Americans have busied themselves lately showing how little a decline in the vice of materialism begets a rise in virtue. Conservatives rediscovered economic austerity amid a fresh embarrassment of histrionic riches. Moderates awoke to the petty opportunism behind Obama’s grand mal liberalism. And Madame Secretary Hillary Clinton set U.S.-Russia relations back a generation — reverting, with her foreign policy “reset” button, from kitschy magnanimity to prickly distrust as Foreign Minister Lavrov revealed that the State Department had bungled its bargain-basement Russian translation. Rather than reset, the Cyrillic label on the button read overcharge. A fresh victim of America’s new discount desperation, Hillary blurted out reflexively. “We won’t let you do that to us!”
For that, indeed, we can rely on our own government. As today’s traditionalist critics claim, the frenzy to perpetuate our American lifestyles, along with the status they confer, has led us to embrace a bailout at any — or is it every? — price. But the allure of a communitarian conservatism that binds us closer to the land and our neighbors is tempered by a temptation of its own.
We should acknowledge that excessive consumption and waste, public and private, artificially and dangerously inflated market values. But we should pause before hoping, therefore, that a crash of the market will cause a spike in virtuous living. Just as we can run up a huge spending deficit, particularly in tough times, we can run our self-respect deep into the red before giving up on going wrong — especially when we can make a buck in the process.
Real vice offers big value in the ruins of an all-too-virtual economy. Gone are the days when you can work your way to the top so long as you keep your nose clean. With its “How Low Can You Go?” marketing campaign, Spirit Airlines, America’s “leading Ultra-Low-Cost Carrier,” promotes degenerate optimism as nothing less than the American spirit:
As you know, our fares are famously low. But we want to know what you think is even lower. Something crude, lewd and just plain low down.
Ever taken money from a church offering basket? Spit in someone’s drink when they weren’t looking just because they were rooting for another team? Whatever it is, we want to know.
Get to work creating a short video to enter in our How Low Can You Go? contest. The 10 videos that get the most views will become the Top 10 Finalists, and from that pool we’ll select the Grand Prize winner who will win a year of free* travel with a companion to anywhere Spirit flies—and you may even see your video on TV or online! We’ve got more than one prize to give away; all of the Top 10 Finalists will win tickets.
Show us just how low you’d go.
This kind of market coping mechanism is shocking, all right, but not that surprising. The cultural logic that seeks value by auctioning off values has beckoned this way for a long time. As reality TV testifies, an easy market rewards whatever bad behavior is easiest to come by, and in the aftermath, bad habits are hard to shake. The lower our common denominator, after all, the bigger the numerator. So rather than shape up, our inclination is to double down, cashing in on the apparently inexhaustible taste for the tawdry. Slumdog Millionaire is out, and Scumbag Millionaire is in.
Despite our nobler dreams, our manners aren’t likely to straighten up in straightened circumstances. In fact, the opposite is likely to happen. Boom-time vices of expensive thrills and expensive women yield readily to bust-time cheap ones. Eliot Spitzer’s big-ticket bad behavior mimics the proud folly of wealthy fools throughout history — another self-indulgent boondoggle for which, at bottom, he was greatly overcharged. And the hot air of populist indignation that builds during plutocratic times is let out of the bag when slumming starts to look like the only investment that holds its value.
Not so long ago, Fight Club spoke to a generation. “Our great war is a spiritual war,” preached Tyler Durden. “Our great depression is our lives.” With the real thing around the corner in the minds of over half of Americans today, that kind of bummed-out asceticism is one depression too many. Why beat ourselves up for nothing in private when we can cash in for free off a little naughty publicity? Fight Club‘s idyllic vision of the future — postindustrial hominids pounding strips of venison and sowing crops amid cities gone to seed — now sounds about as realistic as a sequel to Office Space penned by Rousseau. It’s too much Romanticism, not enough ribaldry.
In times like these, the prospect of trading guilty pleasures for even more frustration sounds like a losing bet. As getting overcharged at the cash register becomes more unpleasant than ever, we’re overcharging ourselves psychologically like a bundle of socks with a bad case of static cling. Every time we touch, we set off sparks. Every time we part, we crackle. We’re ready to pop. As the makers of last year’s nasty little Cheetos commercials intuited, reveling shamelessly (and inexpensively) in our small vices is a perfect way to blow off steam.
Alas, a quick look at Rod Dreher’s blog reveals that traditionalists these days are typified by the irate repairman and the doom-stricken pastor — figures for whom scumbag millionaires are part of the problem, not part of the solution. The traditionalists are right. But their challenge isn’t to escape a crude culture so much as it is to sustain lives to be proud of despite winning fewer rewards for doing so. Though the Dow may languish and the banks may fall, America’s market for the overshare isn’t going anywhere. For virtue’s devotees, wishing otherwise will only make matters more depressing.