Some jokes never get old. Compare “Living up to Your Prius,” the humorous essay recently published in the New Yorker, with Du Maurier’s satirical cartoon, “The Six-Mark Teapot” (1884). In the former, McCall playfully needles Prius owners through the device of an imaginary “Things to do with your Prius” message board. Each activity reveals the Prius-owner as a “type,” and a type less interested in eliminating waste than in indulging eco-smugness. Examples:
Sidle up to an S.U.V. driver at the gas-station counter and make a show of paying for your fill-up from a jar of pennies.
At the next Luther Burbank Day vegan barbecue and weed roast, back your Prius up to within a few feet of the folks lounging on the grass, with the engine running, and explain that its super-clean exhaust system is actually freshening the air.
Funny because just a little true.
In du Maurier’s cartoon, an Aesthetic Bridegroom points out a “consummate” teapot to his Intense Bride, who responds exultantly, “Oh, Algernon, let us live up to it!”
No doubt “The Six-Mark Teapot” struck the same chord in Victorian England that “Living up to Your Prius” strikes today. The express aspiration to “live up to” a sedan or a teapot is, of course, a comical exaggeration. But each piece gets at an underlying truth concerning the relationship between us and our stuff. And comparing the two helps us get at some of the inherent limitations of socially conscious consumerism.
The underlying truth is, of course, that goods are never just goods. Clothes, food, cars, laptops and, yes, housewares all define allegiances and express social location. The process of association is, of course, mysterious. How do SUVs come to reek of the Republicans, or how do Macs come to have just the faintest blue-state tinge? Why do “white people” like Starbucks and moleskin journals?
Six-mark teapots became social markers at a transitional time in English History. As the barons of industry began to rival the landed aristocracy in wealth and influence, the social markers differentiating the incumbent inner circle (aristocracy) from the ambitioners (the nouveaux riches) inevitably became subtler. Since the mere expense of the goods no longer served to demarcate the true aristocrats, one began to need the right kind of expensive good. And an eye for objects of “consummate” craftsmanship became the mark of a true gentleman, the criterion by which the “better sort” could recognize their own.
Incidentally, those familiar with Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited might also think of the diamond-studded tortoise that Rex Mottram (a self-made Canadian tycoon) gives Lady Julia as a present. Mottram’s gift was certainly pricey, but it was hardly “consummate.” And when Julia’s younger sister Cordelia pronounces it “beastly,” she typifies the attitude of the British aristocracy toward the pretensions of new money.
The parallel between aristocratic taste and socially conscious consumerism should by now be clear. Choosing Priuses and organic endive spears and tote-bags handcrafted by widows from Madagascar is seldom a purely ethical decision. As the parallel to six-mark teapots suggests, these are also a bid for admittance into polite society. And for any polite society, as Edith Stein observed years before her conversion, “the shutting out of others is one component of its inner feeling of belonging together.” The main difference is that in the US, where there is no admitted hereditary aristocracy, the basis of exclusion tends to be ethical rather than aesthetic (a point made elsewhere in these pages). I suspect, however, that protecting Britain’s “finest traditions” from moneyed barbarians may once have seemed every bit as morally imperative as eco-sensitive consumerism.
This is not to deny the value of socially responsible purchasing any more than it is to deny the “consummate” craftsmanship of a six-mark teapot. It is simply to point out how deeply ambivalent para-Christian moralities are. There is always the distinct possibility that they flourish precisely because they satisfy a “higher selfishness,” imposing a veneer of strictness while leaving the ego basically intact. And as long as the ego remains intact, the mania for exclusion abides. Comparison is the ego’s very lifeblood.
As it turns out, two dearly-held contemporary values coexist in practice very uneasily: living a “better sort” of life and sincerely accepting the other. And as humorists are well aware, it’s always fun to catch one’s betters in self-contradiction.
Many, of course, would level these same charges of ethically-cloaked exclusivity against the Church—and in many cases justly so. But there is this difference, which I’ll leave undeveloped for now. For the Church, the basic form of moral striving is obedience and patience. She readily admits that the ego’s hard shell can be pierced only from the outside, that the taproot of superiority can be pulled up only by Another’s sovereign hand. Without denying a role for our cooperation, the Church proclaims that God is the ultimate protagonist of our perfection and of the world’s.
In this sense, the City of God can descend only from on high. We do not build it, or purchase it, or preserve it from barbarism. And it may well be that only in such a city can a truly “classless” society be had.