On being a part of the problem

Okay, I want to be totally on board with this guy's project. The basic critique of what's gone wrong with capitalism -- how it's gone from rewarding innovation in meeting real needs to creating unreal needs for fun and profit while leaving many real needs unmet -- seems right on.

But I've got to admit that I'm a bit put off by his lumping "adults reading Harry Potter novels" into his litany of examples of the infantalization of our consumer culture. Has this guy READ Harry Potter? My self-righteous, self-defensive inner voice demands. Sure, they're marketed to kids, but they're no less childish than a whole lot of so-called adult literature out there.

(For a fun incident displaying HP as an example of the story-teller's craft, whatever the target age of the readers, check out this transcript from a charity event last summer, in which author J.K. Rowling talks shop with fellow fictioneers and fans Salman Rushdie and Stephen King. John Irving also participated in the event.)

But my indignation over Harry is sort of an exercise in missing the point. Barber is not equating the occasional escapist indulgence with, for example, the decision to purchase an environmentally destructive urban assault vehicle (which I find quite easy to condemn, seeing as how I am not attracted to them). Rather, he's painting a picture of a societal trend.

I am, after all, part of a generation who puts Lego play sets on our wedding registries, who feel no shame about going to kiddie movies or kiddie themeparks on our own (indulgences for which previous generations of single young adults felt compelled to "borrow" nieces and nephews or children of friends to justify the outing), who see no compelling reason to say with Saint Paul, "but when I became a man, I put childish things behind me."

In some senses, I think that adults enjoying children's literature and/or engaging in child's play can be acceptable, even virtuous endeavors -- a sign of holding on to a childlike wonder about the world. But I suppose we are losing something when it becomes normative for adults to partake in children's activities without engaging with children. Imagine the strengthening of our communities and the benefit to our kids if the adults who love children's books and children's games bowed to the old fashioned social pressure to actually involve children in those pursuits. I don't know to what extent Barber traces out this implication in his book, but it seems reasonable to suggest that the growth of adult indulgence in children's media ironically reflects the devaluing of children themselves in society.

Anyway. The more damning instance of hypocrisy for someone who wants to resist the culture of consumption is that I actually do enjoy shopping as an activity in and of itself. Retail therapy works -- it makes me feel better. I defend myself by pointing out that I am a savvy shopper when I do go shopping. I rarely succumb to the siren songs of utterly unnecessary merchandise, but I do buy things that I don't need. A fair bit of the time I come out ahead by buying things I don't necessarily need right now for pennies on the dollar of what it would cost to buy them on demand when they are eventually, inevitably, needed. Whether that ultimately cancels out the expense and waste of the things I buy above and beyond what I truly need, I don't know. I don't ultimately shop at thrift shops because I can't afford to do otherwise, or because I believe in supporting charity, but because it's fun.

So I am a part of the culture I critique. I do not live a life of radical simplicity or separation from the mainstream market culture. And I have a ways to go in terms of disciplined participation in the economy. For one thing, I tend to be more concerned with saving as much as I can than with supporting sustainable agricultural and industrial practices. But I think I have nonetheless developed habits that are consistent with a critique of our present market system, largely through the discipleship I received from my parents, who taught me as a toddler to respond to television commercials with the mantra, "who are you trying to kid?" The sociologists and political philosophers who bemoan mass consumer capitalism often seem pessimistic about turning the vast ship of a global economy of consumption. But we can start at home, and in our churches, to teach critical consumerism as a part of Christian discipleship.


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