Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The ideology of consumerism has been around for decades, but it seems to be getting worse

By Marc Jampole

Spring cleaning this year engendered a trip back in time, as I sifted through stacks of obituaries, old articles, papers, letters and photos. Nowadays when something in the media strikes my imagination or ignites my ire, I simply whip off a blog entry. But for years I would cut out the article, jot down some notes and let it molder in a file cabinet.

While mostly tossing out drawers full of yellowed newsprint the other day, I saved a few items that I thought were indicative of trends that I write about today. Consider it this week’s Show and Tell.

Let’s start with an example of corporate misspeak from what was likely the late ‘70s. (I don’t have the exact date because sloppy scholar that I was, I often forgot to date the cut-outs. But it comes from the San Francisco Chronicle and I lived in the Bay Area from 1977-1983, plus the topics on the other side of the page cry out “late '70s.”)

The speaker was James Mack, who at the time was a spokesperson for the National Candy Wholesalers Association. The venue was a hearing about junk food vending machines in public schools held by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA).

At the hearing, Mack claimed that a candy vending machine in schools provides children “with an island of pleasure that is similar to athletics and keeps children from other evils such as alcohol.”

Mack went on to say that banning candy sales in schools could lead to drug abuse and drinking.

Now that’s a man with no shame.

In case you thought that the USDA had more of a spine in those days than it does today, consider that the hearing concerned whether it had the authority to restrict sales of candy, soda pop and chewing gum in schools that receive federally financed lunch programs. Anyone who spent time in public schools in the ‘80s, ‘90s and well into the 21st century knows the candymen, sodapopmeisters and other processed food manufacturers won that one.

Now to a 1978 SF Chronicle article on “The Circle of Gold,” a chain letter infused with spirituality and love, and often distributed at parties attended by as many as 700 people in which the discussion centered on “feeling the energy.” Here’s the catch. With the “Circle of Gold” letter to the person at the top of the list, people were attaching $100 (which today would have the purchasing power of $250), with the hope that by spreading the energy, love, vibes and spiritual feel-goodies, hundreds of thousands of dollars would eventually come back in other circle of Gold letters.

Here is what I wrote in a note about this illegal Ponzi-like scheme in 1978: “The ‘Chain of Gold’ demonstrates that all our values—spiritual, social, moral—are reduced to money in this society.” I was only half right at the time. In fact, only objects and actions (AKA products and services) are reduced to money. Our values, relationships and other spiritual and emotional components of existence are reduced to commercial transactions, i.e., the exchange of money for goods and services. In this sense, the Circle of Gold is a late ‘70s reduction of the ideology of consumerism to its bare essentials—the purchase and exchange involved neither product nor service; nothing but the love and spirituality inherent in cold cash.

Finally, let’s fast forward to the late ‘90s for a great example of making an ideological message without using words: It’s a Parade Magazine photo of Hillary Clinton, then first lady, with her arms around two children, a white boy and an African-American girl.

The white boy stands erectly at attention with a grimly proud expression and is staring intensely at an American flag, as is Hillary. He reaches all the way up to Hillary’s shoulder.

The African-American girl, pig-tailed and in a cute dress, huddles close to Hillary, nestled just below the first lady’s protecting bosom. The girl is looking half at the flag and half at the first lady. The girl’s expression is one of relief, as if she had just been rescued from something bad.

The racist and sexist symbolism of the photo is both obvious and appalling: the white looks to protect the flag, the African-American looks to a government representative for protection. Furthermore, the protector is a male, the protected a female.

The caption is descriptively dispassionate: “Hillary Rodham Clinton takes Brianna Randall, 6, and Aaron Daugherty, 10, through the Blue Room on a tour of the White House. During the peak tourist seasons, about 30,000 visitors a week walk through the main floor.”

Yes, the caption is harmless enough, but the picture tells a thousand words, all lies and myths. When Hillary approved this photo from the ones the photographer presented her, it was not her finest moment.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Obamacare (What's Not to Like?)

An infographic illustrating public attitudes toward the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (a.k.a. "Obamacare")

Click on illustration to see it full-sized.
Thanks to Third Way.

Has extensive coverage of comment about Ann Romney made her a symbol for women?

The news media insists on extending the flap about Hillary Rosen’s comment that Ann Romney can’t understand the economy and the struggles of most women because Ann has "never worked a day in her life.” On National Public Radio this morning, Cokie Roberts said that Rosen handed the Romney campaign a gift.

It’s this kind of nonsense that debases political elections. Rosen never should have made the comment but Rosen is a minor player at best and so it never should have become a major story. To think of it as a “gift to Romney” only makes sense if voters are judging the candidates on the off-hand remarks made by minor factotums in the candidate’s party or on the image and track record of their spouses. There is a lot of evidence to suggest that the media wants us to decide elections on these ridiculous factors, at least based on the coverage they give to these flaps as opposed to real discussions of the issues.

One interesting result of this much ado about nothing is that suddenly, Ann Romney has become a symbol of the stay-at-home mom, a dwindling group and one with twice the rate of poverty as moms who work. The latest study I could find (published in 2009) says that only 24% of mothers in families with children under 15 years of age don’t have jobs. And stay-at-home moms tend to be poorer: Just 5.1 %of working moms were below poverty level, while 12.3 % of stay-at-home moms fell into that category.

A few OpEdge readers have insisted in tweets that just because Ann Romney has servants and lived a life of ease does not mean she cannot understand or empathize with the average woman, struggling to make ends meet with or without a job.

Why don’t we begin by considering the question on a theoretical basis: Do you need to have experienced poverty (or racism, the stress of warfare, starvation or other emotional or physical pains) to understand intellectually or feel emotionally the various types of pain felt by those who have experienced these degradations? I used to think one could until I listened to women and African-Americans talking about their feelings of distrust, oppression, lack of confidence, need to prove oneself, or their depictions of barriers that I never saw, but which their fervor and accuracy told me were real. Yes, I understood and sympathized, but I still could not really know their lives and feel their exact feelings.

My experience, however, is anecdotal. I wouldn’t deny anyone else their belief in true empathy towards others with whom one doesn’t have much in common except basic humanity. I yield on the theory.

But let’s forget about the argument over whether or not you can feel another feller’s pain until you walk a mile in his shoes and cut to the chase: The fact that Ann Romney supports her husband’s policies, which cut programs that help poor and working families to fund continued low taxation rates for the wealthy, may not answer the theoretical question about empathy, but it does tell us how much empathy the Romneys, Ann and Mitt, have for the average woman. Zero.