Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Obligatory Christmas Consumerism Rant

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


crystal said...

Tis the season to buy stuff, I guess. I bet, though, that it's ever been so - not buying stuff at Christmas so much, but the need to have and wear certain things to be a normal person in your culture and time.

I hate to say this, as you're probably going to think less of me, but ...

I would do to a hamster and kitten what is done to second-and third-trimester human fetuses. Who could still the outraged protests?

I think he's wrong in his example - it's kind of manipukative in that he sets up a comparison between two very different groups - animals and humans, in his eyes.

But in many peoples' eyes, the difference is not between animals and humans, but between independently living beings outside the womb that can think and feel, and non-independently living beings in the womb that maybe can't.

Jeff said...


Third-trimester, he said.

I wouldn't say it's many people. The idea that a human life and an animal life should be considered to be of equal value, and that an animal's life should in some cases be considered of MORE value is an extreme position.

crystal said...

By most people,I meant most people who held that view about animal cruelty .... that it's not that they would consider animals' lives more important than human lives, but that they may not consider fetuses to be "people".

He said second and third trimester fetuses. But do you think he really feels any differently about first trimester ones being better than anmials? Maybe this is really the idea that human beings are more holy than animals, and that's a whole other argument.

Jeff said...

Not more holy, I don't think. I don't think there is any theology that suggests that animals "sin."

More sacred not in behavior but in the sense that they have a special dignity by virtue of being made in the image and likeness of God.

Jeff said...

the difference is not between animals and humans, but between independently living beings outside the womb that can think and feel, and non-independently living beings in the womb that maybe can't.

Why do dependent being have less worth than independent beings? Why this set of criteria?

This is strictly a Benthamite, utilitarian way of thinking a la Peter Singer. It's the polar opposite of Christianity, isn't it?

crystal said...

It's not that a dependent being has less worth, it's that it's more questionable that it is a being, I guess. I don't mean that someone who is mentally or physically damaged or challenged would fit this description, but a young fetus has perhaps not yet become a being?

It's really hard to think about this stuff. Why could one think that a newly conceived person, a zygote, is less of a person than an adult person? What is it exactly that makes something a person? Is it just having human DNA? Is it a certain potential? If it can't exist on its own, is it a seperate being or part of the mother?

I don't really know. I just know that if I was in a building that was on fire, and I had time to save only one being .... a dog or a frozen human embryo .... I'd save the dog, because I know that it can feel fear and pain and has an idea of itself. I don't know that about an embryo.

Jeff said...

It's a far-fetched hypothetical that doesn't make much sense to me. It's not like people keep embryos in a petri dish in the fridge or in a vase on the bedroom windowsill. Thanks be, most embryos these days are still where they really belong - inside their mothers.

I think it's the wrong way to phrase the question. The question should be:

If you could save a woman, a visibly pregnant woman, or a dog, who would you save? I'd step on the dog to save the pregnant woman if I had to. And I love dogs.

cowboyangel said...

Ah, I see we're having a good conversation about consumerism... :-)

I refuse to wade into the converstioin progress, except to say that the passage by Kavanaugh that Crystal first quotes is pretty tacky and unwarranted. I understand where he's coming from, but how on earth is that kind of attitude supposed to bring people together? A totally bizarre statement from someone who claims to be "tired of divisions in the Catholic church, fatigued by them."

Also, what does any of this have to do with a "Christmas Consumerism Rant"?

I was hoping for some meaty (or, for vegetarians: tofu-y) discussion of the Wal-Mart tragedy. Human beings killed by savage consumers. Given that this happened on Long Island, and that Italians and Irish make up the majority of the population, I wonder how many of those consumer killing machines were Catholic?

At this point in my life, I don't see any way for our culture to change its vicious consumerism. Unless, perhaps, the economic meltdown really does crash teh whole system. But I can't see hoping and praying for that. Too many people would be hurt. So where does that leave the rest of us? How do we do our part?

I've lived on the edge, economically speaking, most of my life. Scraping together enough money each month to pay the rent, falling behind on bills, defaulting on a student loan... It's so exhausting. I get a chance to buy a CD and I'm pretty happy. So I don't know how I can keep judging consumerism in others - though, naturally, I do.

I spent many years wrestling with these issues, wanting to live the New Testament life. Walk the earth. Join the a religious community. What does it all mean?

Jeff said...


You know, you guys don't seem to mind when I criticize the right, which I do quite often. Am I not allowed to criticize what I consider to be the excesses on the part of the left when I see them?

I don't think Kavanaugh's remarks were tacky at all. I think they were entirely germaine to the point that he was trying to make, which is that both the right and the left can be prone to tunnel-vision and self-righteousness. As a writer for America, he's more likely to be sympathetic to progressives by nature, which pretty much goes without saying, but he's not going to ignore willful myopia on the part of the left when he recognizes it either. The incident with the student is a good example of the individualistic, do-it-yourself, yet media-inspired and zeitgeist-inspired sense of morality that can be found out there. He knows that even bringing it up will stir outrage, and so it does...

As someone who's been familiar with people in anti-abortion circles for the past thirty years or so, I can tell you that this sentimental concern for animal rights combined with indifference towards human "fetuses" causes ENORMOUS frustration. And backlash. It makes people do really stupid things, like voting for Republicans. :-)

Now, if my remarks were churlish and insensitive in light of the fact that Crystal just lost her beloved Kermit, that's a point that I'm all too willing to concede.

Is that what you were really trying to tell me?

I was hoping for some meaty (or, for vegetarians: tofu-y) discussion of the Wal-Mart tragedy. Human beings killed by savage consumers. Given that this happened on Long Island, and that Italians and Irish make up the majority of the population, I wonder how many of those consumer killing machines were Catholic?

I saw photographs and news video clips after the incident and it didn't look like an Irish and Italian crowd to me, which is one of the reasons I really didn't want to go there. Why bring ethnicity into this? Or refligion? What the F does that have to do with it?

Kavanaugh didn't offer a critique against non-Catholics. He offered up a critique of Americans in general, and didn't hold Catholics up as paradigms of virtue compared to their compatriots.

That stinks about the student loans. How much trouble can you get in for that? As someone who has no clue how he's ever going to pay for his kids' college educations, I'm very interested in knowing.

cowboyangel said...

I don't mind you criticizing liberals. God knows I do.

But, come on, a college student who's questioning ethics and says something stupid? That's like shooting fish in a barrel. For a big shot Catholic thinker to go there is like Richard Seymour making a sack against a high school center. I'm not impressed. Anyone can poke at that.

Sorry, but I winced reading that passage. I know all about the "they care more about whales than they do people" thing. And, yes, it's infuriating. But, again, if he's so tired of divisions in the church, why come up with such an easy example? The world's a lot more complicated than that. If he's that easy to piss off, no wonder he's exhausted. Both sides can point to stupid arguments made by the other. It hasn't gotten us anywhere.

And, again, I don't see what it had to do with consumerism.

I haven't seen the video of what happened. But I can guess from what you said what I would see. So, no, let's not go there.

I wasn't attacking Catholics, btw. I was just trying to say that consumerism affects all of us. Myself included. Catholics and all other religious people. Sorry for any poorly thought out expression.

What are we supposed to do? How do we live in this society and not participate in the corruption of consumerism? As I said, I was ready to join a religious community - live like the apostles. Money didn't, and still doesn't, mean much to me. Yet, I'm still part of the consumerism. I'm genuinely asking what we can do.

Defaulting wasn't that bad. I worked it out with the government. I'm a good citizen now. :-) I'm sure it didn't look good on my credit for a while, but I wasn't trying to buy a house or a car or anything then. It's gone now. The worst part was that my outrageously high interest rate kept building up on the loan.

One word about getting your children through college - if you love them, don't ever let them take out student loans. Make them work. Make them take 10 years to get a degree. Steal for them. Sell drugs so they can go to school. But don't let them take out student loans.

Unless you're 100% sure they're immediately going into a job with six figures.

It is, without a doubt, by far, the worst decision I ever made in my life.

Jeff said...


The guy wasn't writing a paper, he was in an interview, and the interviewer asked him what bugged him. He got a frustration off his chest. You're in academia. Aren't there things that you see over and over again from students that make you crazy that you wouldn't mind getting off your chest?

Plus, I'm not so sure that Richard Seymour wouldn't be challenged against a high school center these days.

That inclusion of that set of passages had more to do with why his centrism appeals to me, and was a lead-in to the counsumerism critique, but whatever...

I don't know what we do about consumerism. We are all tainted by having whatever savings we have tied up in Wall Street. Maybe it will take a really hard fall for us to regain the sense of community that people relied upon to get by in the 1930s.

Interesting what you say about the loans. Anne and I go around and around on this, but I'll keep what you said in mind.

But enough of all that. What about football? Our game was ugly yesterday (the Raiders are just atrocious), but what was with that big, fat, beautiful gift-wrapped Christmas present the Bills gave the Jets??? What were they thinking?? They can't blame Wade Phillips for stuff like that anymore, he's in Dallas.

cowboyangel said...

Interesting what you say about the loans. Anne and I go around and around on this, but I'll keep what you said in mind.

Unfortunately, I was an idiot when it came to understanding finance, and no one ever sat down with me and explained how interest can accrue so quickly. Or why I shouldn't consolidate my loans when interest rates were so high. So I will be shelling out $350 a month for 10-15 more years. not much fun.

what was with that big, fat, beautiful gift-wrapped Christmas present the Bills gave the Jets???

Well, the Jets are usually the ones making those kind of bonehead plays, so I guess football karma decided to even things out a touch. It may wind up getting Dick Jauron fired.

I was sitting there in disbelief that the Jets were knocked out of the playoffs. Total resignation. Needless to say, the outcome was quite a surprise. But credit has to go to Elam for making the great play and Ellis for scooping it up and rumbling for the TD, even if I was upset that he hadn't just fallen on the ball. For a moment, it looked like we weren't going to recover. I still believe a defender should fall on the ball at that point.

I don't know what good it will do them. After looking so good there for a while, they're back to stinking it up. Favre has been really off in his accuracy. not really wild like he can get - at points - but just not throwing well. And Lynch ran over our ass. Pure and simple. I notice there's no more talk about Kris Jenkins for Defensive Player of the Year. The D looks bad. Our coordinator doesn't believe in pressuring the QB. It drives me up the wall. I don't know how many mediocre QBs have had career days against us this season.

Whatever. We were 4-12 last year. I was hoping for 8-8 or maybe 9-7. Guess I should be satisfied.

At this point, I would say the Steelers are the team to beat. they've won several tough play-off type games this year.

But, of course, it doesn't matter how good you look in the regular season, does it? You certainly know that from last season. And the year before I thought San Diego was the team to beat at this point.

Oh, the Colts, too. They're on a roll. I think they and Pittsburgh are probably playing the best. But anything can happen in the playoffs.

In fact, I think this year, almost any team that makes it to the playoffs has a chance to go all the way. Just no super dominant teams.