We are, we have become, consumption robots, consumer automatons.
Within a free-enterprise system, it is the business of companies and corporations and industry to build demand for their products or services. Without demand for and the consumption of their goods and/or services, there is no reason for their existence. They will not exist. This is simple economics. For those who are persuasive enough to convince you that you need “x,” and that their version of “x” is better then that other company’s version of “x,” they will prosper economically. There is a difference, however, between persuasion and manipulation.
What has happened over the last few decades is that the extent of social manipulation by “Madison Ave.” – the advertising agents of their client companies – has become so pervasive and the public’s willingness to be manipulated so complete that we have become nothing much more than consumption tools, robots, automatons.
This was brought home to me in a fundamental way right after the 9/11 attacks. Our President was very fiery in his speech about retaliation and defeating the enemies of America. Yet, the solution he boldly declared to the average American citizen was that we should go shopping. Go buy more stuff… go collect more goods… go make your “mountain-o-things” even bigger (as Tracey Chapman sang about). Now, I know that what he was suggesting was that we continue on with our daily lives so to not “give the victory to the enemy.” See, you didn’t destroy our resolve… you didn’t succeed in demoralizing us… etc. Well, is that all that we are? Is the demonstration of our national resolve, our virtue, our reason for being all about buying things?
We are attached on our own soil. A war on terrorism has been declared. We invaded countries. What are Americans supposed to do? Go shopping. Brilliant and creative solution! What sacrifice we have to endure? None – that is supposedly to prove to the enemy how great we are. All the while, the very force that made American great and that has inspired freedom seeking people for generations has demoted to irrelevance – materialism and consumerism is now what American stands for. The American birthright has been sold for a bowl of pottage.
Another problem is that when there is nothing more in the national imagination beyond the next thrill or titillation, what is left but a constant seeking to fill the void with stuff and a willingness to believe whoever promises to deliver? When the Baby-Boomer generation of the 1960’s-kind thought that it was a good thing to throw off the “oppression” of the past, of the wisdom and insight of generations past, in order to make a brave new world that was supposed to usher in the Age of Aquarius, what can we expect but a descending into manipulation and triteness?
In the past, there was a governor on corporations’ and Madison Ave.’s attempt to move from persuasion to manipulation. There was a culture understanding that there were things more important than the individual and the self. There was a common understanding that happiness and satisfaction of life and a sense of significance in one’s own life went beyond things. We did not so much define our lives, our selves, by what we had or what we accumulated. Money didn’t maketh the man. Yes, yes, there was the whole “Keep up with the Jones,” but again, that was Madison Ave.’s attempt to manipulate us to buy more things so that we “kept up with the Jones.” Yes, there are certainly examples of greedy people, and all that. Yet, there was still an understanding that when all was said and done, out happiness didn’t rest on a new toaster or dishwasher or car or video game or jet ski or snow board or house or shoes or or or.
One of the aspects that were thrown off our societal shoulders by this generational thinking was religion. Those who believed in such superstitions where just ignorant and willfully manipulated by unscrupulous priests or pastors bent on control and power. Religion was just another occupier and oppressive agent that only tried to steal from people their person-hood, their joy, their freedom, their creativity. The thing is, the generation that through off the oppressive and moralizing force of the Christian religion had already been formed in those religious principles that had developed and been passed down for a millennia and a half – the wisdom and experience of generations past. They still were imbued with a mitigating inner force, whether they recognized it or not.
What would be left for this generation to pass on to their children? It ended up being a chaotic amalgamation of trendy fads, because the wisdom of the past was not to be trusted – it was oppressive. With each passing generation (X, Y), there was less and less of the taint of Christian moral structures – you know, like love God with your whole heart and love your neighbor as yourself.
From the stand point of the movers and shakers, this has been a glorious triumph. After all, how can you sell the idea that everyone has to consume, consume, consume when there is a cultural mitigating force that says that happiness is not found in material things, that we should focus on the well-being of our neighbor before our own, that we should give to the poor, that we should live simply, that we should not allow yourself to be consumed by treasures on earth, etc., etc., etc. When the mitigating force has been ejected from the culture, what is left? When the mitigating force was advertised effectively to be an enemy, what is left? When the Church buys into that idea, what is left?
The culture progressed to became in these days Post-Christian, and over the past four decades the Church responded by simple aping the zeitgeist of the culture, after all the leaders of the Church become those who were out to gloriously remake all of society in their bold, new image. It didn’t work. Aquarius did not come. The Church has became irrelevant and bankrupt (exceptions do certainly exist!) in its attempt to offer any positive alternative to a culture becoming more banal and self-centered. The Church as been duped by that which filled the void as the Church gave up its birthright. It is a nice circular phenomenon.
So, where are we now? People are certainly not happy. People have become profoundly insecure because there is the possibility that someone might take away all of our things, and by now our whole self-definition is based on material things. We don’t sacrifice for freedom any more, we demand more things. We now torture with the best of them. And the Church is irrelevant, no one listens, because we have become just like everyone else. The funny thing is, the later part of Generation X and a good part of Generation Y are coming to realize the fallacy in the Baby-Boomer endeavor.
I believe in the free-enterprise system, but there must be a governor because the hearts of men are exceedingly wicked, and selfish, and greedy, left unchecked. But, persuasion is not the same as manipulation. We have let ourselves be deceived by the Mad Men. They are very good at what they do! We are now, as Americans, worth not much more than being the world’s consumers. How sad.
Thomas Jefferson said that democracy was not possible without religion. We all know that he had great problems with religion and Christianity, but he recognized that there must be a mitigating force within the framework of democracy, and I say free-enterprise too, that calls to one to whom we are ultimately accountable – and that one is outside ourselves or our group or our nation. We don’t like to hear that, because we have bought the idea that we are an island unto ourselves. “I” am the final arbiter of all that I am and do and think and feel. As a seminarian a year behind me said, “I don’t believe in the resurrection, but I’m okay with that.” How lonely. How sad.
I hear too many people who work with people saying something is up… something is coming because something isn’t right… we feel it in our bones but don’t know how to describe it yet… don’t know how to put our finger on it just yet. A society can maintain this kind of existence for only so long. Can we not learn from history? Oh, I forgot, the past is oppressive. We are destined, then, to repeat it. We are coming to the breaking point.