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August 21, 2007

The Culture Maven: Made in China? Can’t avoid it if you try

The image doesn’t seem unusual at first.A well-dressed elderly man is riding in the back of a limo. On the seat next to him is a Louis Vuitton bag, containing a newspaper and important papers. Obviously the photo is an advertisement. “Use my bags,” Louis Vuitton hints, “be a man of intellect, importance, wealth and taste.”Upon closer inspection, one sees a birthmark in the shape of Italy on the man’s forehead. It is a light-bulb moment. The politically observant are prone to rhetorically ask, “What’s wrong with this picture?”They needn’t read the text — “A journey brings us face to face with ourselves. Berlin Wall. Returning from a conference.” — to recognize Mikhail Gorbachev.Mikhail Gorbachev, last leader of the evil empire known as the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Mikhail Gorbachev, the man whose actions scuttled to dominance of the Communist Party, America’s premier post-WWII, pre-9/11 enemy. Mikhail Gorbachev, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize.That Mikhail Gorbachev proclaims that “capitalism rules, I like the paycheck, buy Louis Vuitton.”Eisenhower-era Secretary of State John Foster “If you’re not for us, you’re against us” Dulles must be restless in his grave. Listen up, you Cold War apparatchiks, things are not just the same as they ever was. The former head of the U.S.S.R. is shilling for a legendary luxury luggage-maker.Segue to China. It’s the other Red Menace, with the further distinction of also being known as the Yellow Peril. Despite the most astute observations of the time, a political science professor of mine in the ’60s stridently debunked the theory that Marxian socialism would prevail in China. To paraphrase his argument, the Chinese mercantile culture is far too ancient, too deeply rooted to be overrun in the long haul by state ownership. Eventually traditional capitalistic forces hearkening back to the spice trade shall prevail. “China is immutable, Communism will be swallowed,” he concluded.Which brings us to Sara Bongiorni. She’s the Baton Rouge mother with three kids who decided in 2004 to see if her family could make it in life without any products manufactured and/or grown in China. She wrote a book about the experience — “A Year Without ‘Made in China’” — which has received its 15 minutes of pub this summer with the scare about the safety of Chinese products. Choose one: 1) toys, 2) seafood, 3) pet food, 4) vitamins or 5) all of the above plus others omitted for space.Remember when Wal-Mart, symbol of American Capitalism run amuck, prided itself for selling almost exclusively “Made in America” goods? Check ’em out these days. Noticed the origin of your jogging shoes and shirts lately? Critical parts of every gizmo in your house? The innards of Thomas Friedman’s laptop? Your cell phone?The point: Sara Bongiorni’s family can’t make it buying only at Wal-Mart. And they have to be wary everywhere else they shop, too, if avoiding “Made in China” is their goal.That rattle you hear is Chairman Mao flipping about in his grave.Then again, maybe not. As fellow political wonks, Dulles and Mao have likely become good buddies, hanging out at the same watering hole in the Great Beyond. John Foster is nursing a scotch, straight up. Mao’s drinking Maotai, of course. They’re looking down on all this, laughing, giving each other good-natured grief.Dulles: “You know, old friend, my policies under Dwight Eisenhower in the ’50s led to the eventual downfall of your Communist bloc. It took a while, but Reagan saw the light.”Mao, pointing: “See that Nike plant down there in my old country, all those other factories with millions of workers cranking out goods for the U.S. of A.? You tell me. Who is winning now, pal?” Dulles: “You’ve read about that Bongiorni woman. She’s a trendsetter. Commerce will be back to normal soon.”Mao: “Normal? America as the manufacturing leader? Fuhgettaboutit. Give me one more name beside Bongiorni’s.”Dulles, somewhat changing the subject: “Have you seen that magazine ad with Gorbachev? The old commie is selling luggage these days.”Mao: “Tell the truth, John. You know and I know the guy was never a true Marxist. Am I right or am I right?”Dulles: “OK, but I’d sure like to know how much he’s getting paid for that ad? Wouldn’t you?”Mao: “Absolutely. Don’t worry. He’ll be up here soon enough. We’ll buy him a vodka and ask.” Contact the writer at cdk@culturemaven.com