Saturday, December 16, 2006

I'm A Marked Man



As everyone is keenly aware, especially this time of year, businesses are pulling out all the stops in order to get you to part with your money. There is certainly a ploy, scam or manipulation that has been created for pretty much every potential consumer. But when you are a white, middle-aged, educated(?), professional male, there is a special place in the hearts of companies who like to sell shit. Kids may be a great audience for music and video games, but when it comes to big-ticket items, men are the holy grail. Because of that, I am a desired demographic. That means I have a target painted on me by business. I am targeted in specific ways in the hope that I will desire certain items. I am not a human, I am just a resource.

But in all this talk lately of dropping out, I am another demographic. Those who seek to follow what is popularly known as "Voluntary Simplicity" can be broadly labeled as "white" and "middle class". Men and women are about even in number within this group. Most who are interested in this path are well educated. I use the term "Voluntary Simplicity" only because it is a bit more accepted form of dropout. No, they don't really drop out, but they are sympathetic to the cause. I like to think of them as the sociological equal of marijuana: a gateway movement (yes, I know that a recent study debunks that theory, but I need it for that metaphor) to dropping out. Ted has been doing some writing on race and our culture that dovetails nicely into this idea of dropping out.

There have been some interesting conversations on this topic and I enjoy the give and take. My contention is that dropping out is quite serious and entails non-cooperation with the dominant consumer culture. But I also struggle with the difficulty faced by those who do not want to cooperate with this dominant culture but are unable to get out for various reasons. I will say that anyone who wants out can likely get out but the price is sometimes staggering. We've yet to discuss any concrete methods, but right now I am more concerned with the seeming hopelessness of dropping out.

I don't know why those who yearn for a simpler, freer life generally seem to be white, middle-class, educated "yuppie" types. I am certain that the desire for freedom and simplicity are not the sole domain of this socio-economic group, but the paradox within this little factoid is amusing. I think it is because white, middle-class, educated yuppies are the predominant consumer target in the nation that we even hear of "voluntary simplicity". When a noble idea is reduced down to a marketing term, we know we are in trouble. When the books, magazines, seminars, tapes and vacations that revolve around this idea become mainstream, the beginning of the end is near. I am not saying that books, etc. are bad things, but all these things are products. Products are created to be sold for a profit. When profit is involved a person's objectivity can often be called into question. Again, this is not an indictment of "voluntary simplicity" in any way. I am sure that most involved in the movement are genuine. I also do not fault anyone for trying to make a living. I hope we all know where I am coming from on this. It is analogous to creating a 12 hour mini-series on TV designed to educate Americans on the perils of watching too much TV. It could have a beneficial effect, but I would be suspicious.

Another aspect of this middle-class desire for a more meaningful existence is the fact that we are in a position to actually do something about it. One would think that the poor would lead the way in this lifestyle. But when you are poor, luxuries like movements and philosophies are often difficult to follow. You are generally too busy working several jobs and taking care of a family's needs to be spending your few moments of leisure figuring out how to "cut back". Again, the quotes here may smack of sarcasm, but they are asking a genuine question. There may be a few wealthy people who have sought a better life (John Robbins comes to mind), but I think that by and large the majority of the rich are quite happy with their lot. So if the poor have no opportunity and the rich have no desire, it leaves the middle class to struggle with this angst. Besides, the white middle-class does most the consuming, so who better to lead the way?

I don't know if it is our general white guilt that leads us to these ideas or if it is something else. Maybe it is the fact that we've come from something humbler and then tasted a "better life" but found it lacking? Maybe it is the stories of our ancestors and the romance of a more substantial life? Maybe it is our incessant working to achieve this life and finding that the pile of crap in the eight bedrooms in our homes is as useless as eating Twinkies? I really don't know what drives this behavior, but the fact that I fit into this category bothers me. Am I just doing this out of some sociological urge or am I interested because of a deeper spiritual need?

I am sure that the middle class is no more spiritual than the poor. It can't just be that. Is it that Christianity (at least the mainline branches that don't include the "Prosperity Gospel") seems to honor those who are poor? If so, why would the poor want to change their plight? And, if so, why wouldn't the middle-class want in on the action rather than face the potential difficulty of getting into heaven as one who would attempt to drive a camel through the "eye of a needle"?

I had a friend a few years ago who was brought up in rather beneficial circumstances. Her wealth allowed housekeepers and nannies and good schools. As fate would have it, she found love and religion and was willing to run away from all of her benefits. Her experiences remind me of what it will be like for those of us who are products of the modern world. She had no idea how to complete the simplest of tasks. Cooking, laundry and even cleaning a room were so foreign that the quest often brought her to tears. To anyone brought up to do their own work, it was sort of pathetic. But I saw her conviction. My wife spent time showing her the ropes and her common sense took over. Today, you'd never know it to look at her, but she has fully integrated into the mainstream of middle-class life from a life of ease. Four kids and several moves have toughened her up into an exemplary member of our stereotypical tribe. It gives me hope for the rest of us who need to learn how to milk goats, build fences and hunt game.

I don't know what it is that compels the white middle-class to look back. I do pray, though, that the same smugness that makes vegans and hybrid drivers crack jokes at the expense of meat eaters and SUV drivers will not bleed through to this movement. I hope that those who do actually drop out can look over their shoulders at those left behind and grieve rather than mock. It is easy to think about cutting back when you have enough. When you go from a three car family to a two car family it isn't a sacrifice, it is a start. Yet I won't be so quick to judge that step after seeing that even the well-off can suffer. Imagine what it would be like for you if you never had to lift a finger to do any sort of work around the house. What would it be like for you if you found yourself having to do all the mundane chores of life? Perhaps my sympathy isn't raised too high on that issue, but since I've seen the situation cause real tears, I can at least understand the struggle.

The poor don't have the luxury of cutting back. Maybe dropping out is an option? If I knew how to do it, I'd give advice. Voluntary Simplicity is often looked upon as the first step toward dropping out. I think we should encourage those who want out in any way we can. Even if they cannot actually make it, we shouldn't discourage them from trying. There was a saying used in the church in my circles: "Only the church shoots its own wounded." I hope that saying won't apply to those who foresee troubled times ahead. When you are 30, single and healthy it is easy to drop out. When you are 60, have four kids and are sickly, the potential isn't as great.

Who knows what is up with the white middle-class? I do know that I admire anyone who seeks to make life better for themselves and for their community. I, for one, will not discourage those who seek to slow down, cut back and, ultimately, drop-out. I will do my best to encourage them and support them on the trip. Yes, I will give constructive criticism and even challenge thinking I feel is faulty, but I'll do it in love as best I can. The stakes are so high that we don't have the luxury of alienation or degrading into further factions. I've been quite impressed by the people within this movement. I pray we can continue to learn from one another, share our experiences and support each other during the days ahead. As for me, I'm taking the targets off of myself and off of my brothers and sisters. I've got enough to worry about without adding to the pile.

7 Comments:

Anonymous Don said...

Voluntary simplicity is not so much a drop out strategy but an opt out. These people have decided that they have to stay in the industrial economy but rather than let that economy drive them, they find an easier path. Rather than giving all your energy to working to make someone else rich they try to make their lives rich in something other than over large houses and cars.

The books and magazines are mostly for those who only dream but see the industrial economy as the only real choice. Look at the magazines and see adds for expensive goodies that tie you firmly to the industrial economy.

As for the poor, many see only the wealth paraded about on TV and assume that is the only true way to happiness.

December 17, 2006 1:31 PM  
Blogger Theo_musher said...

Frank,
Great post. Here are my takes on a couple things. Our culture as become so commercialized. There used to be a culture, then our sentimnentality, for our culture, was co-opted for advertising. Our heartstrings are pulled over and over again, using cultural references. But its happened som much that these dregs just get recycled over and over again and now there is nothing left. There are more "slice of life" commercials than real life.

About the demographics of dropping out/simplicity:

I think its very interesting that my Dad basically ignored the 60's. He is a lot like a WWII generation Dad. When I read all these boomers writing about their Dad's it describes him. Kind of Gruff, hard working, not touchy feely at all, conservative, patriotic.

I think its because he grew up poor and dropped out of high school due to a horrible home life. Most Boomers grew up in what was supposed to be the American dream, and became disenchanted with it. It seemed too shallow and materialistic.

My Dad never lived the American Dream as a kid, so he spent his life trying to achieve it. And basically he did. He worked hard and was financially successful.

I see a similar dyanamic with voluntary simplicity. People that have a lot are the only ones able to be disenchanted with what they have. You can't be disenchanted with what you don't have.

December 17, 2006 1:49 PM  
Anonymous devin said...

Marketing is so stupid and irrelevant to me here that even the thought of it as a motivator for others seems strange. I suppose that's plausible, but I guess I see this differently. As a white middle class male, I know full well all the "benefits" of civilization. And they're hollow.

I didn't grow up with the idea of the American Dream (house in the 'burbs, 2 cars, 2.1 kids, and a dog) as something better, because I was already experiencing it. All the marketing about how wonderful this life was rang hollow and empty, because my life wasn't really all that great.

And guilt seems to have very little to do with my dropping out journey. When I was guilty I was an activist -- "someone who attempts to change others so they don't have to change themselves". I was even further stuck in the system, and mired in despair at the same time. And further, this liberal "guilt" only makes sense when you think you're privileged. Of course people who are guilty about being "privileged" are going to donate to charity, and try to bring people up to their level of privilege -- but I contend this has very very little to do with dropping out. If anything this is the sort of "charity" that fuels the expansion of civilization, as we've seen with missionaries. It's exceptionally difficult to imagine a case where guilt from privilege is going to inspire anyone to truly drop out, instead of reinforce their participation in the system.

I think the idea of "privilege" really needs to be looked at closely, as well. I strongly strongly challenge the idea that rich people are generally happy, on a fundamental level. Rich people have access to ALL of civilization's addictions, from money to drugs to endless material objects. But underneath all of these comfortable addictions is a sickening despair and fragility. I feel a tremendous amount of empathy for the rich kids who have no privacy from their overbearing and narcissistic parents, who of course do their monitoring from an agonizing distance. The only thing the kid can do is learn to hide behind a facade at all times, and quiet the pain with ever-available addictions. Of course, I'm generalizing to the super-rich, here, but the only moderately rich have it even worse -- their money is usually coming from hardworking doctor or lawyer parents that are never around. Repeat above scenario.

I don't call that "privilege" at all. I don't feel particularly privileged to have all this baggage that I have to carry around with me, or else I die. I don't feel privileged to have been forced to stay in school in order to maintain an image of what my parents thought was acceptable. I don't feel privileged to have lived in a large house with really unhealthy carpet floors and fluoridated water and the computer for my only entertainment. Fuck that -- this isn't privilege, this is PRISON.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that the poor have it good. It's prison for them too. That's what we have to recognize, though, is that we're all in prison, and we're all pretty much stuck to one degree or another. And hey, look, we can all help each other. The "rich" can buy land while the poor can help us learn to live with less while the middle class leverage their relative empowerment in the areas of philosophy and flexibility/freedom.

Of course, here I don't really fit into any category, as I have no income and am really only the child of a middle class family. Technically right now I'm pretty damn "poor", but all the wealthier for it.

- Devin

December 17, 2006 3:22 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a female, who has recently started reading blogs of this nature, I beg to differ with your assertion that this is an equally gendered endeavor. Where are all the women? Hmm...Jack, Frank, Don, Ran, Nigel, Ted, Devin, Jim?

Just making an observation. ;)

~Melissa

December 18, 2006 11:57 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I think the reason voluntary simplicity is a middle class phenomenon is that the middle class has seen both sides of it. I mean, they're not so well off that they can't get into financial trouble, so they've seen what it means to have very little, and they've had periods of having enough and then some. When they look back on it, they realize their happiness wasn't changed one iota by the amount of money and things they had. And they understand the relation between work/time/money so they can make decisions to reduce expenditures, etc.

The rich have such a crazy-ass relationship to money...in most cases they don't even work for it. They earn it by owning everything and having power over everyone.

The poor never get to the point where they have a lot of stuff, so they never get to see how unfulfilling it is. And they work so much that they don't have the leisure time that the middle class does to ponder the way the world works.

December 18, 2006 5:34 PM  
Blogger Jack Trace said...

As I notice the poor people in San Francisco, I do see envy and wont for material goods. Although the middle class is not much different. I was always impressed at the employees at the bank I used to work at and how often they took vacations, bought new cars, traveled, and just otherwise spent money they could have used to find a way to opt or drop out. Though everyone would have loved to "win the lotto" none of them were seriously considering living simply as an economic tactic. But I think there is something beneath wanting a new Playstation or a PDA or a vacation. These purchases promise power, and a temporary control of one's life.

The recent real estate boom has caused a substantial current of instability even for home owners. Buying and selling, taking out home equity lines of credit, rising rents, now rising interest rates, all have made owning a home less of permanent thing, and more like a mere "investment". It used to be a goal to pay off the mortgage--to own without owing. Now, I think that people are settling for virtual stability. People who don't opt or drop out believe it is their fault they can't embrace this lifestyle. They believe it's their fault that they feel empty and hollow. Afterall, isn't the new car great? The house great? The food, the clothes, the good schools? Why aren't I happy? It must be me.

Most people don't realize that they want something else entirely. Something they can't buy.

December 19, 2006 2:42 AM  
Blogger Frank Black said...

Greetings, all...

Don:

I really don't know how to express my feelings about Voluntary Simplicity. I think in its best form it shows that a person is aware of their consumption and wishes to do something about it. It may lead to a deeper introspection that could nudge the practitioner into a new direction. At worst it is a yuppie fad that makes me want to gag.

Ted:

I totally agree with your take on commercialism. Our value is based on what we own or do, not the fact that we simply "are". My dad came a long way from his roots. Our world is totally different from our parent's world. I can't imagine what it must be like to be that age during this time.

Devin:

You seem to have your act together on this stuff. My take on the rich was only based on my limited experience. I had friends who were very wealthy and generally seemed content. I will agree that happy is another thing. I guess that the rich may be more fearful. They are "supposed" to be happy according to our warped system. Their status is the one to which most are striving. Yes, it is hollow and empty, but we are good sheeple and do what the TV and magazines tell us. I was brought up corrupted and polluted by this American consumer nightmare. Detox is hard. I want to read more from your blog, but I'll bet you are too busy dancing to bother. ;)

Melissa:

Yes, there is certainly too much testosterone going on around here (read Ted's blog for more on testosterone). But my point wasn't so much with these anti-civ, primitivist, peak oil, yadda yadda blogs. My stats regarding equal participation of sexes was for the Voluntary Simplicity movement. I hope to hear more from you. I'll check out your blog.

Marcy:

Yeah, that was the point I was trying to make, but not as well as you made it. The poor are often told they should be sad because they are poor and can't buy crap. My mom was poor but said she didn't know it and was always happy. Today, the poor strive to have something. The rich are rich and too afraid to lose it. What the hell else will they do? I mentioned John Robbins as an example of those who left their wealth, but he is a rare bird (of course, who knows how much money he has now?). The middle class are stuck in the middle. They've often come from the poor side. They're not much happier. That is why we get involved in such movements.

Jack:

One of the things I like about the Voluntary Simplicity movement is the fact that they do say, "Hey, there is another way to live." All those folks at the bank where you worked could have socked that money away and left the working world sooner, even though they had less. Of course, San Francisco is a pretty expensive place to live. I'm sure the demographics are skewed for that region. I'm sure it never dawns on most that there may be another way. I know it never did to me. Live and learn.

December 19, 2006 5:38 PM  

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