While this scenario was never played out we now know that the beleaguered Russian people must have had a deep "in the bones" feeling of the existence of such a catalogue that underscored the failure of their system and the success of that "enemy of the people" capitalism. For they responded to the incessant propaganda drumbeat of their leaders with lagging output, more absenteeism, alcoholism, and cynicism. No amount of patchwork could prop up the morbid enterprise of state ownership of the means of production, and when Gorbachev's last ditch relaxation (perestroika) resulted in more political freedom and the removal of the direct agents of complete repression, the whole thing imploded before our amazed eyes, leaving the free market economy and political freedom to make the right market choices the world's acknowledged model for the most efficient and successful method of economic production.
Capitalism triumphant, the free enterprise system, democratic freedom, private ownership of the means of production, the harnessing of individual incentive for private gain as the prime motive power for the common economic good, the importance of private ownership of most property, and America the sole surviving superpower! All blessings long sought after and now palpably at hand! But... but... but... After a short after glow of euphoria after this vindication of our almost mythic ideals some baleful truths intruded painfully.
While the economic aspects of our domestic society were in reasonable shape, not withstanding cyclical recession and some inflation and undesirable level of poverty and unemployment (overwhelmingly the populations of the world still "voted with their feet" in vying to enter this country to better their economic lot) what was really bothersome was the fraying of the fabric of our social, cultural, and moral consensus. Not merely around the edges, where active societies always reweave a healthy and dynamically stable and growing system of belief. This time, as we turned inward to our domestic problems, away from the confrontation with the "evil empire" of the Soviet Russia, the essence of our core beliefs were threatened by increased lawlessness and escalating violent crime, an educational system that was obviously inadequate to the task of adequately educating its pupils, out of wedlock teen age pregnancies of almost epidemic proportions, the coincident rise of single parent families due to divorce and desertion, a significant and evidently intractable drug problem, and a long range underlying problem of the best and the brightest so enmeshed and mired in the pursuit of long range career goals as to delay marriage and child rearing until the continually ticking biological clock allowed for only one or maybe two late in life children. (And when the parents were too stressed and drained due to age and other commitments that only "quality time" was available, when the housekeeper was off duty usually, for the vital child parent relationship!). Beyond this we have the so called counter culture conflict, an involved and passionate encounter about racism, sexism, militant feminism, homophobia, political correctness, and the whole question of "values." Indeed as we totter "triumphantly" past our great foreign policy victories of the Reagan years many of us are wondering if the center will hold, in Yeats classic words, or if there will be no "second coming" of stable democracy and growth in our country.
Actually, simplistically but still fundamentally true is the fact that as always, the Sears, Roebuck catalogue has continued to rain down on us, not the Russians, and the gentle but persistent rain of its consumer message has, for reasons will outline, created a kind of golden calf mentality of immediate pleasure as the prime thrust of life. Or, to use a variation on a classic Greek aphorism, "whom the gods would destroy they first make stuffed with material goods (and services)". Consumerism, and the advertising that allows people to make informed purchases of the products of our capitalist economy is a normal and desirable process. But there were almost always built in "natural" checks and balances in prior times to prevent this emphasis on material things, which is the essence of consumerism and the prime thrust of our capitalist system--at least 65% of our total economic output consists of retail consumer spending--from escalating into the rampant and malignant thing that is beginning to threaten us socially, politically and emotionally.
To understand this let us outline the demise of motherhood in our time, the most venerated bastion in the nurturing of our children, our most precious asset personally and communally. It is generally accepted wisdom that mother ceased being the loving full time "drudge" of the household because of the need for two incomes to support the average family in our increasingly expensive society. In reality mother became a full participant on the financial earnings tread mill to support an ever expanding life style skillfully promoted by consumerism and gradually embraced by mother and her loved ones as the keys to the material kingdom of plenty. A kingdom that eventually promised immediate gratification and, indeed, a form of earthly salvation due to material and technical progress. And if we agree, as most of us still do, I hope, that full time authoritative and caring role models, especially parents, are necessary for the proper rearing of children, for the inculcation of values of restraint, caring, sharing, respect and responsibility, and the other basic moral values that make for security and stability, and the growth of the human and not the animal in each of us, then understanding how motherhood has been materially truncated, if not completely lost, can hopefully lead to some measure of motherhood regained, and the basic social ills that plague us, restrained or completely eliminated.
The hidden dynamic that has subverted the "old fashioned' stay at home mother and bread winning father is the need for a mature capitalist economy to continually keep its well established industrial plant in reasonably full production. Jobs and profits are usually the highly desirable result of such a happy level of production. It should be emphasized that we are talking about a mature economy. When nascent capitalism is the situation then plentiful startup jobs are available just to get plant and equipment and initial production on stream. However, once the productive process is fully operational, then, in a sense, the consumer becomes the lawful prey of the entrepreneur, who hopes to make almost incessant purchasers of the public, either of hard material goods or services, or all manner of advice and consultation, intangibles of great emotional and supportive value. There is nothing deliberately diabolic in this state of affairs; in the natural course of events the hope is for the consumer, whose spending accounts for at least two thirds of our economic output, to continue a high level of spending and consumption. We have the term Caveat Emptor--let the buyer beware--to warn against fraudulent practices or shoddy goods, but we have no such caution against the enormous psychological and emotional conditioning that is also inherent in the messages that make us ever more willing devotees of the consumption cycle.
In the description of how this conditioning has come about our American experience is the prime example; however, every western industrial country, and the rising tide of Pacific rim nations are also becoming enmeshed in these consumerism negatives and as well as the obvious positives of accelerating economic growth.
In the American experience three things had to happen before we reached the present state of, shall we say? problematic consumerism. Most important was the passage of sufficient time from the twin dire experiences of the great depression of the entire decade of the thirties, and the most disastrous war in history in the first part of the forties. Indeed, only the great war stimulus causing the intense industrial build up to become the "arsenal of democracy" in this country enabled us to finally shake off the effects of our deep economic malaise of the entire 1930 era, despite the much vaunted Roosevelt remedies. (The only positive in the World War II story!) Indeed, on returning triumphantly, with acknowledged super power status, and undoubtedly (and perhaps unknowingly!) as the pre eminent power in world history, many prepared, with dubious anticipation, for a resumption of the hard times of the pre war era.
Large scale unemployment was feared, what with the demobilization of the eleven million man army. The rainy day ethic of pre war times of keeping a low spending profile, of saving far larger proportion of income than now to provide for those inevitable large downturns was accepted, revealed wisdom.
But most pleasantly, the economic story was generally onward and upward, buoyed by an enormous backlog of deferred consumer demand, low interest rates, and generous government financing of new homes. Every low blip on the economic radar of course lead to dire predictions of renewed deep trouble, but as we tip toed cautiously forward with resumed upward growth soon after, long term confidence in job retention and even higher salaries down the road became the general optimistic anticipation.
Thus long term purchases of durable goods, those big ticket items such as cars, homes, and the large appliances that every home requires, and create many long term jobs became more feasible for more people. But only with the advent of a big boost from the eager capitalist entrepreneur, intent on luring as many customers as possible. To match the increasing, more confident consumer interest came the era of easier personal consumer credit, the little plastic card which allowed us to begin the "fly now, pay later era" in earnest. We had always had consumer credit before, well before other industrial countries, but never so organized or encouraged as now. Consumer debt became a much commented on economic statistic, as it, as well as the federal debt continued to grow. And even though there were monthly woes on the part of the minority who had bought too much and could not pay for their absolutely irresistible and irreplaceable purchases, by and large the consumer and federal debts, while never shrinking, seemed to continually sustain a burgeoning growth rate for all.
But this advent of increase confidence due to the dimming memory of financial and wartime disaster, and the credit card ease of current purchase would not have been sufficient to undermine the inherent conservatism of most people and allow them to make ultimate life style changes--to completely abandon the "rainy day" ethic of deferring and saving for the up front present pattern of immediate gratification and the devil with the consequences. The repeal, in other words, of the ingrained wisdom that abounds in the three little pigs and the wolf tale, and annul now the brick house and the industrious pig who laboriously constructed it, and now not needed because we could all frolic and play like the two lazier and more pleasure oriented brother pigs who built flimsier and far less adequate long term structures.
The scales were tipped completely in favor of the ethic of continuing consumption and immediate gratification with the advent and booming immediate acceptance and growth of television; first the rather retrospectively mundane but still impactful black and white version, and then color television, undoubtedly the most dynamic medium for influencing conduct ever devised. Conceivably the printing press has had a more long range impact on humanity, but in its short 35 of 40 year existence color TV has certainly been viewed and has swayed more people than all the other available media combined. And it has been used very effectively in the service of the lifestyle that glories in the mode of enhanced consumerism.
Most certainly is this true in the United States, where private ownership is the rule in the TV industry. In other countries, where government broadcasting is more of a factor, then the commercial message may be more muted. But the prime thrust here is the short time slot devoted to the all important product selling "commercial". The major amount of time allotted to the general program content is not matched with a commensurate expense; the short, compelling message of the sponsor and product generally garner more money and effort and creativity. There have been many very powerful TV programs that have rightly riveted audiences to their sets and much money has been lavished on them, and, even in the public sector there has been the notably successful Sesame Street, but overwhelmingly the art of the short, dynamic, impactful selling message has had the most care and attention--and money. Ironically, even the universally acclaimed Sesame Street, which has much private endowment money to help it develop its great children's programming, does not have the largest children's audience. Evidently there is some ultimate satisfaction, even among tots, for the siren lure of commercial TV.
The prime, exemplary TV commercial would, of course, emphasize the obvious utilitarian aspect of the product, and this mundane message was obviously of beneficial interest to the prospective consumer. But even in every day humdrum things, like soap or hair shampoo, it was easy to augment this message with smiles, lovely discrete bits of feminine anatomy, or other hints of vistas of subliminal glamour that might conceivably accrue from the use of the product. This time honored principle of over glamorizing, of selling the "sizzle and not the steak" is implicit in most advertising and is a legitimate lure, as long as the buyer understands that there are limits that can be easily exceeded, where honest enthusiasm for a product turns to patent exaggeration, and then falsehood. What television was superbly poised to do, and what entrepreneur capitalism was ineluctably pushing for at about this time, was to exalt the autonomy of the individual, to emphasize his uniqueness and sovereignty in the culture, as distinct from the heretofre collective imperative, that we were part of a "melting pot" that simmered to a tasty, wholesome broth of Americanism a feeling that most of us adhered to up till then. This uniqueness, this newly found individual you combined with the subliminal but incessant over glamorizing of the product plus the increasing "demands" that the entrepreneur placed on the consumer to continue a high rate of consumption finally lead consumer well beyond the limit of judicious, "necessary" consumption into the murky terrain where prior luxuries became current absolute necessities. And even acknowledged frivolous purchases were tolerated, or even encouraged, for reasons that will be discussed.
The "demands" that the free market, competitive, entrepreneurial system placed upon the consumer could be summed up in the merchandising battle cry of General Electric in the 1950's and on into the sixties. GE, then and now, has been a colossus in the retail appliance world. This truly was the material, secular ideology that most of us devoutly marched under at that time, that "Progress Was Our Most Important Product"! That we could equate increased consumption of material things, especially things that promised the excitement of new design if not completely new conception, as the ultimate test of "progress", a comfortable life style that promised good for all if we only kept dancing to the increased consumption rhythms being broadcast. A kind of secular utopia which envisioned a sufficient form of earthly salvation and bliss. Especially since modern medicine was already beginning its great series of life extending therapies and surgeries, also leading one to mistake the mundane material plenty becoming available for some ultimate total redemptive good, as if no moral or ethical or spiritual claims would come due to spoil the "progress" parade of material consumption.
Very quickly this "progress" became confused with a plethora of differing choices, where every true technologic advance was blurred by a multiplicity of merchandising gimmicks and style changes that were designed to encourage obsolescence frivolously and increase what was already becoming a burdened family budget. It was with home appliances, where GE was pre-eminent, that this budgetary burden first became a monthly cross to bear, and started mother down the road to full time employment. A form of earthly redemption was promised by these miraculous, labor saving devices of the time--refrigerators, dishwashers, washing machines and dryers, air conditioners, and television sets, black and white and then glorious color! Soon in America mother had roomfuls of labor saving, drudgery avoiding mechanical deliverance from much household work, more free time theoretically to experience herself and/or family in unstressed shared time. But lo, the budgetary monthly credit card bill dictated a different use of that time bonanza--the using up of some or all that "free" time in gainful employment to pay for all those appliances.
One of the keys to increasing consumption, as indicated above, was the providing of almost unlimited choice in style, color, and convenience modifications, so that one could be encouraged, if not immediately, then sometime soon, to indulge oneself in this alternative variation of the product or service. The individual is more and more catered to with the esteem building "try it you'll like it!" lure, and his idiosyncratic whim is piously encouraged and served in this new material religion. Consider the first, and perhaps greatest, triumph of the American consumption experience, a sort of Sears, Roebuck catalogue in glorious operation on a daily basis in every part of our country, and now copied by all other industrialized countries belatedly following our lead. It is the supermarket, a fascinating excursion in almost unlimited choice, between twenty to thirty thousand tantalizing or bewildering choices gathered under one roof, thoughtfully arranged both for convenience and ease of purchase. Almost endless variety of product and competing variations of the same product. And many times even the choice of differing prices for the same product! The consumer catered to in a way that only royalty in times even in the recent past could receive,--and perhaps not possible in some third world countries even now! The consumer as King Consumer, now lured and seduced as the "sovereign" of individual choice, as if the genie was out of the bottle and offering not only three wishes but unlimited choice, as long as the payment card crunch at the end of the month could be contained with adequate payment.
This celebration of the individual and his needs, wishes and whims is a must in the cycle of augemted consumption. In the supermarket economic support chain at least tens of thousands of jobs are created in the production, packaging, shipping, and marketing of the paradise of consumer consumption that the supermarket is. Even unto those tempting items adorning the check out counters as you wait to pay; impulse purchases like candy and small souvenirs, and the latest salacious stories about the reigning stars in Hollywood or improving techniques in weight loss or sex. This surrounding the consumer with boundless choice in the continuing effort to keep the consumption cycle in prime condition was even more evident in the automobile cycle, at least until foreign competition forced a more realistic, cost efficient approach. But until the mid seventies every year saw significant design changes, a rainbow palette of color choices that would delight the most artistic soul, and novelties (gimmicks?) that would tempt the undecided not to postpone that alluring new manifestation of "progress"--a glamorous design splash with new tail fins or several small, suggestive portholes in the side of the front hood, or a canvas roof top, or incredible surround sound from speakers placed front and back in the car. All this to enhance the pleasure of his majesty the American consumer, and greatly increase the price of his purchase because of yearly massive design retooling to accomplish the same basic purpose that the old, in use car already owned was adequately doing.
All of this quasi orgy of automobile choice was finally controlled by the growing competition of foreign cars, who were able to produce a competent, simple car in basic colors and at substantial savings to the rival heretofore confidently entrenched American competition. And, a car that would not every year rise in price due to gimmicky design retooling costs.
But if choice was limited by this healthy dose of reality, by the curbing of the glut of gimmicky, non essential changes in the cause of pseudo progress, the royal American consumer still now had many more sources of car producers to choose from--manufacturers that would still woo and caress and lure, now with price and quality and not glitz. And still nourish the psyche of the pampered individual consumer as the dearly sought after arbiter of the economic fate of many employed people by his final, fanciful willful or carefully reasoned purchase.
The hampering or shrinking of the consumer base available to the American capitalist entrepreneur because of foreign automobile incursion was more than overcome by the skillful offset of adding two new important domestic classes of consumer; the infant-toddler-kid group, and the relatively affluent, relatively autonomous teen age group. Television deserves the major share of blame or credit for this dubious achievement. Now an even pre-literate audience of visually comprehending subjects could respond to the consumer product message styled attractively for their level, many times suggesting purchases much at variance with parental desire. And now a whole series of toys or kid clothes or services would have to be negotiated when the family budget was being elaborated. The teen age market was, of course, another major breakthrough in increasing the circle of eager consumers, a group that had available a considerable pool of spendable income, what with fairly generous allowances from the growing affluence of the increasingly prosperous middle class, and income from part time after school jobs. This young, post pubertal group was subtly and blatantly, by turns, wooed by messages that had erotic elements importantly imbedded in the copy content. Tight fitting jeans with squirming backsides, or dancing in scantily clad bras and panties, especially on stations such as MTV. On the subtler soft sell side there was the picture of the sixteen year old taking his date out in his first car, which was small but still had enough room in the back for other friends or other purposes, of which a mobile, private trysting place was the most prized. Whatever the purpose, in one generation it became almost a rite of passage that the teen ager should have a car as an entitlement, either by direct ownership or as almost a co equal sharer in the family owned vehicles. And even if sharing and not buying was the solution, the cost of insuring the young male teen ager was a measurable part of any family budget.
How the teen ager got to this position of increased and probably excessive prominence in the family consumption multiple personna hassle is part of the inevitable expansion of consumerism into probably malignant manifestations. Where luxuries are converted into imperative necessities. Essential needs that are not necessarily of a material, physical nature. Besides the triumph of materialism that the capitalist system has obviously produced--more tangible product at reasonable prices than ever before--through its siren song of individual choice, individual autonomy exalted to the quasi fantasy status of "King" consumer, we now have more emphasis on the service aspect of the consumption cycle, not the material plenty of the supermarket with its splendid comestible cornucopia, or the durable goods parade of plenty, of which the automobile is perhaps the prime symbol, (or fill in with all the household appliances that make daily living so urbanely smooth), or that other modern plethora of merchandise, the "department" store, where all manner of clothing and other somewhat more miscellaneous necessitous items for daily living are glamourously and alluringly displayed. We emphatically go beyond the mere satisfaction of material wants in the consumption cycle by playing the self actualization card. The quality of life now must be enhanced by enriched personal experience beyond the consumption of material plenty. After all, boredom is still one of the threats of a jaded, sated material life, so we now have to spread ourselves across the vast limitless vista of self improvement, so that we can truly realize our inner worth, and bring out, hopefully, the great potential for happiness and achievement buried away within. A potential not now realized because of the stifling overlay of civilization and its constraints, one of which, ironically, is the building of the material plenty that can dull the inner perceptions of one true identity!!
The most obvious consumption benefactor from this mystique is the travel industry, now an indispensable revenue producer world wide for almost all nations. Not merely for the obvious business needs travel satisfies, but for the ordinary demands of tourism, the desire for people to fulfill themselves on this insidiously instilled emotional and spiritual new need. Certainly in this country tourism has been enthusiastically promoted for its self realization potential. Color TV is a splendid vehicle to capture the mystery, glamour, and excitement of travel, and its absolute imperative for the good life. Color TV was also a splendid vehicle for the merchandising of the automobile, the hard goods component of the consumption cycle that was generally a useful adjunct in the fulfillment of one's travel plans. The auto ads stressed self actualization via the glorious open road--curving, winding, rising and falling and smoothly traversed by solo you at the controls, triumphantly in control. The airplane ad to far away places mostly showed romantic hand holding in exotic settings, but the combined effect of the merchandising message to self actualize, of the absolute need to experience these emotional, esthetic, spiritual "growth" moments produced a great wanderlust, an absolute imperative that life had to be lived on the cutting edge of different horizons and far away places with regularity, and with many pictures to show as tangible, boring proof. Ancient history claims Herodotus, the historian, as the first world traveler, going all the way from Greece to Egypt, and certainly no one, then as now, would deny the great benefits derived from learning about other people and places. Now, however, we have pumped up tourism to about the fourth largest revenue producer in the country, what with multi billions invested in the aircraft industry, the hotel and motel industry, accessory road building, souvenir and gift shops, and the tens of thousands of jobs needed in staffing the production and maintenance of these and supporting travel facilities; and the not so amazing corollary now, of course, is the absolute need of many of us to experience more than the occasional trip, so caught up do we become on the self actualization travel tread mill. Even if the last trip, wherever, produced no great emotive vibes, it certainly could be useful for impressive name dropping, and there were always, in this insidiously insinuating milieu, such tantalizing bargains always becoming available off the seasonal peak to stimulate more going. While local and regional tourist sites suffered, as people found it now feasible to fly to distant places, the net effect was a vast increase in tourism as people were encouraged to feel the frequent need to reinvigorate themselves with the distant and exotic travel trip. Where Herodotus went once to history's great delight, many trips are now not only a common occurrences, but necessary for growth, solace, or community esteem.
Why did we all, almost lemming like, move to suburbia? Was it not to satisfy the mystique of "a man's home is his castle", a self actualizing aspiration somewhat akin to castles in the air? In most cases very adequate middle class neighborhoods were emptied of young families searching not for a material goal now as for the somewhat ephemeral ideal of cleaner air and a quiet, country like setting for family life. Good schools, relatively clean neighborhoods, good, safe transportation systems, inexpensive to use and near vibrant culture rich city centers were left behind. Gradually this steady evacuation created the urban vacuums that poorer minorities eagerly filled as real estate values declined.
The large migration to the suburbs resembled, on a somewhat diminished scale geographically, the crossing of the Atlantic just two generations before by many of the immediate intrepid ancestors of these same migrants. Only now, of course, state or county lines were involved. The immigrant generation had tangible goals; economic betterment, religious freedom, more participation in democratic government, and a better education for their children. The recent suburbia immigrant had the fiction of an economic fig leaf to cover his real self actualizing self. That fig leaf asserted the economic wisdom of homeowning instead of renting and ignoring all the costs of making the house a home--landscaping, gardening, fence building, the need for two cars, and ever escalating real estate taxes to pay for the new infrastructure hastily rising to accommodate the new "settlers". But even when he recovered from the shock of all these economic negatives the suburban mystique still prevailed.
Since the urge to customize and assert one's individuality had been part of the self actualizing need in escaping monolithic but adequate city life, the move to the mass produced and affordable Levittowns of the suburbs led to additional spending to uniquely beautify one's own small but cherished plot of private property. Not only did shrubs become less the builder supplied drab plants but more the proper exotic neighbor impressing ornaments, the lawn had to be greener and weed free, and trees were added for additional effect and more shade in summer. And then there was the back yard pool, almost always a must and a big budget stretcher. And also the temptation for room and central air conditioning--not a must item necessarily but certainly desirable on those very hot, humid, very uncomfortable days of deep summer!
But as important as the increasing financial burden of this new life panacea that the suburbs entrapped one's family in, was the diminishing time budget this new paradise also presented. Even if both parents were not now full time employees to pay for all this supposed economic bonanza, where was the time to take care of all the demands of the new home and property, the endless, tedious lawn and home needs to carry out the dictates of the "man's castle/home mystique"? Even after the added cost of two cars was in place to cope with the non existent transportation network in suburbia, where was the parent chauffeuring time to come from in the midst of all the other new problems of suburban living, to avail themselves of the new found blessings of Little League, boy and girl scout meetings, PTA meetings, not to mention various necessary child augmentation activities, such as music, ballet, and/or even newspaper routes, sometimes in areas that the enterprising youngster had to be transported to!!
As one who completely surrendered to the blandishments of the suburban mystique and devoutly spent forty years in its throes, happily married and raising four kids, three of whom have married and sired ten children, I am not about to belittle the net effect of my family's migration from urban life. It has been an adventure with many good as well as problematic aspects. To a large extent, however, it was not inherently a rational decision, but part of the mystique of self actualization, that somehow we were pioneers on new horizons that would strengthen or glorify our own individual autonomy, give us more options in life style enhancement, especially for our family--and also make us more avid participants on the consumer consumption tread mill. I suppose one major negative, at least for most post nurturing parents--fond and deprived grandparents, that is!--is the large distance an overwhelming number of our offspring have now put between the supposed idyllic nest we determinedly marched to suburbia to build for them, and the newer nests far, far away from us, that they are building for their offspring. Will they, too, find that their glorious autonomy can be somewhat self delusional as the selfishness inherent in mere self centeredness, so incessantly insisted on in the basic consumption message of our economy, splits our families into smaller and smaller "nuclear" units, now held together by tenuous phone calls from ever receding places? The prevailing wisdom inured to this dubious state of affairs is that it is nice to experience one progeny intermittently at best, and so nice to then disassociate, as if the life time flow of interaction in the rearing and the living should now be measured, beneficially, in eye dropper amounts!! Short and sweet and then back to the golf course for the grandparent and the differing fleshpots of self actualization for the younger people. Indeed, there seems to be as large a gap between our generation and our kids, even though we were both born and bred on the same turf and exposed, at least to the same extrinsic experiences, as between us and our "greenhorn" immigrant parents. Although we all gloried in that gap as proof positive of the fulfilled promise that this country represented.
A crowning irony, perhaps, is the reversal of the flow of lemming like humanity into suburbia; at least its significant redirection among the original "pioneers", who led the way post World War two. The original idyllic family nest is in many cases no longer affordable and now a sort of retreat is occurring to more feasible areas financially. Florida is now the fourth largest state in the union. Many of its new devotees exult in its warm winter climate, not mentioning lack of state income tax and generally inexpensive living costs as their prime motivation, and, of course, down playing its very uncomfortable and extended hot and humid summers.
Idyllic suburbia produced its share of adolescent developmental problems too. Perhaps this was inevitable given all the time parents needed to reorient their own life styles to the shocks and demands of their new modes of non urban living, and hence not be able to give to their family the composed, nurturing urbane care and guidance that suburbia demanded. All the ills endemic to adolescents of the age, drug addiction, teen age suicide, out of wedlock teen age pregnancy, growing school delinquency and dropping out without graduation, were present as part of the life style options not originally anticipated by the suburban settlers. Not perhaps in the same degree as in inner city minority disaster areas, but not at all welcome as part of the original fantasy "contract with suburbia"!
We come now to the logical, inevitable extension of the self actualization trend, almost an imperative now that material wants have been most handsomely satisfied by our enterprising, ever striving, free enterprise, market oriented capitalist economic system. We have marched through the glories of the super market and appliance abundance and distribution miracles of the department stores and chain discount stores, through the great uplift of the travel industry, and the massive hopeful transmigration into suburbia; first with the promise that material plenty would be enough, and then with increasing emphasis on less tangible fulfillment as the market for material wants became sated, and now with ever increasing emphasis on individual choice, many times in its malignant form of immediate gratification.
Immediate gratification is the temper tantrum mode of the not too mature consumer, who is easily persuaded,--hopefully only a few times--of the absolute need for some frivolous product, and one which he must have now! While some part of every day has this type of consumer impulse transaction it is probably only a small part of the self improvement and fulfillment industry that is thriving in this country, much to the benefit of the service industries of the country, still very much, don't forget, an integral part of the consumption cycle, paying salaries and needing plant and equipment! All of this, of course, by its very nature continues the trend of "King, (Queen?) Consumer", stressing now individual choice and the glories self satisfaction through self improvement. Many times a tenuous, dubious line separates one positive achievement in these endeavors and the self absorption and selfishness that has very negative societal implications. That is, my self fulfillment uber alles and whoever stands in the way be damned! Of course we can say that this attitude of "I come first" is merely an extension of the immediate gratification syndrome long term, glorification of the ego as part of the stimulus to enhance the consumption cycle.
If anyone doubts the massive absorption of our populace into their own devious, intricate, labyrinthine, and probably inexhaustible selves consider the following evidence. A whole subdivision of the publishing business is devoted to the "How to" books, (and lectures) on all manner of self improvement, stimulating not only the reader but even more so financially those on the production end; authors, publishers, newspaper columnists, talk show hosts, lecturers, and finally therapists of various kinds.
New and beneficial vistas were indeed opened up--better cooking, better gardening and golf playing were not to be denied as pleasant self improvement and harmless pleasure givers. But the exacerbation of this trend inevitably led to the "happiness quest", to the dissatisfaction of one present in terms of what might be if one's unplumbed true potential were realized--the uniquely true "me" whose true worth can only flower with this great extra cultivation!
In physical fitness fortunes were spent (and made by the purveyors) on diet regimens and exercise strategies, all in the service of recreating the "true you" physically--for those who were worshipping at the shrine of bodily fitness. While this goal did have a realistic medical objective for those obese, in most cases it became a "gilding the lily" activity, an "if I could only lose another five or ten pounds and look so good in that new style"! Many marvelous machines were marketed both for home use and for prolonged use in fitness gyms and salons that became increasingly popular. The simple exercise of pushing one's self away from the dinner table early or merely brisk, vigorous walking was too simplistic and mundane, and lacking in the glamour that the physical actualization ads heralded. And all the fat to thin promises of the multitude of diet programs yielded distressingly poor results. Left at the altar of modishly trim physical fitness were the vast majority of diet suppliants, who cyclically got thin and then fat and then cynically or stoically despairing.
Individual choice and the quest for more options for each unique "you" is no where as manifest as in the health industry. By and large we have become the healthiest people in the world, certainly at least from a longevity standpoint. We spend multi billions in the pursuit of adequate medical care from "organized" medicine, physicians and hospitals in accredited and zealously supervised training and facilities; people in long and arduous training using techniques and procedures that have been carefully evaluated with as much scientific controls as possible. Many billions that many think should be scaled back somewhat because of financial constraints. And yet we have a burgeoning "under the table" medical market, which some think rivals in cost the standard, respected medical system mentioned above. The system which has wrought miracles in extending not only longevity but also quality of life throughout every age group.
But now we have many alternative treatments and therapists to accomplish the holy physical grail of perfect health. And in most instances with treatments that have very dubious validity as far as scientifically or medically proven results. Indeed we are little better off in this murky field than the laying on of hands and the mumbo jumbo prayer of the witch doctor or medicine man of primitive times. What was therapeutic then, as now, was the placebo effect, that beneficial psychological optimism that most people, be they medieval or ancient primitive or modern prime sophisticate, have when they think that something positive has been started in healing them. At least, for a while they think they feel better! There is, of course the placebo effect many times at the start of treatment in the most acceptable and valid of modern medical therapies, but the results have been scrutinized and researched and their efficacy continually reevaluated and improved, or better treatments substituted, thus ruling out, as scientifically as possible, the hopeful initial subjective view of the patient.
Not so with the large and profitable food supplement industry. One of the glaring examples of distorting and perverting a basically sound health situation for the glamorized ideal of the body eternally beautiful and healthy is the mega vitamin and dietary supplement hype. The fact that vitamins and nutrients are essential in small daily doses has led to the massive overselling of vitamins on the totally unproven and probably dangerous premise that more has to be better. We know that most vitamins are not stored and are excreted daily, and those that are stored can possibly be harmful in large amounts in bodily storage. Besides spending a lot of money on these very dubious "more is better" regimens one thing certainly has been accomplished, many Americans have by far the richest daily urine flows in the world. Virtual cascades of unused, unnecessary vitamins.
Many food additives fall into the same nebulous area-promoted excessively to correct hypothetically deficient levels of trace elements that the body needs in very small amounts. Can you be sure that your chromium piccolate quota is up to standard? Zinc? Manganese? Magnesium? Maybe that nagging headache will finally be alleviated with the addition of one of these metals--or all of them in the right amounts. Now it may take a few months at optimum dosage to achieve the desired result. And perhaps your vitamin level will also have to be supplemented and/or certain amino acids increased. Or add any of the other metals that make up our supposed ten to twelve dollar worth of inorganic chemicals that we are composed of? (Fifty years ago, before inflation, it used to be a mere three dollars!) Or consult your local nutritionist, who will, among other things, do a hair analysis, and amazingly will deduce from a very few follicles all manner of levels of sufficiency, or deficiency in various essential bodily elements. Also, in the domain of daring diagnosis we now have salivary analysis, where disease is diagnosed by crystals of saliva under a microscope. Differing patterns and designs are supposedly elaborated that are pathognamonic for different disease states. And from this salivary analysis specific herbal medicines can be prescribed!
Actually, many of these hopeful, ever questing souls are on the placebo effect treadmill, and as the "feel good" (placebo) effect diminishes or disappears completely many of them await the thrill of the next additive that will be hyped to put them in splendid health again or at least augment the treatment that orthodox medicine is providing.
The sad fact is that sometimes some of these nostrums can be legitimate, helpful therapy if they are researched thoroughly and then tested long range with proper controls. Vitamin E was long thought to be of negligible value by "orthodox' physicians and its exact role in the body open to question. Many food faddists enthusiastically embraced it then as part of their canon of all embracing nutritional salvation, recommending mega doses, even as the conventional, go slow establishment laid off, awaiting further studies. Further work has indicated that Vitamin E may have a decided influence in retarding certain disease processes, and extensive double blind studies are in progress. Now it makes sense, if you are so inclined, to hopefully anticipate positive results down the line and start adding more vitamin E. At least there is some basis scientifically to hope for Vitamin E's ultimate efficacy in helping one's physical health. Not like shark's cartilage, or laertrile, or krebiozen all promoted extensively throughout the years to treat cancer. The latest shameful treatment scam is shark's cartilage. Two or three physicians in Puerto Rico and one in New Jersey give anecdotal evidence that some patients have been cured or much improved after ingesting this liquid shark's cartilage mixture for about four months. On this gossamer thread of fact, or fancy, much commerce is enacted. For those facing the oblivion, many times with the great pain that this dreadful disease portends, any hope is understandable. However what is not as acceptable is the cynical exploitation of that hope by of the purveyors who many times are fully aware of the very flimsy "evidence" to substantiate their hopeful claims. No research or validated data are required; indeed, there is no regulation at all of these substances as to efficacy or purity, in contradistinction to the ever vigilant Food and Drug Administration's oversight of the many drug product and treatments of the ethical drug companies. And yet there is this large and willing population, seemingly ever ready for the next level of pill popping palpitation, ever hopeful of another go at some greater satisfaction of the uniquely individual, nebulous, and transient goals that our consumer society ultimately puts forth. In this instance the expansion and distortion of the legitimate need to maintain health into the body incarnate, the holy temple of the body that will lead to the eternal body, the material nirvana of a body disease free and practically immortal.
Besides the medical self absorption in the physical self we have the eternal longing for emotional stability and perhaps spiritual surcease. What could be dubbed the happiness quest, more prevalent in our culture for at least two reasons. One, as these pages I hope have somewhat insistently maintained, is the barely veiled entrepreneurial promise that "try it you'll like it" and then some time, after many, many more purchasing adventures you should be definitely happy. Besides this mundane but implicit lure is the great explicit promise of our truly marvelous contract with America, Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness!! The capitalist consumer siren song of purchasing all manner of select products, and services, and almost a money back guarantee from our political system endorsing the right to happiness as something almost inalienable, something we deserve. (But, of course, only if we work hard, persevere, and have a wee bit of luck, too. This in orthodox, normative American theology, capitalist brand!)
The psychology of unhappiness in this century started primarily in Europe with Freud, Jung, and Adler but flowered most luxiuriantly in this country, as we in effect declared "war on unhappiness as we sought to redeem our "inalienable right" to be happy. Since the original treatment modes were quite time consuming, especially the Freudian one, and the results were not that positive, an elaboration of many modified and shortened therapy techniques, as in diet therapy, resulted. And, of course, the placebo effect was still a potent factor in many apparent successes. And patients continually sought different avenues of pyschologic help as the prior therapy began to lose its initial good placebo effects. Some of these adjustments and changes have shortened the time frame of therapy considerably and increased the number of patients, from only one to large marathon groups, thus making the treatment more cost effective per patient at least. And the treatment modes range from the in depth many sessions and years approach of the Freudians through scream therapy and even unto the orgone box of Wilhelm Reich. Along the way willing patients have encountered many permutations of the therapy to psychic wholeness and happiness. Names like transactional exchange, transcendentalism, relational meditation, and finally a whole host of eastern spiritualists, who are going beyond the supposed scientific purview of the pyschologic/psychiatric approach, emphasizing mysticism and self absorption in meditation, usually with a Buddhist orientation.
And still we seek, demanding a better life style, emotionally as well a physically, even as the results to date on the happiness quest via pyschologic therapy have been dubious and dim at best. The latest on the list of life style upgrades is sex therapy, the proper use of a crassly physical act for mutual satisfaction and emotional happiness. This approach began as a way to customize a routine and pleasurable orgasm per couple. All sorts of individual hang ups and devious routes to sexual pleasure were explored in this couple therapy, even occasionally requiring the active participation of the therapist. This anatomizing of the sexual function of quite a few male partners led to the increasing need for another medical specialty--impotence therapy. The treatment ranged from pyschologic counseling, to direct intervention with penile injections to promote erection as needed for each act, or more permanent penile implantation for more lasting effect, a much more expensive and involved surgical procedure.
We are telling a tale of excess here, of the essential good of our economic system distorting to some extent the value system that has nurtured our culture throughout most of our history. The economic system follows its own path of least resistance to maximize efficiency by encouraging as much consumption as feasible given its existing plant and equipment and manpower, which in our case is considerable. The need to lure the consumer ever onward down the primrose consumption path is perhaps shamefully great, even unto playing with all manner of our innate psychic restraint and caution systems, subtly or overtly. The over stressing of the individual and the expansion of his or her needs to perhaps frivolous or even dangerous extremes has exacerbated, if not initiated, the decline of the traditional family and thus reinforced the trends toward an isolated, less communal, more self centered, and less restrained society; not a society more into saving and living as much for tomorrow as for the uninhibited present. Needless to say this latter type society is most desirable for the continued health and survival of our nation. In this return to less of an emphasis on inflated "over consumption" parents would once again be more active in the supervision of their children and less the dual breadwinners; the great providers and absent role models that our children need so very much.
One way back to this better balance could be a curbing of the extent of laissez faire in our system; some sort of legal restraint on the untrammeled freedom of the system to produce "frivolous" goods or "noxious" ideas or services. An absurd idea only Marx, Lenin, or Stalin would spin happily in their graves in support of.
It is possible to hope for other institutional means of support to encourage a less demanding up front "me too" attitude. We are still a normally Religious country. An over whelmingly large number of people profess some allegiance to one or another of our major religions. These institutions inherently are morally conservative and preach the saving of our moral and ethical capital, especially the communal golden rule, the doing of good to others and not only one self. This type of "conservatism", if nurtured, can be a positive influence. Not necessarily back to prayer in the schools, but supporting or respecting the concepts of restraint and discipline of one's self, for the greater good of all. One need not a subscribe to the concept of redemption, or salvation, or eternal damnation to respect the great truth that many times anticipation is greater than realization, and if we have very little left to anticipate because of too much early excesses the recipe for many of the ills that are with us has been unfortunately put in place.
Another way of putting it is to realize that ultimately the truism that man does not live by bread alone is true at certain key times in human history. While everything delineated here shows humanity as primarily, if not exclusively, dancing to the economic drumbeat of the entrepreneur, there are times when this material lust for consumption can be sated and abated to some extent. Certainly highlighting the problem may start this abatement.
Fortunately, demographics may be our best "anti capitalist" strategy. There may indeed be a self correcting mechanism inherent in the minimal birth rate of our devoutly self centered generation. Our population is aging rapidly. Larger numbers of over 50 people are in our population mix than ever before due to the anemic birth rate of the last few generations. When the balance tips this way--more older and less younger--then a more stable and, shall we say less flamboyant society can result. Older people are the ones who are inherently more conservative, more restrained, less lustful, more conforming to the moral and ethical norm financially and emotionally.
Perhaps the material fact of this population shift may start to slow down or even curb the excessive thrust of the consumption explosion and restore a more healthful balance between material acquisition and emotional or spiritual aspiration. We need all the help we can get on the way to motherhood regained.