America's Crazed Consumerism

Honestly—You Shouldn’t Have
Stuff and stuff and nonsense. More than ever, America’s crazed consumerism seems absurd NEWSWEEK

Dec. 3 issue —  All I want for Christmas is a box of my friend Ronnie’s homemade peanut brittle, the sight of my children gathered around the fireside and the assurance that the next plane on which I fly will not have a plastic tail that detaches upon takeoff.

I DO NOT NEED an alpaca swing coat, a tourmaline brooch, a mixer with a dough hook, a CD player that works in the shower, another pair of boot-cut black pants, lavender bath salts, vanilla candles or a Kate Spade Gucci Prada Coach bag.
        Like many Americans I have everything I could want, and then some, and at this particular holiday season, in this particular year, the thought of shopping makes me feel like the little girl who eats the whole Whitman’s Sampler (except for the chocolate-covered nuts) and washes it down with root beer. Ugh. Uncontrollable consumerism has become a watchword of our culture despite regular and compelling calls for its end. The United States has more malls than high schools; Americans spend more time shopping than reading. For this recovering shopper, right now the ads, the catalogs, the stores all feel more like hallmarks of an addiction than an indulgence.
        Yet there’s currently abroad in the land the notion that buying stuff at this moment in history constitutes a patriotic act, propping up the economy in the face of enemy attack. If maxing out your plastic at the Gap is what patriotism has come to, then all the stealth bombers in the world can’t save us from ourselves. Said Adlai Stevenson half a century ago: “With the supermarket as our temple and the singing commercial as our litany, are we likely to fire the world with an irresistible vision of America’s exalted purpose and inspiring way of life?” Put in the context of current events, how depressing was it to see Afghan citizens celebrating the end of tyranny by buying consumer electronics?
       Some of the most insightful writing about the American character over the nation’s history has been about neither freedom nor democracy but about the crazed impulse to acquire things. A century ago Thorstein Veblen wrote “The Theory of the Leisure Class,” coined the term “conspicuous consumption” and shocked his countrymen with the notion that the pride they took in their prosperity was the most primitive form of snobbery and self-doubt. He concluded that the buying habits of most Americans owed little to need and much to wanting “the esteem and envy of one’s fellow-men.” Shopping even 100 years ago was about insecurity, the determination to exhibit superiority through gilt and cut glass, sterling spoons and spreading skirts.
        Fast-forward to the present, and, despite what is described as a depressed retail climate, Veblen would feel utterly at home. There are still plenty of people buying cashmere sweaters and electronic gadgets, although the sweater drawer is full and the old VCR still blinks 12:00. But the urge to splurge today is more complex, Juliet Schor, a Harvard economist, writes in “The Overspent American.” When the term “keeping up with the Joneses” first came into vogue, what it meant was staying even with the most affluent family in the neighborhood, a goal that was often within reach. According to Schor, television has meant keeping up with more remote and richer Joneses: the furniture on “MTV Cribs” or the home-design shows, the clothes of Will and Grace and Katie and Matt. For most viewers that’s impossible, but they will go into debt trying.
        There have been endless holiday pieces written about the bizarre chasm between the birth of a baby whose parents couldn’t even get a room, much less a suite with a phone in the bathroom, and the annual ritual of wild-eyed buying of items that, come Dec. 26, seem beside the point. “Joy to the World” notwithstanding, Christmas shopping has become a joyless, even hateful pursuit.
        By contrast, Christmas this year could be rich, not only with lessons learned over two millennia, but those driven home in the past months. Not in many years has the country had more reason to believe that “I’ll be home for Christmas” is infinitely more important than “Santa Claus is coming to town.” Yet some national leaders have exhorted Americans to shore up the economy and laugh in the face of terrorism by saying, “I’ll take it!” (Or, as one business type says to another in a recent New Yorker cartoon, “I figure if I don’t have that third martini, then the terrorists win.”) This brings to mind the work of John Kenneth Galbraith in the 1950s, arguing that the modern economy didn’t flourish by satisfying the needs of consumers, but by creating the desire for products consumers didn’t need at all.
        The notion that we should show the terrorists who’s boss by supporting this shaky shantytown of automatic-pilot consumption is as suspect as bailing out the airline industry, a business that was legendarily inept long before September 11. If the economy is built on persuading people to buy pillow shams (pun intended) or replace the three-disc CD player with the six-disc version, then it’s the system, not the shopper, that’s to blame in the event of a collapse. Right now there are many charities hurting just as much as retailers and with a more important product to sell: help for children who aren’t eating regularly or have serious illnesses, succor for old people who don’t have heat or companionship, solace for men and women who are homeless or trying to kick their addictions. Is there really any choice between alleviating pain and choosing novelty pajamas? The holidays should be a time to honor our best values, not a time to muffle them in layers of stuff.
        Especially this year. You know that if those people whose family members died on September 11 could have them back for Christmas, the last thing on their minds would be a sweater or a tie. The truth is, those lost left a bittersweet Christmas gift, an indelible lesson in what really matters. If we spend our Saturdays staggering under the weight of shopping bags, we’re not honoring them, or doing the bad guys one better, no matter how much it may pump up the bottom line. We’re showing that we didn’t learn a thing, that at heart we are a marked-down nation.
       © 2001 Newsweek, Inc

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