I truly don’t understand the mentality of my countrymen, save to say that corporate America and the media have more control over us than we may think. The blight of Capitalism is its egocentricity and “out to win big” mentality, where rampant irresponsibility and no accountability reigns. Soda machines in grade-school cafeterias. Nitrates in hotdogs. Adding more sugar to cereals, all the while marketing them as “Whole grain goodness.” Building cheap parts for cars so they’re guaranteed to fall apart faster. Streamlining every imaginable boutique drug to the point where we truly begin to believe that drugs are a part of the human experience. Releasing songs about a man who loves a woman so much he must burn her as she sleeps in her own bed so that no one else can have her. Cigarettes. McDonald’s. Gatorade. Hummers. Coffee.
When corporations and wealthy “donors” who sway elections do so for their own interests, the human element is lost; humanity is lost. And the only thing that’s put in its place is the lie that purchasing goods will save our souls.
In Dan Franzen’s latest novel “Freedom” his protagonist Walter who’s an environmentalist tries to save this rather decent-sized tract of land for the Warbler, a migrant bird that’s not even on the endangered species list. To do so, he has to displace about 200 people from their homes along the mountain top – a place where families have lived for generations and have buried their dead. But the underlying point of saving the land for the bird is for a wealthy “friend of the Bushs and Cheneys” to begin mountain top removal mining for coal. The underlying message Franzen sends his readers is not so much that it’s wrong to displace people for the sake of coal mining. That is the obvious message. But that the displaced people themselves are part of the problem in that they allow corporations to take over, and they sell out for the promise of money and “six-foot-wide plasma TV screens,” and the ability to move into the middle class. Franzen’s message is that family, land, earth, tradition are no longer enough to sustain us; we no longer believe in simplistic values, but rather in money, immediate gratification and consumerism.
And that, right there, is the basic hook of Capitalism: you too can be middle class and have a decent salary and buy, buy, buy, if only you let us do whatever it is we want to do without you asking any questions. Because the American dream, after all, is to keep up with the Joneses and to buy a house and a plasma screen TV and have two cars in the driveway and two kids. Why just yesterday, one of my FB friends said, “I vote with my wallet.”
And so, the Republicans gained control of the House last night. Their agendas can finally be met and big business can once again prosper and we can once again earn our incomes and consume more products. We had such high hopes for Obama and in our impatience for him to fix everything, we ousted him, if only in voting for the Reps during the midterm elections. Have we lost sight of the Bush years? Have we forgotten that Bush, dare I say it, got us into this mess in the first place? Or is there a deeper, more troubling specter that is to blame for America’s free fall from our happy place? Could it be that we have reached the point where the vestiges of a real life are being replaced by a more desultory one?
As Camille Paglia once wrote: “Are we like late Rome, infatuated with past glories, ruled by a complacent, greedy elite, and hopelessly powerless to respond to changing conditions?”
Again, our relentless pursuit of consumer goods and the fact that they’ve been denied us since 2008 may be playing a bigger role than we’d like to think. Let’s face it, we want our purchasing power back. In today’s NYT Op Ed section, even Timothy Egan writes, “Obama got on the wrong side of voter anxiety in a decade of diminished fortunes.”
So what does all this mean to me? It means that the gap between one side of the country and the other seems to be getting wider. It means that people’s incentives for happiness needs to be a little less superficial. And it means that I, within myself, will be more aware of resisting the dangling carrot of consumerism as best I can, and not be so easily swayed, misled, or seduced by the mindless, sugar-coated world of a whole grain box of cereal or a Starbuck’s coffee. It means making sure I keep what is truly of value in perspective and never put the illusion of money as the American Dream above what really matters: the future of this planet, my lifelong friends, and my family.