“In a world where one’s ability to consume and the objects acquired determine one’s worth, there can be no respect for the poor.” bell hooks makes this assertion in her book Where we stand: Class Matters. The issue of respect for the poor is central to her argument that “Today, poverty is both gendered and racialized. It is impossible to truly understand class in the United States today without understanding the politics of race and gender.”
Understanding has always been central to respect. And perhaps one of the reasons why there is so little respect for the poor in this country, is due to a general lack of understanding. The United States has traditionally been thought of as a nation without class, due to the American metanarrative of rugged individualism, exceptionalism, and poverty to penthouse trajectories. Yet a close examination of the lives of individuals and collectives will reveal what the United States promises for all is actually produced for few. As Americans we value exceptional people, we value those who excel in talent and treasure, so we tend to focus our collective attention on the exceptions rather than the rules. The economic rules in American society have been crafted and are enforced in a way that hinders rather than helps a majority of American citizens transcend their class.
One of the major rules of capitalism as it is manifested in the U.S. is that of consumerism, or the idea that people exist merely as a means of buying and selling goods. This consumer mindset reduces humanity to a system of exchange wherein entertainment and advertising empires are empowered to separate people from their money, enslaving them in debt for material objects they do not need and may not want, until the seed of want is planted in them, and then cultivated and harvested by profiting media and material plantations. The harvest is always greater than the seed, and today American continues to reap an ever widening gap between the rich and poor.
Consider bell hook’s assertion that this idea of class is further complicated by issues of race and gender. The media which serves the profit plantation owners’ purposes continue to promote messages of what is expected of minorities and women in our society. Women are taught how to behave, what to think, and what to wear in relation to men, and to each other. Specifically targeting men ages 18 to 34, and because we tend to emulate the images we most often see, the media not only creates the need but answers that need with a host of material goods with the promise that those who buy these products will ultimately satisfy their desires to be healthy, wealthy, sexy and wise. In this system women become both the purveyors and products, serving the prurient interest of mass populations. Minorities fare no better. The media serves as both mirrors and missionaries of specific ideological stereotypes that are crafted to teach minority groups what to buy and how to behave. For example black young men would be convinced that the only two options for success in our society are by way of entertainment or sports, if the media were the only tutors, and for many, sadly, this is the case.
A popular tool of marketing has long been the story that is crafted around a certain product to make it the aspiration of consumers, for instance it is common to find many movies and cartoons centered on characters that started as toys. These stories exist for reason: to sell the toy. For adults the marketing and media campaigns may become more sophisticated, but the purpose is still the same, sell the toy. This is especially tragic when these messages informed by economic systems structured in ways to keep people, genders and ethnicities, in their place become a part of the endless cycle of perpetuated poverty. As bell hooks observes, “Fantasizing about a life of affluence stymies many poor people. Underprivileged folks often imagine that the acquisition of a material object will change the quality of their lives. And when it does not, they despair.”
Idolatry it seems is not an archaic notion. Modern idols are no longer the relics of ancient religion, but rather the creations of modern media priests who intercede on behalf of corporations to enslave the masses. These idols make all the same promises of ancient religions, wealth, love, security, happiness, and like those ancient idols they fail to deliver on these promises. Forcing people to continue searching for the satisfaction they desire at the altar of yet another manufactured and mass produced idol. Theologian John Calvin has written that “The human heart is an idol factory”, bell hooks is a modern prophet testifying to this truth. And until we understand this truth, respect for the poor, respect for one another, and respect for ourselves will continue to be eroded by the elements of corporate and consumer avarice.