Thursday, June 10, 2010

It’s Not Our Fault

I’ve never been one to read memoirs. I suppose they’re interesting, but I rarely find myself drawn to mostly-autobiography. But, be that as it may, I decided to take a few minutes to read (and comment on) Marisa Meltzer’s review of Spent, a book about former model Avis Cardella's dealing with her self-diagnosed shopping addiction. (One wonders what drugs would be marketed for the treatment of Onimania, were it to be formally recognized.)

Late in the piece, Ms. Meltzer makes what strikes me as a curious criticism.

[Cardella's] very skilled at accepting the blame for her habits, but only barely hints at the underlying reasons we—women, typically, but men as well—are encouraged to buy things as comfort or to show status. Overall, she misses an opportunity to place her spending in a larger cultural context. She only briefly talks about the way credit-card companies prey on spenders, the ways glossy magazines manufacture desire, and the fad for luxury goods, instead pondering her own reasons for spending money.
I don’t see how this is a bad thing… (We should all be so skilled, I think.) Perhaps this isn’t what Ms. Meltzer meant to convey, but she seems to be critical of Spent for not casting Ms. Cardella and, by extension, the rest of us, as victims of yet another Hateful Conspiracy Against the Masses hatched by Big Money and designed to influence us to spend all of our hard-earned cash on meaningless frivolities and empty status signalers. It’s a common refrain, especially on the Left, that everyday people have little or no defense against the Dark Arts practiced by Madison Avenue and Wall Street and abetted by cupiditious neighbors and friends; and Ms. Meltzer seems disappointed that Cardella doesn’t parrot it in her book.

While it might be somehow comforting (although I most certainly don’t find it so) to think that we aren’t to blame for our impulse buys or unwise purchasing habits, the fact is that there is no coercion or subornment involved. Advertisers don’t send thugs to our homes to put guns to our heads and the credit card companies don’t have Orbital Mind Control Lasers (as much as they might want them). In nearly every circumstance, barring certain fraudulent practices, the hand that reaches into our pockets and pries open our wallets is our own, and even if you believe that strings are being pulled, it’s actually we who are the puppeteers.

Casting the idea that failing to indict people that, although easily unlikable, don’t bear the final responsibility for our decisions as a “missed opportunity” seems strange. Madison Avenue and Wall Street have both done some pretty heinous things in their pursuits of ever-greater profits. One would think that there are enough actual (if not always strictly literal) crimes to lay at their feet that one shouldn’t need to blame them for those that they didn’t commit. Perhaps it’s just my conservative side showing, but isn’t part of the idea behind beating an addiction owning up to the fact that one has a problem? I suspect that there is a reason that you won’t find the idea that liquor stores are to blame for alcoholism at an AA meeting. Shifting the blame has rarely been a viable strategy for self-improvement. And in a memoir, it seems that it would serve little purpose other than to allow the audience to avoid seeing themselves and their circumstances in the author’s life. And it seems that there is nothing more pointless than a cautionary tale that adopts as its moral that it’s all someone else’s fault.

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