Black Friday has passed and, even in our recession, my fellow Americans have worked themselves into a consumerist frenzy as part of their holiday season tradition. Materialism is alive and well in the West, even as we live well beyond our means and burn the candle at both ends.
I am psychologically (and perhaps genetically) pre-disposed to agree with condemnations of conspicuous consumption. For all its defects, America’s puritanical WASP ancestry, from Plymouth to Coolidge, knew the value of work, savings, and living within one’s means. How is it that such a society as ours could sink so quickly into irresponsible self-indulgence? History is full of wise fathers and foolish sons, though, as Socrates remarked about Pericles. With these melancholy thoughts, I offer some articles for you to read.
First, I cannot recommend the City Journal enough. The publication always has thoughtful, well written commentary on public matters. One of their frequent contributors is Anthony Daniels, who writes under the name Theodore Dalrymple. He is a retired British physician and psychiatrist with a lifetime of experience in studying man and his problems, often among the United Kingdom’s less refined populations. I had the pleasure to meet him once, and I found him remarkably warm and, to use the colloquial term, real. My father has become a fan of his writing, and I encourage everyone to read his books and essays. His recent article in City Journal—“The Quivering Upper Lip”—concerns Britain’s radical cultural transformation in the last few generations. According to Daniels, America is in much safer waters than her mother across the pond. It is both hard and flattering for a nay-saying cultural critic to hear praise of one’s society from such a fellow. How terrible Albion has become if England is worse than we are. It contradicts our nearly universal but unstated belief in English superiority—America’s form of false consciousness, I assume.
Second, and contra Daniels, one can always depend on Pat Buchanan to dispirit one’s hope in cultural renewal. His current article “Socialist Republic” depicts what loose living and fiscal insanity portend for us down the road.
However, what I really wish to address in this post is an article in The Daily Telegraph about an English abbot’s denunciation of America’s very own secular cultural guidepost, “Disney accused by Catholic cleric of corrupting children’s minds,” by Jonathan Wynne-Jones:
Christopher Jamison, the Abbot of Worth in West Sussex, has accused the corporation of “exploiting spirituality” to sell its products and of turning Disneyland into a modern day pilgrimage site.
He argues that it pretends to provide stories with a moral message, but has actually helped to create a more materialistic culture. . . .
While he acknowledges that Disney stories carry messages showing good triumphing over evil, he argues this is part of a ploy to persuade people that they should buy Disney products in order to be “a good and happy family”. . . .
“The message behind every movie and book, behind every theme park and T-shirt is that our children’s world needs Disney,” he says. . . .
He continues: “This is the new pilgrimage that children desire, a rite of passage into the meaning of life according to Disney.
“Where once morality and meaning were available as part of our free cultural inheritance, now corporations sell them to us as products.”
Fr Jamison, who is one of Britain’s most prominent Catholic clerics, claims that brands such as Disney market themselves to be about more than mere materialism to create an addiction to consumption.
“This is basically the commercial exploitation of spirituality,” he says, adding that as a result Disney and other corporations “inhabit our imagination”.
“Once planted there they can make us endlessly greedy. And that is exactly what they are doing.”
Before commenting on main point of the article, I wish to point out how utterly horrifying it must be for the aforementioned Anthony Daniels that Britain has a “Happiness Tsar”: “In 2006, Lord Layard, the Government’s ‘happiness Tsar’, urged for a rethink of economic and social policy after concluding that the pursuit of financial success has led to a rise in depression and emotional impoverishment.” The very sound of it exudes the stench of social disease. Andrew and other freakish devotees of Doctor Who will undoubtedly think of “The Happiness Patrol.” Such a promising idea for social criticism, such incompetent and artless execution . . . Anyway, the Brits surely have lost their wits if they think that mindless democratically supported bureaucracy can address human happiness when it cannot even maintain civil order on the streets.
As for Disney, I have long had mixed feelings. As a child, I loved Disney’s cartoons, from the old “princess classics” to my favorite, The Sword in the Stone. Then, as a teenager, I read about Tolkien’s condemnation of Disney’s marring of traditional mythoi. Like my medieval ancestors, I was torn between the values of my culture and the words of an auctor.
I think that Tolkien’s criticism holds up, but Disney is still a treasure of artistic and cultural goods. Could we reasonably expect a liberal commercial people to embrace completely the values of the old regime? We are lucky to have chivalry depicted in our popular culture at all, even if it is mixed with a fair bit of bourgeois sentimentality and, more recently, contemporary feminist and multicultural onanism.
As for the good abbot’s criticism of Disney as evangelist for consumerism, I am not so sure. Certainly, consumerism is rampant and ugly, but I do not know why this aspect of modern people with too much money and too confused priorities should completely define Disney. Of course, the company capitalizes on merchandise—nations of shopkeepers always find ways to exploit situations for money. Yet, to dismiss Disney because of this has the faint smell of Marx’s critique of religion as the opium of the masses. Similar illogic plays in both attacks.
I watched a fascinating but revolting documentary a year or so ago about marketing to children, but I cannot remember the name. The program argued that companies manipulate children to determine their parents’ spending behavior. I believe that the documentary even stated that some cartoons were produced with the intention of selling merchandise. Obviously, the coin counters at Disney have mastered that game. Nonetheless, we cannot reduce the artistic product to the merchandising, even if, in one sense, the chief reason for the product’s existence is the merchandise. For there were writers and animators who crafted a piece of art. Their efforts may have been commissioned, facilitated, and perhaps even directed by the coin counters, but their actions as producers of art are not identical to their actions as money-makers for the company.
The abbot’s criticism could be applied to any human undertaking that coexists with paid work. We who find the coin counters merely pallid shades of real manhood hope that artists create art for the love of such creation and that teachers disseminate their learning for the love of knowledge. Yet, for most artists and teachers, their work has some component of wage-earning, as well. Unless one is rich, one has to pay for shelter and victuals. A person has to feed his children. Consider the history of art, and you will quickly see how most of the revered masters worked for commission. I think that it is clear that their work far transcends simply the desire to pay the bills, but practical matters matter in our human life of scarcity.
Perhaps, the abbot has a point about Disney the company—the commodification of culture in the age of mass production is disgusting. However, fine works can come from sordid circumstances. The nineteenth century amply supplies examples. Moreover, we should ponder the difficulties that underlie this issue. What is the end of production? Is it simply money-making, or are there other proper ends for human endeavors that may earn a living?