Consumer aggression is an American tradition. The ghost of H.L. Mencken was in sardonic ecstasies this past weekend over video clips of Black Friday berserkers punching, pepper-spraying and shooting their way through crowds of competing shoppers to win deep discounts on unnecessary purchases. Everyone loves a good slugfest.
Watching it all from my father’s recliner, I recalled that Homeric scene in Tom Jones when Molly Seagrim, taunted by the crowd in the churchyard, took up a thigh bone from an open grave, “fell in among the flying ranks, and dealing her blows with great liberality on either side, overthrew the carcasse of many a mighty heroe and heroine.” Rather than a thigh bone, today’s Molly Seagrim swings an iPhone or a Blue Ray player.
Of course, it’s equally traditional to be shocked – simply shocked – by such behavior. Like court-appointed advocates for the defense, journalists and economists speculated in the aftermath that The American Consumer had been suffering from “austerity fatigue” and was possessed by the demon of “pent up demand.” This kind of insanity, they mean to say, is just what we need.
Dear Answer Man:
I am in fourth grade, which sucks. The other kids at school are always asking me about my favorite food, favorite color, or favorite brand of sneaker. The problem is that I can never make up my mind. Sometimes I want to eat tacos all day, other days I can’t live without pizza. Some days I like blue and other days red. And once I went to school with a Nike on one foot and a Converse on the other – by accident! I’m in big trouble. Who am I anyway?
~ Tommy Thomas, Age 9
I’m convinced that if Socrates were alive today he would spend all his time at the mall. That’s what it means to live the examined life anymore: to be obsessed with your own consumer choices. So, my fickle young philosopher, you do have a problem, but it’s not that you can’t make up your mind. It’s that your inability to make up your mind bothers you so much. Three thoughts to buck you up:
Fickleness is a hedge against tedium. How boring would it be if you were forced to make a once-and-for-all choice between Mexican and Italian food? Not even Mexicans and Italians want Mexican and Italian for dinner every blessed night.
Fickleness is proof that you’re not dead. Trust me, the day will come when you’ll feel like proof is necessary. But cheer up, consistency is the last thing you should expect from yourself. And I mean that literally: it is the very last thing. Only the dead are consistent.
Fickleness is infinite power. It’s the power of self-definition, first of all. It was Feuerbach or Brillat-Savarin who said it first: ‘you are what you consume.’ There you have the answer to the existential yelp at the end of your letter: Today you are a boy who likes tacos and red and Nikes. Tomorrow you will be a boy who likes pizza and blue and Converse. You can be a different person each day. When you’re a little older and get a job you’ll find that all these various selves are required to share a single bank account, which gets a little crowded, but that’s why credit was invented. Because fickleness is economic power too. As an adult, marketing executives that earn more in a year than you will in ten are going to line up to lick your boots for a buck. Really. Whole industries will rise and fall by your sovereign dime. If it weren’t for your philosophical compulsion to constantly redefine yourself in consumer terms, Tom-Tom, the world economy would collapse – we’d all be dressed in rat skins, eating boiled grass and mashed acorns, and licking salt from the walls of slug-infested caves.
I seem to have committed a felony. We received in the mail this past weekend a letter with a rippling American flag printed on the back and on the front, in italics, the teaser:
Win a Free Pre-Paid Cremation!
Not only is the phrase charmingly nonsensical and oxymoronic but the appeal to patriotism plus the combined use of italics, underlining, and exclamation point left me breathless. It was more than I could resist, and I opened it. Then I discovered it wasn’t intended for me but for a woman who must have lived at our address some years ago (and perhaps the offer arrived too late for her anyway).
Inside was a form letter discussing, tactfully but enthusiastically, the benefits of cremation: “Simple, Economical, and Dignified… It Just Makes Sense!tm (You’ll note here again the well-timed use of the exclamation point, and the strategic trademarking of a phrase which otherwise was sure to be stolen by competitors.) The recipient was encouraged to pay now for her own future cremation by securing the services of the advertiser “at today’s prices,” and to enter a drawing for the “free, pre-paid” cremation mentioned on the envelope.
I spent some time considering the pitch. Personally, I prefer the idea of full-body burial and decomposition (‘What was Mozart doing in the graveyard?’ – ‘Decomposing!’). But I admit there’s something mildly poetic in the idea of spending the silent years holed up in a columbarium, another dove in the dove-cote. I’ve always loved that word, columbarium.
The deeper appeal in pitches of this sort, I think, is the prospect of your will – in the form of choices and consequences – outliving the decease of your body. Your purchase now, at today’s prices, guarantees your ability to save money from beyond the grave. It’s a disembodied immortality for the consumer. Securing this form of immortality today may also spare you from lesser forms, like the sad immortality of the mail recipient who only gets his next offer for pre-paid cremation after the issue is moot.