Monday, June 27, 2022
June 27, 2022

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Harrop: Consumer societies are clearly worth defending

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In his bizarre rant on why he had to invade and savage a peaceful neighbor, Russian President Vladimir Putin accused the West of trying to force “false values” on Russians. Such attitudes, he said, would “erode … our people from within” and “are directly leading to degradation and degeneration.”

Putin was referring to the West’s acceptance of homosexuality, but his gripe against decadence clearly extended to the larger definition, an indulgence in luxury. He apparently thought that the comforts enjoyed by the Westernized Ukrainians had softened them to the point where they’d step aside when his tanks rolled in. Also that the flabby West would step aside rather than confront higher gasoline prices.

Boy, was he wrong.

Consumer societies are not weak because their people like road bikes, garage door openers and air fryers. The choice of goods that come in boxes rewires the society to be more flexible and eventually stronger in ways that can’t be touched. For example, Ukrainian tech entrepreneurs, with choice of news sources, understood the need to set up offices where Russians couldn’t get at them. They are now operating out of Poland, Silicon Valley and Israel.

Savvy young Russians could also get information that the peasantry could not. They are running for the exits even as they remain a protected class in a country fearing a brain drain. Russia has waived taxes on tech firms and promised IT professionals that they would not be sent to Ukraine. Nevertheless, Russia’s tech professionals are abandoning their posh apartments and high-style furniture — fleeing with laptop and suitcase in hand.

One can argue that they are simply protecting themselves from a sinking economy. But it’s not just about having Mastercard and Visa reject their Russian bank cards. Wired youth have integrated into the wider world, and their country’s primitive assault on a peaceful neighbor has made Russian identity an emotional burden.

The professional burden will not be as heavy. Tech companies in other countries are happily snapping up educated refugees. These young people have long had choices beyond which French cheese to buy.

The United States has been accused, not unjustly, of being a materialistic culture. But some overstate the damage our love of gadgetry does to our souls. That self-flagellation has gone so far as to turn our love of stuff into a selling point.

You know those Expedia ads. “We really love stuff,” Scottish actor Ewan McGregor says. “Thinner TVs, sportier SUVs, smarter smartphones” and so on. “Do you think any of us will look back on our lives and regret the things we didn’t buy,” he says, opening a door onto a stunning uncrowded beach, “or the places we didn’t go?”

Well, the character presumably bought a plane ticket, hotel room and car rental — and his trip’s use of fossil fuels did not help the environment. Travel is also consumption, or as the ad really suggests, a form of inconspicuous consumption.

We who are busy clearing the excess from our messy closets should bear in mind that decluttering is also a choice. Russians taken in by Putin’s call for heroic sacrifice might turn their gaze to the yachts, private jets and French villas his oligarchs are now trying to shield from seizure.

Ukrainians do talk of the comfy life they left behind. But it’s also clear that the resisters throwing their bodies against the Russian tanks think of themselves as defending a way of life in which they had say on what they could do and think as well as buy.

Once again, an autocrat looking for plunder accuses another country of “decadence,” too drugged by affluence to fight back. He attacks; then he loses. Vladimir Putin, step right up.

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