Monday, June 15, 2009

Two Articles Worth Reading this Week

Early tomorrow morning I'm off with my oldest daughter to a Girls Camp sponsored by our church. The camp is organized and run entirely by female volunteers, so I'll be playing resident adult male, aka pack mule, for the next five days. I'm looking forward to it, actually; since I have nothing but daughters, I figured familiarizing myself with the rituals of Girls Camp is something I ought to start in on at the first available opportunity, since there's a decent chance I'll be asked to do it every year until our youngest leaves home. This year our oldest is 12, the first year she's able to attend, and so I'm off to the wilds of Oklahoma. Say a prayer that the tornadoes miss us.

Until next week, a couple of pieces worth reading. Both are talking about the same thing, ultimately, and both share far more in common than they disagree upon, though I suspect their authors would be a little nonplussed to find themselves in each others' company. The first is a recent essay in The New Republic by Amitai Etzioni, on consumerism. Here's an excerpt:

What needs to be eradicated, or at least greatly tempered [in our culture], is consumerism: the obsession with acquisition that has become the organizing principle of American life. This is not the same thing as capitalism, nor is it the same thing as consumption. To explain the difference, it is useful to draw on Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of human needs. At the bottom of this hierarchy are basic creature comforts; once these are sated, more satisfaction is drawn from affection, self-esteem, and, finally, self-actualization. As long as consumption is focused on satisfying basic human needs--safety, shelter, food, clothing, health care, education--it is not consumerism. But, when the acquisition of goods and services is used to satisfy the higher needs, consumption turns into consumerism--and consumerism becomes a social disease....The kind of culture that would best serve a Maslowian hierarchy of needs is hardly one that would kill the goose that lays the golden eggs--the economy that can provide the goods needed for basic creature comforts. Nor one that merely mocks the use of consumer goods to respond to higher needs. It must be a culture that extols sources of human flourishing besides acquisition. The two most obvious candidates to fill this role are communitarian pursuits and transcendental ones.

The other is a shorter, but in some ways wiser, essay by Mark Mitchell, talking about gratitude in Front Porch Republic. Here's the best passage:

Our commercial society, exemplified by but not limited to commercial television, plays an important role in [our] frantic lifestyle dedicated to getting more. We may watch television for the programs, but the programs exist to induce us to watch the commercials. And the commercials, if they are successful, create in us a profound sense of dissatisfaction. They remind us of all the things we don’t yet have. They seek to convince us that what we have is inadequate, outdated, and ill-equipped to make us as happy as we deserve to be. Commercialism creates dissatisfaction--that, after all, is its purpose--and dissatisfaction is right next door to ingratitude. When we are unsatisfied with what we have, we are constantly thinking about how to acquire those things we think we need. When we are thus consumed, it is difficult to be grateful for the very things we wish so desperately to replace or supplement....When our lives are oriented primarily toward acquiring new things, we will be less concerned with securing wealth to pass on to our children when we die. We will be less willing to give more than a token of our money and time to the poor among us. The ability to do without will diminish and our lack will chafe us, occupy us, and set the direction for our thoughts, our energies, and our purposes. Ultimately, ingratitude leads us to forget God from whom all good things come.

Etzioni, though by all accounts a pious man, would almost certainly never tie his condemnation of our culture of disposability and commodification into the concern that such a mentality takes us away from God, as Mitchell does; by the same (or at least a similar) token, Mitchell, though an able critic of the modern scene, would almost certainly never allow for the kind of communitarian response that Etzioni recommends, allowing that consumer goods, when properly oriented, are part of the solution to keeping consumerism under control in a free society. In the end, what I see in these two think-pieces are mutually supportive arguments about spending habits and living environments and the role of the media and so forth, with one placing most of the burden of reform upon a recommitment to the traditional discipline of faith, and the other clearly most interested in dialogues which will result in changes in social structures and priorities, with both only casually--perhaps even reluctantly--allowing that the other also plays a role.

I don't post these because I have some fine idea about how to merge them together or resolve their differences, nor do I feel comfortable in simply standing back and declaring them both to be correct. (Though I do, generally speaking, think they're both on the right path.) As a couple of lengthy comment threads at FPR that I've been involved in of late demonstrate, there are real faultlines amidst us "reactionaries," as Damon Linker not all that inaccurately labeled us all together (though I would still insist that my kind of populist "conservatism" is actually more left than right), and there's no easy or obvious reconciliation between our views. But for now I say, so what? These kind of deep disagreements are signs of serious engagement, which is a lot more than what the Republican party, at least, can offer the body politic today. So read Mitchell, and read Etzioni, and learn from them both.

Have a good week; assuming I survive without any electricity for five days, I'll see you when I get back.

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