Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The Pursuit of Status

Virginia planters built up debts they could not repay because they expected, by rights, to live well. They created a consumer society where wealth was made visible in grand houses grandly furnished in a manner the previous generation would have gasped at. In a pattern that future generations would follow, luxuries were redefined as necessities. The pride of the planters demanded that no expense be spared to proclaim their status. British magazines fostered a taste for stylish goods, and Virginia planters followed fads with greater speed and avidity than their richer counterparts in England.
Henry Wiencek, An Imperfect God: George Washington, His Slaves, and the Creation of America, (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2003), 89.
One of the more shocking things when reading about some of the founding fathers is their incessant need to showcase a life of wealth and luxury. The men from Virginia were seemingly the worst - as both Washington & Jefferson were known for their extravagance and incredible debt. Status was so critical, that even when the economy did not support it - debt was taken on to afford a life of indulgence. Pride was seen as more worthy than simplicity and as a result a pattern for living was developed in the United States. If the great and mighty forefathers did it - we should to.

We continue to be haunted by the same sense of need & want that plagued Washington & Jefferson. We believe we need things & we get obsessed with our image. Our standard of living continues to climb even in the face of uncertainty & struggle within our economy. What is visible becomes the measuring stick for how we view others as well as ourselves. As a result, we are left living shallow & inauthentic lives of lavish spending. The culture of the United States is tied into this. To attempt to break free from it - would require major counter-cultural thinking & actions. Which no matter how exciting that might sound, is not likely to happen. Today we are just as stuck as Washington & Jefferson were in their day.

The only option is to be willing to sacrifice our status. To not fit in. To not appeal to the majority. To not live in comfort. To recognize true needs. Counter-cultural. But who's really willing to do that???


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