Conspicuous Authenticity: The New Social Status
Have you been shamed by someone who mocked you for buying goodies at Trader Joe’s, therefore buying from an old codger billionaire German? (You should be shopping at Whole Foods, spending no less than your entire paycheck). Got glum looks because you love watching Glee, which broadcasts on the evil empire called Fox? (Stay glued to Green TV and nothing else!) Felt guilty about spending your vacation at a high rise hotel in Punta del Este while the neighbor down the street built schools in Abkhazia? Did that old college friend use his platinum American Express card to buy a composting toilet for his new digs in Boca Raton? You’ve been C-A’d. Someone subjected you to what social critic Andrew Potter calls “conspicuous authenticity.” As Potter recently explained during an insightful radio interview, it’s the new snobbery. We are no longer buying expensive stuff: now we are doing “cool” things to make ourselves, other people (preferably poorer and darker), and the planet feel better. To make some of us feel better, we are putting down someone’s lifestyle choice because he or she is doing the wrong thing for society and Earth. The overall goal is to make you feel like a little squirrel turd. Quite bluntly, this new propriety wrapped in a green smock is a crock of nonsense. I think most of us have fallen into this trap; I admit I have at times—so now let’s jump out of it. It used to be that crass consumption was emblematic of the perfect lifestyle. This went into overdrive during the 1980s, but eventually a backlash against materialism surged the following decade. British sit-coms, of course, viciously satirized our quest to buy perfection. Keeping Up Appearances had Hyacinth Bucket (Bouquet) answer with a glorious “this is the lady of the house speaking,” on her slim white telephone with automatic one-touch redial: only to find she was asked for a #42 with extra bamboo shoots. In its last season, Bubble, Edina’s assistant on Absolutely Fabulous, savaged everything from Prada to St. Tropez as “common.” So whether one is driving 15 miles in an SUV to do organic free-range yoga, or fly 15,000 in a jumbo jet to help some aboriginals, it’s high time to start calling folks out on this obnoxious behavior. I’ve noticed more keeping up with the eco-Joneses lately: too many of us are trying to be greener, eco-friendlier, or more sustainable. The results, quite frankly, are ridiculous. One humorous symptom was last month, when I wrote a silly April Fool’s piece on Daniela Mercury and battery technology. I got my wrist slapped, with a response saying that Salvador’s Carnaval was “corporate” (I didn’t see any suits or briefcases), while Recife’s was “open source” (whatever that means). I didn’t bother to reply. Salvador da Bahia was packed for a reason, and I actually liked my tank tops with the Brazilian bank’s logo slapped on it. I got the sense that everyone dancing like mad buying beer and water that was not overpriced was not feeling oppressed or like a sellout. If we were to follow these rules, joining the Peace Corps would be imperialism, cooking from scratch won’t matter if you didn’t grow your own food, and growing your own food is a joke if you used Burpee seeds. But flying a few continents away to save mankind seems odd when there are plenty of opportunities at home; staying at an eco-friendly hotel for US$450 a night hardly acquaints you with the local culture; and ordering recycled business cards made from matchbooks in Bhutan still means . . . you are shipping stuff from Bhutan. The best thing to do is to take those small steps to a healthier, more meaningful, and sustainable lifestyle. Just do it, offer friendly suggestions, share what works, and as the saying goes, don’t bash people over the head with terrorizing tips. Nor should you feel so insecure over your choices that you have to mock others who may think they are making the right choice. As for the rest of us, relax: watch the rendition of “A House is Not on Home” on Glee (as I have, rewinding again and again as I typed this), buy nuts and dried fruit at Trader Joes (the best quality for the best price, you’re a fool if you buy elsewhere), and enjoy the trip to Hawaii cause if you’re like most Americans, you only have 2 weeks of vacation a year anyway. And don't be bashful about drinking Starbucks, as the company has done much to buy ethically grown coffee and by the way, still provides its employees health insurance! I guess it is time to get off my (phosphate-free) soapbox now!