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Sneaker politics

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It seems like a little thing. I like to wear low-top Converse All-Stars. I've been doing it since college. They're comfortable. They're versatile. They used to be really cheap.

But now, the corporatization of my old sneakers, like the corporatization of the media and the war in Iraq, is turning me into a radical. And this Fourth of July, I'd like to suggest they do the same for you.

First, a little history. If you've followed the fortunes of the Converse company (a dominant basketball shoe going back to the 1920s and its star salesman, Chuck Taylor), you've seen its decline. There was the rise of Nike and Michael Jordan and the $100-plus sneakers. There was the Converse manufacturing plant in Lumberton that closed in 2001, putting nearly 500 people out of work. The company, trying to come out of bankruptcy, contracted manufacturing to low-wage factories around the globe.

The shoes lacked their trademark "Made in USA" decal. I could tell they were cheaper, more sloppily made. Then, a year ago, Converse was sold--to Nike, for $305 million. That's chump change to a company that has $10.7 billion in sales a year.

And a funny thing happened in those 12 months. Converse All-Stars are hip again. Check out any athletic shoe store, and there's a full range of day-glo colors on those classic high tops. Lots of kids are buying them. And they're not going on sale the way they used to.

I want to know how Nike did it--what music videos they placed them in, which "influentials" they gave them to. Suddenly, a rock star in a band called Billy Talent is described wearing them. Chicago Bulls guard Kirk Hinrich is autographing them. Indie rock fans won't be caught with their hands in their pockets wearing anything else.

Well, that'd be OK, and really not all that different than the old days when every basketball player in America was wearing them, and so was every kid wannabe. But now it's not because they're a great basketball shoe; it's just a cynical marketing ploy by Nike to claim the anti-Nike market.

Which brings me to the radical part. I'm not a radical guy. I have a house, a wife, a mortgage, two kids and a pile of credit card debt. But this Fourth of July, I'm planning to download a bunch of corporate logo stickers and place them on an American flag as part of a campaign organized by unbrandamerica.org, an offshoot of the magazine Adbusters, which is dedicated to exposing the venal influence of corporate culture.

Unbrandamerica says: "Starting July 4, picture tens of thousands of Corporate America flags waving at Independence Day parades; protesters proudly unfurling them in front of the White House; people hanging them over middle-America highways and flying them in sleepy rural towns across the nation. Together, we will create a flashpoint for change."

The campaign started this week with a $60,000, full-page ad in The New York Times. It continues this weekend at Fourth of July celebrations around the country. It recognizes that concern about corporate consolidation, greed and influence is no longer a radical concept; it's one that true American patriots need to embrace if they care about maintaining our freedom.

And as for shoes? I'll be wearing my beat-up old Converse All-Stars--at least until Adbusters completes a project it has started to find a factory that will make a "fair, environmentally conscious shoe" called a "blackspot sneaker" that bears a striking resemblance to a pair of All Stars. Go to adbusters.org to order yours.

And if you're a radical like me, you'll even pay the full price of $40.

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