Tuesday, September 16, 2008

lust to love

Jet lag? Postsummerpartum depression? Brain cells destroyed in the 90s playing catch-up? Whatever the reason, I’ve been feeling a bit off-balance in my first week back in Providence. So as usual when this sort of thing happens to me, I thought: well, maybe I need some new jeans. In the September issue of French Vogue, there was an editorial featuring slim-legged, dark denim bell bottoms—J Brand “Love Story”—that I thought would be nice for a teacher lady look, a change from my usual jeans that want to be stockings in their next life. As I was shopping around online for it, I found it. But weirdly, I didn’t feel the usual euphoria that happens when my fingertip, then the cursor, hits “Add to Basket” and then “Buy.”

So I didn’t. Instead, I wandered over to MoveOn.org to “buy” a Barack Obama t-shirt. The t-shirt comes with a donation ($12 minimum—I gave an even $20) to MoveOn.org, a liberal political action committee that brings the vital grassroots organizing of the late 20th Century to the internet age of now. Technically, I was shopping, but also technically, I was not shopping. The t-shirt itself is a gorgeous object, so this was a shopping trip like any other. But it was not a shopping trip like any other, because the money I spent didn’t just boomerang back into me as a t-shirt; it had an outwardly radiating arc as well, in the form of chipping in to the funding of MoveOn’s project to register young Obama voters in swing states. This is an important thing to “purchase.” I knew this rationally. What I didn’t expect was that it brought me that same glittery tingle I feel when I locate and purchase a perfect pair of long-lusted-after jeans.

Can the femme froth frivolity of shopping make one political? OK, this is not to say that I’ve converted fully into some totally antimaterialistic political activist—my credit card statements for even the past couple days can testify to that—but...why not? I truly believe you can be frivolous and politically forward (re: a leftwingliberaldemocrat in a committed and working way) at the same time. Because it is the fall semester here at RISD, I’ve been once again reading one of my favorite novels, Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, to teach to my freshmen class. It’s a novel I teach always against the grain of the students’ prejudices against its heroine: they usually stigmatize the manhunting Lily Bart as materialistic. I try to show them that Wharton’s portrayal of Lily is more complex, that Lily’s materialism is not a cynical desire to manipulate or accumulate wealth, but a love of things. (Perhaps this teaching is a bit defensive...Joony Bart??) This fall, I’m particularly moved by these lines spoken by Lily, musing upon the nature of frivolity:

“...the people who find fault with [it] are to apt to regard it as an end and not a means, just as the people who despise money speak as if its only use were to be kept in bags and gloated over? Isn’t it fairer to look at them both as opportunities, which may be used either stupidly or intelligently, according to the capacity of the user?”

Shopping produces magic—your empty closet is suddenly filled with...Alexander Wang sweaters! Rick Owens shirts! Vintage YSL! Acne jeans!—but it is practical magic. As your empty closet fills, your full bank account or credit line becomes moth-eaten. But to me, that’s the beauty of shopping: you get something for something. Shopping is underwritten with a sense of justice; there is an elegant balance to its form. So, as Lily Bart says, , I want to, any time I can, use my shopping instinct as a means—towards a universal health care, peace-based foreign policy, corporation control, equal pay for women—and do so intelligently.

So, the next day, I moved the money I would have spent on the “Love Story” jeans onto support for Barack Obama and donated $100 directly to his campaign. When my next paycheck comes through this week, I will donate another $100 (or if I’m feeling splurgy, even more).

Discovering this new extension of my shopping instinct made me realize that part of my feelings of general imbalance was a crash, not from the euphoria of summer sloth, but how the brilliant work of the Democratic National Convention to produce a positive sense of forward movement for this country was eclipsed by the media hysteria produced by McCain’s cynical and reckless choice of his running mate. We know who this woman is, and as an eater of lipstick, all I can say to Palin is: I know lipstick, and that pink-with-shit-brown-undertones you’ve got coated on your mouth is definitely NOT lipstick.

By now, it should be crystal clear to every single mind-body-soul in America that only a certain black man can pull us out of not just the Black Monday of Wall Street, but all the black mondays we’ve had for the past eight years. Anyone who knows me knows what a pessimistic, dark gothqueen I am; and yet, I am completely optimistic about the Obama/Biden victory. Let’s all
together shop (or volunteer voter registration, or canvas swing voters, or spread the real truth via emails-phone calls-protests-conversations with friends) to get Barack Obama to 270 on November 4th!

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