Citizen Consumer

There is no such thing as too much detail when it comes to the corporate press directing its readers in how to shop, how to avoid engaging in civic life, and how to celebrate the trivial as the main source of respite from a harsh world. Having just finished reading the Boston Sunday Globe (December 4, 2005), I feel like I did in kindergarten when I traced over the dotted line to learn how to write the letters of the alphabet. Sometimes the teacher put her hand around my chubby fist. “This is how you do it. Follow the arrows up and then down. Now lift up the pencil and make a line across.”

That was an “A.” If I did it right, I would get an encouraging smile.

That’s how it feels reading the Sunday paper. As citizen consumers, we are carefully instructed, offered detailed tips and tricks, and gently cajoled about how to be the best possible citizen consumers we can be. If we comply, we are promised entry into the warm fold of shared experience with our fellow citizen consumers.

In the work force, the technique is different. We know that labor is harshly punished, and that most work is tedious, unrewarding, and unempowering. Bosses are rude; there is a constant pressure to speed up; and if you organize for better treatment, you get fired or they send your job overseas.

Coaxing good consumer habits out of the population takes a little more effort. Perhaps that’s the good news-that it does require so much effort. Next time you read the paper, notice how much ink and newsprint is dedicated to carefully guiding you in the practice of shopping. Just like my kindergarten penmanship book used detailed instruction and repetition to teach the alphabet, the daily paper repeatedly maps out the exact consumer behaviors you need to master your role as citizen consumer.

It’s not just about the advertising. We all know that more than half of the Sunday paper is directly devoted to enticing you to “save money,” creating needs you never knew you had, and generally imploring you to shop. But it’s actually possible to ignore these glossy pages if you want. Alternatively, you can take note of Macy’s “early bird specials” if you are in need of a Christmas cardigan or a new toaster.

But what about the rest of the paper – the parts that not only carefully teach you how to shop, but that constantly construct for you a world where shopping is the central activity. What are the pressing concerns in Boston, according to the “City” sections of the paper? Three-quarters of the front page of “City and Region” is devoted to careful ridiculing of the 400-year-old Massachusetts “Blue Laws,” that forbid shopping on Sundays. Puritans wanted a day of rest. How quaint and unsophisticated, the article seems to imply. Who’s got time for such things these days? Or maybe the Puritans had more coercive notions; namely, people should be in church on Sundays. How despicable to be coerced! Thank goodness we have evolved to the point where we freely choose to drive ourselves into debt buying single-use products made under deplorable labor conditions and destined to pollute the planet!

Speaking of stuff, that is the main focus of the front page of the other city section of the paper, “City Weekly.” The graphic shows a figure-stick man attempting to shut his closet door. But he can’t. There’s too much stuff. Not to worry, though. You can pay a “personal organizer” ($25-$90 per hour) to help you “declutter.” There is no mention of buying less — only of buying more. If a shopping trip to The Container Store won’t get you sorted out (and the article does mention this store by name, along with several other retailers that offer solutions to the problem of over-consuming and hoarding stuff), then you can pay for the services of “Clutter Clarity.” What is the news angle of this piece? In part, it seems to be that the National Association of Professional Organizers is having its annual meeting here in Boston — four months from now.

The other main article on the front page of “City Weekly” focuses on a woman who has a business washing and styling the wigs of Orthodox Jewish women. It’s tricky work, says the stylist because “once you cut it, that’s it. It’s not growing back.”

With all the things going on in the world, and considering all the ways we might engage in the pressing concerns of our time, you have to admit it takes a certain bravado to draw the attention of the entire Globe-reading population to the nuances of wig trimming. We read and nod to ourselves. That is so true about the wig hair. “One errant snip could mean the loss of an investment worth thousands of dollars.”

The main focus of the Arts section is the corporate underwriting of museums in the Boston area, an attempt to frame art as something that is delivered to us by benevolent capitalists. And the top-of-the fold of both the “Movies” section and the “Ideas” section is devoted to exploring C.S. Lewis’s fantasy stories — now a major motion picture. It makes sense that you might go to the movies for a little escapism. But to the “Ideas” section? Clearly, it’s not safe to explore real ideas in this section of the paper, so they focus on debates that no regular person can affect the outcome of. Can evangelists claim the “Chronicles of Narnia” as Christian allegory? Or not? Who cares?

These are the articles that put people on a human scale — the special difficulties around trimming wigs, the guy trying to shut his closet door, the question of which days of the week we can shop, and the culture wars as manifested in the latest movie. The things that people do and the things we think about are all presented somehow or another via the nuances of shopping.

The front page of the paper has a couple of actual people in it, too, but they are the bereaved mother (and her current husband) whose children were kidnapped and killed by their own father. They are not framed as people with agency but victims of a literal tragedy, which by definition, they could do nothing about. So the two basic presentations of human beings are: a) victims of tragedy, and b) agents of consumer choice.

The “Business and Money” section offers a detailed examination of online travel agencies, comparing fares, and search engines. Another article explains how to shop for the right Christmas tree.

I’m not saying people don’t want to know this stuff. I have been as befuddled by online travel purchases as anyone. And maybe, even in a better world, people will want to sort out the whys and wherefores of Christmas trees. But imagine if we applied this level of detail to other aspects of public and private life. Imagine if there were whole swaths of mass media dedicated to exploring the work of participating in democracy.

If we matched the detail and the hand-holding that we get about shopping, it could actually be quite useful. A while ago, I had a house party for a progressive candidate for Boston’s city council. I had a lot of questions. What are the most successful strategies for hosting a house party? Who should I invite? How should I invite them? How often should I remind them to come? How do I get those folks across the street, who are all mobilized and energized about lobbying the incumbent for a new crosswalk, interested in meeting the challenger? (In general, how can you help people proceed from their legitimate concerns about crosswalks on to other, less immediately tangible, struggles?) Where are the internet sites with interesting graphics for my flyer? Where do I find the time to make the flyer? How do I follow up afterwards? Is this a one-shot deal or part of a longer strategy? If it’s the latter, how do I evaluate its success?

Of course, a neighborhood house party plays no role in shoring up people’s view of themselves as primarily consumers, and so the corporate press has no interest in giving air time to it. We remain dependent on the independent press to provide examples of human agency that go beyond the pitfalls of wig-trimming and the challenges of closet clutter.

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