Friday, January 2, 2009

Christmas and the credit crunch: blame the women?

by Chris Moses

Even the birth of Christ didn’t eclipse our collapsed consumerist hangover. If the story of Jesus’ earthly arrival begins with Mary and David called to Bethlehem for the payment of taxes, our holiday celebration wanted only for tax breaks.

Be it bailouts or a few percent off at the register, a new deal from our newly elected king, emperor, president—whomever we might festoon into a man named Obama—seemed the only way to bring salvation and grace to those anthropomorphized measures of economic success: human-as-consumer well-being, confidence, satisfaction. Anything to avoid that worst-feared decree, ‘render unto Visa.’

Reverence for the virgin mother has become hope for the virgin swipe, instant purchase approval with buyers and sellers alike freed from that illegitimate message ‘transaction declined.’ But disappointment reigns; no immaculately conceived credit rescues the storehouse of goods lining stores’ shelves. Every wise man wants at least half off, and even then only spends what he has in cash.

Yet the failed power of purchase (or is it purchase of power?) leaves us with more than the ill feeling of a bankrupt holiday. Even within the anxiety lingering from my own adolescent angst over the capitalist corruption of genuine value and true meaning, I can’t seem to fathom the full extent of our current malaise.

Between cancelled holiday parties and paeans to those less fortunate than ourselves (during these troubled times) a spirit of generosity has been misplaced for an obligatory spirit of scarcity.

Only historical reckoning offers a surplus. The phrase ‘worst since’ brings a comparative catharsis—that we actually know how bad things are and why and, since decline means recovery, the past can surely spell out a future of improvement. ‘Greed on Wall Street’ will only stand so much longer as past perspective brings with it greater moral clarity. After all, the majority of us here on main street—we’re good people just trying to make a living.

Worry turns into a sort of pride that it might well get worse before it gets better—an economic outlook cum forecast of partly vacuous with the chance of occasional insincerity. In all optimism, maybe we’ll become the second greatest generation since the great depression. No other measure offers solace like this yardstick of yearning for when things were simpler.

Amidst such a maelstrom of meaningless rhetoric, I have only been able to discover one subtle, quietly hidden solution for understanding this capitalist catastrophe: blame the women.

It’s surprising that given how much shame we now feel for our overindulgent spending sprees there has been a paucity of jokes about shop-til-you-drop femininity. No more powerful trope exists for contrasting consumer behaviour: the sober and industrious worker-dad sits patiently in the store’s chair while wife and daughter burn through his hard-earned bounty. After all the devil wears Prada: sin, temptation and superficial signs of fashion subvert hard-earned, genuine male-made meaning. Shouldn’t the ladies be in homespun, making arts and crafts that have genuine meaning rather than sullying their purity with mean old market capitalism?

Whether it’s the gender of the gift in ‘simple’ societies or, in our own ‘complex’ economy, the female frugalista (the culpable always trying to cut back—but what addict can only have just one outfit?), consumption is one of the most sexually charged activities known to man. Why else do so many MasterCard moments begin with ever thought-provoking bikini beach babes?

Not surprisingly the media has vilified men in suits for their failing, but we all know that the media lives by blaming the victim. Indeed blame may be the best benefit in all this mess: you got us into it, and only you can get us out. For the little lady these processes too complicated to explain make only for damsels in distress. How many coying anchorwomen have you watched asking manly economic commentators to explain things for us? Those chiseled charts and hard figures… the scrawny geeks finally one-up the pectoral pecking order topped by all those Joe sixpacks! But in their equation-flexing exertion the egg-head economists don’t actually invert anything—they once again end up covering for the real players by cowering to do their overly hard homework.

So the robber barons continue to reign and ‘boys will be boys’ is the unspoken slogan for this bailout bonanza. Didn’t they all play football together somewhere? Or maybe it was lacrosse at Duke? It was a study done by a Princeton economist, after all, that helped us see that the playing field leads to a bigger payback from male alumni with a winning game.

Too cherished are our up-from-the-bootstraps values to point out the failure of our false-consciousness fantasy that free markets and self-reliant values will fix everything themselves. So quietly it’s back to other right-wing fantasies that will save our family values—the historical tour-de-force of 1950s domestic thrift that was the rescue and reward from the endlessly uttered Great-Depression as Great Comparison. Why should men suffer all those part time jobs that are only good enough for women when if the wives were in the home there might just be more auto manufacturing jobs for the men? Not for nothing ‘The Big Three’ does have a porno video ring to it.

So whether or not it’s right to blame the women—or the men—it would be nice if somewhere in this crisis we actually began to discuss what’s valued most and least and why. An honest discussion of the profoundly gendered reality of economics, the economy and its economist handmaidens would be one place to start, because more often than not our manias have less to do with money than with how we decide what matters. At the very least we can cash in on our self-deception.

Perhaps that’s why a holiday featuring a woman who made something from nothing couldn’t do the trick despite such miraculous growth potential (zero production costs!). Instead we saw it as no sex and still stuck with a child. Little wonder then it’s hard to find holiday cheer when we have to stop shopping and start praying that the conservative crusade to put the Christ back in Christmas—a backwards looking return to simpler truths—will bring fish and loaves a-plenty. Despite his motherly maker the boy’s got to steal the show: maybe by Easter we’ll have resurrected our credit.

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