Winning at white elephant

[13 December 2007]

By Rob Horning

As uselessly contrarian as I tend to be, the holiday season tends to bring out my cynicism, leaving me feeling that I believe in nothing, like The Big Lebowski‘s nihilists. It’s not merely a matter of my not being religious; I find myself not wanting to buy into the holiday spirit at all. I grouse about the music, and the gifting and the parties and the traveling and the stress and the continual efforts of coordination that must be made for no one’s particular satisfaction, just so that one can feel as though one participated in an inescapable social ritual. Part of my uneasiness comes from a misplaced expectation of authenticity, a notion that that the contrived aspect of the holiday season destroys spontaneity and replaces the opportunity for it with ersatz obligations. I tend not to see the season’s contrivances as opportunities themselves, as moments when society tolerates our going slightly beyond the way we ordinarily treat acquaintances, when we can, generally speaking, safely venture a little bit more of ourselves. So it may be that I, with my customary suspicion that I have little to offer, try to absent myself from the proceedings altogether.

This year, I tried to soalce myself after the seasonal onset of my lack of belief by reading Eric Hoffer’s The True Believer, which I got from the bargain shelf in a Seattle used book store. Hoffer (a “longshoreman philosopher” who wrote as an unaffiliated autodidact) was interested in investigating the nature of mass movements, and what permitted the rise of Fascism and Nazism in the 1930s, and he set out his conclusions in the this near-aphoristic work. Hoffer’s main insight is that one’s eagerness to belong to a mass movement derives from a sense of personal frustration, an overwhelming sense of failure in the face of the opportunities afforded in a free society. “When our individual interests and prospects do not seem worth living for, we are in desperate need of something apart from us to live for. All forms of dedication, devotion, loyalty and self-surrender are in essence a desperate clinging to something which might give worth and meaning to our futile, spoiled lives.” Talk about cynical. Hoffer regards the rise of mass movements as the almost inevitable consequence of widespread mediocrity coupled with the unreasonable expectations that democracy generates for the common person. “Unless a man has the talents to make something of himself, freedom is an irksome burden. We join a mass movement to escape individual responsibility, or, in the words of one ardent young Nazi, ‘to be free from freedom.’ ” Democratic ideology leaves the impression that all men are equal, whereas it has the effect of making one’s place in the irrepressible hierarchies in society seem entirely the individual’s fault. Thus the frustrated people in a capitalist democracy “want to eliminate free competition and the ruthless testing to which the individual is continually subjected in a free society.”

So if frustration produces a longing for a mass movement that resolves all personal inadequacies in a dedication to a cause, then what should we make of consumerism, which seems to work in precisely the opposite way, generating frustration while imbuing consumers with the imperative to be an individual and construct a unique, predominantly external identity on the basis of which one can be judged. Is it a recipe for fomenting fascism, instilling the frustration with oneself that makes one susceptible to being led and having society leveled? Or is consumerism just the ideological by-product of a commitment to individualism? Is it a way of embodying that ethic in a set of economic practices, as ideologues like Milton Friedman have always insisted—i.e. that the freedom of choice offered by market societies derives from a culture prioritizing and prizing personal freedom? Or does it help flatter people into believing they are profoundly and uniquely creative, setting them up for permanent frustration with themselves and what they are brought to believe is a personal failure. Consumerism invites dilettantism, because it promises that everything is easy and that you can do anything if you buy the right accoutrements. So consumers are prone to becoming what Hoffer calls permanent misfits: “Whatever they undertake becomes a passionate pursuit; but they never arrive, never pause. They demonstrate the fact that we can never have enough of that which we really do not want, and that we run fastest and farthest when we run from ourselves.”

Hoffer exempts from the centripetal pull into the abyss of mass movements those people who have genuine creative outlets: “Nothing so bolsters our self-confidence and reconciles us with ourselves as the continuous ability to create; to see things grow and develop under our hand, day in, day out. The decline of handicrafts in modern times is perhaps one of the causes for the rise of frustration and the increased susceptibility of the individual to mass movements.” How can that be, with Michael’s Crafts opening in every suburban strip mall?

Consumerism, with its emphasis on passive acquisition, tends to undermine crafts and hobbies, subordinating them to the master hobby of collecting things. And capitalism eviscerates most jobs and empties them of their social meaning. But the counterargument can be made that consumerism makes the necessary materials for hobbies cheap and plentiful, and the division of labor gives people the time to pursue them. It’s just their personal weakness and indecision that leaves them bored and unfulfilled.

So it’s hard to determine whether consumerism is a stepping stone to fascism or its antidote. Also, then, is the holiday season zeitgeist a proto-fascist expression of mass-movement psychology in the face of capitalist culture’s ideology of individualism, or is it actually a perfect encapsulation of that ideology, dressed up in the pseudo-religious garb of a mass movement? By trying to reject holiday cheer and the exposure that comes with the giving spirit it demands, I’m in part trying to keep myself cloaked in the anonymity that Hoffer singles out as a sign of the frustrated weakling: “The passion for equality is partly a passion of anonymity: to be one thread of the many which make up a tunic; one thread not distinguishable from the others. No one can then point us out, measure us against others and expose our inferiority.” I feel like one of those permanent misfits, too, out of step, feeling frustrated by the phoniness that seems to surround me but may in fact be coming from within.

But then, I can’t decide if my resistance to the holidays isn’t really an expression of weakness and frustration, but rather a defiant attempt to assert my individuality in the face of Santa’s marching orders. Maybe my attitude is all wrong. I should go into that white elephant exchange at my work with the proper competitive spirit, with the certainty that my gift is going to kick the ass of all those other ones.

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