"Cercetați toate lucrurile, si păstrați ce este bun!"

Apostolul Pavel

The New York Times recently reported that despite the economic crisis, or perhaps because of it, Americans are flocking to the movies. Ticket sales are up by 17.5% percent this year, while attendance has increased by 16%. It seems logical that when times are bad, people long to escape into fantasy dreams, at least for two hours. To contrast the general mood of despair, recent blockbuster movies have focused on comical themes and other light-hearted subjects like “Jonas Brothers: The 3-D Concert Experience.”            

Yet, I wonder if the desire to escape doesn’t hint at deeper patterns in American society. New York Times columnist Frank Rich, recently asked what it would take for Americans to once again find “a common national good and purpose.” He claims that this ‘common national good’ has become “a trace memory of an American faith we soiled and buried with all our own nonsense in the first decade of our new century.” (March 7, 2009)

According to Rich, Americans have lost a sense of common purpose because of the “obscene widening of income inequality between the very rich and everyone else since the 1970s… America hasn’t seen such gaping inequality since the Gilded Age and 1920s boom that preceded the Great Depression.” Aside from this shift in economic infrastructure, Rich points to a culture that taught people to revere CEO’s and the lifestyles of the rich and famous. Money stood in for social value; hence, people who didn’t have money borrowed in order to reach the ideals touted by a consumer culture that equated the appearance of wealth with ‘good humanity.’

Historically, culture has been central to the process of shifting people’s desires. In the 1930s and ‘40s, Americans were deeply skeptical of the stock market, of using debt to buy products on installment plans, and of economic processes that produced unusually high profit rates at the expense of workers’ interests. Their skepticism was rooted in the recent memory of the 1920s, when greed had led to the 1929 stock market crash and fat cats had created economic despair that took generations to regulate. It was also rooted in the working class culture of the 1930s and 1940s, when coalitions of workers organized to gain labor and wage protections.

The 1950s, on the other hand, was a time when great investments were made to shift Americans’ mentality. If the American economy was to expand in the post-WWII era, the public’s skepticism of unnecessary and superfluous consumption needed to be changed. Americans were encouraged to feel all right about allowing themselves certain pleasures, even if they were not technically necessary. Importantly, the ways Americans could get this sense of feeling good about themselves was through the purchase of particular commodities. The housewife’s sense of worth was linked to whether or not she had the nicest stove. The child gained his self-esteem not because other children thought he was smart, but because he was the one with the new bike. And so on…

This linking between people’s sense of self-worth and commodity consumption was largely cultivated through early television. Advertisers and television producers introduced new desires by associating particular commodities with social value. This was not as easy to accomplish as some would think, since working class values of frugality and collectivity were deeply imbedded. Over time, however, cultural producers succeeded in recruiting people to increasingly think of themselves as dissociated individuals.  Complex cultures that valued and depended on inter-connected collectives were replaced by what is now the central symbol of the ‘American dream’: the isolated single family home in the suburbs with the nuclear family, the dog and the white picket fence.

By the turn of the 21st century, however, we see that what began as a socio-cultural endorsement of consumerism has led to a society whose contradictions are so large that they’ve collapsed upon themselves. Here, I am not only referring to the economic collapse, but the cultural collapse that coincides with it. What kind of commitment to consumer culture must a society have in order to produce national spectacles the way the American media does? Be it the tortures at Abu Ghraib, the mental breakdown of Britney Spears, the scrutiny of the octopulets mother, the obsessiveness with which people reproduce the fight between Angelina Jolie and Jennifer Aniston, or the ways Michelle Obama’s arms are measured and debated… are these big and small acts not indicative of a culture that repeatedly seeks to gain pleasure from other people’s demise?

It might be argued that many other countries engage in such forms of consumption and spectacle as well. Perhaps. But there is a distinct structure of spectatorship endorsed by American culture. You see it in the ways the news media is more concerned with producing entertainment and spectacles than with news reporting. You see it in the ways Republicans and Democrats keep pointing fingers and blame at each other instead of coming up with a set of shared values, followed by a plan that helps those most affected. You see it in the ways American people’s desperate cries for help are turned into rhetoric of ‘irresponsibility’ and ‘dependence.’ You see it in the way Rush Limbaugh exploits people’s emotional desire for certainty in a time of uncertainty by promoting ideas that are ultimately detrimental to them.

A construction worker who recently became homeless understood the American tendency to aestheticize despair all too well. Aware of how his homeless status might be turned into a narrative of ‘irresponsibility’ in CNN’s coverage, he preemptively sought to thwart that narrative from being imposed on him. “I’m just looking for someone to give me a job. I’m not looking for anyone to take care of me. Just give me the job and I’ll take it from there.” His shame over his ‘personal failure’ loomed so large that he had not told his four children that he was living in a tent city outside of Sacramento.

The construction worker’s anxiety was rooted in a culture and value system that tells us again and again that it’s not okay to ask for help. It’s rooted in a culture that repeatedly makes a spectacle of people’s woes and troubles that are largely not their fault. It’s rooted in a culture far removed from the 1930s working class culture that valued inter-dependency, mutual aid societies, and networks of support.

Perhaps instead of going to the movies, where we are often encouraged to turn away from reality or to keep participating in the aforementioned structures of spectatorship, we might do something else this week. Maybe we could experiment with cultivating small and large cultures that encourage the Golden Rule instead. Maybe we could practice forms of selflessness and service that were emulated by Christ. There will be demons to fight along the way, both internal and external. Fortunately, God’s patience is not measured in human time.