A Web of Shame

Bob Sipchen

Los Angeles Times

December 26, 2004

It's Dec. 26, and you are post-Christmas conflicted — feeling vaguely patriotic for contributing to the economy, vaguely guilty that you and your culture binged again. How rotten should you feel? Easy enough to answer, now that the moral zeitgeist is digitized. Just dig your new computer from the fallen forest of wrapping paper and Google a term you remember from sociology class — "Consumerism" — and here's how your MSNBC-attuned attention span goes hopscotching.

First stop is a greenish site, http://www.verdant.net , where you learn that "consumerism is a pattern of behavior that helps to destroy our environment, personal financial health, the common good of individuals and human institutions." Scroll past the photo of a skip loader plowing a mountain of discarded products to a painting of Santa nailed to a cross. "Christmas," the site scolds, "has become one of the most outrageous manifestations of consumerism in our society. The frenzied last-minute drive through lousy weather to a huge mall, the search-and-destroy parking scramble, the long lines, the questioning of finances, the agony of decision, just to load up on Chinese plastic junk to buy to make people feel like you love them or haven't forgotten them ….This is a celebration?"

The next site, http://www.globalissues.org/TradeRelated/Consumption.asp , rubs salt in your guilt when it tells you that "globally, the 20% of the world's people in the highest-income countries account for 86% of total private consumption expenditures — the poorest 20% a minuscule 1.3%," and links to a 1998 United Nations report on "inequalities in consumption" note that the richest fifth of the world's population:

* Consume 45% of all meat and fish, the poorest fifth 5%.

* Consume 58% of total energy, the poorest fifth less than 4%.

* Have 74% of all telephone lines, the poorest fifth 1.5%

* Consume 84% of all paper, the poorest fifth 1.1%.

* Own 87% of the world's vehicle fleet, the poorest fifth less than 1%.

Wikipedia, "the free encyclopedia" [en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Consumerism], narrowly defines consumerism as the "tendency of people to identify strongly with products or services they consume, especially those with commercial brand names and obvious status-enhancing appeal, e.g. an expensive automobile, rich jewelry." Here is told the history of growing disposable income: "In 1900, the average family had to spend 60% of its income on basic necessities; this figure dropped to 50% by 1920…. And behind the scenes, a powerful new business — modern advertising — steadily grew to help sell this outpouring of products."

That warning prepares you for an online computer game at christmas.highrisedesign.com. Your task is to rescue little Sim-like consumers as they ride shopping center escalators past such stores as "Serious Donuts." "Many cannot cope," the site explains. "As the consumers become intoxicated, their very souls are taken over by the need to buy. They wander around, impressionable and weak, slowly becoming mall zombies."

Zombies, indeed. At the British site http://www.enough.org.uk , you're greeted by a cartoon of a junkie shooting up with syringes sporting such labels as "shinier car" and "wider TV." The site also poses a consumer Q&A: "If we're consuming less, won't there be even fewer jobs? A: "Well, yes, possibly, but … lots of work is done which doesn't need doing." Do we really need electric toothbrushes? Fourteen different brands of them? Gadgets to get the bobbly bits off woolly jumpers, slice the top off boiled eggs or massage our toes?

So what would people do for work? Paint on walls and rant perhaps. That's what Venice muralist R. Cronk does at http://www.westland.net/venice/art/cronk/consumer.htm . "The public fetishistically substitutes consumer ideals for the lost acculturating experiences of art, religion and family. The consumer sublimates the desire for cultural fulfillment to the rewards of buying and owning commodities, and substitutes media-manipulated undulations in the public persona for spiritual rebirth."

You're naturally suspicious of blogo-blather, but your search engine seems intent on underscoring Cronk's point with this Dec. 12 WashingtonPost.com column by Michelle Singletary: "A few years ago while doing my Christmas shopping, I got really upset while trying to find a Barbie karaoke machine for my older daughter…."

Coincidentally, a Canadian site, http://www.media-awareness.ca/english/parents/marketing/marketerstargetkids.cfm , declares that "Pester power" refers to children's ability to nag their parents into purchasing items they may not otherwise buy because advertisers know what a powerful force it can be.

Just when your rage against the machine burbles toward mayhem, This Magazine's website, http://www.this magazine.ca/issues/2002/11/rebelsell.php, offers comfort: "Anti-consumerism has become one of the most important cultural forces in millennial North American life, across every social class and demographic."

Your anti-avarice zeal is inflamed at http://www.albany.edu/jmmh/vol1no1/peiss-text.html when it notes that early 20th century marketers targeted women as "emotional and impulsive, driven by 'inarticulate longings' and 'dormant desires.' "

Then you're abruptly calmed by the libertarian sedative produced by your next click: "I think that much of our current refusal to consider the liberating role of consumption is the result of who has been doing the describing," says Reason magazine's James. B. Twitchell at reason.com/0008/fe.jt.in.shtml. "Since the 1960s, the primary 'readers' of the commercial 'text' have been the well-tended and -tenured members of the academy. For any number of reasons — the most obvious being their low levels of disposable income, average age and gender, and the fact that these critics are selling a competing product, high-cult (which is also coated with its own dream values) — the academy has casually passed off as 'hegemonic brainwashing' what seems to me, at least, a self-evident truth about human nature: We like having stuff."

Sure, you think. But why Christmas? A lesson plan for fourth- and fifth-graders at teacherlink.ed.usu.edu/tlresources/units/Byrnes-celebrations/consumer.html advises that "the roots of many holidays we now celebrate were nurtured into maturity through merchandising and the free market."

Your self-loathing begins to lift. Then http://www.cjd.org/paper/consum.html sends you tumbling back toward gloom. "Far from attaining a better life, consumerists experience alienation and fear," this Catholic Worker site asserts. "Always wanting more, their sense of accomplishment is ephemeral and they are strangers to contentment. Always in danger of losing what they have but do not own, a sense of urgency and futility are their constant companions."




13 "hits" down and 912,987 left to Google, you give your conscience a break — at least until you can get in enough overtime to buy one of those 3-gig laptops with WiFi so you can link up and conveniently continue your philosophical journey at your local Starbucks.