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A Reading Life

I spend, therefore I am

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Katherine A. Powers
June 29, 2008

Since the 17th century and the dawning of the secular age, the great unanswered question in the West has been why anyone in his right mind would care about anyone else. It was clear, and still is to some extent, that most people do seem to care about other people, and, certainly, almost all of us actually feel that we personally do, but there is no commonly accepted explanation of why this should be so. The religious explanation, that we care about others because we should care about them, doesn't answer in a secular society because "should" with nothing behind it is what you might call a sounding brass and tinkling cymbal. The Darwinian explanation, that altruism is biologically based and a trait that has furthered the survival of the species (and thus not altruism at all, properly speaking), is popular hereabouts, but considerably less so in the great heartland. I think most Americans simply believe that we care because that's the kind of people we are: good people.

Andrew D. Blechman's "Leisureville: Adventures in America's Retirement Utopias" (Atlantic Monthly, $25) makes you wonder just how good people who are good people really are, and whether altruism is merely a fragile cultural construct, one doomed by the infantilizing forces of lifestyle marketing. Blechman's book is an account of the Villages, in Florida, the largest gated retirement development in the world - or, put another way, a giant playpen for people 55 and older. As Blechman recounts, it consists of 75,000 people who have freed themselves from the obligations of citizenship in order to exercise the privilege of absolute consumerism. Blechman describes this brave new world with determined good humor and considerable bemusement. He clearly disapproves of the whole thing, but accepts that for most residents living in these conditions is the fulfillment of a dream. His former neighbor in Massachusetts, now a Villager, sums it up in an arresting comparison: "For me it was love at first sight. . . . I can only equate it to the movie The Stepford Wives. Everyone has a smile on their face like it's too good to be true. But it really is."

It is impossible to read this book without feeling dismay, even disgust. The massive settlement, which stretches over three counties, is not incorporated, Blechman writes; rather, it is a privately held business run by supervisors appointed by the developer and is regulated as a product with no participation from the actual residents. "Villagers," as Blechman observes, "have voluntarily relinquished many of their civil liberties. In exchange for unlimited leisure and recreation, they've traded the ballot box for the suggestion box." And why not? Democracy would inevitably jeopardize the stability and consistency of the lifestyle product.

On the other hand, while residents are happy to have no say about their own community, they make their wishes felt in county politics, the author writes, and have come out in force to vote against commissioners who would increase funds for education - there are, of course, no children in the Villages. Meanwhile they have voted for those who support maintaining the roads that run within the Villages at public expense. This vote, the author says, is orchestrated by the public relations arm of the Villages, an undertaking that might have drawn its model from North Korea. News and opinion are dished out from company-produced TV programming and a daily newspaper; in fact, Blechman met residents who believed that home delivery of any other paper was actually against the rules. Beyond that, the very lampposts of the Village centers churn out music and propaganda all day long and into the night.

The bonds that make this a community have been carefully manufactured. There is golf, the raison d'être for many, and there are the two Village centers, conceived by "entertainment specialists," each with its own concocted history, props ("a fond reminder of the old days"), and ambience ("You can just feel it's a real hometown!"). Here you can experience a pleasant nostalgia for a past that never was and a feeling of belonging without any of the messy entrapments of reality.

The residents of the Villages have achieved the end toward which we are all heading if the MBAs of the world are successful: They live the totally branded lifestyle, finding in it meaning and community. The marketing of everything, including the notion of what it means to be free (choice) or responsible (safety), has made other ties look shabby and unreal. The question of why anyone cares about anyone else is trivial in this world compared with the question of why people choose one brand over another. Lucas Conley's "OBD: Obsessive Branding Disorder - The Illusion of Business and the Business of Illusion" (PublicAffairs, $22.95) is, among other things, a consideration of how branding has created a reality whose relationship to actuality, when it has any at all, is to disguise it.

The object of the great phalanx of brand-mongers and "experiential marketers" is to tap into every facet of human contact with the world and manage it so that only that which is marketed seems genuine. Just imagine, for instance, walking around in a celebratory Celtics shirt of your own construction. You'd feel like a pathetic loony. A sense of belonging - if not complete dignity - is an official, NBA-certified garment at $25. "We are," writes Lucas, "effectively . . . buying our way into being." He describes the ceaseless scientific and market research into what prompts human desire and the relationship between the senses and emotion. He also devotes entertaining pages to the financial losses and humiliations of huge corporations that have built brands that failed spectacularly.

Lucas blames cellphones and the Internet, which have reduced face-to-face communication, for eroding real communities and replacing them with "brand tribes." "Armed with a biological imperative to form communities, we create makeshift tribes around the most widely recognized and readily available icons." But phones of any sort and the Internet are as conducive to maintaining and indeed organizing real communities as otherwise. The movement from the real world to an ersatz world, from community to "brand tribe," is simply the natural growth of consumerism. Even acts of mercy, ethical positions, and feelings of good will have become ways of branded belonging. Or as Jesus might have said: "Ye shall know them by their ribbons, bracelets, and bumper stickers."

Katherine A. Powers lives in Cambridge. She can be reached by e-mail at pow3@verizon.net.

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