Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Re-Stuffing the American Dream: Losing So That Others May Gain

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In a column published on Christmas Day 2010, Dick Cavett wrote: "It’s sad to think how cozy our Midwestern family Christmases were when we were young, and how odiously I now view the allegedly jolly season, with its trampling crowds and extorted gifts. But let that pass. Back then, in that far-off happier time, Christmas was magical when it finally arrived with excruciating slowness."

Extorted gifts!

That's it right there, isn't it? The reason that Christmas gradually but steadily transforms over the years from a magical "most wonderful time of the year" to a season of dread and disappointment?

When we were little, our families listened to us through the year as we babbled about desired toys like Ralphie babbles in A Christmas Story, daydreaming about his Red Ryder BB gun. They listened, and then they got to play Santa by fulfilling our wishes and making magic happen.

Way back in the day, before electronics and before credit cards, there weren't that many things to put on a wish list. A couple of well-picked presents under the tree, a get-together with aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents, some singing and eating and laughing, and that one day felt like the only time of year when a whole week could be squeezed into a 12-hour period.

Then came credit cards, and then came electronics, and a new chapter was added to the American Dream: buying so much stuff that it threatened to take over your whole house.

Some people found the stuff too precious to part with, and did allow it to control their lives; they now star on the A&E series, Hoarders. Others agreed that the stuff was too valuable to discard, but they still wanted a place to sleep, eat, watch TV, take a shower. They needed a both/and solution to the dilemma.

Enter the Storage Unit.

The American landscape was transformed almost overnight into a sea of cheap metal sheds where stuff could be kept for a monthly fee. Problem solved: all stuff could be kept indefinitely, as long as that fee was paid.

And then came the Great Recession. Millions of people lost their livelihoods and their homes, and storage units across the land fell into foreclosure just like the houses of their tenants. With no jobs, no incomes, and no homes, an army of people who'd once valued the attainment of stuff for its own sake quickly realized that the stuff was actually worthless when basic food and shelter became primary needs. In response, they simply walked away from the stuff.

Now, this is where the American Dream starts to get all fucked up. According to the official story line, you arrive with little, work hard and make good choices, get lots of money, buy lots of stuff, and live contentedly. There's no room in that storyline for Wall Street bankers actively plotting to assassinate the entire middle class by burning their savings and pensions, evicting them from their homes, and dissolving their jobs. If you start to follow that angle, you'd have to start seeing the American Dream as a crock of shit, and no one wants to do that.

So A&E steps forward to rescue the narrative with a series called Storage Wars. Here, the people who've put their stuff into the units have just somehow chosen to stop paying rent. "If you don't pay your bills, they'll take your stuff," says the ad copy right there on the show's main web page. There's no speculation about why someone would stop paying their bills, no admission of a wrecked economy, no mention that these units don't belong to the wealthiest 2% of Americans who recently got an extension of their $1 trillion tax cut from their Republican protection squad. The narrative is back on track: the people who've lost their stuff to the auctioneer have lost it because they're shiftless and lazy. They haven't worked hard enough to hang on to what they've got. They let their stuff get repossessed. They didn't fight to keep it. They deserve their fate, because they caused it.

But the clincher for restoring the American Dream narrative is that the vultures who circle around the auctions, waiting to swoop in and buy the stuff, could be buying it for pennies on the dollar — "as little as ten dollars for items valued in the millions," in the words of the ad copy. These are the true Americans, dedicating their time and efforts, their brawn and their brains, to finding the mother lode of stored stuff and striking it rich. Not just any putz can do this; it takes perseverance and know-how. Half the fun is watching the pros make token bids just to lure the amateurs into overbidding on units that clearly have nothing of value. The amateurs, like the poor schmucks who've had their stuff repossessed, deserve what they get.

One imagines, at Christmastime, the possibility of just one episode of Storage Wars that provides the back story behind the repossession. And then the buyers at auction, after learning that back story, telling the family who've lost everything that their stuff will remain in storage, and that the bill's been paid through 2013 with the money that was bid. That's what Dickens would do.

But instead, A&E spent Christmas day running ads for a Storage Wars marathon — a whole season of avarice and greed, in the name of a restored American Dream narrative, to enjoy in one day. The ads were interspersed with others for major retailers offering HUGE after-Christmas sales the next day: SAVINGS OF UP TO 70% on stuff that hadn't been bought during the other HUGE sales prior to the holiday. Sales at which even more stuff could be bought for eventual storage.

Ralphie in A Christmas Story had one Red Ryder BB gun (and one pink bunny suit). His father had one tacky plastic leg lamp. Not much need for storage there. But it's a long time passed since the era in which A Christmas Story is set, and now that Christmas means "trampling crowds and extorted gifts," it's not jolly or magical. It's just a Day of Stuff.

Buy stuff, give stuff, get stuff, store stuff, and have the stuff repossessed and auctioned away, so that others can sell the stuff at profit. For A&E, it's the perfect continuation of the American Dream cycle, and a perfectly logical sequel to Christmas Day.