“Quilts, Jewelry, Fudge, Swords” – so read the four stacked signs along the side of US Route 10, which basically bisects Wisconsin from Oshkosh to Stevens Point and beyond. The signs were intended as inducements to turn into the aggressivley “quaint” old-fashioned looking strip mall along the side of the highway. I sped past at 60mph, not only because I had another destination in mind, but also because I wanted to put as much distance between these shops and myself as possible.
It was strange to see a list like that, even outside Waupaca, a known tourist destination about twenty minutes from our weekend cottage in Saxeville, Wisconsin. Quilts, jewelry, fudge, and swords: could there be a more sweeping list of frivolous stuff that no human being really needs, some of which is inherently bad for us? Looked at from my warped but pragmatic perspective, it points toward some deep philosophical and economic problems in the United States today.
For one thing, it reads like a thinly-veiled list of four of the Seven Deadly Sins (fyi – these are gluttony, sloth, wrath, envy, vanity, lust, greed) :
Quilts = sloth, also known as laziness (picture cozying up in bed under a warm quilt and drifting off into a nap… which I’m sure you think you deserve). Quilts in particular also may have a bit of greed clouding theri ethical profile, since no legitimately poor person would pay $200 for a blanket, no matter how finely it’s crafted, and then hang it up on a wall instead of sleeping under it.
Jewelry = vanity, a word which I use here instead of “pride”, whose multiple modern interpretations only confuse people. (“Wait… aren’t I supposed to be proud of myself, or my kid? What could be sinful about that?”) But we can all agree that vanity is sinful… at least when somebody else is the person wearing all that bling.
Fudge = gluttony, a deadly sin which I must confess I practice daily, sometimes with great fervor. I’m well-versed on this one, and while I’m not a true aficionado of fine fudge, or even chocolate in general, I know enough chocoholics for whom this roadside sign would be all the inducement they need to turn off the highway, thus making them a full 25 minutes late for their cousin’s wedding up the road in Coloma.
Swords = wrath, more commonly known as anger, or to reach back a few centuries for a more colorful term, blood lust. Yes, I know these are just swords for show and not for bloody battles — a role which should instead put them in the vanity category. But the fact that swords and whips and maces and guns and cannons and tanks and warplanes have all become major categories of Collectibles in the course of the past century is reason enough to point toward European, American and Japanese fetishism as an obvious but indirect indicator of the frequently agressive, addictively angry, and sometimes violent nature of these so-called “civilized” nations.
Quilts. Jewelry. Fudge. Swords. All crap that we don’t need. We may enjoy these things. They may be part of our hobbies, or we may try to justify purchasing them as appreciating folk art, or fine craftsmanship. These items may even be part of our livelihood, for a few of us. But mostly they’re luxuries. They’re excuses to indulge ourselves. Most of all, they’re not the stuff upon which a healthy economy should be based.
I once heard Rev. Jesse Jackson addressing an auditorium full of several hundred union members at a Chicago factory that was on the cusp of a strike. His command of the language and rhetorical flair did not disappoint on that day, as he said at least one thing I will always remember. (This was in the late 1980s, when the anti-unionism of the Reagan era was reaching a crescendo.)
What Jackson said to make his point about American corporations, public policy, and the loss of manufacturing jobs was quite simple, really. First he asked everyone in the audience to raise our hands if we owned a VCR. Just about everyone raised his or her hand. He gently advised us that there were no American-made VCRs presently on the market. Then he asked us to raise our hands if we owned a nuclear warhead. After laughing for a minute or so, nobody raised their hand and everyone got the point. Just to be sure, though, Jesse drove it home: “See. The Japanese and Chinese are making things that people need. Our companies ain’t.”
I don’t know how to get back to a place where American companies are making the things that America, and the rest of the world, really needs. And I don’t advocate swearing off fudge, either. But unless we can start talking about these issues in a sensible way in the political arena, we’ll all be in deep fudge.