You are sitting by a quiet lake. Someone roars by in a speedboat, popular music blaring
from the radio. They don’t notice the herons that take flight at the noise; they don’t notice the
exhaust they’ve spewed in their wake. What is your response?
For me, I know the revulsion all too well;
those shallow, stupid, ignorant morons. For
over a decade, I have alternately railed against and tried to ignore the rampant, shallow
commercialism that is American capitalist life. Never have I approved of it. Hopefully, I have
not been puritanical enough not to enjoy its pleasures – a greasy slab of pizza, a burger, a stupid
action film, driving on suburban highways. But, in general, I have always loathed this pathetic
form of materialist indulgence. It is part of my being.
I have come to notice that those who share
this loathing with me operate on a
fundamentally different set of premises from those who do not. For us misanthropes, the heroes
are Thoreau, the Beats, the hippies – anyone who rejected the notion that “he who dies with the
most stuff wins.” We perhaps instinctually recoil against the iteration of the American dream
that consists of two parents, two kids, a minivan, and a large house filled with the right kind of
toys. I for one do not condemn this dream, but its shortcomings are apparent. It is materialism in
the most crass sense; valuing one’s self and one’s life based on status symbols like cars and
expensive clothing. It is shallow, ignoring deeper values of spirit and mind. It is hypocritical,
disregarding truth in favor of pose, courtesy, and hierarchy. It is destructive, eating up
wilderness space and poisoning the planet. It is selfish, focusing egocentrically on the nest to be
feathered, and scorning those who are less fortunate. And most of all, it is anti-human; blowing
off the many ways in which the human spirit can thrive as just so much hot air, consumerism
turns us into mall-going, status-seeking automatons, creatures ignorant of their own illusions.
Since September 11, I have begun to question these priorities.
Let us assume that the critique I have articulated
(it is hardly original to me) is largely
correct. Let us assume that consumerist hyper-capitalism – the kind with massive chain stores,
media consolidation, rampant commodification, and so on; we know what I’m talking about – let
us assume this system undermines values and bonds such as those of family, spirit, and
community. In place of the town where people know who you are and where you spend quality
time with them, let us assume that we have created a faceless suburb with no town center, no
interaction with others, and no values other than selfish ones.
Is this a bad thing?
Until the Balkan War, people used to like
to quip that no two nations with McDonald’s
had ever gotten into a war. Once you were under the umbrella of Western civilization, the
subtext was, you were basically on our team. We may hate the French and laugh at the
Canadians, but they are essentially like us. We share the same ostensible values and the same
real, economic ones.
Or maybe the subtext was that nations with
McDonald’s have fewer things that they’d
really start a war over. Places like Pakistan or Rwanda – these people don’t have our material
comforts and attendant laziness. They care passionately about traditional values like tribe and
religion, and they will fight to the death for them. It’s harder to care so much when you’re eating
Big Macs every day and getting fat.
The fact is, lazy consumers are anesthetized.
They just don’t feel as strongly about
anything, because it’s always Miller Time, the house and family is fine, and they have already
turned inward so much that ignoring problems is easy. Value-people like me rail against this
complacency. Stop being vegetables! Care about racism, human rights, ecology! Don’t get so
comfortable that you forget what matters most!
And yet, wouldn’t we now want to anesthetize
the ideologues of Radical Islam? Don’t
we all fervently wish that their millions (perhaps billions) of followers would just get nice jobs,
give up worrying about McDonalds replacing shish-kabob, and let the plush easy chair of
Western capitalism cradle them into relaxed submission?
A large part of the issue here is basic
economics, not ideology. If people are starving,
they will resent those who are fat. It’s not so much a matter of having one set of beliefs or
another; it’s about not being starved.
True, as far as it goes, but Bin Laden is
a millionaire; several of the hijackers were middle
class; and there are comfortable intellectuals in all the fundamentalist-terrorist camps.
Me too, of course; I’m not railing against
consumerism because I’m poor. (On the
contrary, I’m not as rich as I could be because of my dislike for consumerism and the jobs you
have to take to succeed at it.) I rail against it because it undermines values. And so do the
Islamic fundamentalists. We have very different values that are being undermined, and
obviously we have very different responses to the problem. But we are similar in that we both
see Western corporate capitalism as eroding our values, whatever they are.
Would it be better for people to not really care so much?
John Locke seemed to think so. He
wanted us to be very, very skeptical of our religious
beliefs (for example) so that we would be less likely to kill other people about them. And while
skepticism is not the same thing as apathy, it is certainly more hospitable to apathy than it is to
And I wonder about it too. Countercultures
are dangerous. In Israel, the dominant
culture (for the moment) is secular and materialistic. It is about cellphones and top-40 music,
materialism and stuff. The largest counterculture is religious; it is about God, Torah, and the
Land. The secular Israelis, until last year, didn’t care so much about the Land, and so they were
ready to lose a large piece of it in exchange for peace. The religious Israelis, by and large, never
wanted to part with any of the land, because they cared for it so much. Israel, for them, had
religious value. It wasn’t just the site for a new office park. And likewise, with some
differences, on the Palestinian side: the materialists don’t care about politics, they want to get to
the business of making money. The zealots want war.
One has to really give up on a lot of humanity
in order to prescribe consumerism for
them. I still believe that a life whose parameters is set by television is an impoverished life. So
to wish this on many people is fairly anti-humanistic. Although I could guise this surrender in
the clothes of anti-elitism – hey, they want it anyway, who am I to judge – what I am really doing
is saying “Your life may be one of quiet desperation, but I’d prefer that to a life of burning desire
to kill me.”
Yet aren’t we safer with a billion fans
of Friends than a billion believers in the literal
truth of the Bible or Koran? Let’s open 7-11s everywhere; give out free TVs; marginalize any
need or principle that is not easily addressed by the market. Anything to get people to stop caring
about politics and religion and start caring about floor wax and minivans. Yes, it will mean more
vulgarity, more stupidity, more ‘phoniness’ to use Holden’s word. It will mean more selfishness,
greed, ecological devastation, and more culture of kitsch. But would it also mean less war?
October 16, 2001
Back to Dabbler Index. Back to Metatronics homepage.Email feedback.