Thursday, October 6, 2016

Pleasant Valley Sunday

You know the social commentary book you’re reading is dated when the author says things like “they watch a lot of MTV” about the youngsters.

And Juliet Schor, author of “The Overspent American,” says a LOT of things like that. Including:
  1. Shopping at Kmart
  2. “Affordable” Seattle
  3. Bemoaning the unrealistic apartments in “Friends” and “Frasier”
  4. “Mobile” phones (including the flip phone with retractable antenna on the cover)
  5. Going “online” rather than on the Internet

But the book is what it is: A product of the time. Published in 1997, the book sounds a bit tinny nearly 20 years later. But a lot has happened to both society and the economy since 1998. Some good, some bad.

Schor would love the Millennials – not even born when this book was published. They scorn – or so the punditry tells me – consumerist America (except when it comes to coffee and smartphones) and want experiences rather than things. Schor would probably regard them as a vanguard of what she predicts at the conclusion of The Overspent American: A society minimizing consumerism.

Yeah. They consume just as much as the olds. Just in different ways.

But back to Schor’s book.

It rambles. Schor ambles into and out of and then back into stories of people trying to get out of the consumerist trap. She picks up topics, like those who don’t care to keep up with the Joneses, then wanders away from them to find them again later.

It aspires, but doesn’t make the reach. Part of the book reminded me of Paul Fussell’s “Class,” a delightfully brittle and bitter book that touches on much of what Schor says while being just as dated as her books (where Schor mentions “friends” and “Frasier,” Fussell mentions “MASH”).
And its solutions, well, they remind me of the worst kind of popular tripe coming out of the psychology department of Columbia University in the early 1980s: Sharing mowers and plungers, government redistribution of wealth, all that jazz. (I find it striking that lawn mowers are always trotted out as an example of ultimate consumer evil. And I mean EVIL, I tell you. It’s like a lot of people on the East Coast never got over “Pleasant ValleySunday.”)

By the way, the statement “Needing a plunger is a very private shame, Gerald,” is one I happen to agree with.

It loses opportunities. Schor puts great stock into criticizing Nike and other manufacturers for targeting poor minority families with a strangling want for consumer goods from “swoosh” shoes (every time she uses that word, you can hear her flushing a toilet in the background) and the minority youngsters’ want for “ropes” of gold ‘round their necks. But the book isn’t aimed at them. It’s aimed squarely at White Liberal Guilt Land; at folks who are much more likely to start a Plunger Lending Library than they are to combat Big Sneaker.

Schor also gives short shrift to the people she champions – those who see consumerism taking over their lives and who rebel against it. They’re treated as rarified animals (except in the Pacific Northwest, which she regards as some kind of distant Utopia).

And there’s something distinctly missing from this book as there is from the lives of the consumers: Meaning.

Schor’s answer to rampant consumerism: Consume less. But I get the feeling there’s as much as an empty room of satisfaction at that end of the spectrum as there is at the end where CONSUME MOAR is the motto. She could talk of finding meaning outside of work, but it fits her worldview to see fit that work is tied to meaning and meaning is tied to consumerism, when meaning could be tied to so many other things, rather than the mere fact of consuming less. And maybe it’s because I find meaning in remodeling my house, or mowing my lawn, or using one of the five home computers we have to work on novels that just bugs Schor. She can’t fit it into the narrative of finding more meaning by consuming less. So it gets tossed out the window.

And nowhere does she mention finding meaning in service. Just meaning in buying fewer clothes. So she’s not got me in her audience, as I rarely buy clothing.

Schor could obviously score by updating the book. Certainly with the housing crisis that brought on the Great Recession, there’s fodder for more of this kind of stuff. She just ought to explore how affordable Seattle is these days.

No comments: