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Trading Card Capitalism

November 11, 2001

by John K. Bates

From the "Only in America" file comes this gem of a story:

"Topps, the New York-based baseball-card company, has shipped out its ’Enduring Freedom’ series, a collection of 90 glossy cards that chronicle the war on terrorism, its actors, its paraphernalia and its major events" (FoxNews.com, November 7, 2001).

It may seem like a trivial story in these serious times, but there is actually much weight to this story. For example, your humble columnist does not watch late night comedy shows. But surely the writers for Jay Leno and David Letterman must look skyward in reverent thanks for this story. The possibilities for humor - dark humor for sure, but humor nonetheless - are endless. In addition to pictures of military equipment (complete with "stats" of capabilities on the back), the series will include cards of the major players, including terrorist leader Usama Bin Laden. One has to wonder what "stats" will be printed on the back of his card. And let us also wonder if there will be cards of biological pathogens (anthrax, smallpox, the plague, etc.) and chemical weapons (sarin has a nice track record which would be good on the back of the card). How about some "action" shots (they do this with sports cards) of explosions or gas clouds? Maybe a few cards of past Bin Laden deeds should be included; perhaps a card of the USS Cole after it was bombed by one of Bin Laden’s henchmen. Let’s add a few more terrorists and ringleaders such as Carlos the Jackal, Abu Nidal, and Saddaam Hussein. The possibilities are endless, and gruesomely so.

But in all seriousness, Topps is not at all wrong for producing these cards. This is not the first time the company has made such a product; Operation Desert Storm cards were a hot item in 1991. This is a free society, and something done to make a profit - even if in somewhat bad taste - is a time-honored tradition in America. Topps is also not the only company to market the tragedy to benefit themselves from recent events. Anyone manufacturing or selling American flags or flag-related paraphernalia is doing well now. Most businesses now display the flag prominently; many retail shops have flag stickers or pins for sale on their countertops, even if their line of business has nothing to do with such items. So Topps is simply joining a trend, a healthy trend, to fuel a patriotic desire in this country. And if that desire results in people spending money on patriotic items, so much the better.

Sadly enough, however, this concept has been lost on Topps CEO Arthur Scott. Listen to Mr. Scott explain his company’s rationale for selling the cards:

"Kids are very aware that something significant is going on, but they need to understand this in their own terms. They need to understand that they’re going to be safe, that the president and his team are going to be safe. The cards deliver this message in a form they’re familiar with and can deal with."

Goodness. If our education system is truly so bad that we need trading cards to tell kids they are going to be safe, we are already in grave danger. Trading cards are many things. They are, for many of us, a nice memory of youth; whether as collections or as bicycle spoke noisemakers. For some adults they are still a hobby. But trading cards are most certainly not educational materials. Mr. Scott is being quite disingenuous - and more than a little bit shameful and cowardly - by trying to clothe his good (if tacky) capitalistic intentions in the "acceptable" robes of trying to help "the children."

It is the need to be "acceptable" to society that is the problem with Topps’ offering. And in a larger sense as well, Scott’s comments point to a disturbing aspect in the resurgence of American patriotism. It would seem that patriotism is acceptable, but only to a point. It is all right to be patriotic and show the flag, but in some cities it has been discouraged, especially in government buildings. It is OK to be strident pro-American, but only so long as one makes sure to say he or she is "supportive" of Muslims and the "ordinary" citizens of Afghanistan who are innocent victims of radical Islam. It is acceptable to sing patriotic songs, unless you are Charlie Daniels and your words "go too far" as Mr. Daniels has been accused of recently. And now it is acceptable to be capitalistic and profit from recent events, but it must be done so in ways that will make everyone feel better.

It’s almost as if patriotism - and by extension capitalism in this country - has been assimilated by the touchy-feely 1990s "Oprah" culture. How else to explain the fact that we allow ourselves to be patriotic and pro-American, but only to a point? How else to explain that even when we support our country and our military, it must be with conditions? And how else to explain why Topps, a company that should not need to justify its actions to anyone but its shareholders, goes out of its way to make sure that the selling of Operation Enduring Freedom cards fits in with the ever-present "we have to help the children" message of the day?

Patriotism is an unconditional offering of a people to the nation they live in. No one or no thing should truncate the average American’s desire and ability to be patriotic. Capitalism is no different. No one or no thing, within the limits of the laws, should limit a company’s ability to make money in a capitalist society. Topps’ cards may be tacky. They may be opportunistic. But they are perfectly acceptable in a free American society. Bravo to Topps for selling these cards. But shame on Mr. Scott for being ashamed about it.

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