Which Way to Bloomingdale's by Erico
It strikes me odd that no one else seems amused by this: We have finally all found out what it is to be an American. No, it’s not industriousness, or puritanical cleanliness of thought and deed. Nor is it thrift or ingenuity. Not grit. Not neighborly love. Not recycling every scrap of metal for the war effort. Not saving water or planting every acre. Not the Golden Rule, and not brothers-in-arms camaraderie. Not helping the needy, nor bootstrapping ambition. Not even the “family values” of the right make the top of the list.
No? What then can we all do to help our country in its hour of need? What is the most patriotic truly American thing we can do as citizens of this great nation? Mayors, Governors, the President; our leaders have spoken: “Shop.”
Never before has it been so plainly laid out on the table that our primary function is to consume. We are implored to buy luxury items that for a brief moment we questioned whether we really needed.
During World War II there was a huge propaganda machine in place that egged on patriotic fervor. But at that time, the push was to find some work to do that would help the cause. Children combed city streets for scrap metal with an industriousness that puts turn-of-the-millennium recycling efforts to shame. The paradigm of the United States was industry; we thought of ourselves as a nation of hard workers and we all were told to find ways to make ourselves useful. Today we hear only a slightly and subtly different directive: Instead of “Raise a flag for your country,” it’s “Buy a flag for your country.”
We find ourselves in an era where our nation identifies itself with its consumption, and measures its health by how much stuff can be accumulated and discarded. The value of a dollar is measured on the barometer of our faith in our collective ability to consume.
American freedom is slowly becoming the ability to express one’s individuality through purchases. Recent events have simply brought this to the foreground. While strict controls determine who can work to clean up ground zero, every American is welcome to do patriotic impulse buying. Portland Mayor Vera Katz has never been more full of nationalist pride as when she accom-panied 400 Oregonians on their mercy mission to New York City. Their express purpose was to provide aid and relief for the battered city… by shopping there.
The Bush administration is unveiling a plan to suspend all state sales taxes in order to stimulate the holiday shopping spree, making it “more fun”. The government is willing to spend the tax money it took from you to reduce the taxes you pay so you can buy more stuff. If citizens’ purpose is to consume, the government’s purpose becomes one of facilitating consumption.
I believe that the recent descent of our hyper-inflated economy may be simply an awakening to reason. It’s like that first day the 45 year old ex-college football star feels a tightening in his chest and looks down at his beer-belly and decides maybe to turn at least one of the barbecue grills off for the weekend and make a bowl of rice. At a certain point in the natural cycle of things we stop saying “Good Good, you’re a growing boy!”. There is not one phenomenon in the world that increases continuously forever, and an economy is unlikely to become the exception. Somehow we got it into our heads that annual growth at a 3% incline was level.
We are discovering that much of our national “stability” is based on the shiny gleam off the hood of a new model car that a 5-year-old one just doesn’t have. We are grown-up versions of the child who throws away his Power-Rangers once it’s the year of the Pokemon. Our nation has been getting its sense of self-worth from the brand logo on a pair of sneakers made in a sweatshop in China for $0.47. We collectively silence our dissatisfied inner brat with a continuous supply of new toys.
Now for once, in the wake of disaster, some things all-of-a-sudden seem decadent. A single country, comprising 6% of the world’s population, consumes 35-40% of the worlds’ resources. The rest of the nations compete for the right to put their populations to work in low-wage factories making things to fill the aisles of Mall-Wart. Apparently, once people feel that something truly important is happening in their lives, needlessly buying things ceases to be an adequate form of recreation. Or therapy.
What happens when something comes up, powerful enough to wake us from the dream-state of advertising and gluttonous consumption? The World Trade Center attack didn’t need to mean anything in particular. It just created a feeling in the gut. A visceral break from the routine days of chipped-nail angst and the latest computer game system, it gave us a moment of perspective about what might really be important in our lives. In light of our families being alive, we don’t worry as much over replacing the blender (the one that still works).
Unfortunately, our society cannot tolerate a loss of material dissatisfaction. It begins to collapse when we feel comfortable in our old clothes.
Even while writing this, I feel the accusing finger of sacrilege tickling my back when I think that an economic downturn could have a good side. We don’t even THINK that way in America. But in a declining economy, the skies are a little less polluted with jet fuel, and America’s landfills grumble with hunger, wondering why the endless river of plastic packaging has hit its first drought.
What happens to a country when its people decide to purchase only what they need? Dare I ask if some good could come of it? When we look at a major drop in airplane flights, does that also mean more people are staying at home, in their neighborhoods and with their families?
In my state, electricity prices went up 26% this month for households and 37% for small businesses. Oregon’s sales of electric toothbrushes might hit rock bottom. But buying an electric toothbrush is as American as….
….Come to think of it, the apple pie market hasn’t been too good for decades now. Maybe it’ll improve with more people staying at home for mom’s cooking.
As we start to deal with the possibility of future attacks from religious extremists, consider what can engender extreme behavior: Desperation. Having “Nothing to Lose”. No THING to lose. Somehow I don’t think the U.S. is going to give enough humani-tarian aid to the starving people of Afghanistan that they could build some skyscrapers for us to bomb. But I have noticed that one of the biggest charges against the Taliban is that it keeps its people in poverty. In other words, it exerts a force over them strong enough to curtail entreprenurialism and material gain.
Have you ever noticed that we refer to people who have no material wealth as “barbaric”? Our very civilization itself is dependent upon deluxe sofabeds and matching silverware. The terrorists certainly attacked our way of life: New York’s financial district is at the symbolic center of our economic posture. Notice how they didn’t blow up an underfunded public school in Detroit. If they had, media news might be about “unprecedented levels of savage international gang violence.”
Of course terrorism seems barbaric to average Americans. We don’t kill people. We have a wide screen teevee. We have two kids in college. It would be ridiculous to put all that in jeopardy. As long as Asian children are happy to keep making us sneakers, why would we ever want to hurt anybody?
For those of you wondering what to do in these less pleasant times, following the advice permeating the radio-waves and infusing teevee-land might suffice: A brand new sofa has never felt better (although perhaps it used to provide more comfort). Throwing down $300 for that rare beanie-baby could give you all the satisfaction you ever wanted. (But maybe not.) The world may look rosier from behind triple-digit sunglasses. (“Specially polarized to block out visions of world poverty!”)
So go ahead; show those terrorists from one of the poorest countries in the world what we’re made of, that the American way of life is undaunted; that we will never be defeated:
BUY A NEW CAR! Assembled in Canada from Japanese parts (Buy on credit: Your country needs you.).
The rest of you can finish your piece of mom’s apple pie, then brush your teeth the old fashioned way, and follow me: (I’ll be in the garden.)