The Pleasures of Condescension

GEORGE F. WILL

April 29, 1991|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON — Washington. - I subscribe to many small journals and to the Small Journal Theory of History, which is: Such publications are incubators of the large ideas that are history's propellant. The recent founding by some liberals of The American Prospect was politically significant as a sign that at least some of the liberal remnant have noticed how important The Public Interest has been in the vigor of conservatism.

The American Prospect grapples with a subject that has helped to make liberalism unpalatable to many Americans. In ''Delectable Materialism,'' Michael Schudson, a sociologist, defends America's ''consumer culture'' from its critics, most of whom are liberals.

When Boris Yeltsin returned to Russia from America in 1989 he said that to understand America, ''at least 100 million Soviets must pass through the American school of supermarkets.'' He exclaimed, ''Their supermarkets have 30,000 food items. You can't imagine it. It makes people feel secure.''

Bull's eye. Mr. Yeltsin, seeing with the special clarity of a stranger, saw the connection between material and political values. Possession -- of a house that provides privacy, a car that confers mobility, clothes that express individuality, travel that broadens -- is not a trivial thing. Consumption is not peripheral to the fulfillment that is the goal of life and hence of politics.

However, for as long as a high level of consumption has been possible, moralists have treated it as problematic. Mr. Schudson identifies five forms of disapproval.

Two are imports from Europe. The socialist criticism is that consumerism rests on exploitation of workers and, if they are allowed to participate in it, it enervates them, sapping their ardor for social transformation. The aristocratic criticism of consumerism is an aesthetic of snobbery: mass tastes are necessarily low.

Three other criticisms of consumerism are home-grown. The Puritan version faults consumption as a distraction from spirituality. The Quaker version condemns the multiplication of commodities as an offense against simplicity. The republican criticism is that the absorption of individuals in private satisfactions saps civic virtue.

The hostility toward consumer culture that has seeped into contemporary liberalism is an amalgam. There is Puritanism in liberal guise, as when Jimmy Carter, in his 1979 speech on America's malaise, said many Americans ''worship'' consumption and do not know that ''consuming things does not satisfy our longing for meaning.'' There also is the vanity of intellectuals with small cars and large egos and the conviction that they are the rightful auditors of the masses' choices. Finally, there is liberalism's variant of the socialist idea of exploitation: advertising is villainous.

Advertising, liberal critics say, is today's ubiquitous instrument of social control. It is necessary to sustain capitalism once ''natural'' appetites are sated. Absent advertising to manufacture ''artificial'' consumer demand, the system would sag into stagnation.

Actually, the proliferation of doctrines attempting, in vain, to discourage consumerism (Puritan, Quaker, republican) suggests that American consumers need scant encouragement from advertisers. As Mr. Schudson says, de Tocqueville found Americans enterprising and acquisitive long before advertising became very visible.

The political problem with the liberal critique of consumer society, which stresses the power of advertising, is that it portrays Americans as manipulable dolts. The people get the message and are not amused.

The transformation of liberalism into a doctrine of condescension can be dated from the publication in 1958 of John Kenneth Galbraith's ''The Affluent Society.'' It suggested that most Americans are passive lumps, manipulated by manufacturers who manufacture both products and appetites for them. It pictured the American people as by and large a pathetic lot, in need of wise governors acting in loco parentis. Mr. Galbraith and like-minded liberals volunteered for that role.

The idea that today's prosperity was brought into being by something bogus (advertising) and is bad in effect (the ''worship'' of misplaced ''meaning'' that Mr. Carter lamented) produced not only an unappealing agenda but, quite naturally, an undemocratic political process for pursuing it. Litigation was preferred to legislation as courts rather than Congress became the liberals' preferred instruments of social change. After all, if the people are debased in their tastes and barely rational in decision-making, then institutions that are representative should for that very reason be avoided.

Liberalism became a style of disdain, soon describing America as not only vulgar but sick, racist, sexist, imperialist. Liberalism began telling Americans that many of their desires (for big cars, neighborhood schools and lots more) did not deserve respect.

Mr. Schudson says it is time to go ''beyond the snickering, joking and invariably hypocritical posturing of most criticism of consumer culture'' and to recognize ''a certain dignity and rationality in the desire for material goods.'' Contempt for consumer culture is generally an affectation of comfortable people addicted to the pleasures of condescension. A generation late, the liberal readership of The American Prospect has been shown why this politically off-putting idea is also a moral mistake.

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George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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