Archive for November, 2007

Lessons of History

Posted: November 24, 2007 in Economics, Politics

The oft-repeated trope is that those ignorant of history are doomed to repeat it, to which most of us laconically reply “So what? Big deal.” We’ve taken our eyes off the ball and don’t really care about history anymore, being contented with the illusory belief that our current stage of historical development can and will continue undisrupted into the middle of the century, which is probably the longest time horizon we really care about. But there are still plenty of academics and pundits studying history, drawing lessons from it, and sounding the klaxon regarding some threat or imminent transformation or collapse. Actually rousing citizens out of their satiated lethargy is undoubtedly too difficult a task just yet, but the alarm calls at least make for some interesting reading.

Three recent articles make comparisons between the current state of America and historical conditions here and abroad in an attempt to draw out the lessons and perhaps inspire changes necessary to stave off the collapse of our cherished institutions (read: the American way of life). In no particular order, the first in The Guardian appears to be a prepublication summary by Naomi Wolf of her new book The End of America: A Letter of Warning to a Young Patriot, which compares fascist shifts in history to current America. The second in The Philadelphia Inquirer is an opinion column by Chris Hedges, author of American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America, which column describes the decline of the so-called American Empire. The third is a transcript in The American Prospect of Robert Kuttner, author of The Squandering of America: How the Failure of Our Politics Undermines Our Prosperity, giving testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Financial Services regarding parallels between fiscal policy in the 1920s and now.


Holidays Done Right

Posted: November 22, 2007 in Consumerism, Culture

If you live inside the media bubble generated by corporate America, as most of us do to varying degrees, you receive thousands of cultural instructions every day. The most frequent instruction is simply “Buy This!” whatever “This” might be. The instructions surrounding holidays are probably the worst, when in order to do any given holiday correctly, we are instructed to buy this, do that, and be such and such. Today is Thanksgiving, and if you’re cooking a big feast or even attending one, you’re following an instruction or American tradition handed down through many generations. It applies even if you’re not an American but are merely living in the U.S.

There is no reason to turn down a good meal. Nor is it necessary to reject one of our more modest traditions — assuming of course that Thanksgiving isn’t merely the occasion for gluttony. In my boyhood, Thanksgiving was the meal, the nap, the board and card games, and time unquestioningly spent as a family. For others, it’s also a football game, a parade, and an opportunity to drink, to heal some emotional wounds, and to offer thanks and forgiveness. For some, it’s also the inevitable occasion of a big family blow-up. All of this is normal and innocuous enough that one could hardly object, right? Good, clean fun, and perhaps some drama as well.

In fact, I don’t object categorically. These traditions and rituals scattered around the calendar offer meaning and comfort to many, and they’re just plain enjoyable. What I object to is the way holidays are increasingly co-opted by commercial endeavor (which distorts their meaning) and calcified into a series of meaningless observations — an unthinking, unfeeling, paint-by-the-numbers holiday.

Perhaps the worst offender is what has become known as Black Friday: the day after Thanksgiving. Who in their right mind gets up before 5 A.M. to score a parking spot and a place in line before the big box store throws open its doors to rabid shoppers chasing sales? It seems that every year now someone gets trampled to death in one of those mobs. Other holidays and their aftermath may not get quite so ugly, but there is plenty of room for objection. For example, the other commonplace instruction attached to several other holidays is “Get Drunk!” Cinco de Mayo, Mardi Gras, St. Patrick’s Day, and New Year’s Eve simply can’t be done right without getting at least a little shitfaced.

A new documentary (or mockumentary, if you will) arrived this season called What Would Jesus Buy? The movie, which I haven’t seen, tells about a certain Reverend Billy, who travels around with his entourage of gospel singers trying to $ave consumers and the Christmas holiday from the so-called Shopocalypse — the end of mankind from consumerism, over-consumption, and the fires of eternal debt. It’s shtick, I suspect, but an unusual and welcome antidote to the usual instructions we hear all during Christmastime.

Suffer the Rich

Posted: November 10, 2007 in Consumerism, Culture, Writing

In his short story “The Rich Boy,” F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote, “Let me tell you about the very rich. They are different from you and me.” I haven’t read the story in a long time, but as I recall, Fitzgerald goes on to describe the character of the very rich with an acute perceptiveness hard to imagine with today’s cluttered, distracted literary aesthetic. Writers simply don’t have the time and focus anymore to work out character the way writers of the past did. Being a product of this era, I’m also at a loss to describe the character of the rich accurately. But like power, I’m pretty well convinced excessive wealth has an absolutely corrupting influence.

Forbes magazine recently released its 25th annual ranking of the 400 richest Americans, so the idea of what constitutes being very rich thrust itself upon me with some renewed vigor. The article states that it now takes $1.3 billion just to make the list. So, um, pardon me, and believe me when I say this is not out of envy, but isn’t it rather obscene that there are 400 people in the U.S. who each possess that much wealth? Forbes says the collective amount is $1.54 trillion.

Numbers like those are just a snapshot, and I certainly don’t possess the wherewithal to comment meaningfully on something so far beyond the reckoning of an average wage slave. Still, what is one to make of this article by Reuters, reporting on the sorry fact that living well — that is, having a super luxurious lifestyle — now costs more than ever? Forbes actually keeps an index, not unlike the Consumer Price Index, called the Cost of Living Extremely Well Index (CLEWI), which tracks the price of a selection of luxury goods. That cost is apparently rising faster than the Consumer Price Index. So let me be among the first to shed a few crocodile tears that it’s increasingly difficult for the superrich to distinguish themselves from the merely rich.

If citing Fitzgerald isn’t obvious enough to the uninitiated, he lived during the Jazz Age, which followed behind the Gilded Age (roughly 1870s to the 1890s). The Gilded Age was characterized by radical polarization of wealth, not unlike our situation today. So Fitzgerald had the advantage of perspective and hindsight on the peculiarities of a certain class of people. If we’re currently in the midst of another Gilded Age, it may take a decade or two for some insight on those whom we might think twice before admiring.