Tag Archives: consumerism

The Madness of the Middle Class

by Matt McKinnon

middle-class-monopoly

Politicians love to talk about the Middle Class. It’s easy to see why: Depending on how one defines it, the “middle class” makes up somewhere around 55% of the electorate. A clear majority that acts as a barometer in national elections: When a majority of the middle class votes one way or another, that side wins.

Politicians also love to talk about how bad the middle class has it, or how bad the other side’s policies have been for the middle class. Few actually stop to define what they mean by the “middle class” or to question what others mean. And even fewer ever discuss the reasonableness of the definition itself.

After all, most everybody wants to be middle class, it seems. And most people consider themselves middle class, regardless of the criteria used or the evidence to support it. So it makes sense for politicians and the media to fawn all over this group, since even those who might not be middle class still consider themselves as such.

describe-yourself2

A cursory glance at the term’s usage these days tends to settle on a definition of earning anywhere between $30,000 and $100,000 a year. Setting aside the huge differences in this range (do folks who make $100,000 have much in common with those who make $30,000?), the definition itself denotes a shift in meaning when compared to more historical uses of the term.

After all, the term’s origins in the 18th century attempted to describe the class of people somewhere between the nobility and peasantry of Europe: a collection of professionals like doctors and lawyers, business owners, bankers, etc… Folks, in essence, who lived in the city (the bourgeoisie) and had as much (if not more) money than the aristocracy, but with none of the family history, class rank, or titles to go along with it.

By the 20th century, after the Industrial Revolution had shaken up the demographics considerably, the “middle class” came to mean that group of folks between the upper class and the working class. The bourgeoisie gets further split with the rise of small family businesses—the petite bourgeoisie and the term “middle class” grew to include the growing number of “white collar” workers brought about by the modernization of the economy. We see this in the distinction today between the “upper” middle class and the “lower” or “working” middle class, though even here, there is no clear differentiation.

wpa-worker-paycheck

The post-World-War-II boom of the American economy completed the shift of the average worker from agriculture to industry that had begun earlier in the century, and precipitated the growth of the American Middle Class, that bastion of political intrigue and, so it seems, economic doom.

Two controversial points strike me: That the growth of the American Middle Class is basically the result of government programs in the wake of World War II and the economic boom that accompanied them, and that, in the long run, many of our problems are not the result of the decline of the Middle Class, but because of its rise—and the sort of people we have become as a result.

As to the first, it is no doubt that the economic growth of the private sector following World War II drove the material success of the burgeoning middle class, but it cannot be ignored that this included on the one hand the growth of “big government” in building highways and other infrastructure as well as the rebuilding of war-torn Europe and the rise of the military-industrial complex. Thus, economically speaking, government spending had a considerable influence in the growing economy. Couple that with the specific government programs in the GI Bill that included college loans, mortgages, and low-interest business loans, and you have the makings of the American Middle Class.

The point is simple: The government, and specifically government spending, had much to do with the creation of the middle class. Far from being its enemy, historically at least, it has been its greatest patron.

interstate-highway-system

Now to the second and more controversial point: That perhaps it is the rise of the middle class—and not its decline—that has precipitated many of our nation’s current social woes. Granted, the decline of the middle class is directly related to the growth of income disparity in this country and is itself the result of our economy’s shift from being production oriented to a service-driven one. The American Middle Class, I submit, is not responsible for this decline; nor is it directly responsible for the shipping of production jobs overseas.

And yet, it is not entirely free of blame either.

The growth of the middle class has meant, among other things, certain material benefits and opportunities. With the rise of technology, it has offered us essential benefits—like modern health care, housing, and transportation—as well as some not as essential, like Xboxes, iPhones, and flat-screen televisions.

In short, it has provided us with a lifestyle of reasonable comfort and incredible ease at the expense of outrageous consumption. We eat more (way more than we need) but we also eat worse. We buy things we cannot afford because we think we deserve them (and because credit is ridiculously accessible, albeit with usury-like interest). We demand services for things that our parents and grandparents (who, for the vast majority of us, did not grow up middle class) did for themselves—or did without. We don’t grow our own food, or make our own clothing, or even change the oil in our own cars.

No, instead of making us better, the rise of the Middle Class has made us, for the most part, a bunch of privileged, over-fed, under-exercised, spoiled whiners who blame government and business for shipping our jobs overseas, and yet flock to Wal-Mart and Target to buy cheap goods that are the result of those jobs going overseas.

bangladesh1

Now this is not to excuse government and business for their considerable part in all of this, but, for better or worse, we in the middle class are the ones whose lifestyles can only seem to be sustained with cheap goods from even cheaper labor. It’s not that we won’t work (though I do contend most of us won’t do certain jobs anymore); it’s that it costs so much to employ us. Things like job safety, employment benefits, minimum wages, and health care are all important ideas that we take for granted, but they are also costly. It is simply cheaper to employ someone in China or Taiwan, where these safeguards are not as strongly regulated. And in fact, as many Chinese become more middle class and demand the same sorts of benefits and safeguards that we do, it has become cheaper to employ folks in a country like Vietnam or Honduras.

It seems everybody loves capitalism until it does what it always does—finds the cheapest way to manufacture a good (like it did this when the textile mills moved from New England to the South, and again when they moved from the South to Asia and Central America).

This is not to attack the Middle Class, but rather to remind us that the middle class did not build this country. The working class did. The middle class did not survive the Depression. The working class did. The middle class did not fight and win World War II and subsequently build this nation into a military and economic superpower. That was the working class as well. But, in doing so, the working class also built itself into the middle class, and now finds itself unable or unwilling for the most part to do those things that were built into working class values but that seem to be lacking in middle class ones.

vacant-lowes

And this includes the present company as well.

My children are growing up middle class, as did I. The difference is that I was raised by folks who grew up working class while they are being raised by two people who grew up middle class and with all the entitlement that comes with that. Sure, I had my needs met and enjoyed many technological benefits that my parents did not. But not to the extent that I and my wife provide to our sons.

My father grew up in High Point, NC (a city) in the 30’s, yet had an outhouse and lived in a two bedroom house with four other siblings and his mother. He swept mill floors. He helped in the garden. He went to war when he was seventeen. My seventeen-year old has yet to hold a paying job (his grades are already a struggle). My mother visited her grandparents for summer vacations and stayed in a house that had no electricity. Her father had to bank the coal stove at night so they would stay warm (in Pennsylvania) but not die from carbon monoxide. My six-year old is more proficient on the iPad than I am and my eight-year old can work my smart phone better than me.

The point is that it is precisely when the politicians start their pandering that we should question, not just with the conservatives that maybe the underclass was better off before all of the government entitlements, but maybe we in the middle class were better off in the working class.

And more to the point: maybe the entire nation was as well.

foreclosures

Season’s Greetings, Bah Humbug, and All That

by Matt McKinnon

oreilly-war-on-christmas

So, they’re at it again. Bill O’Reilly, Fox n’ Friends, even Mike Seaver from the 80’s sitcom Growing Pains. It’s that time of the year to gird your loins, strap on some armor, grab a sharp object or two, and get ready for the annual War on Christmas. It’s going to be brutal this year.

Or so it would seem. Heck, Kirk Cameron even has a full-length film out on how to save Christmas—titled, appropriately enough, Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas. Spoiler Alert: It’s not a remake of that yuletide classic from 1996 Elmo Saves Christmas, so don’t buy a copy thinking it will make a great baby-sitter for the little tikes while mummy and daddy sample the ole egg nog until they’re both Blitzen.

No, this is serious. The fate of the Holiday—er—Christmas season is at stake.

kirk-cameron_saving-christmas

Now there’s plenty of material to make fun of in this latest holiday counteroffensive, not the least of which is Cameron’s suggestion to mothers and wives: “(D)on’t let anything steal your joy…. Let your children, your family, see your joy in the way that you decorate your home this Christmas, in the food you cook, the songs you sing, the stories you tell, and the traditions that you keep.”

Yeah, that’s just my wife’s problem this time of year, what with her sixty-hour work weeks and dissertation writing—letting something steal her joy. “Come on baby, put those papers away and decorate! Cook! Sing! Tell Stories!”

And there’s even more fun to be made of the historically and theologically unsustainable claim by Cameron that it was Pagans who actually stole Christmas, making everybody believe that Christmas is really just some Pagan holiday that Christians co-opted. Christians didn’t steal Christmas from the Pagan Saturnalia and Yule: Pagans stole it from them. Yeah, that’s it. That’s the ticket. And, and, Santa Claus is really just one of the wise men from the East who lost his way and wandered into the Germanic celebrations of Yuletide (with a soot-black horned sidekick named “Black Peter” if you happen to live in the Netherlands. I forget what part of the Bible that’s in, but it’s got to be somewhere).

gruss-von-krampus

But instead of making fun of Kirk Cameron’s Saving Christmas, I would like to agree with—and champion—its premise that Christmas has become way too commercialized and has lost sight of anything resembling a religious and holy observance.

Except…that isn’t the film’s premise.

No, instead of arguing along with some Christian groups, that the real war on Christmas is the fact that it has been almost completely co-opted by our neoliberal corporatized economy, Saving Christmas seems to embrace the very materialistic overconsumption that eats at the soul on that sacred day.

black-friday-gate

The message is targeted to other Evangelicals and conservative Christians (who would pay to see the movie) and not to those dead-souled secularists whom Bill O’Reilly charges with making war on Christmas. And the point seems to be that Christmas really is Christian (did any of us doubt this?) and that everybody should be making as big a deal about it as they possibly can—there’s where decorating, cooking, singing, and telling stories comes in.

But also, presumably, throwing oneself full throttle into this Christmas marketing blitz that begins earlier and earlier every year, and which now includes shelling out some dough to watch Kirk Cameron save Christmas.

And then there’s Federalist blogger Mollie Hemingway who points out that Saving Christmas ultimately means Defeating Advent.

publick-notice

What gets lots in all of this is that, once upon a time, Advent was the rather solemn and eminently respectful lead up to Christmas (at least it was when I was a kid way back in the ’70s). Or that it was the 17th century’s version of the Evangelicals—the Puritans in New England and regular-old England—who led the first war on Christmas when they attacked it as unhistorical and unbiblical, banning it and making it illegal in Massachusetts for much of the 1600’s. Or that, despite Cameron’s (and others’) love for their holiday, or their version of the holiday, there are in fact many other holidays celebrated around the same time. Some religious, some not so much.

And there are worse things in the world today than wishing someone “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” or pointing out the syncretism between Medieval Christianity and the religions it replaced. Or opting out of all the commercialized craziness to concentrate on what’s really important—what folks think is really important in their lives (which we don’t have to agree on).

But making a holiday movie that embraces all of the commercialization and materialization of our culture is not a solution to the problem of the loss of meaning in Christmas and religion in general—it’s part of the problem.

bah-humbug

So with that in mind, I offer my own corporate-free observance, culled from various places on the internet and elsewhere, edited, redacted, plagiarized, but always heartfelt:

Please accept with no obligation, implied or implicit, my best wishes for an environmentally friendly, socially responsible, low stress, non-addictive, gender neutral, ethnically diverse, class-inclusive celebration of the wintertime holiday of your choosing, including but not limited to (in an order not meant to suggest priority or preference):

Winter Solstice, Dongzhi, Signature of the Constitution of the Republic of China (Taiwan), Hogmany, Advent, Thiruvathira, Saint Nicholas’s Day (Western Calendar), Christmas Eve, Christmas, 12 Days of Christmas, Night of the Radishes, Saint Lucia’s Day, Saint Stephen’s Day, Saint John the Evangelist’s Day, Holy Innocents’ Day, Saint Sylvester’s Day, Watch Night, Feast of the Circumcision, Feast of Fools, Festivus, Dhanu, Twelfth Night, Epiphany, Eastern Orthodox Christmas, Monkey Day, Eastern Orthodox Epiphany (Theophany), Three Kings’ Day, Larentalia, Modranect, Yule, Hanukkah/Chanukah, Yuletide, Yalda, Sadeh, Brumalia, Saturnalia, Festival of the Birth of the Unconquered Sun, Boxing Day, Winterval, Bodhi Day, Agnostica, Zamenhof Day, Day of Neutrality, HumanLight, Chrismukkah, Mummer’s Day, Kwanzaa, Agonalia, New Years Eve, New Year’s Day, Omisoka, Karachun, and/or Rohatsu,

…practiced within the traditional, religious, and/or secular perspective of your choice, with respect for the traditional, religious, and/or secular perspective of others (and mindful of your option to not practice religious and/or secular traditions at all),

…as well as a fiscally successful, personally fulfilling, and medically uncomplicated recognition of the onset of the commonly accepted calendar year 2015, but not without due respect for the calendars of choice of other cultures, traditions, and/or religious persuasions whose contributions to society have helped make America a great country (not to imply that America is necessarily greater than any other country nor is the only “America” in the Western hemisphere) and without regard to the race, creed, color, age, physical ability, religious faith, and/or sexual orientation of the wishee.*

xmashup

*By accepting this greeting, you are accepting these terms: This greeting is subject to clarification and/or withdrawal. It is transferable without the explicit consent in writing of the wisher and may be altered, edited, redacted, expounded upon, or discarded at will. It implies no promise by the wisher to actually implement or guarantee any of these wishes and is revocable at the sole discretion of the wisher. This wish is warranted to perform as expected within the usual application of good tidings for a period of one year, or until the issuance of a subsequent holiday greeting, whichever comes first, and warranty is limited to replacement of this wish or issuance of a new wish at the sole discretion of the wisher.

Employees of the University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) and their families may be subject to disqualification from proposed wishes if these wishes constitute an infringement on proprietary wishing rights held and enjoyed by the UNCG institution itself, its Board of Trustees, Chancellor, Provost, Deans and Associate Deans of various colleges, and/or Department Heads, as well as the Board of Governors and President of the University of North Carolina, whose own well wishes may take precedence if limited and/or counteracted by these heartfelt greetings of yours truly.

Void where prohibited by law.

Chew on This: The Ethics of Carnivory

by Matt McKinnon

bbq-porkchops

Let me start by being perfectly clear: I like meat. No, I love meat. And I eat my fair share of it. As the one who does most of the cooking for my wife and three sons, I cook a lot of it. Almost every night in fact.

Meat. Starch. Vegetable.

Just like most every meal my mother cooked us when I was growing up.

And aside from a brief foray into vegetarianism when I fancied myself a Buddhist monk, or the year I tried to abstain from meat during Ramadan when I was attempting to be a Muslim, or the meatless and fast days I put my wife through whilst contemplating becoming a Russian Orthodox priest, I have always been a meat-eater.

Tyrannosaurus Rex ain’t got nothin’ on me to be sure.

Oh, I have often wished I was a vegetarian, mostly for the health benefits — cooking and then consuming a rather large meal of fried animal muscles and skin and fat, only to push myself away from the table at the end of the engorging, and bemoaning out loud (much to the annoyance of my wife), “Sickness and death. Nothing but sickness and death.”

But also in view of the way we treat the animals we eventually consume. Especially after watching a documentary or news report on the latest scandal within our industrialized food industry.

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I just have never been able to commit to it, and I don’t intend to do so now.

To be honest, I have never been all that convinced by the moral argument against killing and eating other animals, finding it the height, in fact, of anthropocentric thought. After all, nature, as Tennyson reminds us, is “red in tooth and claw,” and no other species of animal that I am aware of refrains from killing and consuming other animals based on moral principles.

There is thus a disconnect from nature in the moral argument against eating animals. A version, I think, of Hume’s Guillotine whereby normative claims (what ought to be the case) are made based on positive premises (what is the case). The idea that we ought not to eat animals has absolutely no basis in observable nature. And in fact, the opposite may be true: We evolved to the point of having such large brains able to come up with ideas like vegetarianism and the is/ought problem as a direct result of the large amounts of protein our pre-homo sapiens ancestors got by virtue of eating meat—from eating other animals.

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But arguments for or against vegetarianism aside, the manner in which we treat the animals that we eat is beyond unsettling. It is downright inhumane and, I would argue, unnatural (thus steering clear of my own is/ought dilemma).

As a student of religion, I am aware of and even sympathetic to religious convictions about why humans are superior to other animals. Whether we humans have a “soul” and are made in the image of God, or whether we humans are in a better position to reach enlightenment, or whether we humans are just better adapted to do things other animals cannot, I can accept the idea that, for the most part, we are at the top of the food chain, and thus are in the same position to cows and chickens and pigs as grizzly bears are to salmon or chickens are to bugs and worms or pigs are to, well, absolutely anything that wanders into their pen.

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As humans, we define ourselves, for better or worse, in relation to the rest of nature and the rest of the animal kingdom, and we define ourselves, for the most part, as superior to it.

Okay, that’s all well and good (though it is also the cause of the environmental destruction we have wrought over the past few hundred years).

So we are at the top of the food chain and are, using nature as our model, free to kill and cook and eat whatever we find tasty and/or nourishing.

I get that: For Christians, all other animals are not created in the image of God and, a few crazy cat people notwithstanding, are not endowed with the same inalienable rights that humans are. Or for Buddhists, who forbid the killing of animals by their adherents but nonetheless allow them to eat animals that someone else (presumably a non-Buddhist) has killed, and for whom those other (non-human) sentient beings are not in the same position as humans to work out their karma and achieve enlightenment in this lifetime. Or even for scientific materialists, who merely see this behavior as that of a dominant species in a given food chain.

But what I don’t get, and what I don’t think I have ever come across, is a discussion of how it must feel to be one of those animals unfortunate enough to be trapped in the middle of our industrial food complex.

hens

For that, I would argue, is where the real issue lies.

Those who would argue for human superiority often go too far in distinguishing us from the rest of the animal kingdom, based upon our possession of souls, or higher-order reasoning, or what have you. But likewise those who would argue against the eating of other animals go too far in asserting an egalitarianism, an equality, that simply does not exist or is not respected anywhere else in nature.

But what rarely gets discussed in arguments about the superiority of humans is what we sentient beings all hold in common: Sentience itself. The ability to feel. And more to the point: The ability to feel pain.

After all, do we really think that animals, while not possessing the same quality or degree of reason and consciousness that we do, therefore do not feel pain? Or feel it any less or differently than we do? Indeed, science tells us that animals do feel stress—direct evidence I would argue that they do in fact feel, and process sensations, in a similar manner to humans.

But why then does it not matter that the vast majority of animals that we end up eating live lives where their pain and discomfort is not taken seriously? And if it does matter, why then do the vast majority of us continue to support such practices by turning a blind eye, effectively supporting the system and perpetuating the problem?

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Well, the biggest reason is probably the cost of buying organic meat in the form of grass-fed cattle and free-range chickens. Availability is also an issue. And yet, most of us are not up in arms about any of this, instead seeking out the weekly specials on flank steak or chicken wings or baby back ribs, oblivious at best and unsympathetic at worst to the plight of those animals’ lives before we eat them. Complicit just the same.

Indeed, why is it ever alright to participate in this brutality by excusing it, supporting it, or simply ignoring it?

Thus it seems to me that this is the important and defining issue: Not lauding ourselves over the rest of the animal kingdom as possessing an inherent right to treat our food source any old way we choose. But neither in simply equating the value of a human life to be the same as that of any and every other animal in nature. Most of us simply don’t equate the lives of other animals with that of humans.

But both positions seem wrongheaded to me.

The issue is not whether or by what right we eat animals but how we treat them before we eat them. The solution, I contend, is simply to treat animals in a way that is conducive to a natural life—to the manner in which they would live naturally if they were not part of an industrialized food factory (the way, arguably, humans have done since we domesticated these animals for our own consumption thousands of years ago). Whatever it costs in terms of higher prices or lower profits.

And then eat them. Presumably with a smile on their faces as well as on ours.

smiling-pig

Brand Loyalty and Personal Identity

by Chris Metivier

This is not Christopher's haircut.

This is not Chris’ head.

I’m a traitor, a turncoat, a fence-jumper, and possibly having an identity crisis. Some of my friends feel betrayed, others feel like they’ve gained an ally, still others feel like they don’t know me anymore. I have mixed feelings of guilt, pride, defensiveness, and confusion. I don’t know if many of the people in my life will ever look at me the same way again. Certainly they won’t if they are looking at me in a recent selfie, since one of the advantages of my new life is that the front-facing camera on my new Android phone is much better than the one on my old iPhone.

I am a brand-betrayer. I’ve been “that Apple guy” for most of the last decade, an Apple evangelist even. I was an early adopter of the iPhone, and an apologist for it ever since. But no more. Now I’m an “Android phone guy”. Sure, I still use Apple computers (as well as a Windows computers, because they both have their advantages), but everyone knows that when you get a text message and pull out your handset that is simultaneously your connection to the rest of the world and a distraction from it, it’s either going to be an iPhone, or something else. People can tell a lot about you from your phone. They know how you operate, what’s important to you, what kind of person you are. They can tell whether you are a sophisticated, modern aficionado of contemporary industrial design, or a utilitarian, no-nonsense, all-business power-user.

Battle of the Brands.

Battle of the Brands.

People judge you on what kind of phone you use. I had no idea how much until I made the switch. As a member of team iPhone, I never noticed how much people believed in their iPhones. It seemed normal to me. Obviously iPhone is the superior device. I’m no fool, why would I have ever bought an inferior product? As one of these people, I had never been on the receiving end of the nose-wrinkling, smug disgust toward anything non-iPhone. Since becoming an iPhone outsider, I have been forced to wonder, have I been behaving that way all these years?

trusted-brandOf course I know, academically, that all this talk about judgment and character evaluation is superficial and not to be taken seriously. I even teach my business ethics students this very lesson. I use “consumerism” to indicate this kind of social behavior. I know “consumerism” is used lots of different ways in different contexts, but this is how I use it in that course. I’m covering that unit now, and just last week established the term. It works like this. Advertising comes in two flavors: transactional and branding. Transactional ads are ones that give you some information about some product or service. Branding ads don’t give you any information, but instead aim to change the way you feel about a brand. The danger of branding is that it asks you to identify with the values that a brand (ostensibly) represents. When lots of people internalize these brand values, they begin to understand themselves, their personal identity, through the brands that they buy. Their self-identity depends on their consumption. Hence, consumerism.

Here is an example that is both particularly easy to analyze and particularly relevant to my case.

PC -vs- Mac.

P.C. vs. Mac.

I’m sure you’ve seen one of the ads from this campaign, perhaps even a parody of it. It was, in terms of recognition, very successful. I often use it as an example in business ethics class. In it we see two characters who figuratively represent not just products, but brands. It’s important to notice that the two characters don’t represent specific products. The two options are Mac and PC. Not Mac and Windows, Mac and Dell, or something else. Apple has set up a dichotomy here between Mac and everything else. So you, the consumer, have exactly two options. Do you want to be like the hip, young, creative, relaxed, attractive Mac guy, or the stiff, nerdy, uptight, boring PC guy? The ad implies that there are “Mac people” and “PC people” and that they have personalities that can be identified by the products they use (or more importantly, buy).

apple-tat-girl-edWhen our culture becomes one (and it has) where people make purchasing decisions based not on the qualities of the products but on the whether or not they believe those products reflect the identity that they want to project, then it becomes a consumerist culture.

Let’s face it, all computers (and all smartphones) do pretty much the same stuff. When we decide which one to buy, it’s rarely based on the properties of the device itself. They just aren’t very different. Sure, you might be used to doing things one way or another, and it would be inconvenient to have to learn new methods for getting things done (another strategy companies use to create an artificial barrier to switching once you’re in), but certainly you don’t think so little of yourself that you believe you couldn’t learn. When you decide to buy a Mac instead of a PC, Apple hopes that it’s at least in part because you think of yourself as the kind of person who uses a Mac. That’s where brand loyalty comes from.

Coke or Pepsi?

Coke or Pepsi?

Sure you might come to believe that the product you chose is objectively superior, or that it will provide tangible benefits to you over the alternative. But those are ad hoc justifications for a decision you made based on how you felt about the product and what kind of person you want to be. Cognitive psychologists call it “confirmation bias” when we cherry-pick evidence to support the position that we’ve already adopted. As consumers, we don’t want to feel foolish for having bought an inferior product (I’m going to stick with the example of computers or smartphones), so we insist that our choice was the best in the face of criticism from those who happen to have bought a competing product for the same feelingsy reasons. And because none of us want to admit (or are maybe not even aware of) our underlying motivations, we get into esoteric fights about megapixels and gigahertz, or when these measurements are not on our side, we can use more abstract metrics like “user experience” or “software ecosystems.”

…which is a croc.

…which is a croc.

I’ve taught this lesson for years, and it never occurred to me until now that I was as guilty as anyone else. So I decided to put my money where my mouth is and turn in my iPhone, to abandon the comfortable hegemony of Apple’s walled garden for the untamed, shifting Otherness of Google’s Android platform. I admit, I had a period of homesickness when I discovered that some of the conveniences I had enjoyed would take some work to reestablish.

"I've made a huge mistake."

“I’ve made a huge mistake.”

But on the whole, as I should have expected, my life has continued largely unchanged. I don’t regret my decision. And as I write this, it occurs to me that this shouldn’t even be a big deal. It wouldn’t be if consumerism wasn’t such a strong force, both internally and externally, in my life.

So I guess that’s the lesson, which I’m still learning. Consumerism is ubiquitous, insidious, and powerful. I’ve resisted the desire to detail the arguments I’ve heard in just the last few days for why my decision to change camps was either foolish or inspired, and to analyze all the ways in which these arguments are misguided, selfishly motivated, or just mean. I know my decision was neither a blunder nor an epiphany. It was an experiment. And it’s value in self-reflection alone was worth the price.

Brand-logo alphabet. How many do you recognize?

Brand-logo alphabet. How many do you recognize?

Choose Your Own Adventure

By Carrie Levesque

Recently in the Russian Novel of Conscience course we have been discussing Yevgeny Zamyatin’s 1921 dystopian novel We, about a highly mechanized and regimented totalitarian society (the One State) hundreds of years in the future where citizens have achieved the ultimate happiness: unfreedom.  Taking as our starting point Marx’s claim that machines, invented to help man, have become the symbols of his servitude, we debate the extent to which machines and technology have enslaved or liberated men in today’s world.

As a class, we’ve compiled a pretty good list of technology’s benefits (efficiency, convenience, online degree programs!) and costs (myriad media addictions, a privileging of online relationships at the expense of face-to-face ones).  At midterm, several students have written excellent papers on how we have created a sort of One State within the United States through certain government policies and technologies which reduce rather than foster our individuality and humanity.

Many of these discussions have stirred up nostalgia for simpler times, when it seems people had different values and a different relationship to one another.  They’ve made me think about a book I read recently on a more extreme response to this question, the Back to the land movement (which is a great deal more complex than just ‘living simply,’ but I’m limited to 800 words…).

I grew up in a remote area of northern Maine that has always attracted Back-to-the-landers.  What possesses these diehards who apparently find the southern Maine homesteads of the followers of Scott and Helen Nearing not austere or isolated enough, that they would haul their few remaining possessions to the place where the logging roads end and call it home, I can’t say for sure.

But I’ll admit to having a touch of that idealism myself- to unplug, to live off the land, to disconnect from our nonstop media and rampant consumerism of all the latest technology (though you’d have to be insane to choose the wilds of northern Maine, a place with two seasons: Brutal Winter and Rainy Black Fly Infestation).  Though I now prefer a more comfortable climate, I understand the appeal of living in a beautiful, natural setting, devoting most of one’s time to work in the outdoors without a care for whatever new technology or entertainment the rest of the world is enthralled with.

Coleman Family

And yet, through a closer examination of life ‘off the grid,’ I’ve also come to a greater appreciation of many benefits of our modern life. I recently read Melissa Coleman’s memoir This Life Is In Your Hands about growing up the daughter of famous homesteader and Nearing mentee Eliot Coleman. She chronicles the great strain that the demands of homesteading put on her family, resulting in her father’s ill health, her baby sister’s tragic death and her parents’ divorce.  (On a lighter note, she also reveals some of the purist Nearings’ well-kept secrets: Helen’s love of ice cream, mail order fruit and other delicacies.  Even the folks who wrote the (sometimes a tad righteous) book on living local and off the grid indulged a little on occasion).  Though there were certainly aspects of their lives on the homestead that were richly satisfying, some readers may come away wondering if their chosen cure for the ills of modern life wasn’t in some ways as harmful as the disease, physically as well as spiritually.

Another interesting look at the real-life struggles of those who lived in those idealized ‘simpler times’ is the PBS reality series Frontier House.   In 2001, three families (selected from among some 5,000 applicants!) lived off the land for six months on the simulated frontier of 1880s Montana.  The success of their venture was assessed by historians based on whether each family had put by enough food and fuel over the summer and fall to survive a Montana winter.  Though they labored admirably, through all sorts of drama, if memory serves it was decided all would have perished.  The simpler times were never as simple as they seem.   (Frontier House is available in UNCG’s Instructional Film Collection, but sadly, not on Netflix).

There are no easy answers to the question of man’s relationship to technology.  Most people I know lament their dependency on smart phones, social media and a food supply so highly engineered that many of us have no idea what we’re really eating half the time (pink slime, anyone?).   Yet we have so much to be grateful for.  We live in a time of amazing medical advances.  Whatever may plague or disappoint us in our lives, we have the freedom and resources at our fingertips to research alternatives and connect with like-minded people to find a solution.  For all our similarities, thankfully these United States are not the One State.  Our ultimate happiness is not to be found in our unfreedom, but in our freedom to negotiate these complex choices and relationships, to choose our own adventure.