and San Francisco.
The founder of Mira Safety, Roman Zrazhevskiy, offers this insight into the mentality of his customers: “They think that no matter who wins, Biden or Trump, there are going to be people who are upset about the result.” Does Zrazhevskiy imagine that this would be the first time those who voted for the loser will be upset after a presidential election? He appears to mean not just upset, but gearing up for war in the streets. Everyone senses that thanks to the personality of President Donald Trump, this election will be special. But is it that special?
The article notes that following the Black Lives Matter protests and the pandemic lockdowns of 2020, a sense of conflict has been brewing. But that may not be the whole story. We learn about a company that is trying to “turn the survivalist look into a fashionable national brand.” For many of the customers, this may be more about looking the role than playing it. On the other hand, noting that across “the country, gun and ammunition sales have surged as well,” the authors of the Bloomberg article suggest that with such a large arsenal available to so many people, the prospect of open combat cannot be dismissed.
The article cites a former Homeland Security official, Elizabeth Neumann, who sees “evidence of… the stress associated with the pandemic, a frustration or anger about various government mitigation efforts and a belief that those efforts are infringing on their individual liberties.” It is worth noting that though every American has, over a lifetime, repeatedly pledged allegiance to a nation “under God,” whose sacredness and exceptionalism cannot be questioned, there is still one thing even more sacred than the nation and its institutions. And that is “individual liberties.”
After the relative calm of the summer months, the sudden uptick in the number of cases of the COVID-19 disease in the days preceding the election may aggravate a lingering feeling of powerlessness, or even of defeat and despair. Some energized civilians, if only to justify the money they spent on their recently acquired guns, ammunition and tactical equipment, could be tempted to put their investment to use. The equipment is in their hands and the result, or non-result of the election, could provide the spark.
But Neumann offers a reassuring insight, pointing out that the recent buying spree speaks to the purchasers’ need for “a form of militaristic patriotism, a way for them to find their identities.” Rather than leading to an imminent revolt, the trend would simply confirm and consolidate a longstanding trend in the US: to celebrate military might and the virtue of manly bellicosity. Like the tea party that took form as an expression of resistance against Barack Obama’s election in 2008, the new resistance against a Joe Biden presidency may take on a character of “militaristic patriotism” focused on defending individual liberties.
In the US, the notion of “individual liberties” is not only about legally defined restrictions on the power of government. It begins with the idea that all citizens are free to construct their individual identity. This has become the key to organizing their “pursuit of happiness” in the age of consumer culture. It has also become the foundation of the US economy.
In the Middle Ages, the Latin proverb, “the cowl doesn’t make the monk” migrated into English in a more secular version: “Clothes don’t make the man.” In today’s hyperreal consumer society, where everyone shares the sacred goal of constructing their individual identity — mostly through their purchases (including body art) — clothes actually do make the man (and the woman). For some, the medieval cowl has become military fatigues.
Identity thus becomes a kind of construct that each citizen feels comfortable displaying in public. It ranges between totally conformist (“the man in the gray flannel suit”) and outlandishly eccentric, like hippies and rappers, who have diligently created their own conformism. In most cases, it is fabricated, not so much through personal creativity as through the purchase and assemblage of artifacts others produce.
In most cases, though often stemming from a cause, the image becomes far more important than commitment to the cause itself, especially if it’s a political cause deemed to be worth fighting for. In our 21st-century consumer society, our identity shines through our purchasing decisions. It takes its meaning from what we buy and wear, not from what we do. The hippies established that rule in the 1960s, and from that key moment, the Madison Avenue marketing geniuses took it on board.
The chief operating officer of one supplier cited in the Bloomberg article attributed recent sales results of tactical apparel to “the increased preparedness mindset,” which he called “transformational.” The preparedness itself is never described as readiness for war or organized combat but as the ability to respond to “a self-defense incident” The vendors advise their customers not to “actively insert yourself into a violent situation.” They prefer the idea of costume drama to civil war.
At the same time, the article describes “a rush of citizens joining armed groups, some tied to anti-government or White supremacist factions.” Some of these groups claim to have thousands of adherents. Even if they are “prepared,” will they be ready to act? And even if ready, will they be organized enough to make use of the equipment they have invested in?
Much will depend on the result of next week’s election. Will Joe Biden coast to victory, as everyone expected Hillary Clinton to do in 2016? How close will it be? How long will it take to know the definitive result? Emotions are already running high across all segments of a fragmented spectrum that have left both parties either split or potentially splintered.
In the months ahead, there most likely will be clashes and contestations, bitter disputes and minor or major skirmishes, with a real possibility of general political chaos. Presidential transitions are always infused with ambiguity, but this time the ambiguity runs deep. And all that political theater on center stage will be taking place as the drama of a pandemic and an economic crisis populates the background.
Sometime early in 2021, we should be able to appreciate just how real — or how hyperreal — the taste and the fad for tactical equipment is in US culture.
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news. Read more of The Daily Devil’s Dictionary on Fair Observer.]
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.
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