Tag Archives: consumerism

Why Americans Really, Really, REALLY Love Football

Football fans, even those dedictaed to the lowley Cleveland Browns, bring sports enthusiasm to bizzarre new levels.

Football fans, even those dedicated to the lowly Cleveland Browns, bring sports enthusiasm to bizarre new levels.

Football is the most red-blooded, über-masculine, überAmerican thing on planet earth. That’s right: FOOTBALL. No, I’m not talking about that ridiculous spectacle in which namby-pamby, ethnically ambiguous European men in short shorts traverse across a sprawling, artificially constructed field trying to catapult a checkered spherule into a large trawling net without using their hands as millions of highly inebriated spectators look on from tax-payer-subsidized coliseum stands. Americans have a word for that: it’s called soccer, and we use it to keep our 2.5 suburban children occupied after school on weekdays.

No, the football I’m talking about puts those European pantywaists to shame. REAL football — AMERICAN football — is a completely non-ridiculous, unquestionably heterosexual sporting spectacle in which gargantuan men in tight pants traverse across a sprawling, artificially constructed field while trying to tackle each other with the ultimate goal of carrying a prolate spheroid far enough to win the right to kneel down and praise their sky-dwelling prime mover — all as millions of highly inebriated spectators look on from tax-payer-subsidized coliseum stands. Continue reading

Advertisements

Poverty, Shopping, and American Inequality

This American consumer doesn't believe in class. He knows that he runs fast enough, he'll catch up with the plutocrats and end up rich. Some day...

Just keep on running, American consumers, because you’ll catch up with the plutocrats and end up rich, some day…

Americans love to shop. More than a mere mundane exercise in the exchange of script for goods and services, shopping in the U.S. has long been a kind of secular ritual. During this ongoing rite, the trembling, plastic and paper contents of Americans’ collective purses and wallets are gleefully drawn and quartered through millions of soulless, retail card-swipe machines or fed into the ravenous, gaping maws of insatiable cash registers in an orgiastic display of consumerist debauchery that would make Caligula blush.  Indeed, so intense is the American consumer’s desire to please the market and retail gods that we even have a term, “citizen-consumer,” to describe how Americans want to define and project their personal identities via the buying of goods and services.

The fact that citizen=consumer in modern America only makes the recent census report on the state of the American economy all the more depressing. As TPM reports, while the overall health of the economy is apparently improving, the lingering question is, “improving for who?” And that’s where the future bodes ill for the poor and the already over-maxed, under-earning — but still consumption-crazed — middle class. Basically, the “economy” has been improving for those at the very top of the economic pyramid. But for everyone else, especially the poor and the now endangered species known as the middle class, income gains have been flat, if not outright regressing. The New York Times’ Neil Irwin sums up the problem nicely:

This simple fact may be the most important thing to understand about today’s economy: Around 1999, growth in the United States economy stopped translating to growth in middle-class incomes. In the last 15 years, median income has been more or less flat while there was far sharper growth in, for example, per capita gross domestic product.

But a good GDP doesn’t necessary translate to a good overall economic environment for the average American. “You can’t eat G.D.P. You can’t live in a rising stock market. You can’t give your kids a better life because your company’s C.E.O. was able to give himself a big raise,” Irwin writes. The real measure of America’s economic health, he concludes, “is median real income and related measures of how much money is making its way into their [Americans’] pockets and what they can buy with that money.”

The key line there is “what they can buy with that money,” because buying is a core aspect of American identity. The growing gap between GDP and the average American’s purchasing power is problematic for a number of reasons, not least of which is how it unveils the inherent dangers of associating American identity with that of conspicuous consumption. The link between citizenship and consumption in modern America can’t be overstated. Since the early twentieth century, Americans have associated the freedom to shop with the essence of freedom itself. At this point in history, people who’re born in the United States might technically be citizens, but if they aren’t working to buy large quantities of mass-produced crap, then they don’t really count as Americans.

Thus, linking citizenship to consumption has caused a circular problem in American culture: the vexing issue of income inequality has lessened more and more Americans’ purchasing power, but the fact that Americans can still buy anything at all is taken as evidence by some commentators — notable those on the Right — that poverty and income inequality are issues that simply don’t matter in America today. Think I’m kidding? Consider a 2011 article by Robert Rector, a malcontent who works for the National Review. Rector mocks the idea that poor Americans are actually poor simply because they might own TVs, cars, or have internet access. Likewise, oozing talk-radio boil Rush Limbaugh frequently cites Rector to argue that, “poverty in America isn’t poverty” because Americans have access to consumer goods like cell-phones, air-conditioning, and Chicken-McNuggets.

Granted, poverty is certainly relative depending on where you are in the world (being poor in India is far worse than being poor in America, for example), but let’s not kid ourselves into thinking that conservatives actually give a damn about the material conditions of America’s poor (and, increasingly, its middle class). The right-wing touts the “poor people aren’t poor” meme as a way to dismiss the notion that the inequalities created by market capitalism should be acknowledged and addressed, period. To the Right, the blessings of American market citizenship bestow an unbelievable purchasing power on even the most lowly of citizens, who have the ability to buy stuff that would make a Third-World peasant salivate.

In July 2009, Newsweek threw all nuance out the window when it equated citizenship with shopping.

In March 2009, Newsweek threw all nuance out the window when it equated citizenship with shopping.

But as Slate’s Jordan Weissmann notes, this is a dodge to avoid addressing the REAL problem of growing income inequality. The availability of cheap goods misses the fact that prices are rising on essentials such as education, health-care, and child care. Weissmann calls this “the tension at the core of modern impoverishment.” In order to climb out of poverty in America, you need higher education, and if you have kids, and if you have to work full-time for ever-declining wages, or if you get chronically sick, you can kiss economic improvement goodbye. “While a high-definition television is nice, it won’t permanently improve your circumstances,” Weissmann writes, “and psychology has told us that the stress of financial instability…is part of what makes poverty such a horrible experience.”

Which brings us back to the historical trends that have conflated “citizen” and “consumer” to the point where right-wing concern-trolls can doubt the existence of poverty and brush off the need to question unfettered capitalism’s inequality-producing tendencies by simply saying that, “Americans can still buy stuff.” In her book A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Post War America, historian Lizabeth Cohen describes how Post War American culture embraced the idea of the “purchaser as citizen” as a way of harmonizing patriotism with the need to boost the American economy after the twin blows of the Great Depression and World War II. For a while, the citizen-consumer ideal seemed to work, but in the wake of the Great Recession, the wheels have come off the spending bus and there aren’t any spares.

Of course, consumption has been an essential aspect of American identity since the earliest commercial transactions between European colonists and Native peoples, but modern consumer citizenship is far more total in its power to define pure ‘Muricaness. Cohen explains how the post-war era fully developed the idea of a “Consumer’s Republic” that, “entrusted the private mass consumption marketplace, supported by government resources, with delivering not only economic prosperity but also loftier social and political ambitions for a more equal, free, and democratic nation.”* Equating consumerism with citizenship was all well-and-good to a point: after all, it was a GOOD thing for more Americans to have the ability to improve their material well-being, even it meant buying a bunch of junk on the side.

But a consumer republic only works if Americans have the ability to consume. And even if that ability could somehow be retained by the mythical free-market, conflating citizenship with consumerism runs the risk of equating the value of American life to buying Ed Hardy perfume at Target: it’s a pay-to-play model of national identity that says, “you’re not an American unless you’re a consuming American.” In a consumer’s republic, basic citizenship rights — like petitioning your government, voting, and, complaining about the growing influence of Big Money on American society — are all things that can be brushed aside as the whiny tantrums of people who should be thankful that they can own a TV.

This is why increasing income inequality in the American economy is such a troubling development. If American citizenship is reduced to the ability and means to go shopping, then the declining purchasing power of the average American becomes that much more tragic. Perhaps even worse, however, is the rise of a conservative political discourse that trivializes the experiences of poverty and broad-based economic anxiety. Equating citizenship with consumption cheapens the value of a small “r” republican society, in which the plight of average citizens should be synonymous with the plight of the nation. These days, we’re witnessing a perverse flipping of that ideal, as the success of the 1 percent is taken as evidence of an improving national economy even as most Americans continue to face an ever-increasing economic uncertainty. This is no way to run a nation, unless you want to run it into the ground.

* See Lizabeth Cohen, A Consumer’s Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Post War America (New York: Vintage, 2003), 13.

Abe Lincoln, cross-dressing and the American way: The real history of Thanksgiving

lincoln_thanksgiving

Its American Thanksgiving today, so to celebrate, I wrote a piece for Salon. Go check it out!

The real history of the “war on Christmas”

Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt witness the commericalization of Christmas in the form of alluminum mass-produced Christmas trees.

Charlie Brown and Linus Van Pelt witness the commercialization of Christmas in the form of aluminum, mass-produced Christmas trees. In an attempt to push back against the sanctification of mass consumption, Charlie Brown opts for a small wooden tree, and gets called a “blockhead” for his troubles.

If you think that the idea of Christmas commercialism is something new, then you haven’t checked out the 19th century recently. Follow this link to Salon where I discuss why the “War on Christmas” is utterly bogus. 

Pumpkin Flavored History

Pumpkin

It didn’t used to be like this. Only five years ago, I swear that pumpkin-flavored stuff was still a bit of an anomaly. Oh, you could get a pumpkin spiced latte at Starbucks, and your standard pumpkin pies and pastries lined bakery sections everywhere, but now it seems that the very minute autumn begins to peek out from summer’s sweaty, smothering armpit, the pumpkin conglomerate unleashes a now ubiquitous barrage of pumpkin spice-flavored everything. Its fall and you must eat pumpkins! There’s even a pumpkin pie flavored vodka, because Russian alcoholics enjoy the fall season too, dammit.

So what’s the deal with everything being pumpkin flavored? Well, as with so many things these days, it all goes back to the nineeenth century. Pumpkins function as big, squashy symbols of idealized rural life, and rural nostalgia has always been popular with Americans. For a people stuck in the high-tech, urbanized twenty-first century world, pumpkins invoke more simple times and landscapes dotted with small family farms untainted by modernity’s impersonal touch.

Rural nostalgia, however, is nothing new in the U.S. In fact, it goes all the way back to Thomas Jefferson, who, of all the Founding Fathers, was surly the Founding Father-est. Jefferson’s vision of America centered on the “Agrarian Yeoman” ideal: he believed that small, independent yeomen farmers represented the highest level of American self-sufficient virtue and work ethic, and should therefore settle the vast American landscape. Jefferson considered an agrarian society to be morally superior to the cities, which he viewed as rife with unnatural economic and moral corruption in the form of financial speculation and industrial development that threatened his ideal of agrarian democracy.

Jefferson’s Agrarian ideal has never really left American popular culture, and pumpkins have helped keep it alive and kicking. Historian Cindy Ott, author of the fantastic book, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon, traces the pumpkin’s modern popularity back to the ninteenth century, when the Market Revolution spurred the growth of industry that drew Americans away from the countryside into the larger cities. As the growing market economy caught more and more people in its web, Americans embraced the pumpkin as a symbol of pre-modern, idealized, rustic family life. Thus, pumpkins became big, orange emblems of the agrarian ideal that Jefferson so cherished and to which Americans ascribed the simple comforts of home, family, and small town life.

So powerful a symbol was the pumpkin that even after it ceased to be a valuable commercial crop, it still connected Americans to a primitive, pastoral age untainted by the cold mechanics of the modern world. As Ott observes:

As many Americans felt they were losing connections to the natural world, an authentic way of life, and their cultural roots, the orange field pumpkin, in particular, helped them rebuild those connections…What the orange field pumpkin lost in practical usage and economic value, it gained in symbolic power. Americans gave it a vibrant life in stories and holiday rituals that helped them talk about the meaning of nature within a rapidly developing urban and industrial society.

Since the transition from countryside to urban centers hasn’t really stopped since the nineteenth century, Americans today are scarfing down pumpkin flavored-stuff for largely the same nostalgic reasons. By eating and drinking pumpkin flavors, Ott notes, “We’re celebrating the nostalgia for this old-fashioned, rural way of life, that no one ever really wanted to stay on, but everyone’s always been romantic about.” The explosion in popularity of pumpkin flavored everything has left some people worrying about the rise of a “pumpkin spice empire” with possible designs for Genghis Khan-style world conquest, while others are downright angry, pleading for more rational heads to “stop the pumpkin-izing.

The growth of the “pumpkin spice empire” might lead some to conclude that the humble orange squash has been commercialized and factory-farmed to the point of it being yet another weapon in the industrialized agricultural onslaught that nearly wiped out American family farms. But never fear, for, as Ott notes, the commercialization of the pumpkin via the buying and selling of rural nostalgia has actually been a boon to small American farms. People’s idea about the pumpkin, she writes:

[H]ave revitalized the very thing it has long symbolized – the small family farm. The natural peculiarites of the crop, its meanings, and market conditions have all encouraged its production by small-scale growers for local markets at the turn of the twenty-first century.

The pumpkin’s increasing economic value arose out of the deep meanings Americans invested in it, and its increased commodification helped rejuvinate small-scale farmers and small rural towns rather than undermine them.*

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

Pumpkin flavored beers: nothing wrong with that!

It seems, then, that however annoying and shameless, the commercial onslaught that is pumpkin flavored-stuff will likely continue — even though most of that stuff likely contains no actual pumpkin. So far, this commodification has been beneficial to the great orange squash and the people who grow it. Moreover, by continuing to worship the pumpkin via attending the sacred church of American capitalist consumption, you are keeping the age-old Jeffersonian tradition of the Agrarian ideal alive and well. Even if you’re a suburban office dweller, by eating pumpkin flavored-stuff, you nonetheless gain a primal connection to Jefferson’s mythic, virtuous, independent yeomen — and that should make you downright sick with glorious American-ness.

So this fall, go on and enjoy your pumpkin flavored coffees, chocolates, pies, and, especially, beers. You can be safe in the knowledge that you are helping to stimulate the American economy, especially those fabled “small businesses,” via the cultural consumption of a storied American icon.

* Cindy Ott, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012), 7.

“American Pickers” and Buying Nostalgia in the U.S.A.

Frank Fritz and Mike Wolff of History's American Pickers. Holding a rusty motorcycle in a field if so 'Murica.

Frank Fritz and Mike Wolfe of History’s “American Pickers.” Holding a rusty motorcycle in a field is so ‘Murica.

Despite what I claimed in a piece for Salon about A&E’s smash show “Duck Dynasty,” even without cable, I do, on occasion, catch t.v. shows online. Although it might seem crass and opportunistic to frame an article on American history through reality t.v. (hint: it IS crass and opportunistic), these types of shows offer a window into how history is filtered through popular culture.

One of the most successfull history-themed reality shows of the last few years has been History’s “American Pickers.” The show first premiered back in 2010 and it was an instant success that brought the world of hard-core antique collecting geekitude to a massive audience. As I’ve watched the show, however, it got me to thinking about just why the seemingly innocuous subject of junking – a subject considered so boring that a string of production companies passed on “American Pickers” before it was finally picked up by the History network – is so darn popular. Then, it all became clear: “American Pickers” is popular because it feeds off of the age-old American love for consuming nostalgia.

In case you haven’t seen “American Pickers,” the show centers on two junk collectors, the lanky, expressive Mike Wolfe and his stocky, quieter, bearded compadre, Frank Fritz, who drive a van around bucolic parts of the Midwest and other regions of the U.S.A. seeking so-called “rusty gold” hidden in the barns, sheds, houses, and fields of compulsive rural collectors. When the pickers “pick” an item, the show often gives a brief history of the object, then the duo of Wolfe and Fritz haggle over the price in hopes of eventually selling the item in their shop, Antique Archaeology, for a profit. The shop on the show is run by a hipster-styled burlesque performer and clothing designer named Danielle Colby, who also acts as the pickers ace locater of hidden junk.

Like every “reality” show, “American Pickers” is entirely scripted and staged, having been packaged and presented to networks as a simulation of the life of junk buyers, though Wolfe has indeed been in the antique business for over 20 years. The show’s appeal, however, stems from the Laurel and Hardy-like banter of Wolfe and Fritz, and, more importantly, the showcasing of old stuff — everything from rusty car and motorcycle parts to antique pottery. Americans love old stuff, especially when that old stuff takes them back to a bygone era. Americans buy old cars because owning such vehicles transports them back to their youth. Other collectors choose items from before their own time because material objects connect them to centuries past in a way history books simply can’t do. Books recollect history, but antiques are part of history. Americans like to connect with the past because they envision the past in an idealized fashion. They view it through nostalgic lenses.

Way back in 1961, historian Arthur Dudden identified the real importance of nostalgia in American life in his (unfortunately paywalled) seminal essay, “Nostalgia and the American.” According to Dudden, nostalgia is a psychological buffer of sorts that Americans have used to navigate the relentless onset of modern progress, with all of its disruptive social and economic changes. Modern progress has always fueled an American “preference for stability,” rooted in the “familiar human desire to recapture fleeting conditions and former circumstances.” Dudden defines nostalgia as “a deep-seated, romantic, heart-felt longing for the yesterday that is gone but not forgotten.”

For Dudden, nostalgia is Americans’ preferred tool for recapturing the past not as it was, but as how they imagine it to be.* This is why the collectors on “American Pickers” collect, and why the pickers themselves purchase those rare items from collectors to sell to other collectors. Every toy owned by collectors takes them back to their childhood; every car they restore invokes memories of youthful vigor; every old machine part they mount harks back to a more authentic time when America actually made machine parts.

The "American Pickers" haggle with a collector over an old motorcycle tank. In the background: lots and lots of junk.

The “American Pickers” haggle with a collector over an old motorcycle tank. In the background: lots and lots of junk.

“American Pickers” shows that nostalgia and collecting are intimately connected: the former drives the latter. So why is collecting such a powerful past-time in the U.S.A.? As cultural historian Leah Dilworth observes in her book Acts of Possession: Collecting in America, Americans create collections to construct narratives about the nature of the world around them, usually through nostalgia-colored glasses. Collections are driven by the idea of loss; the idea that the modern world has taken away something that was good and valuable. Collections “represent lost worlds or worlds distant in time and signification” such as childhood and a past that Americans want to re-experience with all of the bad memories filtered out.*

Old stuff, the material objects known collectively as “antiques” that are showcased on “American Pickers,” are tangible, physical representations of times gone by that serve as vessels in which Americans store their idealized memories. Leon Rosenstein, historian of material culture (a fancy term for a guy who studies old stuff and the ideas people associate with old stuff) offers a pretty comprehensive definition of what an antique is in his book Antiques: The History of an Idea:

An antique is a primarily handcrafted object of rarity and beauty that, by means of its associated provenance and its agedness as recognized by means of its style and material endurance, has the capacity to generate and preserve for us the image of a world now past.*

The role of antiques in the success of “American Pickers” cannot be overstated and reveals a whole lot about how Americans construct their own narratives of history. The pickers might best be described as “memory merchants” whose stock in trade is nostalgia. But how do you sell an abstract idea, you may ask? Simple: the pickers sell an abstract concept by selling the antiques that serve as very concrete manifestations of that concept. This is why items such as toys, motorcycles, pottery, old machines and machine parts, old paintings, and numerous advertising signs that invoke the golden age of American consumerism have such a wide appeal. These antiques appeal to the collectors showcased on “American Pickers” and to the viewers watching the exchange of these antiques on their t.v. screens because, for both audiences, antiques generate that “image of a world now past.”

Maine-based antique collectors Dennis and Mary Westfall sold their junk on an episode of "American Pickers."

Upstate New York-based antique collectors Dennis and Mary Westfall sold their junk on an episode of “American Pickers.”

That this image of the past is highly idealized and romanticized by nostalgia is a feature, not a bug to Americans who are wracked by the anxieties of modern life. In keeping with a long tradition, the march of modern progress generates a host of worries about keeping up with the Joneses, especially in a post 2008 economic crash environment in which staying afloat — as opposed to merely getting ahead — is the prime concern for most Americans. In such a stress-laden society, its understandable that people would turn towards nostalgia. In a recent article, the Atlantic crowned the U.S.A. “the planet’s undisputed worry champion,” and this trend shows no evidence of abating:

Things only seem to be getting worse, unfortunately. “Surveys show that stress levels here have progressively increased over the past four decades,” says Paul J. Rosch, MD, Chairman of the Board of The American Institute of Stress. New research indicates that anxiety will continue to grow with modernity: Millennials and Generation Xers are more nervous than their elders and less capable of handling the pressure in their lives, much of which comes from worries related to money and work.

For many Americans, the best way to relieve themselves from the anxiety associated with modernity is to embrace the past via nostalgia. And the best way to experience nostalgia is to buy old stuff that reminds them of supposedly simpler times. Indeed, nostalgia is its own market niche: PBS’ program “Antiques Roadshow” has been popular for years, magazines like Reminisce invite geriatric Americans to share “vintage photos and nostalgic stories that celebrate the American experience,” and websites like Nostalgic America do the same for a more digitally minded audience. “American Pickers” is but a tributary to this larger nostalgia stream that helps t.v. viewers revel in the pursuit of history and simpler times through the exploits of two guys who “travel the backroads of America looking to buy rusty gold.”

So, does this mean that nostalgia is a bad thing? Not necessarily. While nostalgia can, as historian Stephanie Coontz observes, “distort our understanding of the world in dangerous ways, making us needlessly negative about our current situation,” it also offers much-needed therapeutic relief to Americans increasingly under assault by modern selfish capitalist culture and its associated social fracturing and status anxiety. Besides, nostalgia isn’t going to go away any time soon, and if current trends are any indicator, its only going to become a more significant factor in American life. So I say turn on “American Pickers” and get your fix of antique-based nostalgia while you can. Just beware that the past was never as good as you remember it, and maybe, just maybe, the present isn’t as bad as it seems.

* See Arthur P. Dudden, “Nostalgia and the American,” Journal of the History of Ideas 22 (Oct. – Dec., 1961), pp. 516-17.

* See Leah Dilworth, ed. Acts of Possession: Collecting in America (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2003), 6-7.

* See Leon Rosenstein, Antiques: The History of an Idea (New York: Cornell University Press, 2009), 14.