Of Many Things

It is a truism that Americans spend more than we need to and consume more than we have to. But doesn’t it seem that our desire to consume superfluous goods has lately grown to alarming proportions? The other day, for example, I caught a TV commercial for Fit. In case you’ve not yet been informed about this important consumer development, Fit is a new product that cleans off wax and pesticides from fruits and vegetables. Now even the most sanitary-minded consumers have washed their veggies for many years with good old tap water and suffered few ill effects. But, as one learns in Marketing 101, a principal aim of advertising is to convince people that they need something they had never even considered needing. In other words, create a need.

The Fit commercial offers a compelling comparison between a head of broccoli that has been treated with - ugh - simple, plebeian tap water and another that has been washed clean in a sparkling bath of Fit. After its baptism in Fit, the latter broccoli emerges bathed in a heavenly light, glowing a radiant green, bursting with raw vegetable health. Fit is also recommended by a Restaurant Professional who assures us that he would be lost without it. We too, the ad suggests, should feel lost without the product: somehow a Fit-less life will be less nutritious, less antiseptic, less perfect.

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One more example: Last month National Public Radio aired a brief report on the global-positioning satellite devices that one can now purchase for automobiles. In the same way that the United States armed forces might employ a satellite to find, say, a lost battleship or a rogue nuclear weapon, these G.P.S. devices can also locate your Pajero. And by plugging into a high-tech worldwide mapping system, the G.P.S. can also provide directions for mapless drivers. (My sister suggested to me that these devices are cleverly designed to be irresistible to adult males: they play on men’s love of high-tech gadgets and their horror of having to ask directions.)

Now, not to be a Grinch, but does anyone find any of these exciting new products, well, a bit much? In an era of unprecedented prosperity, it seems that consumers are increasingly encouraged to spend their money on something, anything, to make their already clean and efficient lives even more clean, more efficient...more perfect, no matter how benighted a quest that may be.

Of course, like any red-blooded American I welcome anything that saves time or makes life’s little chores easier. And I do not mean to impugn the motives of consumers who, for example, desire cleaner food or who wish not to get lost while driving. These are, in themselves, reasonable goals.

On the other hand, isn’t living simply also a good goal? For while we live in a country surfeited with consumer goods, obsessed with making everything in life perfect - the perfectly clean vegetable, the perfectly clean floor, the perfectly clean shirt - we also live in a world where most people cannot afford food, houses or clothing.

Why mention this? Why be a Grinch during this cheerful Christmas season? Because along with Christmas comes the reminder that Christ was born into a poor family and, moreover, preached about the need to care for the poor. And his call is not addressed just to the community; it is also a call to the individual. For frequently questions of social justice are made to seem tremendously complicated and almost entirely divorced from our daily lives. After all, isn’t it about the I.M.F., the World Bank, globalization, exchange rates, Nafta, debt schedules and all that? Well, yes. But just as often the invitation to care for the least of our brothers and sisters boils down to simple choices made on an individual level, especially when it comes to things that we have previously been able to live without. In other words, think globally, act domestically.

And maybe that’s not so Grinch-like after all.

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