Consumerism and Christmas

You all may recall that after 9/11 Osama bin Laden explained his orchestration of the terrorist deed that murdered some 3000 innocent human beings as payback for America’s materialism. (His anti-materialist rant is routine – a good discussion of his views may be found here.)

Yet as the writer of the above piece notes, anti-materialism is a common theme among most religions. Sure, the idea that human life is about preparation for an after-life — a spiritual life superior to the mundane one we can lead here on Earth — is central to religions.

In the West, however, many religions have made peace with the mundane elements of human existence so there tends to be a less avid denunciation of materialism, which is how the idea of being seriously concerned with living prosperously here on Earth is usually designated. After all, the Christian God is both human and divine (in the person of Jesus).

Destruction of life is generally deemed to be a sin for Christians, whereas, as bin Laden has noted, the love of death is central in his version of Islam. As one account has it, “This originated at the Battle of Qadisiyya in the year 636, when the commander of the Muslim forces, Khalid ibn Al-Walid, sent an emissary with a message from Caliph Abu Bakr to the Persian commander, Khosru. The message stated: ‘You [Khosru and his people] should convert to Islam, and then you will be safe, for if you don’t, you should know that I have come to you with an army of men that love death, as you love life’.” This account is widely recited in contemporary Muslim literature.

Yet despite the Western theological tradition’s more friendly attitude toward the mundane, nearly every Christmas leaders of Christian denominations tend to revert to the original, anti-life doctrines by condemning commercialism. The latest Pope followed the previous one by lamenting the “materialist” approach to celebrating Christmas. They referred to “the dead-end streets of consumerism,” according to newspaper reports, chiding people everywhere for what the report calls “being caught up with consumerist pursuits.”

Ironically, the Pope issued his proclamations from St. Peter’s Square at the Vatican. If you have ever visited the Vatican, as I and millions of others have, you would know it to be one of the West’s, if not the world’s, most opulent places. And as to consumerism, the gift shop dominates the entrance to the Vatican, where one is invited to spend great sums of money on various small or sizable trinkets. Commerce flourishes there, believe me, as the Vatican cashes in on the desire of many of the visitors to take away some reminder of their having been to that historically and theologically significant place.

Of course, even apart from the Vatican, the Roman Catholic Church, as well as others within Christianity, often excel in ostentatious display of riches – one need but go to high mass on Christmas Eve to witness this.

And why not? That is how human beings tend to celebrate what they value highly, by honoring the occasion with gift-giving. And gift-giving necessarily involves commerce – most of us aren’t skilled at the crafts that it takes to create the various gifts we wish to bestow upon those we love and cherish. I personally bought airline tickets for some of my family members and a computer for another, in part because I have no airplane in which to fly them where they would like to go and no factory and expertise to make a modern, up-to-date computer. To obtain these gifts, I rely, as do billions of others, on commerce.

So why then would Popes besmirch consumerism and commerce? Beats me. (And remember, also, that “materialism” is ultimately a nonsense term – nothing we purchase is simply material but embodies the creative intelligence – indeed the creative spirit – of many human beings!)

So, I urge all Popes to change their message and to have a more generous understanding of all who make use of commerce in our celebration of Christmas!

Blissful Ignorance and the Conservative Worldview

I have been mulling over the recent foreign policy debate I had with Dr. Delacroix and have come to a couple of conclusions. The first conclusion is that conservatives have absolutely no evidence to support their foreign policy proposition of world hegemony, so they instead rely on that old faithful tactic of demagoguery.

Dr. Delacroix was once a prestigious scholar and an expert in international affairs, so his arguments are ones that we can use to ensure that no straw man is being built for the purpose of winning the fight. Libertarians maintain that the 9/11 terrorist attacks did not come out of anywhere and that the United States is not an innocent actor overseas. This causes many people on both the Left and Right to ruffle their feathers and denounce libertarians as unpatriotic or worse.

Yet just consider the two points that libertarians do make in regards to the 9/11 terrorist attacks (again, I wanted to pick out the strongest example so that no straw man may be built for the crass purpose of “winning” the argument):

  1. The 9/11 terrorist attacks did not come out of nowhere.
  2. The United States is not an innocent actor overseas.

I don’t see how any sane, rational individual good skeptic can avoid these two arguments. Just look at the evidence in support of both. Al-Qaeda has been around since the Cold War and the CIA had actually worked with them in their operations against the Soviets in Afghanistan. When the first Bush administration (daddy) decided to keep troops in Saudi Arabia, bin Laden and Al Qaeda became an instant enemy of the republic. The bin Laden family is a rival of the Saudi family in the Arabian peninsula, and Osama bin Laden did not like the fact that Washington was now in bed with his hated enemies.

Policymakers in Washington knew that they had irked a potentially dangerous faction in the Muslim world, and the Clinton administration attacked Al Qaeda operations in both Sudan and Afghanistan with precision missile strikes during his presidency. Conservatives and liberals often pretend that the United States was an innocent bystander in the world up until the terrorist attacks of 9/11, and public ignorance is something that cannot be discounted, but intellectuals like Dr. Delacroix have resorted to demagoguery and myths instead of confronting the facts on this issue. They should be ashamed of themselves.

Imperialists cannot even acknowledge that the US had troops in Saudi Arabia at the time of the 9/11 attacks. They cannot admit this because it destroys almost every myth that the God of War depends upon to flourish in the minds of the hoi polloi. Just look at Dr. Delacroix’s images within the cave. Continue reading