Tag Archives: Caddy Man

All I Want for Christmas is a New Lexus or Mercedes

‘Tis the season of consumerist delights and gratifications. Chicago native Mel Tormé crooned that “Christmas was made for children,” but the current age of excess and inequality encourages well-to-do adults to wish true their materialistic dreams. Lexus and Mercedes have new commercials that show adults taking the traditional place of children as the recipients of seasonal goodies. Whereas the Mercedes commercial effectively uses farce to get its message across, the series of Lexus commercials (four in all) is over-the-edge cynical in its depiction of ambitious adults who successfully manipulate children and the patron saint of all things materialistic, good ol’ Santa, in the pursuit of perfect holiday plunder.

American-style holiday gift giving – focused on children – has been around about 150 years, necessarily coinciding with standard of living advances achieved during the Second Industrial Revolution. American Christmas as an import of the St. Nick tradition from Europe is a convenient myth that helps keep a religious veneer on the American holiday season. More historically accurate, however, is the explanation of today’s American Christmas as the modern manifestation of the ancient rhythms of rest and indulgence connected to Northern Hemisphere winter solstice.

The practice of misrule – common in Europe and early America – was a moment of social inversion centered around the solstice (December 21st) and its accompanying spoils of gathered harvest, freshly slaughtered meat, and fermented drink. Misrule gave social permission – during a few days in December and January – for the poor to enter the homes of the well-to-do demanding to be served with food, drink, and money as if the peasants themselves were the well-to-do. Misrule consisted of rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mocking of established authority, and demands made upon the rich by the working class. Now bring us some figgy pudding . . . We won’t go until we get some – and bring it right here! The Puritans of New England – yes, it’s true – banned the celebration of Christmas in the mid-1600s not because they had issues with the legendary December birth of Jesus, but because misrule had a tendency to get out of hand. So bring it right here!

Misrule, a social bargain whereby peasants agreed to give their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the remainder of the year, became domesticated in mid-19th century America: peasant and working-class folks were pushed aside as children became the season’s focus of charity and display of social inversion. Christmas celebrations would newly consist of private family gatherings inside homes; roving bands of young men pounding on doors and demanding the spoils of misrule eventually disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of good St. Nick – was rerouted and the church was most pleased to be part of a toned-down, family affair focused on another child, the babe of Mary. Not all churches in mid-19th century America held Christmas services, but soon enough, the tide turned and the modern Christmas holiday emerged – the often contradictory mix-match of the baby Jesus, consumerist greed, lights, excessive consumption, hymns and songs, a silent night, and an awfully noisy morning with gifts for the children (and some adults). Historian Stephen Nissenbaum astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct – now more than ever!

There’s nothing wrong with owning a Lexus or Mercedes – they’re good cars to get from Point A to Point B in style. The same goes for Cadillac. The above commercials (follow this link for my take on a similar Caddy commercial), however, instill an alternative reality: possession supersedes function. Notice that none of the six commercials I’ve tagged actually showcases the promoted car in action, driven by the owner. What’s marketed and sold is not function but wished-for superlative status. During the Gilded Age – another age of excess and inequality – economist Thorstein Veblen coined the term conspicuous consumption to describe spending by the richest Americans to build up their prestige and image. Veblen criticized conspicuous consumption as characteristic of a regressive society, similar to the stratified European aristocracies that many American immigrants had left behind.

When we teach our children – by propaganda, creed, and example – that wealth and possessions determine status more so than service, commitment, and character we only perpetuate the regression of American society.

Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, reveals much about our societal character and identity. The gift giving tradition of St. Nick sought out needy children. Today’s American Santa does it all – taking care of children and even affluent adults. When possessions for this latter group serve the primary purpose not of utility, but of self-aggrandizement, there’s an attached danger the adult Jesus warned of numerous times and in various ways . . .

On second thought – blog post title be damned – I think I’ll keep tooling around in my ’07 Accord for the foreseeable future. Merry Christmas!

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. It also contains discussion questions at the end of all eight chapter summaries.

Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

The Spanish version of the Summary Version and Study Guide is now available. ¡Que bueno!

¡El librito de JaLBM – llamado Solo un Poco Más –está disponible en Amazon y el sitio web www.blueocotillo.com!

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Lifestyle Pornography, Part 2

dogs1My wife, Denise, is considering adopting a dog from one of our local Austin pet shelters. There are a few complications (which I won’t go into here) that delay her decision until the beginning of the coming year. In the meantime, she likes to look at the many pictures of available dogs from the pet shelter website. She’ll be sitting on our living room couch, computer tablet in her lap, and she’ll exclaim out loud to no one in particular: “I want to get a dog!” If I happen to be within earshot, I’ll look at her and she’ll nod affirmatively as I say to her: “You’re looking at pictures of doggie porn again, aren’t you?”

Our shared understanding of the term does not refer to dogs being pictured in sex acts. Rather, we’re using the term porn generically to refer to images that entice a viewer’s psyche. I want that. I need that! Now!! The root definition of pornography: a graphic image intended to stimulate immediate emotional or erotic response.

If you are a dog lover, like my wife, images of cute dogs needing a home can tug at your very soul. Similarly, there are other types of images, plentiful in our society, that encourage and entice and tug at the hearts of their beholders. These are the images of lifestyle porn, intended to turn you and me on to materialistic living. These images, incredibly more pervasive than we realize, invade our psyches via television, movies, magazines, billboards, and the Internet.

Images of luxurious homes, expensive cars, and sleek household appliances are lifted up as possession norms in consumer society. We’re used to that. Pay closer attention, however, to certain movies and TV shows where the images of lifestyle porn proliferate and you’ll see art imitating life. Inequality in the US outpaces that of all other developed nations. Pastor Ben Dueholm has written an excellent article, “Pulp Inequality,” that details the effects of extreme inequality upon what the entertainment industry produces. He calls today’s manifestation of the classic rags-to-riches genre more “garish, random, and humiliating” than their predecessors – reflecting the much steeper climb to the top in today’s America of diminishing economic mobility.

In similar voice, author Heather Havrilesky rips the blockbuster book and movie Fifty Shades of Grey as a materialistic fantasy of “quasi-human bondage.” Her article “Fifty Shades of Late Capitalism” deems the erotic sex for which the book franchise is famous as boring as the unceasing parade of showcased luxury brands in the movie: Cartier, Cristal, Omega, iPad, iPod, Audi, Gucci. Ho-hum. We meet female protagonist Anastasia Steele as a naïve middle-class college grad, and see her evolve into a pampered aristocrat. Does it even matter how the film’s male protagonist Christian Grey made his billions? No, the main point is that he has unlimited resources and can do whatever he desires – sexually and otherwise, while hardly having to work. The American Dream, version.2015.

caddy man.jpeg

Actor Neal McDonough as The Caddy Man

Sex and the CityThe Bachelor and The Bachelorette are likewise berated for their depictions of lifestyle porn by authors like Arthur Chu; his article in The Daily Beast is honest and insightful. The Caddy Man (my blog article linked here), introduced in a 2014 Cadillac ELR commercial, articulates and exemplifies the concept of lifestyle porn better than anyone else. In response to him, and others, I will continue to ask the befitting question that fuels this blog: How much is enough?

In a capitalist society, seeing that my neighbor is doing better than me financially and materially can serve to motivate me. I can work harder, longer, and smarter to achieve what I desire. Economic mobility, although not what it used to be in the US, still avails its blessings to a select group of achievers. Alternatively – and this is radically against the grain – I can choose to be content with what I have and not strive for more.

People are free, for the most part, to chase their dreams in this society – whether their dreams be idealistic, materialistic, noble, or delusionary. Dreams consist of images; there is no imagination without images. Consumer society is predicated on the fact that people will strive for more and more; it’s for this very reason that consumer society provides many blessings and continually reboots modernization. There is a dark side to consumer society, however, and the images of lifestyle porn can inhibit our imagination, because these are predicated on the idea that what we are and what we have are not good enough.

Where do we find the images that let us ponder the reality that what we are and what we have are good enough?

 

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM, distributed by ACTA Publications (Chicago), is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

isbn 9780991532827

If you’re a member of a faith community – Christian, Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, or other – consider a book study series of Just a Little Bit More. The full-length book (257 pgs.) is intended for engaged readers, whereas the Summary Version and Study Guide (52 pgs.) is intended for readers desiring a quick overview of the work. Readers of both books can join together for study, conversation, and subsequent action in support of the common good.

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Vacations are for Slackers . . .

It’s summertime – have you taken a vacation yet? A recent national survey claims that 42 per cent of working Americans didn’t take any vacation days in 2014. Wow – keep that stat in mind the next time you have an interchange with a grumpy employee. Maybe he’s having a bad day in part because he hasn’t had time off from the job for a significant stretch. The United States is the only developed nation in the world that doesn’t lawfully mandate paid vacation days for workers.

Some Americans are workaholics and others actually like their jobs so much they don’t take any vacation days. Workaholics and job-lovers together, however, we can assume to be a minority. Other Americans in low-paying jobs are unable or afraid to take time off (lest they lose their jobs), and other Americans are uncomfortable getting away from the office or workplace lest necessary tasks be forgotten or mismanaged by others. Other Americans, because of our incomplete system of health care coverage, end up using vacation days as sick or family leave days.

Most Americans – whether vacation-takers or not – live in obeisance to the dominant religion of the day: the troika of materialism, commerce, and consumerism. On the surface, it’s a good religion that feeds, shelters, clothes, and employs us. But when the religion goes overboard – too many hours worked is but one example – it breaks bad and damages societal common good.

jalbm neal

The Caddy Man

By the numbers, the three people groups most devoted to working are South Koreans, Americans, and Australians. Only South Koreans take fewer vacation days and holidays than American workers; only Australians work on average more weeks per year than Americans. The Caddy Man, actor Neal McDonough, perfectly describes (albeit unintended) the dominant religion in America. Speaking incredulously of those woosified Europeans: “They take August off – off!”

Once upon a time (in the 1950s), many commentators, confident of increased gains in productivity and innovation, foresaw a shorter workweek and increased leisure time for Americans by the last few decades of the century. Those predictions fell completely flat. Americans worked, on the average, 160 hours more a year in 2000 than in 1970. America, historically associated with the opportunity to work, now seems to be associated with the domination of work (for those who can find it). Consumerism, of course, has brought about work’s ability to rule.

According to Adam Sacks of Oxford Economics – an organization that serves the travel industry – the average working American leaves five vacation days unused per year. Sacks calls it a culture of work martyrdom: those who don’t use all their vacation are more virtuous than those who do take all their vacation days. Vacations are for slackers.

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The star-forming region NGC 3603 - seen here in the latest Hubble Space Telescope image - contains one of the most impressive massive young star clusters in the Milky Way. Bathed in gas and dust the cluster formed in a huge rush of star formation thought to have occurred around a million years ago. The hot blue stars at the core are responsible for carving out a huge cavity in the gas seen to the right of the star cluster in NGC 3603's centre.

Hubble Space Telescope pic

Vacations are also for those seeking renewal and rejuvenation. One of the first stories in Hebrew scriptures tells of the Creator God taking a day off at the conclusion of an extended work project. The moral of the story: creativity and rest go hand-in-hand. We are capable of creating and doing good work on little sleep; but, over the long haul, you and I need rest and downtime in order to be effective in relationships and in work environments.

When will we see a change in the way working America operates? The typical reward for good work is increased pay. While many appreciate (and need) an increase in pay, when will we see a culture shift that rewards employees’ good work with more time off?

 

 

 

This blog and website are representative of the views expressed in my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good. JaLBM is available on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook. It’s also available on Nook and iBooks/iTunes, and at the website of Blue Ocotillo Publishing.

For book clubs, community of faith study groups, and individuals, the Summary Version and Study Guide of JaLBM is now available at the Blue Ocotillo website and on Amazon. It’s a “Reader’s Digest” version (fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter. Join the conversation about social and economic inequality – without having to be hyperpartisan – and let’s figure out how capitalism can do better!

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America’s True Religion

(It’s been a year since Cadillac – spot on – defined America’s dominant religion. Let’s revisit this classic.)

The Cadillac commercial many saw during the February 2014 Winter Olympic Games coverage precisely embodies America’s true religion: the confluence of commerce, materialism, and consumerism. Check it out below.

Theologian Paul Tillich broadened the definition of religion when he described it as “ultimate concern.” The actor in the commercial, Neal McDonough, strikingly articulates America’s dominant religion step-by-step. “We’re crazy, driven, hard-working believers.” And then he tells us what we believe in, while striding aside the $75,000 four-wheeled object of adulation: “It’s pretty simple. You work hard, you create own luck, and you gotta believe anything is possible.”

Don’t get me wrong – on the surface, commerce/materialism/consumerism is not a bad religion, or ultimate concern. It’s fed, clothed, housed, employed, and provided for millions of Americans (and many others) and served the common good for a number of generations. Work, a vital component of the religion, enables our survival at the most basic level. But when it goes to excess – hours worked, inordinate material and consumerist pursuits – the religion becomes idolatrous. McDonough’s character becomes a type of high priest enticing us to a counterfeit promised land found via “just a little bit more.” Americans began to work more and more hours in the late 1970s, reversing a long-standing trend of declining number of hours worked. Whereas America has been historically associated with the opportunity to work, the country now seems to be associated with the domination of work (for those who can find it).

We do work hard (only South Koreans and Australians work more hours than Americans), but the American economic mobility that used to be the benchmark for the rest of the world has significantly eroded away. The philosophy of work hard and advance applies to an increasingly smaller group of Americans than it used to. Our high priest of materialism disparages that “other countries take August off.” Does he not know that time away from work has been assiduously fought for over the decades since the Industrial era brought its blessings and curses? A bit more than a century ago Andrew Carnegie’s steelworkers worked twelve hour days, seven days a week. The upside of that? They helped build the nation that later spawned characters like McDonough’s that imply poor people have no one to blame but themselves, lazy and uninspired.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good further details America’s true religion and calls for a counter movement based in economic democracy. The book is available through this website, and wherever books are sold. The following excerpt is from chapter 5:

Work is a great opportunity in the United States. We’re thankful for it even as it saps our energy and youthfulness. But, does work always deliver on its promise to take care of us? Whom does our work benefit – ourselves and our community, or are we unwittingly part of some larger design where our contributions are parasitically annexed for someone else’s gain? Is the pace we keep with our work one that gives freedom or creates bondage? Increasingly, our rates of consumption with their propensity toward excesses speak of bondage – exorbitantly so. Americans have 1.3 billion credit cards (four for every man, woman, and child) while our savings rate continues to plummet to nearly net zero.

All rights reserved. Blue Ocotillo Publishing, May 2014.

Just a Little Bit More is available on Amazon for slightly less than $75k.

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