'Buy American' is merely talk in the war of words

Mike Royko

February 19, 1992|By Mike Royko | Mike Royko,Tribune Media Services

THE GENERAL WHO said that war is hell wasn't entirely correct. We're in a war right now, and it isn't all that terrible. At times, it's even fun.

That's because we're fighting it with bumper stickers instead of bullets, bombast instead of bombs.

I'm talking, of course, about the great war of words with Japan and the growing "Buy American" crusade.

The fighting really broke out in earnest when some crotchety old Japanese politician made sneering remarks about much of our work force not knowing how to read or write and being lazy and greedy.

In other words, he said exactly what Americans have been saying about each other for years.

The war escalated when the people who own Nintendo said they want to buy the Seattle baseball franchise to keep it in that city.

Baseball fans were horrified as they heard this news on their Japanese-built TV sets, to which their Nintendo machines are attached.

With Japan-bashing at its highest level since World War II, we have American companies offering bonuses to workers who buy American cars, gas stations offering American car owners a discount, municipalities rejecting Japanese products, and shoppers peeking at the back of products to see where they're made.

So how will this war end? My guess is that it will just fade away as soon as something livelier comes along. In fact, Gov. Bill Clinton's love life may have already pushed it aside on the nightly news.

The problem with fighting this war is that there's little opportunity for action except for loud talk, sputtering and table-pounding.

It's easy enough to "buy American," as the slogan urges, if you're going down to the corner store for a quart of milk or a box of Twinkies. (I'm not sure about the Twinkies. I know they are made here, but I don't know where the additives come from.)

But if you're buying anything that you have to plug into a socket, turn an ignition key or install batteries, how do you know?

I own two American cars. But are they really American products? I have no idea who made the engine parts, the tape players, the speakers or any of the many things that rattle and squeak.

A friend has a Japanese car. (Hiss, hiss!) But it was put together in this country by American workers with American-made parts. For all I know, his Japanese car is more American than my American car.

Maybe you are a golfer planning on buying a new set of clubs this spring. But only a couple of American-owned golf companies remain. That wedge might have "Ben Hogan" stamped on it, but the company is owned by some sushi-eater.

So if you seek out those American-owned companies and buy their clubs, you will be able to say with pride that you are buying American, right? Not really, because all they do here is assemble shafts and club heads they buy overseas.

The last night of my vacation, I --ed to a hardware store to buy a wind-up alarm clock so I could be sure to arise early and return here to compose drivel.

When I set the clock, I spotted the words stamped on the back: "Made in China." I stared at it. A commie clock. And for all I knew, the words had been put there by someone who once sat in a foxhole in Korea, hoping for a chance to shoot me dead. As it turned out, the clock didn't work. But a fine American bird squawked with the dawn and woke me up. Or maybe it wasn't an American bird. Could it have flown here from Cuba? You just can't tell.

I suspect that much of the current Japan-bashing is a reaction to President Bush and those overpaid car salesmen going to Japan to ask them to take pity on us. Some Americans found it embarrassing.

On the other hand, when was the last time anyone barfed on Japan's prime minister?

In the Japanese culture, I'm told, it is considered extremely insulting to barf on someone. Especially a prime minister. Of course, it isn't considered proper behavior here, either, unless you are a hockey fan.

So what Bush did may have been a cunning and calculated political move. When the presidential race heats up in the fall, it wouldn't be at all surprising to see a commercial showing the barfing scene, but with Bush's voice saying:

"You won't open your markets to more American products? OK, this is what I think of you. Take this! Barf, barf."

And on the next trip, if there is one, they ought to bring Dan Quayle along. He could drool on the shoes.

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