Monday’s \New York Times\ carried an interesting article about how the Bush campaign’s media consultants used consumer market segmentation data to woo the voters they most wanted to reach. (The Kerry campaign tried the same thing; this is a culture-wide phenomenon, not a partisan one.)
The article quotes advertising big-wig Donny Deutsch: “The selling of a candidate is no different from the smart media buying for toothpaste and automobiles.” The senior VP of the firm that bought Bush’s TV time says this: “Politics is a mass product: 50 percent of American adults ‘consume’ the election.”
In purely practical terms, I see little hope for the American electoral system until it is freed of commercialization, with public campaign financing in the place of private. (Here’s one idea about how to do it)
But I’m not going to come on all righteously outraged about the commercialization of politics. Why not? Because that’s not the problem. Politics is commercialized, religion is commercialized, sex is commercialized, war is commercialized… The problem of which crassly cynical political marketing is merely a symptom is (as my husband is fond of putting it): the commercialization of absolutely everything. American society has moved so far and so fast in this direction, it’s a wonder any of us can ever awaken from the trance of desire and consumption to pay attention to anything else.
The commercialization of absolutely everything is a problem for countless reasons: it devalues unmediated human experience, it offers commercial placebos in the place of real satisfactions, it creates a huge divide of deprivation and longing between haves and have-nots. But the deepest injury is illustrated by the substitution of marketing savvy for political discourse by in the recent campaign. When citizens are recognized and valued only for their roles as consumers, a crushing form of idolatry is being practiced in which we worship our own creations, forgetting where true value resides. When our president is elected by and accountable to market segments, millions of citizens who are not equipped by fortune or circumstance to participate in those markets are automatically dismissed as negligible. Democracy, already limping along on one leg, is brought to its knees.
This has been a year of tight money around my house. My husband and I keep choosing to work for impoverished organizations or to use more of our time in ways that bring pleasure or satisfaction but don’t make money. The result is that it’s hard to make ends meet, so we avoid the spending-related pursuits that have often enlivened leisure in flusher times: seeing live music or theater, going to restaurants, taking vacations, buying things just because they take our fancy. I understand that this is largely voluntary. If I set my sights on more money, I could make some, but I would have to give up what is still more precious to me, the freedom to invest my time in writing, in trying to help make social change, or in other ways that seldom turn a buck in the consumer society.
Still, pinching pennies carries a sting. I come from a working-class family where money was scarce (and not always wisely spent when it was on hand). If I’m feeling down, I can easily be triggered into a state of being so familiar, I’ve given it a nickname: The Poor Little Match Girl (after the ultra-pathetic Hans Christian Andersen character who froze to death in the snow in an animated feature that was shown continuously on TV every Christmas of my childhood). I can be walking along the street feeling fine despite a wafer-thin wallet, but as soon as my companion suggests we browse inside a chic, expensive shop along the way, The Poor Little Match Girl surfaces inside me. She feels awkward and uncomfortable in the midst of luxury, imagines that she will be barred from entering — or if allowed in, will be the object of disapproving scrutiny, will break something she can’t pay for, will sink in humiliation at her own inability to purchase the signifiers of class that would project belonging and entitlement.
Whew! What a load of internalized oppression to lug around! I have tricks for soothing The Poor Little Match Girl when she appears, so the experience is probably invisible to an observer. But still, she appears. I can’t avoid her altogether by reminding myself that — like many other smart people of my class — I’m so adept at impersonating the codes and conduct of respectable society that I have been able to make my way from board rooms to barrios and back without disgracing myself. No, I expect The Poor Little Match Girl will be with me forever, if only as a shadow or memory.
I never went hungry or lacked a roof over my head; I had school clothes and toys; clutching a quarter for a treat, I went to the kiddie matinees on Saturdays (two features and a dozen cartoons and Flash Gordons). According to the National Center for Children in Poverty, more than 11 million children lived in poverty in 2002 (meaning their family income was below the current federal line of an astounding $18,850 for a family of four — no kiddie matinees in that budget). More than 26 million lived in low-income families, which means family income totalled less than twice the poverty line.
Here’s the thing: what about those whose poverty is crushing, who may lack the resilience or wit to navigate in the consumer society, those who don’t yet have the words to say how the commercialization of absolutely everything has distorted, corrupted, and demoralized our society, but know deep inside how it feels? Some of those 37 million children might be channeling The Poor Little Match Girl. But other dramatis personae are waiting in the wings: the one whose resentment is appeased by violence, the one who steals the means to self-medicate into numbness, the one whose dream is to burn it all down. “Sow to yourselves in righteousness, reap in mercy,” said the prophet Hoshea; but if we sow greed and indifference, what will we reap?
I fear for us: how can our nation stand when so many are rendered invisible in the public sphere because they cannot buy their way into a market segment that counts?