Oxford University Press's
Academic Insights for the Thinking World

After the elections: Thanksgiving, consumerism, and the American soul

The elections, thankfully, are finally over, but America’s search for security and prosperity continues to center on ordinary politics and raw commerce. This ongoing focus is perilous and misconceived. Recalling the ineffably core origins of American philosophy, what we should really be asking these days is the broadly antecedent question: “How can we make the souls of our citizens better?”

To be sure, this is not a scientific question. There is no convincing way in which we could possibly include the concept of “soul” in any meaningfully testable hypotheses or theories. Nonetheless, thinkers from Plato to Freud have understood that science can have substantial intellectual limits, and that sometimes we truly need to look at our problems from the inside.

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the Jesuit philosopher, inquired, in The Phenomenon of Man: “Has science ever troubled to look at the world other than from without?” This not a silly or superficial question. Earlier, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the American Transcendentalist, had written wisely in The Over-Soul: “Even the most exact calculator has no prescience that something incalculable may not balk the next moment.” Moreover, he continued later on in the same classic essay: “Before the revelations of the soul, Time, Space, and Nature shrink away.”

That’s quite a claim. What, precisely, do these “phenomenological” insights suggest about elections and consumerism in the present American Commonwealth? To begin, no matter how much we may claim to teach our children diligently about “democracy” and “freedom,” this nation, whatever its recurrent electoral judgments on individual responsibility, remains mired in imitation. More to the point, whenever we begin our annual excursions to Thanksgiving, all Americans are aggressively reminded of this country’s most emphatically soulless mantra.

“You are what you buy.”

This almost sacred American axiom is reassuringly simple. It’s not complicated. Above all, it signals that every sham can have a patina, that gloss should be taken as truth, and that any discernible seriousness of thought, at least when it is detached from tangible considerations of material profit, is of no conceivably estimable value.

Ultimately, we Americans will need to learn an altogether different mantra. As a composite, we should finally come to understand, every society is basically the sum total of individual souls seeking redemption. For this nation, moreover, the favored path to any such redemption has remained narrowly fashioned by cliché, and announced only in chorus.

Where there dominates a palpable fear of standing apart from prevailing social judgments (social networking?), there can remain no consoling tolerance for intellectual courage, or, as corollary, for any reflective soulfulness. In such circumstances, as in our own present-day American society, this fear quickly transforms citizens into consumers.

Black_Friday_at_the_Apple_Store_on_Fifth_Avenue,_New_York_City,_2011
Black Friday at the Apple Store on Fifth Avenue, New York City, 2011by JoeInQueens. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

While still citizens, our “education” starts early. From the primary grades onward, each and every American is made to understand that conformance and “fitting in” are the reciprocally core components of individual success. Now, the grievously distressing results of such learning are very easy to see, not just in politics, but also in companies, communities, and families.

Above all, these results exhibit a debilitating fusion of democratic politics with an incessant materialism. Or, as once clarified by Emerson himself: “The reliance on Property, including the reliance on governments which protect it, is the want of self-reliance.”

Nonetheless, “We the people” cannot be fooled all of the time. We already know that nation, society, and economy are endangered not only by war, terrorism, and inequality, but also by a steadily deepening ocean of scientifically incalculable loneliness. For us, let us be candid, elections make little core difference. For us, as Americans, happiness remains painfully elusive.

In essence, no matter how hard we may try to discover or rediscover some tiny hints of joy in the world, and some connecting evidence of progress in politics, we still can’t manage to shake loose a gathering sense of paralyzing futility.

Tangibly, of course, some things are getting better. Stock prices have been rising. The economy — “macro,” at least — is improving.

Still, the immutably primal edifice of American prosperity, driven at its deepest levels by our most overwhelming personal insecurities, remains based upon a viscerally mindless dedication to consumption. Ground down daily by the glibly rehearsed babble of politicians and their media interpreters, we the people are no longer motivated by any credible search for dignity or social harmony, but by the dutifully revered buying expectations of patently crude economics.

Can anything be done to escape this hovering pendulum of our own mad clockwork? To answer, we must consider the pertinent facts. These unflattering facts, moreover, are pretty much irrefutable.

For the most part, we Americans now live shamelessly at the lowest common intellectual denominator. Cocooned in this generally ignored societal arithmetic, our proliferating universities are becoming expensive training schools, promising jobs, but less and less of a real education. Openly “branding” themselves in the unappetizing manner of fast food companies and underarm deodorants, these vaunted institutions of higher education correspondingly instruct each student that learning is just a commodity. Commodities, in turn, learns each student, exist solely for profit, for gainful exchange in the ever-widening marketplace.

Optimally, our students exist at the university in order, ultimately, to be bought and sold. Memorize, regurgitate, and “fit in” the ritualized mold, instructs the college. Then, all be praised, all will make money, and all will be well.

But all is not well. In these times, faced with potentially existential threats from Iran, North Korea, and many other conspicuously volatile places, we prefer to distract ourselves from inconvenient truths with the immense clamor of imitative mass society. Obligingly, America now imposes upon its already-breathless people the grotesque cadence of a vast and over-burdened machine. Predictably, the most likely outcome of this rhythmically calculated delirium will be a thoroughly exhausted country, one that is neither democratic, nor free.

Ironically, we Americans inhabit the one society that could have been different. Once, it seems, we still had a unique opportunity to nudge each single individual to become more than a crowd. Once, Ralph Waldo Emerson, the quintessential American philosopher, had described us as a unique people, one motivated by industry and “self-reliance,” and not by anxiety, fear, and a hideously relentless trembling.

America, Emerson had urged, needed to favor “plain living” and “high thinking.” What he likely feared most was a society wherein individual citizens would “measure their esteem of each other by what each has, and not by what each is.”

No distinctly American philosophy could possibly have been more systematically disregarded. Soon, even if we can somehow avoid the unprecedented paroxysms of nuclear war and nuclear terrorism, the swaying of the American ship will become unsustainable. Then, finally, we will be able to make out and understand the phantoms of other once-great ships of state.

Laden with silver and gold, these other vanished “vessels” are already long forgotten. Then, too, we will learn that those starkly overwhelming perils that once sent the works of Homer, Goethe, Milton, and Shakespeare to join the works of more easily forgotten poets are no longer unimaginable. They are already here, in the newspapers.

In spite of our proudly heroic claim to be a nation of “rugged individuals,” it is actually the delirious mass or crowd that shapes us, as a people, as Americans. Look about. Our unbalanced society absolutely bristles with demeaning hucksterism, humiliating allusions, choreographed violence, and utterly endless political equivocations. Surely, we ought finally to assert, there must be something more to this country than its fundamentally meaningless elections, its stupefying music, its growing tastelessness, and its all-too willing surrender to near-epidemic patterns of mob-directed consumption.

In an 1897 essay titled “On Being Human,” Woodrow Wilson asked plaintively about the authenticity of America. “Is it even open to us,” inquired Wilson, “to choose to be genuine?” This earlier American president had answered “yes,” but only if we would first refuse to stoop so cowardly before corruption, venality, and political double-talk. Otherwise, Wilson had already understood, our entire society would be left bloodless, a skeleton, dead with that rusty death of machinery, more unsightly even than the death of an individual person.

“The crowd,” observed the 19th century Danish philosopher, Søren Kierkegaard, “is untruth.” Today, following recent elections, and approaching another Thanksgiving, America’s democracy continues to flounder upon a cravenly obsequious and still soulless crowd. Before this can change, we Americans will first need to acknowledge that our institutionalized political, social, and economic world has been constructed precariously upon ashes, and that more substantially secure human foundations now require us to regain a dignified identity, as “self-reliant” individual persons, and as thinking public citizens.

Heading image: Boxing Day at the Toronto Eaton Centre by 松林 L. CC-BY-2.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

Recent Comments

There are currently no comments.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *