Sunday, December 21, 2008

Making connections, gaining perspective

I was reading a bit further in Michael Kammen's American Culture, American Tastes, when I came across the following passage from Middletown, a study in contemporary American culture, by Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd. The original version appeared in the leading paper of Muncie, Indiana: "The American citizen's first importance to his country is no longer that of citizen but that of consumer. Consumption is a new necessity." It reminded me of President Bush's exhortation to America following the September 11th attacks: "Now, the American people have got to go about their business. We cannot let the terrorists achieve the objective of frightening our nation to the point where we don't -- where we don't conduct business, where people don't shop." [Italics mine]. I offer this juxtaposition of quotes because while they seem contemporaneous, only one dates from the 21st century. The Lynd's quote appeared in 1929. There is plenty of criticism in the media of our consumer culture and its pernicious impact on society. There was a fair amount of criticism leveled at the banality of a major presidential statement, following an horrific act, which implied that shopping was patriotic and an important rebuke to terrorism. We also incline to the belief that somehow this was another indicator of the superficiality of modern society. Yet, here is a quote from 1929 which resonates, and which, shorn of an identifying date could very well have appeared in a contemporary speech or monograph. Or, what of John Dewey's observation from 1930 that the need to buy had become as much an American duty as savings had once been? The point is not to defend the 2001 statement, but to observe the importance of understanding that the mind set it represents is not new, and is not simply the product of conditions or attitudes peculiar to the present. Rather they are the result of incremental changes visible for decades, recognized, analyzed and commented on by trenchant observers . Not surprisingly, all of the materials necessary to make these connections, and develop a cogent case for or against the validity of my statements originated in a public library. The quotes, the books and the individuals cited all come from resources, either electronic and print, accessible at no extra charge. I hope you will join me in using them.