Father John Kavanaugh SJ on the Abercrombie Culture
Last February I put up a post called Mall Dad, describing the travails of this middle-aged father's navigation of the treacherous shoals, pathways and byways of a suburban shopping mall with his two teenaged daughters. Now, in today's distressed economy, the owners of that commercial property are facing possible bankruptcy. In the meantime, work has stopped on the huge condominium and shopping mall construction project that was underway down the hill from where I work. Now there's a huge expanse of rubble, temporary fencing, dormant earth-moving machines, and enormous mounds of dirt just sitting there.
Before Black Friday, all of the retailers were forecasting doom and gloom and crying poor-mouth, predicting abysmal consumer turnout and warning of their imminent Chapter 11 filings.
Well, I guess the numbers were actually up this year from last. Go figure. When in fear and doubt, do what Americans do best. Shop. Never underestimate the insatiable American consumer's craving for cheap clothing, worthless trinkets, and annoying gadgets.
I'm developing a growing appreciation for the writings of Fr. John Kavanaugh SJ, over at America magazine. Before the election I put up an editorial of his called John F. Kavanaugh SJ's Letter to Obama. His sensible centrism really appeals to me. He got a lot of attention in the news and throughout the blogosphere with that open letter, but what he has been better known for, for quite some time now, is his critique of untrammeled capitalism and the insidious effects of consumerism on our culture and on our children. In an interview, Fr Kavanaugh speaks a bit about what troubles him. Excerpts taken from this interview: St. Louis philosopher looks deeply at life: John Kavanaugh, lover of music, a keeper of friends - Catholic priest.
I ask what's been hardest for him, as a priest and as a man. He nods rapidly, thinks a minute, then sighs. "I get tired of divisions in the Catholic church, fatigued by them, and it possibly has a bad effect on me. I feel less at home with people on the far left and the far right." For Kavanaugh, being Catholic means committing yourself to follow Christ in the context of "a wonderful scripture and liturgical life, the example of great men and women of faith, and a beautiful but flawed tradition." If someone's Catholicism centers around being American or clergy or gay or respectable, that erodes the common ground. "Does the National Catholic Reporter acknowledge any sins that liberals commit?" he asks abruptly. "Does the [conservative Catholic press] acknowledge any sins that conservatives commit? Feminists commit sins as much as clerics. Reality is for us to discover and honor, not create and construct."
"One of the most seductive temptations of the believer is to identify the will of God with the will of the believer, and not the other way around. God's will is squeezed into patriotism, leftism, capitalism, feminism. ... How do we escape fooling ourselves?" His solution, he explains now, is to appeal not to anyone's individual perspective but to the very tenets of the faith. "What you do is shame the person -- that's a harsh word, but when you're talking about violence, power, sexuality, money, do people really want to say, What is the most Christlike thing to do?
In one of his "Ethics Notebook" columns for America, Kavanaugh recalls pleading with a student in desperation: "Is there any imaginable act that might qualify as objectively wrong no matter what the situation?"
The student thought a while, then offered cruelty to animals.
"That encounter," wrote Kavanaugh, "has sometimes led me to imagine a public announcement made to local media that on the following day, under the Gateway Arch in St. Louis, I would do to a hamster and kitten what is done to second-and third-trimester human fetuses. Who could still the outraged protests?"
No culture has been able to strike the proper balance, he concedes, "but in the U.S., it's an even huger problem, because we're such individualist capitalists. My property, my rights, my perspective, my feelings, my judgment -- it just becomes impenetrable. How can people like that love, much less do ethics?"
The antidote, he believes, is openness to experiencing the other -- someone who's homeless, who's getting an abortion, who blew up a Federal building. "It might frighten us to try to get in the mind of Timothy McVeigh, but if we did, we'd understand our own evil impulses better," he remarks. "I think we're afraid that if we see why people can get into a certain situation, we won't have any judgment left. We can't face the terror of having to trust God and each other, having to change our beliefs or give up control."
And what about those politicized extremes tearing the U.S. Catholic church apart?
If we can focus on what pulls us together," he says slowly, "it will live."
"Consumerism, I think, is still the issue. Capitalism feeds us so easily, and some Catholics are utterly uncritical of it. But the consumer way of life looks at everything and everyone in terms of instruments -- as something to be used. And true love is not instrumental. You know it's present when you finally feel sure this person is not trying to use you.
"Look at a person who wants to die because he doesn't feel productive -- that's capitalism," he adds. "And why are we the most `capital-punishing' country in the world and also the most capitalistic?"
His most tart and biting criticism, however, was based upon the same thing I based the Mall Dad post on too - the culture incarnated in Abercrombie & Fitch.
Read his original article at:
Consuming Children: There's just one way to be, and if you're not, you're nothing.
Or read a condensed version at:
The world according to Abercrombie & Fitch
I recently made my yearly pilgrimage to Abercrombie & Fitch. ... Its quarterly 'megalog' has become a youth manual, (with its) close connection to teen culture and the smart college set.
The megalog, or catalogue, was what I was looking for. Close to 300 pages in length, it is divided into three sections. The first third of the book is made up of semiclad and unclad, usually contorted models with empty stares. This year's edition has text written by a postmodern Marxist—"the most important philosopher working today"—superimposed in bold print on the pages of bodies and vacuous faces. After such philosophical gems as "Back to school means learn sex," "A friend is someone I can betray with love" and "Sex has nothing to do with sin," the capitalist-shilling Marxist ends with "you can have critical theory and nudity and enjoy it too." (I know he's going to say it's all "irony." If so, he's still an ironist on the take.) Following a long middle section displaying clothes without models, the"megalog" presents little interviews with rock and movie stars, suggestions on how to star in a college porn film, insider reviews and recommendations of videos or albums and a sell-out advice by a college-based Catholic priest. The catalogue features a warning,"Editor's note: due to mature content parental consent suggested for readers under eighteen."
Most striking of all (in the store), however, were the two customers in line before me: a fiftyish grandma with her late twentyish daughter buying some cool Abercrombie & Fitch clothes for a pre-teenager, who would soon become another walking commercial in the commercial culture. Such are the ways of the consumer society: the older generation forming the younger first into consumers, then into promoters and then into products themselves.
One of the interviews in the A.&.F catalogue features Nikki Reed, the 14-year-old writer and star of "Thirteen," a movie that records the harrowing life of two "cool" kids... The review in Entertainment Weekly, written by Owen Gleiberman, merits further attention: "What's eerie about 'Thirteen' is the way that everything Tracy goes through hooks into a corporate advertising culture that has become nearly metaphysical in its impact: not just the clothes and the accessories or the standards of beauty, but the whole subjugation of identity and flesh to a dictate from above—the sense that there's just one way to be, and that if you're not, you're nothing."
In the 20,000 to 40,000 commercials a child sees every year, in the 60 percent more time our children spend in front of televisions than at school, in the fourth of our children under six who have a television in their own room, what is taking place is the formation of the child's judgment and identity. It is appropriate that some marketers call this phenomenon "branding," for it permanently marks and possibly even scars the little consumers' view of themselves and their world. The message is inescapable, whether you are shopping at Toys R Us or Abercrombie& Fitch, whether you aspire to slut clothes in imitation of Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera or think you cannot live without a Hummer or a Rolex—you are what you consume and wear.This might be good for an economy that requires continually expanding consumption. Even the 27 million "tweens," between the ages of 6 and 14,serve its purpose, with the $20 billion they spend each year and the additional $200 billion in sales they influence. But there is a social, psychological and moral cost to consumerism's dream. One can slowly come to believe that everything is marketable and buyable, from identity and acceptance to happiness itself. With that belief as a foundation, it is not a big step to the conclusion that if you want to be real, you yourself must serve as a commodity too. In that case, the corporate dream becomes a personal nightmare. Your very being—your interior world, your relationships, even your purpose in life—has itself been consumed by consumerism.