By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
At a party a while back, the talk, as it usually does these days, turned to the Internet. When I mentioned to some people that Earthlink was my server, a shocked friend exclaimed, “But that‘s run by Scientologists!” She was referring to the Hubbardian bent of Sky Dayton, Earthlink’s founder, and continued ribbing me until I replied that I doubted my monthly fees went toward the upkeep of the Celebrity Center or any of the cult‘s other enterprises. My friend nodded politely, and the conversation moved on to other matters. We both knew she didn’t really care about the Scientology connection, just as I wasn‘t really defending my choice of a server. The important thing is that she got to partake in the American pastime of Making Friends Feel Bad, and I had not taken offense.
My friend and I are both card-carrying “progressives,” and that morning stood sipping champagne in a room mostly filled with like-minded people. I knew the drill: You admit to a seemingly benign consumer preference, your chums shoot you down for it. Either someone’s read that your favorite marketer of merino-wool sweaters has a side business in the Sudan selling iron slave collars, or it‘s pointed out that a cherished neighborhood hardware store peddles old-growth redwood.
Making your pals feel bad (but not so bad as to lose them) is a refined social skill highly regarded in my neck of the political woods. It has roots, ironically enough, in traditional class snobbery as well as in the consumer chauvinism that first spread from the pages of Playboy and Esquire into the popular consciousness of the early 1970s -- a belief that the kind of stereo speakers we own or the wine we drink are not merely practical choices but statements of identity.
Evaluations of other people’s tastes tend to be political judgments issued from the bench of one‘s own private Nuremberg. No longer content to merely dismiss a friend’s contrarian tastes as gauche, we detect in them nothing less than a threat to the planet -- implying that the offender is a kind of consumer criminal. In today‘s casual conversations, you run the constant risk of being made to feel guilty (as opposed to merely stupid) for wearing, eating or driving the wrong product at the wrong time.
A few months ago, for example, a friend commented on the base villainy of sports-utility vehicles and their owners. I politely told him that I was an SUV owner. He looked at me as though I had just admitted to collecting human-skin lampshades. His response was not new. “That’s your car?” a horrified colleague had once asked me in the Weekly‘s parking lot. “I’m so disappointed -- that‘s the kind someone in advertising would buy.” I had my reasons for owning my Pathfinder, not the least of which has to do with the fact that I actually use it to go off-road camping. No matter -- my choice of transportation was so heinous that, in the morality of the left, it amounted to a hate crime.
Automobiles, those expensive scourges of global climate, are high on the list of possessions that can be used to make us feel bad. Still, most of us nurse some guilty memory of a car or two that we treated as almost human. Mine is of my father’s ‘55 Chevy Bel Air, a big gray block of steel that was old the day he drove it off the used-car lot. It wasn’t just a machine that took us from one place to another, it was the largest thing we owned; it had a radio in it, and during winter afternoons it became my own private solarium.
I have an album of mental snapshots of our Chevy that will never fade: my mother pushing the stuck car through snow while my father steered, or her making sandwiches in the back seat on one of our cross-country moves, rain hammering on the roof. And there was one golden afternoon when my father had driven a cousin and me from eastern Long Island into Manhattan to see the American Museum of Natural History and Hayden Planetarium. We sailed down Fifth Avenue in a ticker-tape parade of my own imagining, everything in that late afternoon becoming lost in the blare of horns and the glint of summery light on the Empire State Building.
The only journey friends seem to let me take in my Pathfinder is a guilt trip. Guilt, of course, takes the fun out of owning anything and is the torture tool of choice used by people to make others feel bad. Usually this guilt accrues from the suffering of distant peoples or some ecological outrage -- sometimes both. I remember the time I invited a man active in Latino cultural politics over to a balcony barbecue. At first he was enthusiastic on the idea, especially when we got to talking about how much we preferred mesquite over chemically soaked briquettes. Then his political conscience kicked in. “But we shouldn‘t burn mesquite,” he said quietly, pausing to remember just why. “The environment, you know . . . and Mexico. It’s cutting down their mesquite forests.”