Boycotting isn't easy in the global village

April 14, 2003|By Ellen Goodman

BOSTON - I toasted the fall of Baghdad with a big steaming mug of Freedom Roast. OK, maybe it was a big steaming mug of French Roast, but the beans were grown in Costa Rica and brewed in Massachusetts.

I bought it at Au Bon Pain, a restaurant chain that has a little Paris in its price tag. But at the beginning of the war, it suddenly began passing out fliers "celebrating 25 years as an American company."

The national origin of my bistro was not a complete surprise since I also get my daily bagel there. And to be frank - without being Francophile - about the only thing the French cannot bake is a decent bagel.

More to the point, I get an "everything" bagel, a doughy creature so international in style that it would qualify as a melting pot if it weren't so very solid.

In any case, this morning's celebratory breakfast reminded me of one modest thing we've all learned from the disheartening trans-Atlantic rift between the coalition of the willing and the dissent of the unwilling. We've learned about the ironies of a boycott in an everything-bagel economy.

Consider the run-up to the war, when the American-British alliance parted ways with the French-German union over Iraq. The kitchen in the Congress began serving freedom fries and Air Force One began offering freedom toast. Assorted restaurateurs began pouring French wine into the street.

For a while, the next best thing to waving the Stars and Stripes was trashing the tricolor. There were cries to give up everything Gallic with the possible exception of French kissing.

But it soon became apparent that the international economy is harder to unravel - or to understand - than international politics. It's harder to know where a product comes from than where an e-mail comes from.

Pity the South Carolina legislature, whose cry for a boycott was cut off by the discovery that Michelin tires are made in their state. How about the liquid news that Evian is actually distributed by Coke, while the American alternative, Poland Springs, is owned by the Swiss?

As for continental condiments, French's Mustard is owned by the British. Grey Poupon is owned by Philip Morris, an American tobacco company that has killed more people than the Republican Guard.

Most humiliating (for French chefs) was the revelation that a French company, Sodexho, makes meals for American Marines. Mon dieu! But before patriots could protest, it was discovered that the meals are actually made in America.

Need I go on? The anti-American boycotters in Europe and elsewhere are finding it just as hard to play the politics of the purse. Anti-American consumers who eschew chewing burgers do the most damage to the local guy with the franchise. In Argentina, the Big Mac now wears a label: "Made in Argentina." And guess where Qibla Cola, a "Muslim alternative," sold with a slogan, "Liberate Your Taste," is made? In the homeland of one willing coalition member, Britain.

There has long been something appealing about putting your pocketbook where your politics are. The boycott originated in the 19th century when the Irish patriot Charles Parnell called on the people to shun an English estate agent, Capt. Charles C. Boycott. Soon the captain found himself without farmhands or mail service. He had to call in the troops to harvest the crops.

Boycotts that work locally, however, may flounder globally. As anyone who has ever tried to buy a gift to bring to China that wasn't made in China can tell you, this is a global economy.

This is a world in connection and in conflict. The boycotts and their ironies actually remind us of international attachments that are as deep and interlocking as, well, the roots of the vineyards in France. Do the folks dumping Bordeaux wine know that the grapes come from the California rootstock that once saved the French vineyards?

War is the most profound and deadly disconnection. The aftermath of this one will require not only that we rebuild Iraq, but rebuild alliances. To this aim, may I offer a steaming mug of Costa-Rican-American-French Roast?

Ellen Goodman is a columnist for The Boston Globe. Her column appears Mondays and Thursdays in The Sun. She can be reached via e-mail at ellengoodman@globe.com.

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