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.”
I laugh at all this because I graduated from Berkeley during the Age of Boycotts (the early 1970s), when I learned how to needle people about owning Krugerrands, drinking Gallo wine or wearing Farrah jeans. But as the 1970s boogied along, the number of boycotts multiplied exponentially until people simply ignored them. (Today, a list for the venerable Nestle embargo alone proscribes no fewer than 200 products and businesses, from Arrowhead Water to Friskies Cat Chow.) So a funny thing happened on the way to the Finland Station — the Age of Boycotts morphed into the materialistic and narcissistic Me Decade, followed by a kind of ongoing Me Century.
Apparently there was one eternal law of history Marx had forgotten to tell us about: Affluence eventually afflicts all but the most self-destructive radicals, something every generation discovers and which I only dimly perceived some 30 years ago as I sat in on a meeting of the Young Workers Liberation League, the bell-bottomed successor of the Young Communist League. At one point it came up that the CP boss for Northern California, Mickie Lima, would let the group use his Mendocino ranch for a weekend getaway. “He‘s got a ranch?” someone sniffed. “Yeah, really! That’s kinda funny,” another remarked tartly.
Lima had been born in the small town of Usal, and got his baptism in radical politics during a 1935 strike of barrel makers in Arcata, in which three strikers were killed. He‘d had a pretty tough life up there on the North Coast, and probably didn’t see anything wrong with owning a little piece of real estate during the vexingly prolonged “twilight of capitalism”; but to a group of college radicals still in their teens, the idea of a property-owning Communist was on par with that old gag about anarchists who wear watches.
“I hated having to visit your family‘s place. You were so poor, and I’d think, ‘How can people live like this?’ My cousin — the one who had gone with me to the Museum of Natural History and Hayden Planetarium — blurted this out some years back, as we reminisced about our childhoods one evening.
Looking back, I suppose I can see why he might‘ve considered my brother and me ”poor cousins.“ We were the ones who ate spaghetti on Thanksgiving, whose mother washed our laundry in the bathtub and whose family occasionally needed a handout from the Red Cross. Still, we lived like pharaohs compared to some of the kids I knew, with their ketchup sandwiches and homes built into the lofts of abandoned garages. At the time of my cousin’s confession, however, I was stunned. What could have made him think this way? Of course, I realized — it was the Chevy. And our rented home‘s dirt yard and perhaps the derelict graveyard that lay just beyond it. Or possibly, too, it had something to do with the neighborhood drunks who walked through our driveway on their way to sleep things off in that cemetery. But mostly, I figured, it was the ’55 Bel Air, for it had always stuck out when parked next to my aunts‘ and uncles’ new Impalas. Forget the blare of horns and the glint of summery light — my cousin had probably cringed in embarrassment when we drove down Fifth Avenue in our old gray car. Not that anyone said anything then, of course, because 35 years ago making those close to you feel bad had not yet come into vogue.
Today, I tell myself that my reasons for driving an SUV are practical ones. With it, I can camp off-road and, on the admittedly rare occasions I need to, I can haul two-by-fours and sheet rock fairly easily. But I suspect part of me also likes owning an automobile that doesn‘t get stuck in the snow or stick out next to new Impalas. I figure if Mickie Lima could own a ranch, why can’t I drive a big, shiny car? At least, like Lima, my SUV is red.#