Sunday, December 04, 2005


When did "borrr-ring" become the universal term of disdain for all that young people find not easily attainable? The answer is when these same young people began to be fed a steady diet of "entertainment" so that their relationship to the world was defined as that of a critic to a theatrical performance. For recent generations deprived of economic hardship, the world has become a stage upon which a series of actors strut their stuff in order to obtain the audience's approval.

I can't ever remember employing the word "boring" as a youngster, and I don't think my recollection is the product of nostalgic fantasy. Sure, certain tasks were unpleasant and tedious, but the idea that tedium was avoidable, or even particularly bad, was not part of the world within which I was raised. "It has to be done" was a common statement concerning such tasks--sometimes even, "It's good for you."

With the prodigious expansion of an adolescent market in the sixties and seventies, a huge cohort of commercial marketeers began pandering to adolescent and pre-pubescent desires. The unreasonableness of these desires did not matter to this new generation of merchants who embraced the profitable idea that "ethics are up to the individual"--an idea that conveniently absolved them of moral responsibility. What mattered was how their target audience felt and that these immature and fanciful adolescent feelings could be manipulated for monetary ends. Advertisers thus said whatever adolescents wanted them to say in order to please these fledgling consumers and to sell products.

Consequently, just as the target audience wished, advertised solutions to problems became "quick and easy." Responsibilities and desires conveniently melted together while discipline and sacrifice were relegated to the status of poor market motivators. "Let me entertain you" became the constant refrain of record companies, tv shows, and innumerable products that did not march under the other commercially feasible banner: "You need this to get what you want."

Increasingly kids (and even adults) who were bombarded with the emotional nonsense emanating from their own spleens, began to take these messages to heart--among them the equation of importance and fun. What didn't excite was, so said advertisers, presumptively unworthy. The fault was not in oneself--perish such an unmarketable thought--but in the activity or its manner of presentation. After all, the consumer and his feelings were always right. As a consequence of such messages, it became necessary to avoid or to misrepresent projects that failed to get emotional juices stirring quickly: reading Tolstoy, practicing the piano, or visiting Aunt Harriet in the hospital.

The irony of this concession to fantasy was that it effectively alientated consumers from life's most rewarding activities--activites that almost invariably arrive in packages labelled "difficult" and "boring." The double irony was that it succeeded in creating a huge crop of couch-potatoes caught in the banality of consumption and enslaved to the winds of fashion--persons whose identity was reduced to the biological process of assimilation. What could be more boring!

Thus, thanks to the continuous pandering of mass marketeers, an unavoidable biological function took on the status of an honored class. Laws and policies began to be judged largely in terms of how they impacted this elite but all-inclusive group. Any proposal which harmed "consumers" was deemed oppressive. Moreover, in order to protect the rights of this special set of citizens, television stations began to employ "consumer advocates" who possessed, by virtue of their title, the moral status of Robin Hood. Throughout the nation publications sprang up to guide consumers into the paths of mercantile happiness. Meanwhile, a "Consumer Price Index" kept members of this prestigious group abreast of the consumptive activity they could reasonably expect to indulge in.

Nowadays, "Born to Shop" has become a common declaration shamelessly attached to license plates. Similarly, "You, the consumer" has become the favorite salutation of media-priests who breathlessly anticipate the size of that annual consumptive orgy celebrating the birth of the mendicant from Galilee--an orgy upon which so much of our nation's economic welfare rests. Not citizens, neighbors, or homo sapiens are we--but "consumers."

The country's singular focus on the production and consumption of goods has seldom been captured more poignantly than in the following passage penned, ironically, by Harvard economist John Kenneth Galbraith:

"In the autumn of 1954, during the Congressional elections of that year, the Republicans replied to Democratic attacks on their stewardship by arguing that this was the second best year in history. It was not, in all respects, a happy defense. Many promptly said that second best was not good enough--certainly not for Americans. But no person in either party showed the slightest disposition to challenge the standard by which it was decided that one year was better than another. Nor was it felt that any explanation was required. No one would be so eccentric as to suppose that second best meant second best in the progress of the arts and the sciences. No one would assume that it referred to health, education, or the battle against juvenile delinquency. There was no suggestion that a better or poorer year was one in which the chances for survival amidst the radioactive furniture of the world had increased or diminished. . . . [N]o one was moved to suppose that the year in question was the second best as measured by the number of people who had found enduring spiritual solace. Second best could mean only one thing--that the production of goods and services was the second highest in history."

Our language, our bumper stickers, and our most cherished indices all indicate that consumption is now considered the golden road to happiness. The more elaborate and stylish our cars, homes, clothes, meals, and amusements--the happier we believe we will be. This obsession reflects the apotheosis of the alimentary --making a god of our gullets.

Titles show us what we think of ourselves, and the term "consumer" conjures up no image so clearly as an obese epicure stuffing his mouth with food--a human disposal system that devours everything within reach of its black esophageal hole. But are we, in truth, homo consumerus? Will we fulfill our natures and achieve bliss by sating our appetites for material goods and amusements? I don't think so.

Consumers are conspicuous by their absence from the list of those we have enshrined in our collective memory for future generations to honor and emulate. Our hearts and history testify, even if advertisers proclaim the opposite, that a life devoted to consumption is base--that the pursuit of things befits humans about as well as a cage is suitable for a golden eagle. The disgust we feel after weeks of self-indulgence (or two consecutive hours of televised drivel) is a feeble, bourgeois echo of the profound ennui that enervated the decadent nobility of Imperial Rome.

Birds are creatures of flight, dolphins ply the seas, and humans are such by virtue of their capacity to think, to act, to love, and to express in symbols the nature of their experience. Humans are human because they can choose to act in accord with the deepest intuitions of what is good, beautiful, and true or they can choose to remain in a yawning, consumptive darkness.


Dr. Luke Van Tessel said...

Mr. Kirk, you rock the house. I can't tell you how many times I've asked a 15-year-old with a $100,000 education 6X7 only to see them pull out a calculator, though I don't necessarily remember my multiplication tables as being boring. My grandmother always said, "If you're bored, it's your own fault." Oh, and I would love to meet someone at the movies without 25 cell phone calls about excactly which awning we're meeting under, and I'd like to have an actual conversation with someone who got through an entire book. Boy, are we going to be bored working on Chinese assembly lines.

RKirk said...

Multiplication tables rock. 1x1 to 12x12 was a project thoroughly mastered by 6th grade, where we "raced" to be the first ones through the numerical gauntlet and to put our names on the blackboard finish line. Of course nowadays such competitive pedagogical techniques are frowned upon as destructive of self-esteem. Better we should all be equally illiterate and allow the well-coifed dim-wits on TV to tell us the possible meanings of 2 + 2.