Thursday, March 1, 2007


One very good question about the United States is this: Do we, as Americans own our Stuff, of does it own us? In a number of ways, the United States is all about Stuff. Mainly because it's a means of showing Wealth and Status, and the amount of Wealth one has, and people's perceptions of Status, can be very important. Wealth - well, its importance is fairly self-evident. Wealth grants access to more healthful food, safer and more comfortable living conditions, better education, more occupational opportunities, increased access to better outcomes in the legal system, more competent help in getting things done, the list goes on and on... Status is less quantifiable, but still helpful, especially when it comes to influencing people. U2 front man Bono is in a position to rub shoulders with people who are considered the planet's movers and shakers, and make requests or even demands of them, because he has very high status. While Bill Gates could do the same thing, it's perhaps somewhat less likely that the people he speaks to would be willing to let him go without asking for a little financial consideration. While we in the United States have (mostly) shed the idea that there is a class of people who are simply born more worthy than the rest of us, it's fairly clear that we haven't managed to shed the idea that having more Wealth and higher Status can make one more worthy than everyone else. And even if we have managed to shed that concept, there are still many of us who hodl on to the idea that other people believe that their Wealth and Status make them everyone's "betters."

But even outside of what many people consider the crass materialistic side of Stuff, it's easy to become caught up in it. Just about everyone knows at least one person who can tell a riveting horror story about some item that they'd really rather be done with - but it was a gift from so-and-so, or it belonged to their significant other's Grandpa What's-his-face, or they need to keep it around because their boss comes over to dinner sometimes, and it's expected that they have one. Our Stuff can become a part of us by being both a major factor in the stories that we tell other people about ourselves, and the stories that we tell ourselves about ourselves.

And so there becomes a growing cadre of items that we feel Diminished if we don't have, and that ability of Stuff to worm its way into our feelings of self-worth can engender some remarkable events. The Season of Scandals that corporate America went through over the past few years was predicated mainly on people who "had more money than most folks would know what to do with," being caught stealing even more money. The now infamous audio tapes of Enron traders illustrated people who had no qualms about cheating tens of thousands of people, in order to line their own pockets - by sharing in the windfall of a company that was keeping most of the money for the people at the very top. And they showed off their success with Stuff.

Now, don't get me wrong - I have no problem with Stuff. Mainly because if you take all of the people that it takes to feed, clothe, house and educate (along with some other more or less essential services) the three hundred million people that call the United States home - you don't wind up with the one-hundred fifty or so million people that could reasonably make up the American workforce. We can't all be subsistance farmers. So there are going to be people whose job it is to make stuff that other people can use, but do not really need.

But to the degree that we allow our Stuff to define who we are as people, it starts to take on a life of its own, and to become the most important things in our lives. But I can't think of anyone who is primarily remembered today because they owned thus-and-so, or had possession of whatchamacallit.

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