How “The Americans” highlights the dangers of consumerism

 Pictured: (L-R) Keri Russell as Elizabeth Jennings, Matthew Rhys as Philip Jennings (Photo by: Frank Ockenfels/FX) 

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.

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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 He cooks his meals in an outdated kitchen with few appliances, wears drab sweaters to keep warm and, rather than watch TV, often plays Scrabble at his kitchen table, the walls around him bare.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.

J Cosgrove
6 days 10 hours ago

Mr. O'Laughlin,

You should understand the tradeoff you are asking. It is freedom vs compulsory conformity. You call it consumerism but what you are asking in the place of freely choosing is for someone else, probably the state to make the decisions for you.

You can freely choose to spend your money/time/effort in other ways besides personal goods. But once you give it up, you have lost freedom. Others will determine your life and how you lead it.

Freedom does not mean you have to submit your freedom to the latest fad. It means freedom to do what you deem best. What you are describing in the purchas of socks is that you have given up your freedom so to serve a conformity master by buying a fad. What you have to do is understand this slavery and take your life back. Giving it over to the government is not the answer. They will become your new master.

But part of your article indicates another type of slavery. What has Trump got to do with this? The answer is nothing. But yet the obligatory Trump bashing is here. Are you really required to write this only if you include a negative mention of Trump? Exercise some freedom. Trashing Trump is no different than buying the socks.

Freedom is s powerful motivator. Conformity is a powerful inhibitor of motivation. What you are suggesting with this article is the latter. Ironically by using an example of conformity to be even more conforming.

Robert Lewis
6 days 1 hour ago

Can you READ?! Where in the article did he endorse state capitalism, communism, fascism or any other control of financial or economic choice? Can one not be in favor of democratic capitalism and still oppose Trump?--oppose him for his lying, his philandering, his dangerously erratic behavior? I think Paul Ryan might have a few things to tell you this morning about what damage the moronic President and his idiot followers have done to principled conservatism.

Tim Donovan
6 days ago

Hello, Mr. Lewis. Although I largely disagree with the remarks of Mr. Cosgrove, and as a former long-time Democrat I frequently disagree with President Trump, I sincerely don't think I'm an "idiot" for having (reluctantly) voted for him. I'm certainly not boasting, but I do have a degree in Education, and spent over 30 years working with disabled children and adults in various capacities, including as a Special Education teacher, and as a supervisor at a group home for disabled adults. I also served on the Board of Directors for a relatively brief time with The Arc, an agency that advocates for the rights of disabled people.

J Cosgrove
6 days ago

Can you READ?!

I can most certainly read and I most certainly can reason.

What Mr. O'Loughlin is objecting to is someone freely marketing a product he does not think should be part of the choices people make. He calls that "consumerism" and uses the modifier "dangerous." My guess is because that term sounds ominous and very undesirable. His choice of terms was I am sure, important for the article. It is in the headline. He did not use "consumer choice" but "consumerism." But what he is objecting to is the choices consumers make. He is implying they do not have the will to make good choices.

If such products that Mr. O'Loughlin objects to are not to be offered, then who is to make that decision. If not the person freely, then it has to be the state. So what Mr. O'Loughlin is recommending is tantamount to having the state make the decisions as to what products are offered.

If he was warning us of the dangers of how we frivolously spend our money then that would be one thing and I would agree with him. But that is not the tone of the article. He could have made a better case for his thesis by choosing something such as "Starbucks" or modern music. Oh, wait these are value judgments on my part and some may be getting lots of serotonin and dopamine flow from both. Who am I to deny them these frivolities. By picking innocuous socks with a logo on it, he is in territory that a lot of people would nod their heads and call it superficial. Just like shirts from the local sports team with the name of a sports star on the back.

Who would decide what constitutes consumerism or prevent the manufacture and promotion of the products that we can do without. Certainly not any individual or organization I would endorse and the only organization that could enforce it would be the state. He is implicitly advocating state control of these decisions. No one else could do it.

No, I stand by my remarks. They are consistent with what America, the magazine, editorializes on all the time. My guess is that America is now preparing an article by Elizabeth Bruenig on socialism.

If you have an alternative then make your case for it and don't denigrate others.

And by the way, what does Trump have to do with anything in the article. Which was my final point. You spend half of your comment trashing Trump.

The authors on America and a lot of the commenters are addicted to trashing Trump.

Aside: why the choice of the photo. It looks like a scene of seduction from some D level movie. Are America, the magazine, editors practicing consumerism in order to get you to read this article.

J Cosgrove
5 days 23 hours ago

then who is to make that decision. If not the person freely,

I spent most of my adult life in the marketing and advertising of consumer goods. About 90% of new ideas fail and a lot more never get pass the concept stage. Also about 90% of advertising campaigns fail to change consumer attitudes and buying decisions. I was only involved with one advertising campaign that changed consumer buying habits within a short time. Most hopefully, just keep the status quo or prevent the decline of the product. Most products eventually disappear. The one successful advertising campaign that changed buying habits had to do with pointing out a health benefit of the product.

So what I am saying is that the consumer is making decisions every day that affect the viability of a product. So the person who buys the latest in gym socks is really choosing amongst hundreds of options and deciding which ones are preferred. It is a form of freedom played out every day and consumers reject most of the buying decisions presented to them.

I am not denying that there is a lot of perceived peer pressure on the purchase of consumer products. These are called "fads" and "fashion" and have been part of the human experience since before the plow. So what Mr. O'Loughlin is objecting to is human nature or the natural law.

There is freedom or there is the Stasi. Once you inhibit freedom too much you eventually get the latter. It is happening right now before our eyes in China. Also free speech is under attack everywhere here in the United States under the guise of preventing hate speech. Who gets to decide just what "hate speech" is? Sounds very much like the Stasi is winning.

Make your choice.

By the way, as I write this I am wearing my "Check Point Charlie" t-shirt which I bought when I was in Berlin.

I highly recommend that Mr. O'Loughlin and other readers watch the movie "The Lives of Others."

Tim Donovan
6 days ago

I respectfully disagree with the notion that Mr. O'Laughlin is suggesting that people should abandon their freedom by making a personal decision not to consume too many products. (Of course, I'm using modern technology , a kindle, to make this comment, so I readily admit that I'm not living an entirely simple life). Like most people, I also have a quality television, but my use of transportation is limited as I live in a nursing home. I either am given a ride in a car by family members to family gatherings (which are primarily local events), take a cab, or rely on nursing home transport for doctor appointments or occasional group shopping trips. However, I care little for fashion, so while I'm not poor, I usually dress in a simple manner. I agree with the Boston College teacher who believes that it is often stressful and burdensome to keep up with others and buy numerous products, especially those that aren't essential to live a decent life (which many people sadly don't) but instead are luxuries. I also respectfully disagree with you that (supposedly) giving up freedom in terms of choosing to be modest in terms of buying means giving the government the power to make personal choices. I don't believe in denying people the right to live their lives and make personal choices. However, as we live with other people, I do believe that it is reasonable that we acknowledge the needs of the larger community. I could go on (and I welcome and look forward to your response, which I find to be intelligent even when I disagree with it) but I don't want this comment to be excessively lengthy. I will simply conclude by noting that although I did vote for President Trump, it was primarily because of his support for laws to protect the innocent unborn from the violence of legal abortion. However, as a former long-time Democrat of more than 30 years (I'm now 56) I often disagree with his positions on major issues. To name only two, I support stringent gun control laws, and oppose capital punishment.

Terence Dunn
4 days 23 hours ago

The author's thesis is that consumerism is an addiction fed by emotional manipulation, prompting us to economically enslave ourselves. Nowhere does he advocate that we should embrace any form of communism or other "freedom threatening" government. He merely points out that the television program offers a stark contrast between the affluent waste of Americans as embodied by the main protagonists vs. the (admittedly imposed) simplicity of their handler's life.

I cannot speak to the producers' intents in the portrayal of the character Gabriel, and I do not watch the show. Perhaps the producers are trying to promote communism, but it seems a strange way to go about it. I imagine they rather mean to convey, "look how much better off we Americans are", rather than laud the starkness of Gabriel's choice to forgo the opportunities he can access in America .

In short, I don't believe the author need be schooled about "pinko sympathies." Rather, he is insightful in recognizing from the show that we are free to choose how we live, and that those choices lead to different outcomes. He's actually making your first point but you didn't see it.

You're quick to accuse him of Trump-bashing. The only reference to Trump in the essay was (1) not made by the author but rather was a reference to another writer's book, and (2) was not about Trump himself but rather an acknowledgement of people using their economic choices to convey frustration through boycott.

I don't necessarily agree with all the author's points. I do, however, find it interesting that the character's name is the same as God's best-known messenger.

J Cosgrove
2 days 22 hours ago

Mr. Dunn,

Thank you for your comment

Nowhere does he advocate that we should embrace any form of communism or other "freedom threatening" government.

He may not have said it but in fact by the structure of his argument, he is essentially doing that. Mr. O'Loughlin is using two rhetorical techniques frequently employed by authors of America, the magazine. They are first, the use of emotional vs rationale arguments. The second technique is to argue against something without arguing for something.

When one uses these approaches, one knows that arguing with facts and logic for something will be immediately discarded as specious. Thus, the argument against something based on emotions. Both are invalid techniques.

Mr. O'Loughlin could have argued for a modification of the free market capitalist system or a way of educating individuals as to which elements of the free market are frivolous but he remained silent on that. So he is in essence arguing for its opposite or an extreme modification. I asked for what modest modifications one could make. Maybe you can volunteer some. I do not see any.

Rather, he is insightful in recognizing from the show that we are free to choose how we live, and that those choices lead to different outcomes. He's actually making your first point but you didn't see it.

I am not sure what you are trying to say that Mr. O'Loughlin said and how he said it. So maybe that is why I didn't see it. If Mr. O'Loughlin was arguing for a simpler life freely chosen, I might second it if he described just how such a choice would then affect society.

Recently, I met with several people from my high school years and we all had different ways we spend our money. One spends most of his time reading on a Kindle and had a nice sweater but otherwise was simply dressed. So he was leading what might be called the simple life. But he had no family so his external influences were different from the friend who had several children. We were all freely choosing what we do and some of us have a much less physical product footprint than others.

Now let point out the silliness of this article based on socks. Would Mr. O'Loughlin not wear socks while exercising? The answer is no. So socks would still be sold and the type of sock would be chosen based on some criteria instead of the Nike swoosh. Maybe the criteria was the lack of any logo or color and strictly functional. But the wearer has just made a choice and soon we would be commenting on the uniform socks that all are wearing, worn and without color and having no function other than comfort. It would be the new fashion. And I bet it would quickly change to some other fashion. Would we have less socks sold? Probably not unless socks bought are now just thrown out when they are no longer fashionable. Are we now just discarding unfashionable socks. Most try to donate similar things so that others could be fashionable or just have socks. The total sock market in reality would remain the same or a little less.

What Mr. O’Loughlin is implicitly arguing for is a lot less total socks or fashionable clothes in general as if that would be good. It would certainly put a lot of people out of work in poor countries. But let’s argue that point of view instead of using emotional appeals about the frivolous fashions that humans have.

You're quick to accuse him of Trump-bashing. The only reference to Trump in the essay was (1) not made by the author but rather was a reference to another writer's book,

A couple things, first by citing someone else, the author is choosing what to cite so is essentially substituting the cited comment for their own same or very similar opinion. America authors use this rhetorical technique all the time. They cite others and somehow they may believe this absolves them of making the same comment. But it doesn't. They have freely chosen the comment.

Second, By bringing Trump's name into the discussion when it has no relevance to consumerism is a way to bash Trump. Consumerism as Mr. O'Loughlin describes it existed long before Trump and will certainly outlast him. Bashing Trump is gratuitous and ubiquitous here. If he just mentioned a boycott that would have been better but then he would have to justify this action against a type of socks based on reason and not emotion. Mentioning Trump is a cure all for a weak argument.

Finally, in this last part of his article he is talking about the shaming of others into a certain behavior leading to boycotts of what they personally don't like. I happen to believe this is an extremely dangerous approach but again we should argue it based on evidence and logic and not negative feelings about something.

Andrew Strada
4 days 22 hours ago

An interesting perspective. How did you feel about retired SS officers living the simple life in Argentina?

Randal Agostini
4 days 17 hours ago

An odd article. I get the impression that Michael believes that we should live in a political environment, which should also be a Liberal one, for that would be the only way for us to act responsibly. This naturally provokes a political argument, which is pointless.
How about Michael and the rest of us consider our "Purpose", as a child of God. The guidelines that would ensue from the Holy Spirit cut through all the secular trash to understand that foremost we are all children of God, each with an ultimate potential to change the world. Dwelling solely upon worldly events could one ever consider that Bernie Sanders could ever be the answer to our prayers. It is I, each one of us, that is the agent of change - to create an environment of Faith for the Glory of God.

joseph mulligan
4 days 14 hours ago

I hope the references to Trump and Sanders do not prevent Trump-supporters from seeing this article’s fundamental, liberating, and gospel-based call to simplicity and sharing and thus to true happiness.

Here is a comment by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuits, which I just received on H-mail (Heaven-mail):

“Man is created to praise, reverence, and serve God our Lord, and by this means to save his soul. The other things on the face of the earth are created for man to help him in attaining the end for which he is created. Hence, man is to make use of them in as far as they help him in the attainment of his end, and he must rid himself of them in as far as they prove a hindrance to him" (Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, First Principle and Foundation).

In a P.S. St. Ignatius assured us that he would use more inclusive language today.

He also explained that Spiritual Exercises are “every way of preparing and disposing the soul to rid itself of all inordinate attachments, and, after their removal, of seeking and finding the will of God in the disposition of our life for the salvation of our soul” (Introductory Observations).
Joseph E. Mulligan, S.J.
Christian Base Communities
Managua, Nicaragua

Bonnie Weissman
1 day 22 hours ago

Oh please, people! Stop judging so much! Even Our Lord enjoyed getting his feet cleansed and washed with expensive perfumed oils (and yes, I know the story is really about pre-burial stuff prior to His passion and death). I see nothing wrong with admiring or directly enjoying a few luxuries or frivolities as long as you're not taking food away from your family or cheating on your taxes. Even as an older nun, St. Teresa of Avila was known to admire stylish clothes on other people; my husband, a successful entrepreneur, buys his jeans at Walmart, but enjoys his collection of cashmere sweaters and pima cotton polo shirts. I remember reading somewhere the advice a famous saint (it may have been St. Vincent de Paul) gave to one of his wealthy benefactors who was also supporting a family--- thank God enthusiastically every day for all your blessings, material and otherwise; give very generously to charities and those in need, and finally, go out and enjoy your nice surroundings and stuff! As my mom used to say when sipping a nice wine, "Everything in moderation."

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