It is not difficult both to dislike and to criticize consumerism. It is often as vacuous as it is unattractive. Last week, for example, my wife took me to something called an ‘outlet village,’ an expanse of shops built in faux Eighteenth Century style that sold designer products at allegedly low prices (though, wanting nothing in particular, they seemed high enough to me). There was actually a queue to obtain entry into Prada whose products are hardly those of first or primary necessity. However deep our economic crisis, this was no queue for rations in wartime; and though I am far from an egalitarian I felt uneasy that there were so many people wanting and even eager to pay hundreds or perhaps thousands for what seemed to me to be aesthetically cheap and vulgar gewgaws while so many people await their heating bill with extreme anxiety and trepidation.
One of the consequences of living in an information age is that we are made instantly, and constantly, aware of the disasters around the world, both natural and man-made, and of the enormous suffering that they cause. There are no more far-away lands of which to know nothing, to quote Neville Chamberlain, a man whom nobody would describe as wicked but yet who is the most despised of British Prime Ministers. We are all citizens of the world now.
Knowledge of suffering seems to place upon us an obligation of compassion that is greater than we can possibly bear. We respond in one of two ways: to claim a level of feeling that is greater than we actually can or do feel, in which case we become humbugs; or we harden our hearts and become like Pharaoh.
The final corruption of the republic will not be televised, but it was reported in Thursday’s New York Times. According to a poll conducted by that newspaper, residents of the City That Never Sleeps are apparently awake at night because their guardians watch over them, manage their affairs, run their economy, secure their streets, do all this with relative competence but do not feel for them in the process. They hope their next mayor will. Insert your Anthony Weiner (no relation) joke here.