Sunday, June 15, 2014

Bourgeois Hippies

Now, this post is not an anti-hippie rant. Hippies are just fine by me. Not that I agree with everything they believe, but that's hardly the point. I like having people around that push different positions, including those I don't agree with, because I believe we all balance each other out. No, this post and its title refers to materialism and some of the attitudes about avoiding it.

There can be little doubt that one pitfall of modern life, especially in the United States over the last decade, is materialism. While there has always been a vein of materialism in our semi-capitalistic society, the rise of reality celebrities has given the shallow lifestyle of materialism an extra heavy dose of air time. Hearing that Paris Hilton spent over a quarter of a million dollars on her dog house or that Kanye and Kim are having a massive jet set wedding in Europe unfortunately fascinates a huge swath of Americans. There is also the Occupy Movement and it's highlighting the increasing gap between the wealthy and the poor. In general, it seems that concerns about the balance in our neighbors checkbook (and what we aspire ours to be) is a bit more in our faces these days.

Of course, there are plenty of people who reject the materialistic lifestyle and set of values. In particular, since the recovery set in many people have hung on to their more frugal habits in an attempt to reclaim their lives from the rat race of materialism in modern life. Various religions offer guidance in this area. For me, Zen Buddhism provides a means of keeping the lure of money and possessions at bay by cultivating a focus on the present moment rather than seeking after things.

While people like Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian are deservedly reviled for their crass materialism, I have noticed the rise of an equally crass trend among those who are opposed to materialism and avowedly not of the 1%. With a 'holier than thou', self-congratulatory smugness some of these people seem eager to castigate those who have or want things simply because they have or want them. They set up a human value system akin to the one created by those who value people based on what they have or earn. Instead, they base their system on what people don't have or don't earn. The problem is that this measuring stick is just a different side of the same coin.

I have, I believe, coined a term for these people: bourgeois hippies.

My thinking in this area was spurred by an article I read in an otherwise excellent magazine called The Humanist. The article ("The Materialist in Her Bathtub" by Michael Cohen in the May/June 2014 issue) bothered me because of the way the author set himself up as an arbiter of morality based on what he perceives as the degree of materialism in the people around him. Reading his views crystallized for me what bourgeois hippies are and why I find them objectionable.

Of course, I essentially agree with Cohen when he asserts "being too attached to possession is bad for the soul or some other quasi-spiritual entity." From a Zen standpoint, 'love of things' in and of itself is not a problem. It's totally possible to have a fancy house or a fancy car or a collection of beautiful art or lots of money and be on the path. Someone would only be in danger of delusion if their focus becomes the acquisition of those things, if attaining this or that becomes the guiding force in their decisions. This is a problem because the mind's focus would then no longer be on the reality and truth we have within us at this moment. Instead, the emphasis would be on the abstract future (what we want, where we want to go, what we want to be). A deluded mindset of this kind ultimately leads to a lack of clarity and disciplined thinking, and that leads to confusion and sorrow.

However, I soon part ways with Cohen - who seems to me to be a bourgeois hippie. At root, I disagree with his definition of materialism.  While I'm not sure he's totally conscious of how he comes across in this article, he makes a pretty clear case for a broad interpretation of materialism. He believes "why we want [a material possession] doesn't matter as much as wanting it" because he seems to assume that wanting material possessions necessarily means that we view the attainment of those possessions as a path to happiness or fulfillment. To Cohen, by wanting something we are "substituting a possession for something more legitimately desired". While Cohen allows that there are things that can be "legitimately desired", he doesn't say what those things are. However, from his text it's pretty clear most physical possessions don't qualify. So what he ends up suggesting is that we can accurately gauge a person's morality based on how much they want something(s).

I would argue that our motives as well as how we go after what we want are far more accurate indicators of our moral compass than what we want. It's easy to imagine that someone who wants to be a millionaire could have redeeming qualities, while it's impossible to believe that someone who advocates genocide to achieve national peace is anything but a monster. Just because someone swears off the pursuit of sports cars, big gold chains, designer clothes, and multi-million dollar homes doesn't automatically make them moral, nor does it prove that they are more moral than someone who actively pursues those things. So I think Cohen is way off base to suggest that having the right goals (wanting things he believes we can "legitimately desire") is a way to judge moral character.

Dante's Inferno, where Charon herds sinners into his boat
(illustration: Gustave Dore) 
Cohen goes further. In his article, he not only asserts this form of moral measurement, he creates multiple classes of materialists and ranks them in terms of how morally corrupt the people who belong to each class are. Reading how Cohen enumerates these categories (from least offensive to most egregious) is a bit like Dante organizing sinners into different rings of Hell in the Inferno. Here are the classes of materialists Cohen identifies, from better to worst:

1. Unconscious or normal materialists - These are the least objectionable, because Cohen kind-heartedly deems them "susceptible to reform". They are the bulk of people, caught in the rat race of modern life, unaware that they have put themselves on this treadmill and could step off it if they want. There are two sub-classes. The "grindingly poor who truly have no choices" are better than the rest of normal materialists, who buy houses to put their stuff in so they can go out and get more stuff (to paraphrase George Carlin).

2. Gadget materialists - As we progress to the next lower ring of Cohen's Inferno, we find those who have an affinity for certain kinds of stuff. The example Cohen provides are gun enthusiasts: people who collect guns because they admire their precision workings or the craftsmanship with which they are made. He derisively describes them as "people for whom the...photos of gleaming pistols in Guns & Ammo are as bright and attractive as the carnations in a Brueghel still life". (Note: Cohen reveals some insight here into a "legitimate desire": being an art lover. Apparently, people get a pass if they are enthusiastic about things in which Cohen has a personal interest)

3. Comfort materialists - These people are "in nearly the same place" as the gadget materialists. Their sin is "taking pleasure in material things because they make him or her feel secure, content, or peaceful." Examples include taking pleasure in the colors of ceramic pots you own or the content one receives from the feel of a cashmere blanket. So, apparently, Cohen is objecting to any object that delights the senses (but wouldn't that include the Brueghel still life?). This puritanical objection left me imagining Cohen as a medieval monk urging his flock to dress in burlap and wear a crown of thorns to avoid the temptation of cotton or linen or (gasp) silk clothing.

4. Substitutive or compensatory materialists - Now we're getting to the people Cohen really finds morally bankrupt. These materialists acquire/desire objects to use them in conveying a specific talent or to satisfy an emotional need. They go off "spending money indiscriminately as a way to fill a psychic hole" and "attempt to turn stuff into respect." The possessions they have are used as a status symbol and a way to prove intelligence or worth.

5. Entitled materialists - In the icy plains at the bottom of Cohen's materialistic hell (where Satan is chewing on Judas) we would find these representatives of the "most egregiously malevolent form of materialism". Entitled materialists are damned for inheriting wealth and feeling entitled to that wealth. Beyond a litany of spurious studies proving 'haves' tend to be nasty liars and cheats, Cohen provides no explanation as to why leaving your child a fortune irretrievably poisons their moral character and renders them the basest materialistic wretch. On the contrary, one might argue that Cohen - by judging these people based on their possessions and wealth is acting from the exact sin he deplores. Shouldn't we judge people by the content of their character rather than the balance in their check book (or trust fund, as the case may be)?

As I said, I agree that if someone allows material objects and/or the acquisition of them to become the driving force of their life that they are likely in possession of a deluded mindset. However, because I believe this I can't agree with judging people (and certainly not their moral character) based on how much they have or what they have. However, Cohen engages in precisely this behavior. It's made worse by that fact that much of the behavior he decries is perfectly harmless. Is a woman who values a brooch her grandmother passed down to her a comfort materialist? Is a collector of fiber art baskets a gadget materialist? Is an heiress who runs a foundation doing good works an entitled materialist? This seems beyond zealous, narrow-minded, and terribly unfair.

This is the problem with labeling the mere desire for objects - any objects - as a deplorable materialism without paying attention to motives or behaviors. And this brings us to the concept of bourgeois hippies. My feeling is that a desire to crow about one's moral superiority to alleged materialists based on what one does not have or desire is the basest form of materialism there is. A person who engages in this behavior - while ostensibly (and usually quite vocally) rejecting materialism - uses a materialistic yardstick to judge everyone around them. The person with the mansion is less moral than the person in the raised ranch. The person in the raised ranch is less moral than the person living in the box under a bridge ("who truly has no choices").

Building off of Cohen's classifications, we one might call someone like this a 'reverse materialist'. However, this person is actually as materialistic as Paris Hilton or Kim Kardashian. They are a hypocrite. Humorously, while they are a materialist they are not smart enough to get the loot that goes with being one!

Mr. Cohen, you - and other bourgeois hippies - expose your own unclean hands by casting the first stone.

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