I wrote this essay in January 2012 after a sudden repatriation back to the USA (to Florida, no less) after almost a decade bouncing around Europe. I never published it, and reading it in November 2021, it’s shocking how evergreen it was. I’m by no means a naive person, but I myself was green around the edges when it came to America, in particular based on how much credit I thought to give these consumers out here. I’ve left the piece as is, with only typo edits.
When walking the dogs in our Florida neighborhood I noticed an almost-new plasma television left out on the sidewalk.
“Are they throwing that away?!” I asked my husband, flabbergasted.
“Yup. Probably got a new one.” He replied, shrugging.
A perfectly good TV, no attempt to sell or donate it, just dumped on the side of the road. How bizarre.
Nowhere else in the world will you see that.
Having lived in Europe for the last ten years and having spent my childhood abroad, I am not accustomed to all the choices that America affords its consumers. A whole aisle in the supermarket dedicated to shampoos?! Another one filled with salad dressing?! New must-have technology released each year, the old versions ending up like that TV on the side of the road?!
The rest of the world conserves, America consumes.
Choice is a big thing in America: Give us as many options as humanly possible or we will go to the restaurant/store/mall that does. We have a right to choose!
Ironically, this right does not appear to extend to even basic human rights.
While choice in a restaurant or supermarket is a given, a woman’s right to choose whether or not she will have a baby, take birth control or a morning after pill, is not a granted. There are even states in America that prosecute women for having miscarriages.
The moment a baby is born, whose right to life has been defended by religious fundamentalists, it no longer matters: education budgets are cut to spend more on the military industrial complex, universal health care proposals are vetoed, citizenship is not granted if the parents are not nationals, welfare mothers are vilified, if the baby is gay then the child only has equal rights in six of America’s fifty states.
You can choose between dozens of shaving creams or breakfast cereals, but a major life decision like choosing who to marry is not a given, unless you are in a heterosexual partnership.
You can choose from a dozen different car makes, hundreds of models. However, if you choose to not drive, good luck getting around unless you live in New York, San Francisco or Chicago. Every other developed nation on this planet has functional public transportation systems, with the exception of America.
You have the right to buy cheap goods from China, but you no longer have a right to work in the factories that make those, or any goods. The American Dream has been outsourced.
You have the right to consume all-you-can-eat high-fructose corn syrup, but when you get diabetes you couldn’t choose a health insurance provider until President Obama rid Americans of the “pre-existing condition” clause of HMOs.
You have the right to go to any hospital you want, but without insurance you only have the right to care if you can pay.
You have the right to feed your head with the thousands of food options that are unavailable in the rest of the world, but when it comes to feeding your brain you may no longer have the right to a public library or even a public school depending on where you live. Keep feeding your mouth, even though the cheap, processed food makes you sick, obese, diabetic. But feeding your brain with books and the words of educators is not a priority unless you can afford it.
A basic human right, the right to education, is not afforded in America. As education budgets are cut it is low-income schools that take the major hits. This doesn’t concern the American elite because they can afford to send their kids to private schools, or move to high-income neighborhoods with still-existing public schools, all the while believing that education is a given in this country.
A university education costs more each year. Students can choose to which schools they’d like to go, but after their four years they are indentured to the debt machine for the majority of their adult lives. Even state schools leave new graduates in debt — unlike other developed nations, a higher education is not a right in America, it is a privilege.
Without the right to education for all citizens you do not have a democracy: you have a consumer-driven capitalist monster, a robot devoid of history, context and future.
Without a right to universal healthcare, as every other developed nation on this planet provides, America has an ill society, cancerous, rotting from the inside out.
Basic human choices are blocked by politicians whose goal it is to make a profit. The average Congressperson makes significantly more than his or her constituents because of legislative kickbacks.
There is no right to choose in America, there is only the right to consume.
The most chilling aspect of the American cult(ure) of consumption is that, unlike other cults, it is self-policed: a leaderless cult.
The most hopeful part of this self-policed cult(ure) of consumption is that change can start with you.