There’s an old routine, often well-illustrated, about how people look like their dogs. Whether the convergence happens over time or whether people, perhaps unconsciously, select kindred pets, is unclear. Long ago, I kept Dobermans, but now neither snarl nor bite.
The convergence issue came to me when reviewing my last two posts. Which, I might add, come from my book in occasional progress, Chachama. After nearly fifteen years of Philip and I reading and critiquing each other’s work, (sometimes with snarls and bites) our styles have become very similar.
We both started out in academe, shifted to journalism and books, then fiction. We have the same interests and outlook. This wasn’t always so, but now we only snarl and bite over things we agree on. I work at what the American neocons’ (a pox, or at least a major dysfunction upon them) patron-sage literary critic, Lionel Trilling, called the “bloody crossroads” where politics and culture meet. Philip works at the bloody traffic circle where politics, culture and religion go round and round.
My day job also requires me to write. I’m a copywriter for an Israeli company that does much of its business in the United States, selling a product that, to me, is the antithesis of cheap.
The cheap that’s destroying the world.
Now, by cheap, I don’t mean merely inexpensive. Nor do I mean disposable. How long do you want your sweat socks to last? I certainly don’t mean the kind of technological progress that makes good things, from computers and cell phones to medical care, available to the millions and billions.
I mean a situation that began in the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution and corresponding breakthroughs in agriculture demonstrated to the West that over-production, not scarcity, was now the major economic dilemma. For many reasons, not all of them wrong, in the 20th century the West concluded that the answer to over-production was over-consumption. Plus, if we got the rest of the world into the habit, they’d forget about all those silly religious, ethnic and political excuses for mutual slaughter. Heaven on earth would ensue.
It didn’t quite happen that way. And now much of the human race has sold its soul to and for cheap: for food that sickens and kills, for over-priced, hideous clothing, for the rapacious consumption of all kinds of energy, and for a popular culture that either glorifies all of the above or makes billions turning alienation and disgust into corporate commodities for sale.
Once, we called all this “development.” Now it would be more apt to call it planetary psychosis, maybe even suicide.
The modern cheap begins with that long-term hideously expensive commodity: cheap labor.
No human being should ever have to work for cheap, or under deliberately hazardous and ecologically ruinous conditions. Yet many hundreds of millions do, from America’s exploited illegal immigrants to exploited Asians to – may we speak plainly? – exploited Palestinians. America, by all this illegal immigration and by “outsourcing” tens of millions of jobs to Asia, effectively destroyed much of its own middle class. The Palestinian issue is more complex, but every time I hear some rabbi or secular sage proclaim that Israelis need to remember how to do real work themselves, I cheer.
But cheap labor doesn’t remain cheap forever. They want their share of the goodies. And sometimes they want more fundamental changes, and don’t mind, and often exalt, violence and terror as means to their ends.
With cheap labor, it’s a Devil’s bargain. “Pay me now or pay me later. But pay me, you will.”
No such thing.
Again, we’ll skip the ecological aspect: how climatic changes opened much of the world to large-scale agriculture, and what human beings have done to the soil so opened and the climate that sustained it all.
Let’s talk more ordinary things. Have you opened a bag of potato chips lately? What’s the chip-to-air ratio now, compared to ten years ago?
But that’s junk food, you say. Alas, more and more, our entire diet consists of junk, engineered by Big Food to keep you chowing down and growing fatter, lazier and more (again, shall we say it?) easily controlled. The Western and, increasingly, the Asian diet of cheap – too much antibiotic and growth hormone-drenched meat, too many pesticides, too many additives, lethally too much sugar – leads inevitably to obesity and serious medical problems.
What’s cheap about that?
Yes, food in Israel is ridiculously expensive for reasons having little to do with supply and demand. But Philip and I were astonished to discover how similar Israeli supermarkets were to the kind we’d left behind, except Americans do a slightly better job of waiting courteously in line.
Yes, it’s wonderful that the Industrial Revolution liberated humanity from the dreary scarcity of affordable clothing and the unsanitary aspects of possessing so little. But this is about what happened when brand names and labels replaced real quality as the measure of clothing. It was only, I believe, in the 1980s, that clothing began displaying labels and logos on the exterior. Now you no longer had to know anything about fabric or construction. All you needed to know was what was trendy.
And so it came to pass that items made for a few dollars in Asia could sell for hundreds elsewhere. Of course, all that advertising and all those celebrity endorsements cost plenty and have to be recouped.
And that’s the essence of cheap in clothing: tacky, tawdry, over-priced, fall-apart items, making the exploiters and the celebrity collaborators even richer.
Does anyone honestly believe that people can live this way decade after decade, generation after generation, and not have it turn culture and politics, our very souls, into . . . cheap?
Next and finally: How Israel Fits into All This, and What Israel Might Do about It.