It is a commonplace that America is materialistic, that it grasps after money and wealth and lacks the spiritual values it used to have.
Of course, that nostalgic view ignores that Americans have always chased wealth: It’s built into the Constitution.
But more importantly, it ignores the fact that America isn’t really materialistic at all, and in fact, is largely indifferent to the material world.
If we were really materialistic, we would never tolerate walnut-woodgrain plastic.
No, the physical composition of their existence is simply not a high priority for most Americans. Yes, they are after wealth, but wealth isn’t a material value, but a spiritual one.
When we say Americans “worship the almighty dollar,” we aren’t saying that they value material objects over spiritual ones, but rather that they place worth on one set of spiritual values instead of another, more worthy set.
Money, after all, isn’t a physical object. It isn’t material. It is no more physical than an inch or a pound. It is a measuring item, to measure wealth.
Real wealth is the possession of useful or meaningful things. To own land, or to grow 40 acres of artichokes is to possess wealth. You can eat artichokes; you can’t eat money.
Money cannot be worn, it cannot be used to build with. It must be translated back from its symbolic existence to a material existence by spending it.
I’m not saying that money isn’t nice to have around. But that it is a mental construct, not a physical reality. If we want money, it isn’t because sewn together, dollar bills make a nice quilt.
Even the things Americans spend their money on tend to be owned for spiritual rather than physical reasons. If we want to own a BMW or a Lexus, it isn’t because these are better cars than a Honda or an Ford — though they may be (I’m not convinced) — but because they are status symbols that let other Americans know where we rank on the totem pole. Armani suits and Gucci bags are not something most Americans really enjoy on a physical level. They are the civilized equivalent of the eagle feathers the chief wears, or the lion-ruff anklets worn by the Zulu leader: They confer prestige and denote status.
These are spiritual values.
As a matter of fact, America would be a whole lot better off if it were more materialistic. The planet is bursting with stuff: It all has a texture, a feel, a smell, a taste, a sound. If we were materialistic, we would be aware of how much richness the material existence affords, and we would revel in it. We would be mad — as Walt Whitman says — for us to be in contact with it.
And what is more, the deeper we involve ourselves in the physical world, the more spiritualized we will become — that worthy spirituality. It is because we are so unmaterialistic that our environment suffers so. We don’t value the physical world we live in. It doesn’t bother us that there are fewer birds singing in the morning, or that codfish are disappearing.
In part, this is a remnant of the contempus mundi that was fostered under Medieval Christianity. It is that suspicion of the physical world that the Old World monks felt would seduce them from the righteousness of prayer and ritual.
We have inherited the contempt, but without the prayer. It leaves us in a hollow place.
As an adult I have come not to trust anyone who doesn’t love the physical world.
I don’t trust him to make policy choices about oil drilling or lawn seeding. I cannot imagine how it is possible not to fall in love with the things of this world, but I see just that happening all the time.
I pick up the lump of spring earth and squeeze it in my fist to judge whether it is time to plant my potatoes. I listen for the birds globing and twisting as they rise from the trees in the morning. I look for the light caught in the cholla spines and the twill in my gabardine. There is velvet in heavy cream and scratchiness in wool blankets.
The physical sensations make us more aware, more awake. The love of the physical world keeps us from becoming dullards. Living in a world of symbol and status dulls us. At its worst, it leads to ideology.
Would that America really were a materialistic society.