Friday, January 4, 2019

The New York Times delivers an appreciation of caviar, and an ode to a purse

I haven't updated this blog in years, for a variety of reasons that I won't explain now. But I'll break that "radio silence" with a nomination of the New York Times for Bullshit Reporting of the Month. (Well, OK, I actually mean last month, since it's now January). And no, the nomination is not for reporting about the machinations of the "evil Russkies", nor some other recent absurdity which the newspaper has alerted us to; rather, it's about the latest instance of the NYT as stenographer to neoliberalism, serving up absurdity on something no less important than how the plebes, if they can somehow just swing it, should fill their bellies and transiently experience a (literal) taste of luxury:

"This Sandwich Is a Luxurious Holiday Gift to You.
Caviar on white toast celebrates excess while honoring the lean times too."
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/19/magazine/caviar-sandwich-holiday-gift.html

Yeah, right, that really honors lean times, whatever "honors" now means. And in what universe of inequality? Reading it, I almost puked my rice and beans. The New York Times once again demonstrates, with what has become standard operating procedure for neoliberalism, how any serious considerations of social and economic injustice and inadequate opportunity all too often get replaced by supposedly-inspirational tales of hope and aspirations and now, "honoring".

Of course, the contorted psycho-economic rationalizations at the New York Times aren't limited to the alimentary tract. Here one other recent example:

"Why We Cover High Fashion.
The Times’ fashion director and chief fashion critic reflects on what makes haute couture relevant."
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/12/17/reader-center/why-we-cover-high-fashion.html

Then there was the coverage earlier this year — by the New York Times, as well as other media — of the death of designer Kate Spade, coverage that I'll call an "ode to a purse", because stripped of all pretense, that's what it ultimately was, virtually poetic in its exaltations. The publicized reactions to the death of Spade were so over the top — in a world of so many truly pressing problems — that I feel I must formally comment, albeit a bit late. (I must also add that I almost didn't do so. Normally I wouldn't write about someone's death by suicide, unless perhaps it was that of a war criminal thereby evading justice. Nor do I care about purses. And one other, very specific, consideration also gave me pause: the possibility that devotees of the brand would take offense at what I'd say, fill their Kate Spade purses with rocks, and bludgeon me to death! Ultimately, I've decided I needn't worry — they probably wouldn't want to damage their precious handbags.)

The odes to Kate Spade flowed ad nauseam, and reading them, one might have thought that she was Jonas Salk, and that what she had developed was the first vaccine for polio. The New York Times took it one step further, collecting reader comments to her obituary and synthesizing them into an article titled "Why Kate Spade Felt Like a Friend".
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/06/style/kate-spade-death-responses.html

Well, perhaps — if one subscribes to the Facebook-devalued meaning of "friend".

It included assorted plaintive bleats, lamentations about her death, and laudatory rationalizations about the value of her products — a veritable bouillabaisse of bullshit that the New York Times attempted to infuse with meaning. Consider this soaring bit of what can only be categorized as commercial rhetoric by Times reporters early in the article: "Her work had reached into people’s minds and helped express their sense of self. A bag became more than a bag: it became a symbol of an important moment in a life and part of an individual’s biography."

Which was followed by testimonials from product owners such as:
  •  "... I saved from my paycheck for many months to buy this purse" [...] This cocktail bag made me feel special..."
  •  "... Your gorgeous yet practical art made me feel a little less lonely at work every day.”
  • "... they didn’t have any following then, so they would let me save up my salary for a week or two and then coordinate a time when they would be at another street fair when I could pick up the bags I was saving up for. ..."
  • "... It was the most money I’d ever spent on a single object in my life, and something that required saving for weeks on end to do, but I still remember walking into the office my first day back with it, and having my boss compliment the bag — I’ve never felt more like an adult in my life."
  • "... You walk in the store and there are neon signs and stuff talking about being yourself and the best version of yourself. ..."
Jesus Christ!! Who writes this stuff? Who says it? Who even thinks it? (The Times' article also included a quote from Chelsea Clinton, but I'll spare readers of this blog the thoughts of someone whose wedding costs three million dollars).

But those comments do at least allow an observer to know that the truth is at once considerably more complex yet simpler than this astute businesswoman being your "friend". Simply put, Kate Spade made a small fortune manipulating and exploiting the insecurities of women (while, ironically, apparently neglecting to remedy her own). She convinced countless women to spend sums of money they couldn't really afford on a product that they didn't, by any stretch of the imagination, need. Judging from the absurdly adulatory comments, I have to conclude that the Kate Spade brand was simply capitalism at its most elementally manipulative (unfettered capitalism's proponents might say at its finest), that is, the ability to without factual basis engender in consumers the fervent belief that a particular purchase was precious, necessary, even beneficially transformative.

Of course, the Kate Spade brand was not alone in doing a "head trip" on consumers, such psychological manipulation is more often than not a major component of the modern marketing of countless products as diverse as pickup trucks and perfume — something to remember as the 2018 Pavlovian-Capitalism Christmas shopping season finally terminates.

I won't say that a purchase can never actually be transformative. A good camera acquired by a budding photographer, quality brushes for a developing painter, a set of fine chisels for someone interested in woodworking, a word processor for an aspiring wordsmith, the proverbial guitar described in that old Foreigner song "Juke Box Hero" — all might be beneficially transformative. These are all tools by which genuine creativity and accomplishment might be unleashed. But by what measure of capitalistic psychological delusion does a consumer subscribe to the belief that the acquisition of a designer fashion accessory, or consumption of a tin of caviar, is significant and transformative? — and that such activity is laudable in a world where untold millions of people are not only dressed in little more than rags, but also go to sleep hungry?

This might be the place where a dedicated Marxist might launch into a lengthy essay on alienation, its causes and consequences and cures. I'm not yet one, so I won't. All I will say at this point is that it's a good thing that I'm not prone to depression. Were I, the thought that the selling, acquisition, or possession of a purse, or the eating of caviar, could be considered so important as to warrant such laudatory odes would probably leave me completely unable to function, and despairing of the future of mankind.

But I will ask: When will this world — its people, institutions, nations, political and economic systems — begin to value what ought to be valued? What will it take for such a transformation to occur?


Text (other than links and quotations) copyright Fred Drumlevitch.

Fred Drumlevitch blogs irregularly at www.FredDrumlevitch.blogspot.com
He can (sometimes) be reached at FredDrumlevitch12345(at)gmail.com

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