Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Hard Way

The attacks going on right now on Mumbai's luxury hotels are unpleasantly resonant of the attack on the World Trade Towers - in both cases, symbols of wealth. You might say, of wretched excess.

I've been thinking about tomorrow, which is being called Black Friday. The meaning is that it is the day when consumer purchases put retailers "in the black." I'm afraid it's going to have another meaning when this is over, though retailers have pulled out all the stops, delivering pounds of advertising with my morning paper.

In the face of the drastic slowdown in consumer spending, with all sorts of retailers going bankrupt, it almost seems weird that there are still people advocating observing Black Friday as Buy Nothing Day, but there are. Here is a quote from the Adbusters' press release:
If you dig a little past the surface you’ll see that this financial meltdown is not about liquidity, toxic derivatives or unregulated markets, it’s really about culture,” says the co-founder of Adbusters Media Foundation, Kalle Lasn. “It’s our culture of excess and meaningless consumption — the glorified spending and borrowing of the past decade that’s at the root of the crisis we now find ourselves in.”
That's the way we talked during the past years of frenzied consumption. I recall the first year I observed Buy Nothing Day, maybe ten years ago. I was nervous about making sure I had the food I needed for dinner. If I run out of something, I'll have to borrow it from a neighbor. Had to make sure the car had gas. Honestly, pledging to not buy anything for one day seemed novel and difficult.

There were never very many of us who thought that way. Our neighbors saw us as taking all the fun out of life. I understand. I remember when I thought shopping was fun, back in the seventies, when I had my first professional job, and a lot of illusions. I went to a shiny new mall the day after Thanksgiving and ran the stores like a commando. I remember buying a $50 blouse on impulse; I can't remember if that was the original price or the sale price. Either way, it was a lot of money for a blouse. (I did love that garment, too.)

We humans seem mostly to learn the hard way, by disaster. You could logic it out, you could see from your own experience that things never made you happy. You could see that having more than your neighbors just made them jealous. Over and over these humble truths are evident, but we don't want to pay attention. No wonder, with that flood of advertising promising the giddy thrill of the new.

When terrorists struck the Twin Towers, there were plenty of people who stood outside the mainstream of nationalistic fervor and desire for retaliation, who thought we could learn something instead. Maybe it showed that the rest of the world was getting tired of living with hunger and poverty, and watching American excess. If we had seen that, we might have have come up with a radically different alternative to declaring an unwinnable war, like making sure every child in Africa has a mosquito net to sleep under. That would have cost a lot less than the price we're paying now.

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