Twitchell's materialism -- there's more to America

June 13, 1999|By David Kusnet | David Kusnet,Special to the Sun

"Lead Us Into Temptation: The Triumph of American Materialism," by James B. Twitchell. Columbia University Press. 336 pages. $24.95.

James B. Twitchell has a job that could exist only in today's America: teaching English and advertising at the University of Florida. And, with his earlier books, "Adcult USA" and "Carnival Culture," he became the nation's leading dissector and defender of commercial culture.

Perhaps because he's searching for something new to say, Twitchell's latest work, "Lead Us Into Temptation," is really two books in one. The best parts are an entertaining and insightful history of American commercialism, from the emergence of advertising in newspapers and magazines, radio and television, to the development of the supermarket, packaged products such as Wonder Bread and mass marketing of expensive luxury items of all kinds.

But these sections are wrapped around a cleverly contrarian but ultimately exasperating defense of commercialism in all its forms. These parts are presented as witty aphorisms, not coherent arguments, and read like 30-second TV spots strung together into an infomercial for materialism.

If this book has a thesis, it's a point Twitchell repeatedly makes: Consumers are not victims of commercialism but have eagerly participated in it. He attacks a host of critics of commercialism, including Thorstein Veblen, Vance Packard, Ralph Nader and John Kenneth Galbraith, reducing them to snooty strawmen who would deny ordinary Americans glamorous pleasures that were once exclusively enjoyed by affluent elites.

While there are snobbish undertones to some of the criticisms of middle-class consumption, most critics were making different points from those Twitchell distorts and debunks. Ascetic though he may be in his personal life, Nader's public role is to protect consumers against products that are unsafe or overpriced. And, in spite of his own patrician persona, Galbraith criticized the affluent society of the 1950s not for the material comfort it offered working Americans but for its economic inequalities and inadequate public services.

When he isn't trashing the critics of commercialism, Twitchell offers clever amusing epigrams about commercial culture. Starting with the title, with its parody of the Lord's Prayer, Twitchell stresses the similarities between the advertising industry and organized religion. Sometimes, he's informative, as when he explains how many advertising pioneers, from Artemis Ward to Bruce Barton, were clergymen's children or had religious training themselves. Sometimes, he's provocative, as when he writes that advertising fetishizes objects in exactly the same way that religion does.

But, after repeatedly asserting that commercialism is replacing religion without suggesting that this is troubling, Twitchell's apologia for advertising becomes chilling. Twice, he maintains that Eastern European communism was overthrown by consumer cravings, ignoring the yearnings for religious freedom, intellectual liberty and dignified work that were represented by such contemporary heroes as Pope John Paul II, Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa. For all his glibness, he ignores the lasting appeal of ideas and institutions that are based on something other than materialism, from religious faith to community service, artistic creativity and the democratic process.

If Twitchell doubts that Americans still care about more than acquiring and consuming things, he should listen more closely to popular culture. After all, even at the height of post-World War II prosperity, it was the chart-topping singer Peggy Lee who expressed the ambivalence about acquisitiveness with her songs, "Big Spender" and "Is That All There Is?"

David Kusnet was chief speechwriter for President Clinton from 1992 through 1994. He is a visiting fellow at the Economic Policy Institute and the author of "Speaking American: How the Democrats Can Win in the Nineties."

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