This week, Secretary of State John Kerry announced to a group of Indonesian students that global warming was “perhaps the world’s most fearsome weapon of mass destruction.” He added, “Because of climate change, it’s no secret that today Indonesia is … one of the most vulnerable countries on Earth. It’s not an exaggeration to say that the entire way of life that you live and love is at risk.”
Meanwhile, Hollywood prepared to drop a new blockbuster based on the biblical story of Noah. The film, directed by Darren Aronofsky, centers on the story of the biblical character who built an ark after God warned him that humanity would be destroyed thanks to its sexual immorality and violent transgressions. The Hollywood version of the story, however, has God punishing humanity not for actual sin, but for overpopulation and global warming — an odd set of sins, given God’s express commandments in Genesis 1:28 to “be fruitful, multiply, fill the earth, and subdue it.”
This weird perspective on sin — the notion that true sin is not sin, but that consumerism is — is actually nothing new. In the 1920s, the left warned of empty consumerism with the fire and brimstone of Jonathan Edwards; Sinclair Lewis famously labeled the American middle class “Babbitts” — characters who cared too much about buying things.
In his novel of the same name, Lewis sneered of his bourgeois antihero, “He had enormous and poetic admiration, though very little understanding, of all mechanical devices. They were his symbols of truth and beauty.” Lewis wrote, through the voice of his radical character Doane, that consumerism has created “standardization of thought, and of course, the traditions of competition. The real villains of the piece are the clean, kind, industrious Family Men who use every known brand of trickery and cruelty to insure the prosperity of their cubs. The worst thing about these fellows it that they’re so good and, in their work at least, so intelligent.”
Lewis, of course, was a socialist. So were anti-consumerism compatriots like H.G. Wells, H.L. Mencken and Herbert Croly. And their brand of leftism was destined to infuse the entire American left over the course of the 20th century. As Fred Siegel writes in his new book, “The Revolt Against The Masses,” this general feeling pervaded the left during the 1950s, even as more Americans were attending symphony concerts than ballgames, with 50,000 Americans per year buying paperback version of classics. That’s because if the left were to recognize the great power of consumerism in bettering lives and enriching culture, the left would have to become the right.
Of course, consumerism is not an unalloyed virtue. Consumerism can be utilized for hedonism. But it can also be utilized to make lives better, offering more opportunity for spiritual development. It’s precisely this latter combination that the left fears, because if consumerism and virtue are allied, there is no place left for the Marxist critique of capitalism — namely that capitalism makes people less compassionate, more selfish, and ethically meager. And so consumerism must be severed from virtue (very few leftists critique Americans’ propensity for spending cash on Lady Gaga concerts) so that it can be castigated as sin more broadly.
In a world in which consumerism is the greatest of all sins, America is the greatest of all sinners. Which, of course, is the point of the anti-consumerist critique from the left: to target America. Global warming represents the latest apocalyptic consequence threatened by the leftist gods for the great iniquity of buying things, developing products, and competing in the global marketplace. And America must be called to heel by the great preachers in Washington, D.C., and Hollywood.
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