|ARTICLE APPEARED IN:
Baltimore Sun, San Jose Mercury News
|ARTICLE DATE: |
August 8, 1999
LEAD US INTO TEMPTATION: The
Triumph of American Materialism
By James B. Twitchell
Columbia University Press, 336 pp, $24.95
BY DAVID KUSNET
JAMES B. Twitchell has a job that could exist only in today's America: being a professor of both English and advertising. And, with his earlier books, "Adcult USA" and "Carnival Culture," he became the nation's leading dissector and defender of commercial culture.
Perhaps because he's searching for something new to say, "Lead Us Into Temptation" is really two books in one. The best parts are an entertaining and insightful history of American commercialism, from the emergence of advertising in newspapers, magazines, radio and television, to the development of the supermarket, packaged products such as Wonder Bread and mass marketing of expensive luxury items.
But these sections are wrapped around a cleverly contrarian but ultimately exasperating defense of commercialism in all its forms. These parts are presented as witty aphorisms, not coherent arguments, and read like 30-second TV spots strung together into an infomercial for materialism.
If this book has a thesis, it's a point Twitchell, a University of Florida professor, repeatedly makes: Consumers are not victims of commercialism but have eagerly participate in it. He attacks a host of critics of commercialism, including Thorstein Veblen, Vance Packard, Ralph Nader and John Kenneth Galbraith, reducing them to snooty straw men who would deny ordinary Americans glamorous pleasures that were once exclusively enjoyed by affluent elites.
While there are snobbish undertones to some of the criticisms of middle-class consumption, most critics were making different points from those Twitchell distorts and debunks. Ascetic though he may be in his personal life, Nader's public role is to protect consumers against products that are unsafe or overpriced. And, despite his own patrician persona, Galbraith criticized the affuent society of the 1950s not for the material comfort it offered worlking Americans but for its economic inequalities and inadequate public services.
When he isn't trashing the critics of commercialism, Twitchell offers clever epigrams about commercial culture. Starting with the title, with its parody of the Lord's Prayer, Twitchell stresses the similarities between the advertising industry and organized religion. Sometimes, he's informative, as when he explains how many advertising pioneers, from Artemis Ward toBruce Barton, were clergymen's children or had religious training themselves. Sometimes, he's provocative, as when he writes that "advertising fetishizes objects in exactly the same way that religion does."
But, after repeatedly asserting that commmercialism is replacing religion without suggesting that this is troubling, Twitchell's apologia for advertising becomes chilling. Twice, he maintains that Eastern European communism was overthrown by consumer cravings, ignoring the yearnings for religious freedom, intellectual liberty and dignified work that were represented by such contemporary heroes as Pope John Paul II, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa. He ignores the lasting appeal of ideas and institutions that are based on something other than materialism: religious faith, say, or community service, artistic creativity or the democratic process.
If Twitchell doubts that Americans still care about more than acquiring and consuming things, he should listen more closely to popular culture. After all, even at the height of post-World War II prosperity, it was the chart-topping singer Peggy Lee who expressed the ambivalence about acquisitiveness with her songs, "Big Spender" and "Is That All There Is?".
Dawid Kusnet, who wrote this review for the Baltimore Sun, was chief speech writer for President Clinton from 1992 through 1994.
"We are how we shop"
The july issue of Consumer Reports offers one practiacl perspecive: It points out that many Americans now carry dept loads equal to 99 percent of their diposable incomes. It also points out what credit costs: Suppose a $19 pizza is charged on a credit card whose owner is carrying an unpaid balance of $5,000. The pizza, combined with the revolving debt, will end up costing $40.04.
...here's an awestruck observation from Molly Ivins, who wrote in "You've Got to Dance with Them What Brung You" (Vintage, 250 pp., $12 paperback) about the Mall of America, in Bloomington, Minn.:
"And what are we, the spiritual descendants of Puritans, to make of this monument to materialism? So much stuff it makes you sick to look at it,
like eating too much cotton candy. Stores that sell only stuff to put your stuff in. Sub-specialties of stuff beyond the wildest dreams of most of the world's people. Should we not disapprove? Well, yeah. On the other hand, the pyramids were built for Pharaohs on the happy theory they could take their stuff with them. Versailles was built for kings on the theory that they should live surrounded by the finest stuff. The Mall of America is built on the premise that we should all be able to afford this stuff. It may be a shallow culture, but it's by-God democratic. Sneer if you dare; this is
something new in world history." ·