Monday, January 06, 2003

Here's Susan Sontag from a Vanguardia interview published on December 30:

Sontag: I've lived in Paris for a long time, and in other countries in Europe. I'm attracted by its culture, its willingness to debate...Most of the things I like are in Europe!
Interviewer: What do you dislike about the United States?
S: That the whole primordial dream was overrun by consumptionism, the ideology that "to live is to buy". That's the ideology today. It makes the people stupid, it makes their principal values shopping and having fun.
I: I've read that you've said you're ashamed of being American.
S: No, that's an incorrect headline, and I thank you for allowing me to clear this up: what I'm ashamed of is not being American but the aggressive American foreign policy and the warlike exercise of political power by the Bush Administration!
I. Saddam's worse: he murders his people!
S: Saddam is the worst monster in the world! He is hateful, like Islamic fundamentalism. But the United States is hateful for its imperialistic fundamentalism!
I: The United States has saved Europe several times, it's provided solutions...
S: Not everything my country has done has been negative, but today the United States isn't a solution, it's a danger! A world dominated by the United States would be horrible, and Bush's imperialism frightens me. I hope Europe will show us a road to follow.

I could give a take on this interview from any number of different angles, but perhaps the most interesting is that of "consumptionism". It's not an ideology, in the first place, it's more like a lifestyle. In the second place, I think the Europeans mean by it what we mean by "materialism". There are materialistic people everywhere, not only in the United States; there's a lot more conspicuous consumption here in Barcelona than there is in Kansas City, and the freakin' world capital of conspicuous consumption has always been Ms. Sontag's Paris. Third, nobody is in favor of consumptionism or materialism. It's the easiest imaginable straw man for a dissatisfied social critic to knock down, but let's get real: nobody really believes that "to live is to buy". Now, many people like nice things, and there's nothing wrong with that if they can afford them. Many people enjoy shopping. What's wrong with that? I hate it, myself, but if you like it, that's OK with me. Some people are concerned with keeping up with the Joneses, but if they're that insecure, that's their business, and the Joneses phenomenon exists everywhere, not just in America. In fact, it's much more common in newly wealthy countries like Spain, where the generation born in the late Forties and Fifties is the first to enjoy real wealth at a mass level, than it is in countries like the States where people are more used to having money. And a lot of people have a lot more money than they know what to do with everywhere in the West, because the West's system of democratic capitalism is the one that works. Maybe that's really what Ms. Sontag objects to. Oh, yeah, as for the value of having fun, hell, remember that bit about "the pursuit of happiness", the right to do as you please as long as you don't interfere with anyone else's right to do the same.

By the way, it's interesting that the Left is now the side of the ideological spectrum that criticizes materialism or consumptionism or whatever you want to call it, but the original people who the original middle-class Leftists were trying to reach were precisely the poor workers of the Industrial Revolution. And their message was, "You're poor and exploited and that's why you don't have your share of material things. Join us and everybody will get his share." The Left's message is still "Income is unfairly distributed, and you, the poor, aren't getting your share of the wealth." So they're promising the people more material things, yet they criticize an excess of materialism at the same time.

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