Fwd: Op-Ed piece on consumerism and values

From: Michael M. Butler (butler@comp-lib.org)
Date: Wed Oct 03 2001 - 21:38:03 MDT

{a friend forwarded this. In part, he wrote:}

I think this: We're in for a rough ride no matter what we do, ranging
from nothing to a lot of something.
Anyway, this Op-ed brought a tear to my eyes, for some reason.


October 3, 2001


All That Glistens



WASHINGTON -- The shiny red and silver Neiman Marcus Christmas catalog just arrived.

It makes you a little sick and a little wistful. Even though it was printed only a month ago, it now seems as detached from the moment as cave drawings, a document of an extinct culture that reveled without apology in the trivial and gaudy, pushing luxury to absurd heights.

A simple hanger could not suffice when there was a $65 mink hanger "too beautiful to tuck away in a closet."

A simple jean jacket could not suffice when there was a $2,785 jean jacket with rabbit collar and cuffs.

A simple baby carriage could not suffice when there was a $4,250 Burberry pram with matching $375 diaper bag.

Simple black stockings could not suffice when there was a $500 pair with cultured fresh-water pearls hand-beaded on the lace border. (And when they run, do you salvage the pearls for an anklet?)

The only camouflage we were concerned with back then was designer camouflage cargo pants and lingerie, offering a frisson of danger to lives that were smugly unthreatened.

And there's Neiman's famous big- ticket fantasy item: your own $6.7 million Bell helicopter to fly you to black-tie parties. (Remember when flying wasn't terrifying?)

America has developed an aversion to consumer overindulgence at the very moment our leaders tell us the only way to prevail against the terrorists and prop up our economy is through consumer overindulgence.

Who could have predicted that the first war of the 21st century would be about stuff?

Past wars were fought to expand empires. But the new invaders want to explode our empire.

The puritanical Islamic warriors hate our stuff and think us decadent hedonist infidels who have lost our souls. "The Americans are fighting so they can live and enjoy the material things in this life," a Taliban spokesman said. "But we are fighting so we can die in the cause of Allah."

As Mullah Muhammad Omar, the Taliban leader, once said: "Life can be led with just a few basics. The luxuries don't matter."

The terrorists don't want our stuff - they lived among us and resisted being seduced by it. They don't want us to have our stuff. And they don't want our stuff to taint their holy lands; they want to banish our planes and equipment and MTV culture from the Persian Gulf.

America is still stunned that our sophisticated stuff could not protect us, that our trillion dollars' worth of weapons, radars and satellites all fell flat against a few brutes with box cutters.

And now we are battling a bunch of atavistic ascetics who hate TV, music, movies, the Internet (except when they're planning atrocities), women and Jews, who live in caves in a country smaller than Texas with a gross domestic product smaller than Bill Gates's.

Up until the moment the twin towers fell, America was deep in a cocoon of self-gratification and self-improvement. We were on a giddy odyssey of self-actualization, epitomized by the headlines in Oprah's magazine: "Feel Good Naked: A fabulous 10- point plan, no diet required."

Now we have to view our solipsism and wretched excess through the prism of the "epic wretchedness" of the Afghan people, as The Times's Barry Bearak called it. It's somewhat embarrassing that we didn't look outward sooner, that foreign wars got less TV air time than the war against wrinkles.

But our culture turns out to be about much more than its glittery surface, and that's been clear in all that's happened since Sept. 11: the exposure to the quiet lives of inspiration that so many victims led; the valor of rescue workers; the altruistic derring-do of the men who fought back on Flight 93; our concern about inflicting unnecessary suffering on innocent Afghans; the generosity and civic tolerance at the heart of our country's response to horrific loss.

With their oxymoronic holy war, Osama bin Laden and his murderous disciples meant to expose our moral vacuity. But they exposed only their own.

They simply succeeded in illuminating - not just to the rest of the world but to us - how little all our baubles and all our booty have to do with who we really are.

The terrorists taught us this: We are more than the sum of our stuff.

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