Thursday, July 03, 2008

Is It Possible to Escape The Consumerist Mindset?

You may have noticed that the entries this week have focused on non-financial analyses. What better time to look at American society and culture than in the week of July 4th?

While it's rewarding to ponder the financial metrics of the meltdown, a single-minded concentration on numbers and charts actively distracts us from examining the underlying causes of the U.S. meltdown and political distemper.

In a way, this focus on measurement and numbers is just another subtle form of media manipulation of the sort described in A Good Con, and The Higher Level Con (July 1, 2008). Numbers only reflect behavior, and behavior reflects beliefs, values, trends, anxieties, hopes and much more. By focusing on numbers we focus on symptoms, not the casual factors/diseases.
That the U.S. is a consumer society is accepted in much the same way that a clear sky is blue (or should be). My longtime pal G.F.B. recently posited that the only way for us to truly understand our pervasive consumerist mindset would be to obtain a report from an extraterrestrial anthropologist.

Nonetheless, even our limited terrestrial minds can distinguish appallingly obvious contradictions such as "going green" when it requires the purchase of something new. I have covered this sort of laughably contradictory discrepancy between the stated goal--"simplify your life"--and the behavior being proposed-- "buy more now!"

For another point of view, let's turn to a recent email from longtime reader David V. from the Great Northern State:

You keep addressing fictious problems. Now here are some real problems, and how to solve them. The moose eat my peas, vines, pods, roots, the whole plant. Solution: plant enough for them and me. I put out oats and barley seed and the bears lick them up. Solution: put out more seed, everyone happy.

Man-made banking, man-made investments, shopping centers, factories, etc. Just walk away and leave the things of man. You are going to die, and sooner than you hope. The meaning of life is found close to the soil; you can get into it now or get into it later. But you will get into it. This is a most interesting commentary, for it suggests that abundance--the dream of consumerism--is actually based on a much deeper deprivation. The abundance David offers is the most basic sort to the creatures around him, while the consumerist mindset is to get something others don't (yet) have, or to get the same thing as someone else has--filling a hole in the soul, if you will, with some status symbol purchase.

The promise of filling that sense of deprivation is of course the crux of modern marketing. Trigger some inadequacy/insecurity (what, you don't have the latest iPod?? Loser!) and the innate desire for novelty, and you have a marketing platform for the ages.

There are anti-consumer movements afoot, calls to stop buying and rebel against the Machine. This is nothing new, of course; rebelling against the conformity of wage-slavery and consumption goes back to at least Thoreau. The beatnik/hippie lifestyle required cheap living quarters, minimal consumption and communal sustainability, i.e. some sort of absolute-minimum income and lots of sharing/bartering.

There are other mindsets which are neither consumerist nor anti-consumerist. To those engaged in self-cultivation, consumer and anti-consumer alike are twisted round something which humanity needs like a fish needs a wheelchair.

The yin-yang of consumer and anti-consumer form yet another perfect media sideshow/ distraction. Let's follow the guy who refuses to buy anything from China--ha, look at him struggle-- and then ooh and awe at the latest excesses in glopbal consumption (today, Bahrain's wild skyscrapers! They are so cool!)

Since the Olympics are a mere month or so away, let's consider an athletic metaphor. China expert/scholar Andrew J. Nathan penned this overview of the upcoming Beijing Olympics for The New Republic by drawing upon a half-dozen books which have been written about the subject: Medals And Rights: What the Olympics reveal, and conceal, about China
Here is one important idea Nathan extracted from Beijing's Games: What the Olympics Mean to China by Susan Brownell:

What Susan Brownell calls Chinese "body culture"--ideas of health and how to get it-- revolves around notions such as "vital breath." These concepts inform such Chinese disciplines as qigong (chi gung) (slow-movement exercises) and wushu (martial arts)(gung fu), both of which she says are more about shaping the subjective experience of the body than about training the body for competition.

The Chinese state does not invest much in facilities for everyday fitness. Most urbanites "cultivate their life force" (yangsheng) through traditional arts-- tai chi, walking, keeping birds, and writing calligraphy in water on the pavement-- that can be practised for free in parks and other public spaces. The contrast of traditional body culture with the Chinese government's drive/need to "win the most gold medals" could not be starker. Once again we see how the desire for abundance--all those gold medals and the global standing they will burnish--flows from insecurity/deprivation--an ugly, unquenchable hole in the national soul.

I purposely mentioned wushu/martial arts because there has long been a debate within the many martial arts traditions and schools (there is even a form of Tai Chi called "combat Tai Chi Chuan") about the value or artifice of competition.

Now as a practitioner of a martial art (merely intermediate, a beginner in every sense), I can assure you no one person will win or lose a competition or fight based on the school they represent. The talented individual with innate skills honed by relentless internal and external training and years of sparring practice will likely win any competition, regardless of the school or specific tradition they initally learned.

Some in the Chinese martial arts community are pressing for wushu to be accepted as Olympic sports; others are more reticient or even outright opposed. will Chinese martial arts show in Beijing olympics?

The Japanese may have managed to have judo enshrined as an Olympic sport and the South Koreans also succeeded in getting taekwondo, Korea's own brand of martial art, adopted.
But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has turned a deaf ear to the more recent appeals on behalf of wushu.

"Wushu has not been included as an official sport at the Olympics but I hope that after the Games we can make the sport better known to all the people of the world," said Jiao Ruiping, aged 16, who has been learning wushu since she was nine. Those who believe kung fu is not about competition are led by the revered Shaolin Temple: Shaolin monks not to attend Olympic kung fu competition:

"Performance in Chinese martial arts can be quantified but Shaolin wushu can not be measured in that way as it contains Buddhist elements and showcases a harmonious combination of Buddhism and kung fu," Qian said.

"In ancient times, people practiced Shaolin wushu to resist outsiders, not for competitive purposes.

"Shaolin Wushu, as a cultural heritage, cannot be equal to competitive sports. They are two completely different concepts. They are all monks at Shaolin Temple, we cannot send them to take part in competitions." In other words, Wushu is fundamentally about self-cultivation and self-defense, not competition. From this view, competition is diametrically opposed to Shaolin Wushu and all that it embodies and represents.

All integrated martial arts are based on body meridians, pressure points, and flows of energy (chi)--the principles not just of self-defense but of Chinese medicine, which in the Indian tradition is known as Ayurvedic. Internal development-- mental concentration, the channeling of internal energy, etc.-- are core ideals and practices in fully realized martial arts. Martial arts, properly understood, are all about health and self-cultivation.

(Yes, you can kick a heavy bag all day long, but that's like shooting free throws all day and then reckoning you know how to play basketball. I like competition and spent years practicing for games in which points decide a win/loss. But competition is not about health, self-actualization or even physical fitness; it's about winning, as every hack coach in America can tell you ad nauseum. I beg to differ, but that's another entry.)

So believing that a nation's character and standing depend on how many gold medals its competitors win is very much the same as the consumerist dream of happiness blossoming from yet another purchase/acquisition.

From the point of traditional Wushu, the competition itself--like consumerism-- misses the entire point. It's not at all about winning and losing, or how many possessions you own or don't own.

It is an Olympic irony that we do not need to travel to Alpha Centuri for a perspective freed from the shackles of consumerism; we need only look beneath the deprived, anxious-for-glory consumerist veneer of the Beijing Olympics to find just such an "alien" point of view right in Chinese culture: Shaolin Wushu, the true glory of China.

Thank you, Tyler C. ($100), for your stunningly generous contribution to this site. I am greatly honored by your on-going support and readership.

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