Commodified Culture

You have probably seen the commercial. A young woman walks into the kitchen of a very posh house and places two sets of keys down on the counter and smiles at her husband (presumably). They race out of the posh house and stand beside two brand new GMC trucks (costs, appx. $50,000.00 apiece). One truck is blue and the other is red. The man points to the blue one, but his wife has already claimed it for herself and he weakly smiles as he realizes that the red one is his.

I have borrowed the words of Robert Heilbronner to help us grasp what is wrong with this commercial, so typical of those we see on our television at this time of year. To begin with these are apparently Christmas presents that the woman has bought for herself and her husband. Thus begins the set of problems this commercial sets before us.

Christmas is not all about getting, though the commercials like this one would lead us to believe it is. Granted, if all are expected to get something at Christmas then someone must be giving, but the point is moot because the scenes we witness again and again are about the joy of receiving, not giving. So that’s the first problem. A season of giving has turned into a season of getting — and we mustn’t ignore the sad faces of the little children who may not get anything this Christmas. Heaven forbid.

The second problem is the fact that these expensive gifts are now the aspiration of a great many people in this country most of whom could not even dream of spending that sort of money to buy Christmas presents. So it breeds resentment, of which I have spoken before: the frustration and anger that arise because others have things we want for ourselves. But the fact that we want these things is a fact that rests on the virtual certainty that the marketing forces that rule the media have convinced us that those expensive toys will make us happy.

The third problem suggested above, is that the woman’s behavior in claiming the blue truck which her husband clearly wants shows us her selfish desire to gratify her own pleasures and to ignore his — again, getting takes precedence over giving. What started out to be a gift turns out to be a sort of booby prize because the man has the very thing he wants snatched away from him by the giver, in this case his wife.

But beyond these obvious layers of message, and there are many when we reflect on commercials, is the growing evidence that ours has become indeed a commodified culture that stands or falls on the willingness of consumers to buy things they do not need simply because they have been conditioned by the “hidden persuaders” that they want them.  Therefore they must have them. Need is forgotten. Wants trump and they are easily created by a media that has become very astute at sending messages, both conscious and unconscious, that help us decide what sorts of things will make us happy.

And here is the nub of the problem. It is bad enough that we have become a society of blind consumers, but it adds to the problem when we realize that Christmas time, starting these days immediately after Halloween, has become all about getting things. Getting and things: two concepts that are at the core of a commodified culture. Thus, a season that is supposed to be all about love and peace on earth, is now about getting the stuff we want, regardless of the cost. Period.

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Getting It Right

In the aftermath of Black Friday and what is rapidly becoming Black Thursday — previously known as “Thanksgiving” — it is refreshing to read stories like the following:

PLYMOUTH, Mass. — Here in the birthplace of Thanksgiving, where the Pilgrims first gave thanks in 1621 for their harvest and their survival, some residents are giving thanks this year for something else: the Colonial-era blue laws that prevent retailers from opening their doors on the fourth Thursday of November.

In fact, throughout New England there are remnants of “blue laws” and a growing movement toward keeping Thanksgiving safe from commerce. And polls show that a large percentage of this country’s population finds the commercialization of the holidays unpalatable. But record numbers of folks still show up at the stores in the early hours of Black Friday and, increasingly, late on Thursday as well. One does suspect that the anti-shopping movement will fizzle out as commerce has money at its disposal and money as we all know can be very persuasive. And that’s the problem, isn’t it?

We have bought in to the notion that money talks and what it has to say is somehow important when, in fact, it has little to say and should be told to shut up. But that ship has sailed. We not only listen when money talks, we bow down and worship it and buy into its metaphors (‘sorry about that!) and applaud its wealthy heroes and blindly accept its definition of success.

We do not define success in terms of character and improving the lot of others as we most assuredly should; we do not applaud the feats of the true heroes, the volunteers who serve dinners at soup kitchens, the underpaid police and firemen who protect our lives daily, the teachers who have to deal with our spoiled children on subsistence wages, and the men and women who step forward during a crisis such as hurricane Sandy.  Instead we applaud the wealthy athletes and Hollywood actors and actresses in their $45 million homes whose shallow lives we follow avidly and seek to emulate. Those are our cultural heroes, not the ordinary folks who are selfless and go thankless and unappreciated every day of their lives.

But Plymouth, Massachusetts may have the right idea. Thanksgiving is the one holiday every year when commerce should be told to take a hike, when we should stop and think about what really matters: the many blessings we all share. Shopping should not be on the agenda. It’s bad enough we sit after a sumptuous meal glued to the television set watching one or more of the three NFL games provided for us by sponsors whose only goal is to make bigger profits. But, sad to say, the reason this day will eventually become a Black Thursday is precisely because there is a ton of money to be made and we will be told repeatedly to shop until we at long last get the message and leave the couch and head to the nearest box store. After all, we do want to get the best deal — and it’s first-come-first-served.

In the meantime, let’s give thanks to the folks in Plymouth who got it right. They are members of a vanishing breed and will soon go the way of the dinosaurs.