Tag Archives: Materialism

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!

Advertisements

1 Comment

Filed under Commentary

Santa, Our National Patron Saint!!

A patron saint is defined as a mythical and revered guardian figure of a people or country. Who, I ask, is the patron saint of the United States? George Washington? Since he is a relatively recent historical figure, he is subsequently disqualified – we understand Washington and others like him (Jefferson and Franklin) to be founding fathers. Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyon, or John Henry? We’re getting closer, but most American kids would recognize only one of the three, at best. How about Uncle Sam? He looks the part in red, white, and blue – but what more do we know of him than his finger pointed beckoning citizens to national service? To be a national patron saint, all – especially children – need to understand the details of the candidate’s story. Santa is the only one who qualifies; he, unquestionably, is the American national patron saint in this current day of commerce, materialism, and consumerism.

Santa – unequivocally an American invention – has an interesting history. It starts with St. Nicholas (270-343), a Christian bishop who lived in Myra – modern-day Turkey. He had a reputation for favoring children; he brought them justice and gave them gifts.

jalbm st. nicholas

A depiction of St. Nicholas of Myra. Notice the bishop’s mitre, the shepherd’s staff, the cross, and the religious vestments.

The date of his death, December 6, became his festival day. For centuries, various places in Europe revered the saint and practiced gift giving on his festival day. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves if we make a direct unbroken link from St. Nick’s December festival day and its practice of gift giving to the Christmas of today. More so, there’s a deeper connection between today’s gift giving and the ancient rhythms of indulgence (sometimes to the point of excess) during the winter months.

The winter solstice, December 21 – the shortest day in the Northern Hemisphere – has a deep and long cultural history. The celebration of greens and lights at the solstice, as is well-known, predates Christianity by millennia. The early church, not yet consolidated in doctrine and calendar, celebrated the birth of Christ on different dates throughout the year according to local custom. Constantine corporatized the church in 325, bringing conformity to its doctrine. Pope Julius brought consolidation to its calendar in 350 and proclaimed December 25 to be the festival day of the birth of Christ. The church understood its position to be strong enough to compete with Saturnalia and other pagan festivals celebrating the rebirth of the sun, covering over them, as it were, with the birth of the Son.

Historian Stephen Nissenbaum (The Battle for Christmas, Knopf, 1997) astutely observes that “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.” Absolutely correct.

Protestantism’s penchant to not revere saints meant that St. Nick didn’t make the trip to the New World neither with the Pilgrims, the Puritans, nor northern European immigrants (Nissenbaum says that American Christmas as an early 19th century Dutch import is an “invented tradition”). As a matter of fact, Christmas celebrations in early America had more in common with the ancient celebrations related to the rhythms of harvest and the solstice than they did with church teaching. In the Northern Hemisphere, the weeks preceding and following the solstice (what we moderns call November, December, and January) traditionally have been the time of gathering in harvests, slaughtering for fresh meat, and enjoying the products of fermentation, beer and wine. We Northern Hemisphere moderns who purchase fresh apples from Chile in May might have difficulty understanding this ancient rhythm, since we are able to procure most whatever we want any time during the year. Even so, let me ask you to entertain a few questions: Do you have a tendency to put on a few pounds over the winter holiday season? Have you ever signed up for a gym membership in January? December was and is the time for excess – eating, drinking, giving, celebrating, leisure – a time to enjoy the labors of year-end and a time for misrule.

Misrule, historically, was a moment of social inversion when the wealthy and powerful deferred to their dependents and poorer neighbors. Practiced in Europe and early America, 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!

One of the unwritten rules of misrule, however, was the continuation of a social bargain. The peasants, satisfied with the brief turning of the tables during misrule, were to offer their goodwill and deference to the wealthy and powerful for the rest of the year. If you’ve ever received a Christmas bonus at a job where you felt you were underpaid, you can see that misrule is still with us. It’s the misrule bargain: accept your once-a-year bonus and do not grumble about your low pay for the balance of the year – a gift given in exchange for goodwill.

Misrule 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 disappeared. Gift giving – ah, the memory of St. Nick yet alive – was rediscovered 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. That began to change, however, and the societal move away from excesses so ingrained into the season by climate, culture, and practice was gaining momentum – until, that is, Sinterklaas took on American shape and form.

Sinterklaas, Dutch for St. Nicholas, became Americanized awfully fast. The Dutch version of St. Nicholas was transformed significantly to become the American Santa Claus: stripped bare of all religious symbolism and enhanced according to the traditional seasonal excesses. No mitre, but a cap; no shepherd’s staff, but a whip for his reindeer; no crosses, but gifts galore. The cleric red vestments were replaced by a snowsuit, covering an extensive paunch. As a matter of fact, depictions of Santa show his belly growing larger and larger as the mid-19th century gave way to the Gilded Age (1870-1900) and its proliferation of excess.

Santa-Claus-Pics-0415

Our modern Santa – with a little commercial backing.

 

James Farrell (One Nation Under Goods: Malls and the Seduction of American Shopping, Smithsonian, 2004) calls Santa the most appropriate icon for an affluent society. Santa made his first Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade appearance in 1924, and then became comfortably ensconced into malls when they came to prominence in post-WW II America. Malls in America: where else would Santa, the very embodiment of consumption’s blessings for the youngest members of our society, be more apropos? The united values of consumption and materialism are effectively reinforced in American malls. The domestication of misrule moves forward, as the bearded and bellied commercial icon par excellence looks into the eyes of a child and all but promises her that her material dreams will be fulfilled – with a similar misrule social bargain – as long as she behaves.

Ol’ Claus by Ferrell’s estimation is the national “symbol of material abundance and hedonistic pleasure.” Even so, the big old man has a religious aura – he’s supernatural and omniscient, somehow all-knowing of our activities, good and bad. In Santa’s kingdom, the nice receive pleasing gifts and the naughty get a second chance. And just like that, with a twinkle in his eye, he gives his divine like blessing upon our materialistic American Christmas. More Americans exchange gifts during the season than make traditional religious observance. What St. Santa represents – commerce, materialism, consumption – qualifies as the dominant religion of the land.

In my book Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good I argue that this dominant religion or ultimate concern (to use theologian Paul Tillich’s phrase) has for the most part been a good religion that has fed, clothed, sheltered, and employed millions – lifting many of these from the grips of economic poverty. But when this religion goes too far, and becomes an end in and of itself – the religion breaks bad and the societal common good suffers. Our unexamined proclivity to trust in economic growth as the healer of all our ills is misguided; economic growth has done its good work for American society, but we’ve reached a point of diminishing returns. Further gains in income and wealth for affluent societies don’t give its citizens the improvements once seen in the societies’ earlier and less affluent days. Since 1980, economic gains in the United States, going mostly to the richest Americans, have unfortunately helped exacerbate social problems related to inequality: mental illness, teenage pregnancy, obesity, incarceration rates, and (decreasing) upward social mobility rates. Many of these problems directly and indirectly affect American children, one out of every four of them living in poverty, in the richest country in the history of the world.

It’s naturally based in history that the Northern Hemisphere’s season of winter solstice and accompanying holidays come with a touch of excess celebration, leisure, and the sharing and consumption of material goods. The grand majority of us look forward to and appreciate the December/January holiday season. It’s good to have a change of pace and break from that which the rest of the year consists: work and necessary routine.

Santa, the quintessential icon and patron saint for a highly consumerist society, tells us quite a bit about our own character and identity as a society (and what it is we teach our children). Does it all boil down to this: If we have enough stuff we’ll be alright?

 

 

This blog post and others on this website are representative of my views and writing in Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, distributed nationally by ACTA Publications, and available at http://www.blueocotillo.com, Amazon, or any other bookselling venue.

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!

1 Comment

Filed under Commentary

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.

4 Comments

Filed under Commentary

The Dresser Drawers of Fast Fashion

Do you ever have trouble closing your dresser drawers because of too many clothes? Perhaps the excess serves to remind you to sort through your clothes and bag some of them for Goodwill or Salvation Army.

Filmmaker Andrew Morgan says Americans consume and discard significantly more clothing items than two decades ago. Who knew? His new documentary on the clothing industry, The True Cost, explains yet another aspect of American overconsumption and its negative consequences realized in places of production like China, Bangladesh, and India. Prices for many clothing items have been trending down for the last two decades in great part because of China’s entry into apparel production. According to an article in the New York Times, US clothing and apparel expenditure in 1987 accounted for 5.4 percent of all personal consumption spending. By 2009, that figure was down to 3.1 percent. Even so, we (and others in different parts of the world) have purchased more clothes, because the prices are so cheap!!I-have-too-much-stuff

This is a good thing, right? Global economic competition means people in the developed world get more choices of garments and shoes at better prices and people in the underdeveloped world are able to work. This is the process that raises people out of poverty. Yes – it’s been going on for close to 300 years . . .

But it has to be done in the right way.  Although laborers had been abused long before the advent of the industrial era, labor abuse achieved systemic perfection during the era. Conditions in sweatshops have been exposed by countless writers from Upton Sinclair (The Jungle, 1906) to Naomi Klein (No Logo, 1999). The unseemly similarities between the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan killing 146 mostly immigrant garment workers and the 2013 Rana Plaza collapse in Dhaka, Bangladesh killing 1,129 garment workers and injuring over 2,500 are simultaneously tragic and shameful. We may have eliminated the drastic labor abuses in the American garment industry (and today only 3% of the clothes Americans purchase are manufactured in US factories, compared to 95% in 1960), but when we purchase and wear garments produced in questionable conditions overseas, we are complicit. Fierce global competition does lead to lower prices, but it also helps create abysmal working conditions for laborers.

Monsanto – the company that would slap a patent on Mother Nature if it could – sells its genetically modified (to guard against pests) and expensive cotton seeds to farmers in India. Most likely, you have some garments made from Indian cotton in your dresser drawers; India is the second largest producer and exporter of cotton in the world. Indian farmers currently (and historically) suffer from high rates of suicide. Monsanto (of course) denies that the high price of its seeds (manufactured in part with Indian companies) and associated farmer debt are linked to the recent rash of suicides. To be fair to Monsanto, there are other contributing factors to the suicides, such as alcoholism and personal domestic problems.

The Monsanto publicity department works hard on promoting an image of hard-driving multinational company stretching the bounds of science for the benefit of all humankind. But remember, Monsanto is the company that not only spies on, bullies, and sues its own customers, but it also owns the patent rights to “terminator gene” technology – the capability to make seeds sterile (and consequently force farmers to buy new seed every single planting season). They vow, however, not to use the technology . . . Right. Sounds kinda like Iran saying it won’t enrich uranium to weapons level grade. Which of the two do I trust less: Monsanto or Iran?

I have digressed – but it was purposeful digression. Remember the clothes we dropped off at Goodwill? Only ten percent of those items will end up on hangers inside the store for resale. The rest of it gets split into three areas: recycled rags and insulation, Sub-Saharan African resale markets, and landfills. The garment industry is the second most polluting in the world (behind the energy industry with its coal, oil, and gas), and globalization has made it possible to produce clothing at such low prices that many now consider clothing to be a disposable item – giving rise to the term fast fashion, akin to the term fast food.

Charlie_Chaplin_Machine

Charlie Chaplin in Modern Times (1936)

Theologian Paul Tillich, decades ago, accurately described the modern age we live in:

Man is supposed to be the master of the world and of himself. But actually he has become a part of the reality that he has created, an object among objects, a thing among things, a cog within a universal machine in which he must adapt himself to in order not to be smashed by it. (From Theology of Culture, Oxford University Press, 1959, 7-8.)

Fast fashion looks to be as unhealthy as fast food. Slow down, search for quality, make it last, reuse or remake it when possible, recycle, and – oh yeah – buy fewer items.

 

 

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 (only fifty-two pages) of the full-length original with discussion questions at the end of each chapter.

2 Comments

Filed under Commentary

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.

3 Comments

Filed under Commentary, Excerpts

Religious Syncretism and “Purity”

I travelled in Latin America as a college student, returning to the States smitten by its history and culture – repeated listens to Neil Young’s Cortez the Killer my panacea of choice. A few years later while in seminary, I consequently made plans to do my internship in Peru. (Since my seminary was in Minnesota, there was a good chance I would have served internship in North Dakota. Enough said?)*

peru 001

Cuzco, Peru, el siglo pasado – last century (1983 to be exact). And, yes – look closely – that is a WXRT “Chicago’s finest rock” t-shirt.

Part of my preparation for a two year internship in Peru included studying aspects of religious syncretism – the fusion of belief and practice systems – in Latin America. The most accessible example for North Americans is La Virgin de Guadalupe, a blending of Catholicism’s Virgin Mary and the mother-god of the Nahautl, Tonantzin. With her combination of features both European and indigenous, La Virgin is the representative first Mexican; her cult is both religious and cultural. There’s a danger, however, in labeling other systems overtly syncretistic: one can easily forgot that one’s own system is also syncretistic. Not all alleged purity is relative, but much of it is.

Syncretism has been a part of Christianity’s development and that of all major religious systems since their very beginnings. These systems could not have achieved worldwide status without being syncretistic. The church’s ability to adapt, thriving or surviving, in situations diverse such as the Roman empire (with emperor Constantine’s approval of the religion in 314) and communist Soviet Union (with its proposed eradication of organized religion), shows its vitality. Not all religious syncretism is bad; it is oftentimes necessary in order that an intended message be contextualized. Too much syncretism, however, can render the original message altered beyond recognition. Danger of another type ensues when religious leaders demand purity in belief and practice from adherents, acting as if their “true understanding” of the system is devoid of syncretism (and its supposed evils).

As the church in 21st century America continues on its downward trend, it has a great opportunity to differentiate itself from the dominant materialist-consumerist societal creed that has infected some of its quarters in the last thirty-five years. Money is a necessity, but Jesus turning over the money changers’ tables in the temple shows money’s supposed primacy as concocted. There’s nothing wrong with a healthy economy, but Jesus’s parable in Luke 12 of the rich fool who, thinking he was entirely “self-made,” considered all his gains for himself and no one else, is a blatant indictment of those who trust in the Market above all other things.

It’s a fine line between material blessings appreciated and properly utilized and those same objects venerated and pursued as life’s ultimate goal. Part of the church’s job in this society is to remind and teach: where you place your treasure, there you will also find your heart. There’s some purity in that understanding that shines like gold for numerous societies and cultures, past and present.

 

*No offense intended against the great state of North Dakota and its inhabitants! Peru was a much better option for internship – for me. And who knows? Maybe it was good for North Dakota that I didn’t make it there for internship . . .

 

Check out my book that covers this and similar themes. Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good is available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website.

1 Comment

Filed under Commentary

Brand This

I’m not the first to complain about the overuse and adulation of the words brand and branding. Naomi Klein effectively sounded the alarm in No Logo: Taking Aim at the Brand Bullies. Written fifteen years ago, No Logo indicted consumer culture that elevates image over represented product. Hers is still a valid critique today; to it I will add just a twist of updating: branding in the 21st century includes not only products, businesses, and corporations, but people. You are your brand.

Tom Peters, business management consultant and author, is one of the persons most responsible for the above statement that equates humanity and commerce.  Like Klein, he also published a book in 1999, The Brand You 50. Despite the book’s cheerleading demeanor and its overuse of italics, bold, ALL CAPS, (and parenthetical side comments), it has a loyal following. The main point of the book – the importance of showcasing one’s unique skills, in business settings and in life – is unassailable. Distinction, as exemplified by the term Me, Inc. (used by Peters extensively in the book), makes the brand.

A few years before Peter’s book came out, I participated in a “thinking expedition” for innovators. Led by Rolf Smith, a recently retired USAF colonel, this conference gathered executives and leaders from companies such as Proctor & Gamble and Exxon, among others. I was Rolf’s pastor at the time, and he was kind enough to sponsor me as a participant. I was first exposed to the term Me, Inc. at the conference, and consequently encouraged to broaden my vocational identity through a Me, Inc. mapping exercise. (Rolf Smith – not Tom Peters – created the Me, Inc. concept.) As I look back on it, the expedition played a small but vital part to inspire me to write Just a Little Bit More.

It’s a good thing to take personal inventory – to see how one measures up and to contemplate future possibilities based upon one’s skill set and capabilities. That is precisely what happened for me when I did the beneficial Me, Inc. mapping project in 1996; Rolf never encouraged us to think of ourselves as brands.

Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel (What Money Can’t Buy) correctly warns us that market values have been on the rise for the last thirty-five years. He reminds us that there are some things that are better off not having price tags attached to them: giving blood, helping older ladies across the street, encouraging underachieving elementary school kids to read (and paying them to do so). The intrusion of market values storms forward as people are increasingly encouraged to put price tags on all things, even to the point of considering themselves as brands. How far will we allow it to advance? Not everything is to be bought and sold, and not all things (especially people) are to be branded and commercialized.

Brand this: I have unique distinction for who I am as a person, completely unrelated to brand and branding. I am not my brand, and I won’t be branded any time soon. Brand that.

 

Rolf Smith wrote The Seven Levels of Change in 1997. It’s now in its third edition. Highly recommended.

Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, is available in paperback at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. Ebook to be released later this summer!

Leave a comment

Filed under Commentary

The Fueling of Inequality

The following is an excerpt from Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, available at the Blue Ocotillo Publishing website. This excerpt comes from chapter 7 – “Inequality is Regression.”

President Jimmy Carter’s infamous “malaise” speech of July 1979 called Americans to self-discipline, sacrifice, and conservation. OPEC was driving up the price of oil, the Iranian Revolution was cresting, Russia would soon invade Afghanistan, and American confidence was waning. Carter never used the word malaise in the speech, but the description stuck, and critics claimed that Democratic defeatism was televised, watched by more than one hundred million Americans. This was a watershed moment for American politics of the last four decades. Ronald Reagan—treating conservation and material sacrifice like the plague—defeated Carter handily in the following year’s election. Since that time, Reagan’s summons has obliterated Carter’s: not one leading national politician has been brave enough (or foolish enough, politically) to question the ongoing sustainability of our lifestyle and to ask for limits on consumption.

                After more than thirty years of growing social and economic inequality, Carter’s speech, revisited, reveals certain insights more apropos of a social critic or philosopher than a president. “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. But we’ve discovered that owning things and consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning. We’ve learned that piling up material goods cannot fill the emptiness of lives which have no confidence or purpose.” Meaning, Carter intimated, isn’t sold at the mall.

                Carter’s speech was initially well received; Americans flooded the White House with approving phone calls and letters. But the tide turned quickly, and the newly elected Reagan contrasted his bold optimism with the supposed somber pessimism of his predecessor. Carter, however, was not announcing or advocating American demise. The speech has turned out to be a prophetic decree of daring that called the nation to self-examination. Its message harkened to the egalitarian spirit that helped forge American society. But the proclamation has been widely ignored. More than thirty years of unexamined commitment to unlimitedness, as if it’s the only way forward, begs critique. British epidemiologists Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett call for America and other wealthy nations to move away from the idea “in which people regard maximizing personal gains as a laudable aim in life.”*

 

Slightly more than one hundred years have passed since sales of gasoline became dominant among crude oil’s many derivatives. Gasoline, along with diesel and jet fuels, make up more than 75 percent of the typical refinery yield for a barrel of oil in today’s world. A by-product of twenty million years of marine biomass chemical transformation caused by underground heat and pressure, petroleum is a flammable substance that is essentially converted solar energy. All fossil fuels are stored solar energy. Plants use sunlight to grow and thrive, animals eat plants, and their fortuitous decay brought about the coal, natural gas, and petroleum that have fueled our modern industrial life for two hundred years . It won’t last forever. Joseph Tainter and Tad Patzek (authors of Drilling Down) say we’re living off “the geological equivalent of an endowment from a long-dead ancestor . . . a subsidy that allows us to support levels of complexity that otherwise we could not afford.”** In a sense, the way we live now (the wealthiest 20 percent of the world’s population consumes the majority of the world’s energy) is a heightened aberration of history, a radical departure from what has been the norm for nearly all of human history. We can’t and won’t go back to what used to be, but we can teach our children a truth that is widely overlooked in our modern world: high-gain energy (relatively easily attained and highly productive) is precious and rare, and it behooves our respect and right use for the common good. It is highly unlikely that this aberration will be ongoing. Just like a lucky run at the poker table, all good things do come to an end.

                The first chapter of this book covered  Rockefeller’s permission, which allowed for disparities of wealth previously unknown in the history of the world. We can now say that these disparities were made possible because of oil and other fossil fuels—their discovery and commercialization. The potential energy formed over millions of years in and by the earth has been unleashed over the past two centuries: it fueled the first and second industrial eras, forged the advances of Darby, supplied Edison and Ford with the power to innovate, made Carnegie the king of steel, produced Rockefeller’s titanic wealth, and provided the foundation for the incredible advances of the middle and latter parts of the twentieth century. On the other side of the ledger, however, the energy unleashed has also fueled economic  inequality, which has increased significantly in the last one hundred years, bringing along its accompanying social ills. Theologian Reinhold Niebuhr said it so well: progress in better and in worse.

*Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Greater Equality Makes Societies Stronger, Bloomsbury Press (2009), 253.

**Joseph Tainter and Tadeusz Patzek, Drilling Down: The Gulf Oil Debacle and Our Energy Dilemma, Springer (2012), 188-89.

From Just a Little Bit More: The Culture of Excess and the Fate of the Common Good, Blue Ocotillo Publishing (2014), pages 160-61, 162. All rights reserved.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2 Comments

Filed under Excerpts