The Protestant Ethic, as understood since Weber, stands for a bifurcation between secular work and spiritual salvation. Both are valorized. But to think that the spiritual side (Ashcroft, moral piety, God) is dominant over the material one (Cheney, secular, work, production, consumption) is an illusion of both the Right and the Left. For the Right, the illusion props up wildly anti-Christian economic behavior. And for the Left, the illusion provides an easy target for critique; it's much simpler to loathe theocracy than wrestle with the meaning of hypercapitalism.
The illusion of the Protestant Ethic - that "what matters" is what happens in the Church on Sunday, and not the mall on Saturday - enables the denial of responsibility for all that plastic, CO2, questionable labor practices, increasing wealth gap, etc.
While the freedom to overconsume is conscious, the denial of responsibility that it entails is entirely suppressed - not even denied, but marginalized to the point of invisibility. There are no downers in Bush-Cheney-land: no responsibility to the working poor, no consideration of nature. Nothing other than self-aggrandizement in its quickest, most venal, and most animalistic form.
2. It's the Economy, Stupid
Is there anything wrong with Bush-Cheney's America? After all, we are creatures here to flower, and we are flowering - enormously. Most of the world would kill for our lifestyle, even if a small minority kills to keep it away. What, exactly, is wrong with hypercapitalism?
When I was younger, I felt strongly that the chief sin of suburbia was its deadening of the human spirit. I was cognizant of the environmental damage, and a little aware of the social inequity, but as a bourgeois teenager whose needs were basically taken care of, the real problem for me was hypocrisy. I didn't see the consumption in economic terms; it was a matter of aesthetics, or sometimes, of human potential. I was Holden Caulfield, surrounded by phonies, not Marx or Chomsky.
Now, although I still see the hypocrisy at times, it is the blindness which is more striking. People have no idea how fat they are - both literally, with overblown bodies that are the gelatinous products of overeating, and figuratively, as those same bodies are also products of 54- inch televisions with surround sound, and air-conditioned cars which convey them everywhere. (Again, I am of course only speaking in terms of averages.) It may well be that the cultural vapidity of suburbia is precisely that which drives the overconsumption of crap: people do want connection, and culture, and meaning, and if they've boxed themselves into a place where it can only be gained through consumption, they will consume. But the delusion of it all, rather than the phoniness, is what moves me. I was bewildered by the new malls, Costcos, and suburbs, but most of their denizens are oblivious.
I want to make clear my ambivalence with respect to this blissful ignorance. There is a simplicity to Bush's America that is very comfortable. People believe in clichés, and don't even notice that they are clichés. In my circle, it is hard to say anything unselfconsciously. Here, people name their children "Camryn" and "Brittany." Where I come from, even "I love you" has been said before. My New York, like all major European cities, is wary of triteness, and ironic to a fault. Here, people really believe in the 'evildoers' line. They believe in their values, even as they so often ignore them in practice. This culture is certainly not for me, but I don't think the Utne-Reading Left is right to deny that it works for many, many people.
No - the problem is justice: Marx and Bill McKibben (author of The End of Nature), not Holden Caulfield and James Dean.
Zeek in Print
Spring 03 issue available here
Simulacra and Science Fiction
I Hear America
I wish I was...
Josh Gets Contacts
When I Met Humility, I saw Letters
Zeek @ Low
June 26, 2003
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