"What's Budapest like?" I once heard one woman ask another.
"It's nice," replied the other, just returned from a business trip there. "It's kind of like a little Prague."
Intrigued, the first woman sought more detail: "Are there things to buy there?"
I didn't catch the answer (traditional Hungarian porcelain, maybe?) because I was too busy marveling at the question. I'd always thought that souvenirs were things you bought to remind you of places you'd already been to.
True, Columbus crossed the Atlantic in search of Asian spices; and thousands of Americans have vacationed in Germany to get a better price on a Mercedes or a BMW. But those people were going after things they already desired, not seeking new desires they might satisfy by shopping.
The saddest thing about the above exchange is that the two speakers weren't air-heads with nothing to do but exercise their husbands' Platinum Cards. They were highly educated and intelligent, far better equipped than most tourists to appreciate Budapest's cultural treasures. No doubt they have appreciated much about the many places they've been to. Yet it struck them both as only natural that one of the first things to know about a city is what new and unnecessary objects one can acquire there.
Luxury per se is no sin. There's nothing immoral about wearing thousand-dollar sweaters or ten-thousand-dollar wrist watches, and the brief fad for dressing down that followed 9/11 was the most inane sort of posturing. How do you avenge the deaths of thousands of Americans by making thousands of others -- craftsmen, sales clerks and other fashion-industry employees -- lose their jobs?
Yet there is something disturbing about shopping as a pastime or, as it increasingly is, a way of life. According to the British sociologist Colin Campbell, we in the West now live in "a consumer civilization." We identify ourselves less and less by traditional affiliations, more and more by our taste in consumer goods.
"This view of self-identity is very new," Campbell tells the Guardian. "Our grandparents and parents were far more likely to see themselves in terms of their status and position in various institutions, such as their family, religious beliefs, race and nationality -- all counting for more than something as insignificant as taste. They would have seen themselves as farmers or fishermen, fathers, Presbyterian or Catholic, Englishman or Swede, rather than through their taste in wine, music or leisure-time activities."
The principle that "the customer is always right" now applies to medical care, Campbell says, and even to religion. Instead of submitting themselves to the strictures of a faith, consumer-minded worshippers shop at a "spiritual supermarket" where they can pick and choose tenets to espouse.
It's hard to imagine how this trend can be a healthy one. It promises to make us as ignorant of our bodies and our souls as of the ancient cities that we've come to view as little more than classy shopping malls.
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