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Thursday, 25 September 2008 20:49
 

The Age of Consumerism

by Veronica Mingolleli

 

In the September 8th edition of The American Conservative, Andrew Bacevich explores what he calls “the Jeffersonian trinity” by which he meant the inalienable rights to “life, liberty and pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. Judging from American life today, we view having cable TV, shopping at Wal-Mart for gewgaws made in China and having a job that doesn’t require too much of us as our modern Jeffersonian trinity.

 

 

Bacevich calls our current age the Era of Consumerism and cites a prescient and challenging speech given by President Carter:

 

“…too many of us now tend to worship self-indulgence and

consumption. Human identity is no longer defined by what

one does, but by what one owns.”

 

Along the path to unprecedented prosperity we have solved the problems of basic survival: starvation, shelter, infant mortality. We have more comforts and physical security that any society in world history. Few of us have experienced starvation or the loss of body parts to biting winters sans central heating. In fact, our lives are so secure, adrenaline junkies traverse the globe seeking near-death experiences. But as the Rev. Jim Wallis said: “What is all this prosperity for?”

 

In the Era of Consumerism, the vapid consumption which began with our unrestrained self-indulgence has now been elevated to our patriotic duty. Rather than enlist in the military, or at least pay for appropriate body armor for those who did enlist, we are told to shop and go to Disney World. We have come to equate the accumulation of consumer goods our right and responsibility as American citizens.

 

Amidst this devotion to this stunted view of our civic responsibilities, our liberties are being quietly undermined. While we are merrily distracted we assume that our government carries out the will of the people. But, while you were in line at American Eagle, the government started tapping your phones and holding American citizens in military prisons for years without any charges. In the race to the check-out counter, our shopping carts have snagged a thread which could unravel our social contract. We seem not to have noticed.

 

Our current conception of the pursuit of happiness at everyday low prices has made us a debtor nation. Our three-pronged approach to the American dream - easy money, greedy lenders and unqualified buyers eager to gorge themselves on overpriced houses - has left us with a volatile, unstable economy complete with bank failures – eleven to date. Meanwhile, we’ve lost sight of what our national interests in the world are.

 

Our inalienable rights are like the corners on a triangle. Today, we have placed ‘the pursuit of happiness’ in the peak position. We are lucky to live in a country where basic survival is not a daily battle. But our current way of pursuing happiness is distorting the integrity of the triangle. We are free as Americans to put whatever we wish at the top of the triangle, but the triangle won’t hold if the other two corners aren’t solid. Without the solid foundation of the security of our lives and the sanctity of our liberties, then whatever is on top will be unsustainable. The founding fathers were concerned that Americans would get so preoccupied with their individual pursuits that they would cease to engage in public life and begin to neglect the preservation of their other inalienable rights.

 

In previous generations, Americans have been called upon to sacrifice and serve for a cause greater than themselves. Our leaders no longer expect that of us, and we no longer expect that of them. As a society and as a nation, we have a responsibility to one another to preserve what we most treasure: our freedom and all that comes with it. Our collective failure to think beyond ourselves and to do what we can to serve one another and our nation will lead to our downfall.

 

Assailing our inalienable right to shop till we drop is not a popular position. Linking our unrestrained self-indulgence with our current economic and national security issues and proposing that our pursuit of happiness threatens the sanctity of our liberties would set Madison Avenue aghast. In 1762, Jean-Jacques Rousseau described a government by the people, for the people and of the people before one even existed. He also described the process of the demise of that a democracy:

 

“Once customs are established and prejudices rooted, reform

is a dangerous and fruitless enterprise; a people cannot bear

to see its evils touched, even if only to be eradicated…”

 

 

Last Updated on Thursday, 25 September 2008 21:24
 
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