Thoughts on an American tradition.
For most of us born after the 1950s, our lives have been steeped in the consumerist ethic. It is nearly synonymous with American culture, and nearly impossible to escape. It can be summarized like this: Having things and being good are equivalent.
Our lives are organized around consuming, possessing, and managing the things we acquire. From youth until death, many of us define ourselves by what we have acquired, what we want to acquire, and what we are ready to discard. Youths are surrounded by toys and equipment for games, mid-life workers by homes, furnishings, cars, and older folks by canes, jewelry, and the fruits of their lifelong labors. Benchmarks in our development are marked by ceremonies, like birthdays, where useful or entertaining things are handed to us by friends and family. Our holidays are defined by buying, giving, and receiving gifts, and offer a day or two relief from work in order to enjoy those things. It is important to acknowledge that these cultural events emerged from more spiritual, non-materialistic practices, but those older reasons, like honoring deities, ritualizing adulthood, or preserving community, have been hijacked by corporate advertisement.
It is now an affront if a birthday or select holiday passes without the exchange of gifts. Acts of kindness, or food, can suffice for acquaintances, but we reserve our most extravagant expenditures for those closest to us. Cost is the metric by which a gift is primarily evaluated, in money or time, whereas thoughtfulness is a more abstract estimation, relevant but secondary. The more we spend, the more we show our care. It is thoughtful to buy someone a basket of oranges, for the taste and nutrition, but it is considered truly special to buy someone a new car, even if the old one runs just fine.
A gift can mean so much more than just what it is, certainly. It can signal love, affection, respect, and approval, and historically has served that purpose. An anthropologist might give a more complete account of the role gifts play in knitting together communities, mending mistrustful relations, or creating meaning in a human life. Gifts have been necessary goods, like shoes for bare feet, coats for cold backs, weapons for starving hunters, or little indulgences like candy and sweets. Ultimately, we give gifts because we care. It is important to note that giving gifts is not the only expression of care, though it is perhaps the most tangible.
But when the act of giving becomes compulsory, and the requirements defined by commercials and advertisements, the underlying sentiment is diminished. How we give, what we give, and when are now functions of commercial media. And when the prime beneficiaries of the economic activity of buying and giving gifts are large corporations, the underlying sentiment can be perverted and exploited for profit. How many people have been successfully convinced by television commercials that “every kiss begins with k,” as though the truest expression of love is the gifting of blood diamonds? The magnitude of the multi-decade advertisement campaign is too large to account for, but its effects can be felt at every level of society.
There may not be a better example at the intersection of advertisement-induced compulsory consumerism and human care than American Christmas. Even Christians would admit it is now less about Jesus Christ and more about the toys in Santa Claus’ sack. Americans care for each other, for the most part, and are convinced the best way to signal that is by unleashing their wallets in malls, department stores, or online. They believe this because they have been conditioned by media for half a century that spending money is, dollar for dollar, the best way to show care. Christmas has been established as the season to do this, a gluttonous celebration of giving and getting material things. Jewelry proves you care for spouse, toys for your kids, trinkets and tchotchkes for your friends and coworkers, and what you receive is a measure of how much people care for you.
Our personal relationships often depend on the quality of gifts. A person might become offended if all they receive from their partner is a ‘coupon’ for dinner and a back rub. Or if their gift is not fully appreciated by its receiver, however odd it might be. Grandma might not appreciate a dart gun, mom would scoff at a gift card for Arby’s, and brother might never play with the Lego set he got when he really wanted dance shoes. The best defense against giving an ill fitting gift, we are convinced, is to spend more money.
In order to spend more money, we need to have more money, and we express that most consequentially with our votes. The economy is perennially the most important concern for Americans, surpassing the concern for healthcare, educational, and character deficiencies. Imagine an American politician who runs on a platform of spending less, earning less, having less, conservation, managing our personal and national finances responsibly, acting with humility in our personal and private lives, taking the bus, riding a bike, donating to charity, eating more fruits and vegetables, eating less sugar and meat, practicing community farming, promoting the arts, and favoring diplomacy over resource-procuring wars abroad, and you will have imagined a loser. There is no appeal in that life when Americans have been conditioned by years of corporate advertisements to believe that a life well-lived is filled with things, and that filling other people’s lives with things is the best expression of care.
When politicians cannot win election running on an anti-consumerist platform, then consumerism is the dominant ethic in society. Americans believe consumerism is the best way to organize society. They believe the ideal state for a human live is one of affluence and abundance of things. To reject that claim is to offend American sensibilities, because it is a rejection of the American Dream. The imperative of acquisition shapes our thoughts, aspirations, and actions. We plan our lives around acquiring, we define success as acquiring, we reward ourselves with acquisitions, and we vote out any person who stands in our way.
American Christmas traditions exemplify this dominant ethic, best articulated by the Santa Claus myth. From our earliest years, we are conditioned to believe our good behavior will be rewarded by Santa Claus with toys. You better not pout, you better not cry, you better watch out. That chant establishes the imperative of acquisition that becomes the cornerstone of our childhood morality:
If I am good, then I will get things, and it is good to get things.
This becomes more sinister as we age and impart that rudimentary belief on our estimation of ourselves and others. That childhood ethic evolves into:
If I have things, then I must be good. If they have more, then they must be better.
The next rational step for anyone wanting to be better is to then try and get more things. They way we define “good, right, just” is by counting our assets and trinkets. This is not controversial. People who have more things are celebrated as exemplars of the American Dream, regardless of their personal conduct, idolized and given freedom from accountability.
The ethic runs so deep in our culture and history, perpetuated by our communities, families, friends, and by the Santa Claus myth, that it is difficult to notice or appreciate how much it shapes our thoughts and actions. Our work is devoted to acquisition. Our relationships are often determined by the perceived quality of the gifts we exchange. Our politics is enthralled by consumerism so much that the contest between left and right, socialist and capitalist, is really only about whether or not material things should be distributed equally or unequally.
As Americans, we are preoccupied with the questions, ‘what should I get,’ and ‘who should get what?’ We ignore the deeper questions about what kind of people we have become and what kind of people we want to be.
The last ten years, and especially the last few months, have shattered the confidence I once had in our culture. Divided, bitter, materialistic, superficial, greedy — these traits have come to define me as much as my countrymen, and that is so discouraging. Our politics reflects our national character, and that should chill the spine of any patriot. I know each of us is more than that, but we are limited by the agenda set by the consumerist ethic and reinforced daily by media to benefit very wealthy people. Equating our self-worth with our possessions is so natural to us that our salt-of-the-earth virtues, like curiosity, open-mindedness, thriftiness, and modesty, give way to intransigence, vanity, envy, and dissatisfaction. Resentment tears our communities apart, while those most ravaged by years of commercial media conditioning turn to fascists, liars, and frauds to alleviate feelings of inadequacy and impoverishment.
The real impoverishment is not of possessions, but of vision. It has disturbed me how much my attitude in the face of unemployment and financial stress has been shaped by the consumerist ethic. The vision I’ve conjured for my life is one of fancy cars, gadgets, and wealth; it looks an awful lot like a television commercial. The vision I know I should be forming is one of virtue, values, and meaningful projects. I want to be defined by what I do, but I can’t help but define myself by what I have, or by what I don’t, as though my priorities are designed by corporate marketing offices. So many people, myself included, tragically come to believe that they are bad people, undeserving of happiness and respect, because they do not have enough things. The consumerist ethic burdens a whole class of American citizens who judge themselves not by the content of their character, but by the content of their bank accounts. In times of scarcity, hunger, and economic uncertainty, that devastates morale and exasperates feelings of alienation — poisons to the health of a nation.
Disappointed in my own materialism, and by the entrenchment of the consumerist ethic in American life, I yearn for alternatives. There is no clear indication my country or peers value me for anything other than my economic productivity, and many clear indicators that I am only worth what material things I can produce, acquire, and gift. Commendation for achievements, enthusiasm from police and other services, educational opportunities, even whether or not I have access to healthcare, are all dependent on my perceived ability to generate wealth and acquire things. My values, virtues, and aptitudes are irrelevant. I know my family and friends still feel obligated to care, because of blood relation or history, but very few show me respect. I am unsuccessful in their minds, because I am poor, or curmudgeonly, or ambivalent about Christmas.
That characterization might be true or false, I really can’t see their minds or motives. I am most likely projecting those suspicions on to them, externalizing the way I feel about myself — unsuccessful, undeserving, unrespectable. It is another sign I am captive to the consumerist ethic just as much as everyone else. And because of that, I am eager to change.
To break away will take determination and commitment, and there are options for making a change this holiday season. We can:
- Teach our children that the aim of our morality should be justice, and that justice is not measured by material wealth (significantly alter the Santa Claus myth, or get rid of it). Being good and being surrounded by stuff are not equivalent.
- Reflect on what kind of people we want to be, what kind of society we want to have, and what kind of vision we craft for the future. Be honest about who we are.
- Understand there is a difference between ‘need’ and ‘want,’ and be aware of the potency of corporate advertisements to warp our priorities, dreams, and self-esteem.
- Only gift food, objects of necessity, handmade trinkets, or books. Nothing superfluous, nothing luxurious.
- Refrain from celebrating a holiday if we are not practicing members of its associated religion. Religious people, recommit to the spiritual and community significance of those holy days and reclaim them from corporate marketing departments.
I am hoping for myself, and for my country, that we can bring any number of these into practice. I hope we can overthrow the tyranny of the consumerist ethic in our lives and politics, reforge our community bonds, and craft a nation committed to the cause of justice over the cause of wealth. I hope it’s not a fool’s hope, and I hope Santa isn’t so sacred as to be immune from scrutiny. Happy Holidays!