By: Madonna Hamel
For the last three days I’ve been trying to put together a pitch for a documentary marking half a century since 1968, what many refer to as “the year that shook the world”, or “the year the dream died”. I’ve been flipping through old Life and Time magazines with images of Bobby Kennedy and my hero, Martin Luther King, on the cover. The ads fascinate me as much as the articles. Besides being mini-essays, assuming readers will take the time to read them through, they refer to the buyer in the third person masculine, .always as a ‘he’. “Man” wants a comfort, clean clothes, roomy station wagons and scotch. They have yet to cozy up to us, calling “you” over to page.
It was around the year 1974 we became known as ‘consumers’ instead of ‘citizens’. Which answers the questions I’ve been asking myself. How is it I never had the urge to own a home, model a kitchen, buy the newest cell phone, or even go to a hair dresser. And why is it we envy people with the most toys and marvel at their properties? Frankly,I’m a very bad consumer. I personally have not a hell of a lot to contribute to the Gross National Product. Yet, while I’m not even close to well-off; I don’t see myself as poor. And I work hard; don’t think anyone could call me lazy. I like to make things rather than own things. And as Kurt Vonnegut Jr, wrote, “art not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable.” If my art brings a moment of clarity or peace to someone’s life I am a success. But in a consumer culture I am only a success if it sells for a hefty price.
I grew up in a comfortable middle-class home with five siblings. My dad had his own car dealership and later his own RV lot, he was a successful businessman and I appreciate the comfort and security of my childhood years his success afforded. My first four years of university was paid for, after that, if you’re still hanging around campus, you’re on your own, he joked. But that didn’t count the cars I inherited every time he upgraded. Why I was the lucky recipient and not my other siblings I don’t dare ask. My mother was an artist who loved her creature comforts, but never pushed any of us to “consume” the products required to make us attractive young women. It was in my teens that the term “consumer” and the subsequent term “lifestyle” entered the vocabulary as well as the zeitgeist, so I’ll never know for sure if my burgeoning social conscience naturally questioned the establishment of consumerism as a worthy pursuit, or if, still trying to reconcile my place in the world as a “soul”, I simply could not begin to relate to myself as a consumer.
I’m a lousy consumer. But that doesn’t mean I don’t have a house full of stuff. I rarely come home from a trip to Swift without a couple of books under my arm, picked from the shelves or tables of the SPCA bookstore or the Sally Ann. And if Ervin should call at the last minute and suggest we go for supper and a movie in the city, especially if I’ve reached the dregs of my week-old homemade soup, I’m elated. I don’t take my nights out with him for granted; I appreciate his generosity and company. And I appreciate my time with his grand-children who remind us that there are vast untapped resources of pleasure to be found in activities that cost us nothing: drawing pictures, picking up stones, running up and down beaches, staring at the same piece of jewellery for minutes on end, asking “why” over and over and over. In a world framing us as consumers, kids are the subversives every time they throw away the expensive big ticket item and crawl into the box it came in.
I’m not driven to be a good consumer, because I don’t want to adapt to an idea of society as being a market place. Once, after an interview, one of the radio hosts I used to write for, growled: “Have you noticed how everybody wants to talk about their rights! But nobody’s talking about their responsibilities!” He’s right. I may not be any better as a citizen. However, I have marched alongside hundreds of others for peace and, as a woman, to ‘take back the night’ and I can’t say I’ve ever wanted anything bad enough, be it a new cell phone or a concert ticket, to camp out over night outside a stadium or a tech store.
From 1966 to 1980, the word “consumer” was well-embedded in the lexicon, partly thanks to Ralph Nader popularizing the term “consumer advocacy” with his bestseller “Unsafe at Any Speed”, but mostly likely a result of the increase in consumerism in the Reagan era.I came across an article by a consumer advocacy group the other day. They wrote about a frustrating and disturbing meeting with the US Department of Commerce to discuss the idea of using facial recognition technology in cities and stores, all in the name of helping people meet their consumer needs. Surveillance, it appears, is a snap if you perform it under the guise of anticipating and providing the consumer the goods they desire. Several advocacy and watch dog groups left the meeting after it became apparent that ‘consumer needs’ were more important than citizen’s fears that companies they’ve never heard of are tracking them and identifying them as they walk down the street. “When the state views us as consumers it tells us what products are good for us”, the groups criticized, but “when the states views us as citizens we are supposed to be provided with goods and services needed to operate as a healthy and educated body politic”.
I am thankful that I live in a village of ninety-eight people where the only surveillance camera I know of is Paul’s cow-cam, allowing him to keep an eye on the heifers during calving season while he’s at the hotel having supper. There are no shops to sell me anything and we don’t need technology to tell us who is walking down the sidewalk, we know everyone by name. Although, I noticed when I woke this morning my phone asked me to rate my visit to Houston Pizza the night before. I also notice that most of my the millennial friends, don’t seem bothered by the spying. They were born into the age of surveillance and cell-phone porn, with hundreds of websites full of young women volunteering views of their boobs and their booties to ‘consumers’ who can’t get their fill. I remember the day I came across a giant eye spray painted on a cement pylon of a highway overpass in Quebec. It read: Big Brother is Watching. “Yeah, I sniped, and we like it!” Surveillance had merged with voyeurism, and lost souls, who’d probably thought it was a reference to the ‘surreality’ show and not the novel 1984, were scrambling to be watched. “Betcha didn’t see that coming, did you George!” I often find myself saying that Madison Ave. is way more evil than Wall St. because rather than exploit us all they’ve trained us how to exploit ourselves.
It’s our duty as consumers to never have enough. I suspect marketers hire experts in addiction to find out what makes us crave and then go about inserting those elements in all the products they sell. Getting paid big money to be an expert witness is more valued than declining on the grounds that lying is wrong. However, the term consumer was also invented to protect the buyer. In my research I came across an article in Atlantic Monthly by Frank Trentmann tracing the history of consumerism, reminding me that the term gave voice to hapless customers for the first time. A further search revealed several waves of use of the moniker, and with it a shift in perspective and goals. I even noticed the hyphenated use of the term citizen-consumer popping up more often, and even a tendency to use the term “consumer” instead of “citizen,” even when what’s being talked about has nothing to do with economics.
But this wasn’t meant to be a rant on the compulsion to buy, consume, use and repeat. I wanted to write about King and his call for a revolution in values. How it became more and more evident that the growing gap between the haves and have-nots was making a mockery of democracy. About how his upcoming poor people’s march on Washington had to be stopped by so many powers that be. But I ran out of space. And Martin Luther King ran out of time. And I am going across the road to watch the falling stars. For free
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie, Sask. home.