Not knowing one end of a football field from the other — except when it comes to Auburn vs. Alabama — I don’t watch the Super Bowl. But the news-clip crawl across the top of my email account this morning made me click to read this:
Last night I began reading a book I’ve looked forward to for a while, Matteo Pistono’s IN THE SHADOW OF THE BUDDHA, an account of his pilgrimages — and increasing political activism — as an American Buddhist in Tibet. (See his page here.) I don’t claim to be an expert in international politics, but I know the situation is bad. China’s oppression of Tibet has even touched our small college, where a Chinese student once snatched a picture of the Dalai Lama out of a colleague’s hands and ripped it in half in front of a class, screeching, “the Dalai Lama is evil! EVIL!” (This child was obviously repeating what she had been taught – over and over and over.)
But Matteo’s accounts are even more sobering. He smuggles Chinese state documents ordering the religious repression of Tibetans — passed to him at incalculable personal risk — out of Tibet in the strap of his backpack or the sole of his boot. He interviews Buddhist nuns who have been arrested for praying in public to the Dalai Lama, then hung from the ceiling of their jail “airplane” style — from their hands and feet, tied together behind them. (Take a moment to imagine your own body in this position. Just try it.) He speaks to a monk who was scalded with boiling water — then jailed — for a similar prayer. Tibetans are being systematically repressed and tortured, and we, so ostensibly proud of our founding upon the principles of religious freedom, should be the last to mock them. (Or to keep buying so many consumer goods from their oppressors. But that’s another blog post, perhaps.)
Defenders of the ad will call it satire, especially Hollywood self-satire of fashionable causes. But this advocacy is a moral necessity, not a laughing matter. Frankly, this commercial — and the crassness of the Super Bowl advertising display amid which it exploits these people’s struggles for political and religious freedom, at real and painful cost — makes me even more ashamed of the moral vacancy at the heart of our consumer culture. People getting trampled and hurt — or killed, as this week’s New Yorker reminds us — to save money on flat-screen TVs in “Black Friday” sales at Wal-Mart and Target is bad enough. But this is a new low. And the Groupon executives’ and defenders’ response — “it’s not a big deal! it’s just satire!” — is shamefully disengenuous. If they meant satire, their pitchperson should have been a fat American with a designer-knockoff handbag sitting at that table in that Tibetan restaurant, stuffing her face and bragging about the money she’s saving. Because American-style consumption habits drive an awful lot of very unsavory environmental, physical, and political aftereffects, in our own bodies and all around the world. But, of course, if your job is to get people to spend money, mocking anything that would make us mindful of our consumerism’s real costs is a natural move.
Nice work, Groupon. Real nice.