I am reluctant to admit this, given today’s political climate, but a retired K.G.B. spy has emerged as a moral compass for me in recent months. I am talking about Gabriel, one of the handlers for Philip and Elizabeth Jennings, the protagonists of the FX drama “The Americans” portrayed by Matthew Rhys and Keri Russell.
The series, which is in its sixth and final season, depicts Soviet spies living deeply embedded lives in the United States, their true identities undetectable to friends and neighbors—including the F.B.I. spy-hunter neighbor who makes frequent visits to their home for dinner.
Philip and Elizabeth have constructed what appears to be an unremarkable, Cold War-era, middle-class existence. They live in a tidy subdivision outside Washington, D.C., where they run a travel agency. They drive nice cars and outfit their home with taken-for-granted luxuries that would be unavailable to them back in Russia. Their house is filled with stuff: multiple TVs, hoards of stylish clothing, piles of books and videogames, a fridge overflowing with food and beer, and other clutter. As with many Americans, their garage is lined with shelves holding both practical items and the junk they cannot bring themselves to throw away.
I am reluctant to admit this, but a retired K.G.B. spy has emerged as a moral compass for me.
Gabriel, played by Frank Langella, is single and without children. He lives far more simply than his charges. His wardrobe is practical and subdued, his dwelling spartan by American standards. He cooks his meals in an outdated kitchen with few appliances, wears drab sweaters to keep warm and, rather than watch TV, often plays Scrabble at his kitchen table, the walls around him bare. Clutter has no home in Gabriel’s house.
Gabriel’s simplicity recently came to mind because of an apparently new trend in gym socks.
A couple of years ago, I noticed that the more fashion-forward guys at the gym were sporting black socks with white Nike swooshes that rose to the bottom of their calves. The trend was noticeable because for a while, white ankle-length socks that could not be seen above the sneaker were in vogue. No longer, it seemed. So I headed to the store to buy six pairs of the trendier socks.
But a few months ago, I noticed that the black calf-length socks were being replaced with inversions: white socks with black swooshes. Though my black socks were still perfectly adequate, I nonetheless found myself at a store about to purchase a six-pack of white Nike calf-length socks.
Then I asked myself, “What the hell am I doing?”
Consumerism can be downright soul crushing. Companies spent more than $140 billion in U.S. advertising in 2016. They aim to convince us that their products will make us happier, wealthier, thinner, smarter, sexier, cleaner and, perhaps most dubiously, more fulfilled.
Though economic conditions are always uncertain, unemployment is down and inflation remains low. So why do things still feel “off” to so many, especially those of us in our 20s and 30s struggling to carve out a comfortable financial life?
Well, what chance do we have against those who use beautifully crafted, focus group-tested, psychologically manipulative advertising to take the little disposable income we have saved? Perhaps not much.
There is little in our culture that encourages us to live simply—and the implications can be dire.
All the messages encouraging us to spend adds up to a whole lot of consumer debt. The average American owed more than $6,000 on their credit cards in 2017, according to Experian. Of course, wage stagnation and immorally high medical costs don’t help.
Like many others my age, I am still paying down student loans. Lucky for me, opinion makers have dubbed this kind of debt morally and socially acceptable. Many of my friends have other kinds of debt, including the most scorned-upon, credit card debt, accrued in $50 and $100 increments to cover new clothes, dinners in trendy restaurants and electronic gadgets.
Professionals and pop psychologists say all this spending points to an emptiness, whether spiritual or, emotional, or and that all the gadgets we buy can lead to physical inactivity, which brings its own challenges. I am not so sure. I go to church each week, I’m in a happy and years-long relationship, and I exercise daily. Still, I have as hard a time as anyone else to resist spending.
Quite simply, there is little in our culture that encourages us to live simply—and the implications can be dire.
But Pope Francis is one such voice.
Many of his writings have addressed the emptiness of consumer culture. “Laudato Si,’” his 2015 encyclical, rightly notes that the environmental crises we face are ultimately attributable to excessive consumerism. Just this week, in his pastoral exhortation “Gaudete et Exsultate,” the pope warns that consumerism “only bloats the heart. It can offer occasional and passing pleasures, but not joy.”
But the pope’s voice is consistently drowned by a chorus of shriller, sexier and ultimately more persuasive voices urging me to spend, buy and consume more.
I’m not necessarily against spending money on nice clothes, dining at Edison-bulb-illuminated restaurants or even upgrading iPhones before they have worn out. I am too much a product of my environment, and perhaps I lack a strong enough imagination to denounce American-style capitalism in any convincing way.
The pope’s voice is drowned by a chorus of shriller, sexier voices urging me to spend, buy and consume more.
I was recently a guest in the home of a kind and exceedingly wealthy family who could not understand why so many of my peers supported Bernie Sanders in the 2016 election. He is a socialist, they gasped, who feeds a lazy generation promises of free stuff. But his message resonated with young people across the political spectrum, because, practicalities aside, Mr. Sanders at least offered a vision that went beyond rampant materialism and the pursuit of wealth for wealth’s sake.
Charles Debner, author of Welcome to the Revolution: Universalizing Resistance for Social Justice and Democracy, told me that while consumerism is an addiction and a threat to our planet, that I should not despair.
He said that many of his students at Boston College tell him they feel exhausted and depleted trying to keep up with the latest trends.
“This idea that to be a worthwhile, reputable person you need to consume a lot creates enormous stress,” he said. “It becomes burdensome.” But he sees signs of hope, especially when it comes to harnessing the power of consumerism to resist buying stuff we don’t really need or even want.
“At a personal level, people can make meaningful choices, where they essentially take control of their own consumer behavior and use this as a form of political leverage,” he said. He pointed to the boycotts of Trump-branded hotels and consumer goods as an example of individuals leveraging their buying power to make a point. In those instances, consumers probably just stay at a different hotel or buy a different brand, but they feel like they have done their part.resist strong cultural forces, and he suggested we can do big things with small choices. Consumerism more broadly will have to be addressed in different ways.
“This is a big problem, but because it’s so deep, it’s also one of the richest areas with possibilities for change,” he said. “More and more people are aware that their consumer choices can generate change and create social justice.”
Back to “The Americans.” Many television shows try discreetly to sell us cellphones, cars and sugary drinks via product placement and characters whose upper-middle-class lives are meant to be aspirational for viewers. It’s no wonder that I found the depiction of a television character who lives simply to be compelling, even if he is a Russian spy trying to undermine the American way of life. And, sadly, I have lost at least one comrade in this battle: On the latest season of “The Americans,” Gabriel is retired and he has moved home to Moscow.
Consumerism sometimes feels like it’s the only thing that unites Americans. To live outside that system can feel downright unpatriotic. But there has got to be a way to escape this way of living, for the good of our souls and the health of our planet.
We need individuals who extol simplicity and thrift to speak more boldly about the empty promises of consumerism. I fear it will take nothing less than a cultural revolution to banish from my mind the laughable notion that white Nike gym socks will somehow add any value to my life—but that revolution can be built from many small acts.