A recent NPR story by author Maureen Pao tells of a sort of bait and switch going on with some of the world’s most famous consumer products, the branding strategies of which are tied to national identity. Did you know that Levi’s jeans are now no longer manufactured in San Francisco (nor even the United States), or that Stoli Vodka is now not “Russian” at all, but is produced in Latvia? Even the iconic body style of the original Volkswagen Beetle was last produced in Mexico. Additionally noteworthy to Pao was the decision to move the production of Britain’s famous condiment, HP sauce, to the Netherlands, something likened to “selling the family’s silver.”
There are many ways to interpret this data, but my interest lies more in the fact that this was pegged by NPR as an interesting discussion; after all, things change all the time. Moreover, most of us know that the forces that create global economies often involve outsourcing jobs and raw materials to different places around the world from where they first began. However, this is not the context in which Pao writes, for she does not focus on the traditional critique of globalization’s damage to local economies. While she remains relatively descriptive about these shifts on the surface, the fact that she refers to these changes as an example of “the old switcheroo” indicates that, on some level, the public has been decieved about a loss of “something” embedded within the products themselves. Even if this wasn’t Pao’s intention, the comments from readers fighting over who owns Guiness beer, for instance, are indicative of the power of claiming the artifacts upon which national identity is crafted.
Rather than simply charging Pao with vagueness, though, I’d like to suggest that this is a terrific example of the complexities involved in building an authoritative identity claim from an origins argument. Just as we know that there’s no essence called “family” embedded in the family’s silver, so we also know that these nationalist references are ways that large-scale social groups lay claim to a sense of distinction on which they heavily capitalize to create power, privilege, and status. In this sense, if we are to take the assumptions embedded in Pao’s descriptions to their logical end, there are a series of critical questions that must be asked about what role a presumed original essence plays in the construction of identity. Does the fact that my breakfast consisted of fruit from Mexico indicate that I am now a little less American than I was before? Is it true that because I no longer live in my hometown that I’m less “me” than I would have otherwise been? What does one make of my “domestic” car, which was “proudly assembled in Texas” (or so the inside door panel tells me), but which contains parts predominantly produced on foreign shores?
Pao’s own discussion of the Volkswagen Beetle might help re-focus our approach to such questions on origin, for she very briefly mentions that the Beetle was itself an idea first embraced by Hitler as “the people’s car” (and thus the name). When I asked a colleague (a German historian) more about this, he proceeded to tell the story of “Strength Through Joy” (known to wartime Germans as kraft durch Freude, or KdF),the name given to a governmental program instituted during the time of the Third Reich that rewarded Germans who remained ideologically loyal to Hitler with the enjoyments of modern leisure (a car among them).
As one might imagine, the story of the KdF is much larger than its ties to Volkswagen (and, in kind, the life of Volkswagen much bigger than its associations with the KdF). Yet if we were to assume the perspective that national identity is tied to some original essence preserved in its products, this would mean we should also presume that the Volkswagen Beetle is missing something of its “authenticity” in the absence of a Nazi movement. And yet, of course, we hardly see Volkswagen today marketing its cars as “Hitler’s Ride.”
This goes to show, then, that while certain distinctions are worth reinforcing (and thus reviving) in the public’s memory, others are perhaps more conveniently forgotten. Where else do you find the strategies of memory and origin in culture’s products?