A quick pre-post disclaimer: this isn’t going to be another long tirade against New York Times columnist David Brooks. I’ve gone on about the guy enough over the years and it’s really boring for me to keep harping on him – I completely understand that, and apologize.
I did however read with tremendous interest his op-ed piece today about American materialism, “The Gospel of Wealth.” The piece talks broadly about how the American dream evolved over the years into a dual calling: building Jerusalem on earth, and getting rich in the process. “Build in this world and prepare for the next,” is how Brooks describes it. He then goes on to write that the economic collapse has, in his mind, caused America to rethink this ethos, with leaders from the Southern Baptist Convention calling upon followers to “surrender the American dream.” He adds:
Today, savings rates are climbing and smart advertisers emphasize small-town restraint and respectability. The Tea Party movement is militantly bourgeois. It uses Abbie Hoffman means to get back to Norman Rockwell ends.
Brooks also highlights the experience of one David Platt, a former megachurch leader from New Orleans who wrote a confessional book about southern Evangelical Christianity’s peculiar obsession with lavish architecture and entertainments, and its uneasy relationship with consumerism in general. In the end, Platt in his book, Radical: Taking Back Your Faith From the American Dream, insists modern American Christianity needs to adopt a new strategy:
Platt calls on readers to cap their lifestyle. Live as if you made $50,000 a year, he suggests, and give everything else away. Take a year to surrender yourself. Move to Africa or some poverty-stricken part of the world. Evangelize.
Brooks concludes by expressing hope (I think that is what he is expressing) that America will get back to its less indulgent roots:
The United States once had a Gospel of Wealth: a code of restraint shaped by everybody from Jonathan Edwards to Benjamin Franklin to Andrew Carnegie. The code was designed to help the nation cope with its own affluence. It eroded, and over the next few years, it will be redefined.
I was going to write a long essay about how Brooks just a few years ago was pushing an almost completely opposite message in Bobos in Paradise (a book about how the American bourgeoisie had thrown off its “square but practical” past to discover the joys of having good taste in consumer products) but instead I just want to cite one line from that book and ask readers for help in settling a question that has been haunting me for years.
Brooks wrote a passage in Bobos about the moral virtues of frozen link sausages… basically I couldn’t tell whether he was kidding or not and years later I still can’t.
“The enlightened Williams-Sonoma catalogue doesn’t try to flog us morally neutral sausages,” he wrote. He went on:
This is not some Upton Sinclair jungle but a noble lineage of craftsman sausage makers, and we the members of the educated elite are willing to pay $29.40 for 24 little links in order to tap into this heritage. Shopping, like everything else, has become a means of self-expression and self-exploration. “Happiness,” Wallace Stevens wrote, “is an acquisition.”
1) Was he kidding about the flogging-the-sausage line? That has to be intentional, right?
2) What does the line like everything else mean in this context?
A couple of weeks ago I tried to read Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink book and came away with the impression that the book’s message is that one should always listen to that voice in your head that tells you to buy shit without thinking, because it’s right more often than not (I love that Gladwell’s example of this voice occasionally being wrong is not a product fad, but America’s decision once upon a time to elect a politician, Warren G. Harding). A few weeks before that I tried on a friend’s recommendation to get into Entourage and gave up after it struck me that it was the same show as Sex and the City – a drama about a foursome of impulsive yuppies with lots of disposable income who spend half of each show buying brand-name consumer products to make them feel better about having no brains/soul. And the plot of pretty much every reality show is the same: ordinary middle American Joes with poor taste meet silver-tongued, fake-boobed Hollywood/New York shopping expert, who tells them what a shitty house they’ve been living in and what ugly shoes they’re wearing, and hands them a bunch of cash so that they can shop themselves back to superficial respectability. The public seems to have a limitless appetite for this awful stuff, which makes me wonder if it’s possible to clinically diagnose an entire country with depression.
Anyway, I guess I’m glad Brooks is coming around on the consumerism issue. Something tells me we’re not going to see too many of these conversions, however.