Monday, December 01, 2008

Neurotic bloggery

-The case for high heels.

-Something about the fact that this amazingly adorable baby tiger is in Germany makes this photo... off.

-On the 10,000 hours I spent on the subway today (9,000 of which involved a horse-and-buggy pulling a W train from Union Square to 42nd) I had a chance to hear Alice Waters interviewed on Times Talks. Her pro-tasty-food agenda would have my full support if she did not attribute all our nation's woes to our failure to emulate the French. Waters explains that she goes to France every year (insert carbon-footprint remark here), and that the French taught her how great food can be. This much I can accept. Harder to take is her belief that the French value their culture, unlike us crude Americans, and that their defense of their cuisine is a part of this. She presents the French appreciation of land and soil as this uncomplicated good, when in fact the history of French preservation-of-culture-via-agriculture is anything but. While self-aware enough to realize this is merely a sign I've been in too much graduate school, I couldn't help but think, as Waters was explaining how "beautiful" it is when public-school students work the land, the great 19th (and 20th!) century obsession with turning Jews into farmers. Of course, I know she's not endorsing the shadier aspects of French nativism when she holds forth on locally-grown lettuce (I save my paranoia for baby-tiger photos), but it wouldn't hurt if she made a point of showing awareness that France is not (just) some lettuce-filled paradise, and if she were willing to admit the existence of more positive aspects of American culture. Plus, getting the whole country on board for local/organic whatnot will be easier if it does not seem to entail having cultivated a personal appreciation for the south of France.

-As for American culture... Should we outlaw Black Friday or embrace it? How much of the anti-consumerist indignation (see photos and comments) is coming from people who themselves enjoy shopping, but who are aesthetically put off by Walmart, flat-screens, and big crowds of the less-than-chic? Where does consumerism end and Sartorialism begin? Why do we insist debt-inducing materialism is unique to the contemporary US, when nineteenth-century Frenchwomen partook? How much is a visceral distaste for mass-produced items and those who revel in getting them half price (says she who just spent $4.75 on an Old Navy hat, albeit not on the day), and how much is a not-at-all-classist and fully understandable reaction to the fact that a man died so that people could get their discounts. Elizabeth is right that "No matter how many times someone says it or writes it, it doesn’t sound any less horrifying."

7 comments:

Paul Gowder said...

You made my day with the tiger pic.

PG said...

From what I understand, Waters's efforts to encourage gardening and proper nutrition in public schools don't entail having cultivated a personal appreciation for the south of France. I think her message in the interview was tuned toward the Times Talks audience and is not something she pushes on middle schoolers.

Re: American consumerism, I don't think anyone insists that "debt-inducing materialism is unique to the contemporary US"; rather, there are signs that it has become so widespread as to be considered part of American culture as a whole, not just a subculture thereof. Madame Bovary et al. had to belong to a certain socioeconomic class before they had access to enough credit to fall into serious debt. The average Wal-Mart shopper wouldn't have been welcome at the earliest incarnations of the Galeries Lafayette. Moreover, I don't think those bourgeois Frenchwomen had sufficient impact to create a negative personal savings rate for France. The stereotype of the thrify French housewife appears to have survived their department store depradations.

Incidentally, Instapundit is touting a rather stupid post in which someone complains that the NYTimes is without value as a news source because a Week in Review essay was headlined "A Shopping Guernica Captures the Moment." Driscoll apparently doesn't know much about Guernica, the bombing or the painting, beyond what Wikipedia has to say. He entirely misses that both the painting and the essay take a single market day tragedy as emblematic of a less dramatic but still troubling whole: Guernica of Spanish militarism that invited foreign pilots into Spanish airspace to murder Spanish civilians, and Mr. Damour's accidental death of the reckless consumerism that has sunk many Americans deep into debt and left our national savings rate so low that there's little room left to be a Keynesian these days. Driscoll may disagree that there is anything problematic about American consumerism, but as that is the position taken by the essayist, it's reasonable, though unsubtle, for the headline writer to analogize to another instance of a single tragedy's bringing attention to a longstanding problem.

Phoebe said...

Paul,

I'm glad!

PG,

Alice Waters... means well. And I'm sure she does not enter into inner-city classrooms holding forth on Provence. But her inspiration is a fantasy version of France, one that ignores the country's less picturesque moments, ones that, coincidentally, have to do with an exclusionary definition of the nation based on who did or did not, well, farm.

Is debt a problem in America? Yes. But do we know, in some random photo of hordes at a sale, that the shoppers are not staying within their means? So much of the critique of Black Friday was about bashing an American culture of excess, when, if the economics are particular to our age, the urge among some part of a population to buy like a maniac is, alas, universal (wherever people have the means--or don't--to do so).

Petey said...

Look, I understand that you have managed to pre-answer pretty much any possible specific objection to what you are saying here, but basically, your emphasis is utterly and completely wrong.

- France really is a superior culture precisely because they do value their culture.

- Their defense of their cuisine really is an important part of that.

- American culture really is crude in comparison.

- An appreciation of land and soil really doesn't have anything whatsoever to do with pogroms.

PG said...

We don't know whether the specific shoppers in a particular photo are staying within their means, but that doesn't change the fact that easy consumer credit, consumer-driven debt and a negative personal savings rate are peculiarly American phenomena that make your comparison to 19th century France not wholly apt.

If every American had to cut up her credit cards and buy based solely on what she had the cash to afford, we would consume less. (Having just paid off the balance on a credit card, carried for the past three months due to charges from a trip and buying expensive shoes and bag before starting a job, I include myself in that lower-consumption-without-credit group.)

It's the difference between your claim that it's merely "some part of a population," which cannot shift these national numbers much, and my belief that it's actually a tendency in our population as a whole, embracing nearly all socioeconomic groups and thus capable of changing the average rates of debt and saving.

"Some part of the population" will commit criminal or outside-the-norm behavior in order to consume like a maniac, but once such consumption no longer requires one to stand out or otherwise assume much risk, it becomes accepted and common. No moral guilt attaches to anyone: our retail and credit corporations aren't like the conniving Lheureux, and even under recent stricter rules, personal bankruptcy remains a more accessible option than it was for the Bovarys.

Phoebe said...

Petey,

I didn't invent the anti-Jew pro-land-and-soil connection. Look at any history of modern anti-Semitism, or better yet, look up Maurice Barres. That said, not all who are pro=soil are or were anti-Jew.

PG,

So would you advocate a change in culture (debt as immorality) or a change in the ease of acquiring credit? Or just widespread Francophilia?

PG said...

Phoebe,

Not the Francophilia, which seems to be no more useful than Japophilia or Sinophilia -- Americans' bad debt and saving habits really are unusual in the world. But I do advocate encouraging moral distaste for consumer debt (as opposed to debt for long term assets, including real property), and discouraging easy credit to take on that consumer debt. For example, credit card companies shouldn't be setting up shop on every college campus, and college students should consider debt to be something one assumes only in exchange for something that provides returns over time -- like their education.