As I sat down to browse through my April 6 issue of the magazine, I got so hung up on this sentence that I couldn't read any further:
"Wage stagnation has been so severe that working Americans extracted disastrous amounts of equity from their homes and ran up credit card bills just to maintain their standard of living."
I suppose there are a number of ways to respond to this argument, but my response--as an educated, professional, middle class, long-time Nation reader and subscriber--is enough already.
I would describe myself as a person with far left of center politics and values who lives and works (along with just about everyone else) in the middle class world of addictive hyper-consumption. I am an academic, so the overwhelming majority of my colleagues describe themselves as liberal or very liberal. My husband and I come from liberal families. Our friends are liberals. Nonetheless, the majority of people we know over-consume, and quite a few of our friends, family members and colleagues are wringing their hands during this recession--and largely as a result of their own bad choices.
At this point we all know the sins of the Wall Street bankers. We all know that corporations, in conjunction with advertisers, control our minds and dupe us into aspiring to a standard of living that we not only cannot afford but frankly don't deserve.
I could give hundreds of examples, but here are a few: my liberal friends buy brand new SUVs and say ruefully, "I know it's wrong but... I need it." Or they buy their preschool age children matching Gameboys and say, "It's just easier than having to listen to the fighting." My liberal colleagues refuse to take the stairs in our buildings no matter how hard we campaign to save energy or increase physical activity. (Our tallest building is four stories.) But they are bummed out by their rising health care premiums and by how bad they feel all the time.
If I sound judgmental, so be it. I am, I admit. As one wise friend of mine pointed out recently, we are facing a massive paradigm shift. We are rapidly approaching the time when we can no longer live the way we have been living. We cannot afford to consume energy the way we do, exercise as little as we do, poison our food and thus our bodies the way we do, indulge our children and ourselves the way we do, and expect that at some point we won't be paying the price for our lazy, self-serving behavior. And right now it's fine to put the blame on the anonymous corporations for Americans' massive debt and downward mobility, but sooner or later we will have to look in the mirror, and I for one expect The Nation to take the lead in making this happen.
Right now my husband and I are re-watching the prescient documentary Manufacturing Consent, in which Noam Chomsky argues so compellingly for the basic human decency and common sense of the average American, who happens to have surrendered control of her own mind to abstract corporate interests. What a profoundly Marxist rude awakening. Imagine America as a nation of people who can think for themselves, who can resist corporate manipulation, who can experience a shift in values away from finding meaning in things to finding meaning in experiences, communities, and ideas.
The question is, where does this shift begin? What is the tipping point? When you argue against the injustice of Americans being forced to mortgage their homes and max out their credit cards to maintain their standard of living, which Americans are you talking about? The ones with enormous cars that they had to have and no longer want because gas was always going to be cheap and plentiful, the ones with 50" plasma TVs and stacks of DVDs, rooms full of brand new furniture and closets full of shoes, pantries full of over-processed, over-packaged convenience foods? The ones who can't sell their McMansions at any price now that their family's dealership has gone out of business? The ones who refinanced their home so they could buy a new Lexus and are now facing foreclosure? It seems to me that we liberals have pretty well stereotyped all these folks to be Republicans, and therefore somehow more culpable (because they actually vote against our best interests), but these descriptions fit plenty of liberals as well. We are all part of the problem.
The danger with any sweeping argument about the American middle class is that it fails to distinguish between those whose losses have been real and tragic--you've told some of their stories in your magazine--and those whose self-indulgence and greed can now be repackaged as predatory lending.
I find the news about our economy so persistently bleak that I can no longer go forward without some hope that we can broker a new relationship with the world we live in and learn to be different kinds of consumers (and producers!). I refuse to be a victim, and I think the constant attention on the Big Bad Wolves of Wall Street without attention on our blind cooperation with their policies is yet another distraction, as Chomsky would call it, from our ability to be truly reflective and self-possessed citizens in a functioning liberal democracy.
Stacy Bell McQuaide
Mar 31 2009 - 11:08am