A Consumer is a Subject, A Citizen is a Verb

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We found out on the eve of our nations birthday a few weeks back that Thomas Jefferson first referred to our forbearers as “subjects” in an early draft of the Declaration of Independence.

Upon reflection Jefferson made a monumental edit that deeded us with a revolutionary identity. It seems he sought quite methodically to expunge the word, to wipe it out of existence and write over it. Many words were crossed out and replaced in the draft, but only one was obliterated. Over the smudge, Jefferson then wrote the word “citizens.”

I am loathe to say it, but we have reverted back to being Subjects.

The American corporate media culture challenges our freedom in a much more sophisticated and seductive fashion. We are saturated with images and rhetoric by which we willingly morph our identity.

Here is a brief history of the evolution and devolution of your public self. First you were a Subject ruled by a King. Then, by virtue of hard earned modern democracy you became a Citizen, one with mutual responsibility. Next, the fossil record indicates you were a Customer, signifying a relationship between a business and a buyer of goods and services.

Somewhere along the way a mutation was engineered. You are now a Consumer. You have deformed into a buying machine. A Consumer is a Subject. In the days of Kings the Subjects had no choice. They were ruled by a superior social order or military force. In our day we actively accept being Subjects.

Even in the darling progressive media outlets you are uniformly labeled a Consumer. In America it is manifestly clear that we have confounded democracy and capitalism. The Catholic monk and hermit Thomas Merton offered this spiritual diagnosis over 40 years ago.

“When we call ourselves the ‘free world’ we mean first of all the world in which business is free. If you have nothing to buy or sell freedom is, in your case, irrelevant. Profit first, people afterward.”

Capitalism can be conducted with a social conscience. The unexamined, unquestioned monoculture of consuming is leading to the collapse of all of our ecosystems.

A Consumer is a Subject, a pawn to be manipulated.

A Citizen is a Verb with dignity and purpose.

The spiritually awakened person and culture will be keen to preserve their fundamental identity.
In his wondrous sermon “Spiritual Freedom” Rev. William Ellery Channing spoke with relevance eternal.

“I call that mind free which is not passively framed by outward circumstance, which is not the creature of accidental impulse, but which bends events to its own improvement, and acts from and inward spring, from immutable principles which it has deliberately espoused.”

Seduction surrounds you. Will you be a Consumer or a Citizen?

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9 Responses to “A Consumer is a Subject, A Citizen is a Verb”

  1. Carolyn Dower Says:
    July 21, 2010 at 8:29 am

    I hope there’s a way I can share this excellent message on my Facebook page!

  2. Darren Richmond Says:
    July 21, 2010 at 9:15 am

    Very interesting, Chuck. I choose to be a citizen.

  3. Chuck Freeman Says:
    July 21, 2010 at 11:38 am

    More and more this has to be a conscious choice Darren. Stay with it!

  4. Chuck Freeman Says:
    July 21, 2010 at 11:40 am

    Thanks Carolyn! I am going to do a series of 6-8 blogs on this and maybe publish a small booklet when I finish.

  5. Chuck,

    While I agree with much of the spirit of your message, I wouldn’t be a good democratic “Citizen” if I didn’t express my opinion as to what I perceive as a weakness in your exposition, or at least a contradiction want to clarify. I have two points I would like to make and I’d be interested in hearing your response.

    First, at one point you say, “we have reverted back to being Subject.” Later, you tell the reader, “You are now a Consumer. You have deformed into a buying machine.” But at the end, you conclude by asking, “Will you be a Consumer or a Citizen?” So my question is, do we have a choice or not? Are you trying to say that the American people have become Consumers, not Citizens, due to the effects of advertising and the importance our society places on economic wealth as the sole determination of value or are you merely alleging that it is easy to become a Consumer in that environment and we should resist the temptation?

    I don’t think you are arguing the former, because if you are asking us to become Citizens, not Consumers, then clearly you believe such a choice is possible. So while it might be easy to slide into complacent consumerism, it’s not necessarily inevitable. If this is true, than I think you might overstate your case at the beginning of the composition for the sake of grabbing the audience’s attention. It might be more accurate to say, “An increasing number of Americans have become Consumers rather than Citizens” than to assert to the reader that they, individually, have made that transition.

    My second point, which is less focused on the manner in which you present your idea and more on the content, is that I disagree on your equating Subject status with Consumer status.

    The whole point of being a Subject was that you did not have a choice. You were compelled by the social and political hierarchy into doing something. You were not an actor in society because you lacked the power to change your status. A Citizen, as you say, is an active role.

    However, I disagree that recent trends have forced us to become “Subjects” once more. Yes, Americans today are subjected to an increasing amount of advertising, bias in the media, and constant efforts to direct our personal behavior (at least to the extent it effects our voting and buying decisions). Yet by equating Subject and Consumer, you ignore (or at least, downplay) the liberty that we have to make choices that fly in the face of that manipulation. I might see an advertisement on TV, but no one is forcing me to buy a product at the point of a gun. Likewise, I can watch Glenn Beck or Keith Olbermann but my voting behavior may be influenced, not determined, by those pundits. In essence, despite constant efforts to control our behavior, we still have the ability to choose, which is the hallmark of the Citizen status.

    It is impossible to sever the link between Citizen and Consumer, because the central characteristic of both is the same: the ability to choose. Merely because other people are trying to direct our behavior does not mean we are Subjects, because we still have the liberty to act according to our preferences.

    In fact, if anything, I think we have the opposite problem today. Far from becoming Subjects again, without the ability to choose, we instead have become over-saturated by the abundance of choice. Which cereal should I eat for breakfast? What car should I drive? Where should I live? Who should I vote for? Americans have so many options that we become exhausted by constantly making decisions. With so much choice, the temptation is to become lazy. It is so difficult to remain informed about everything. Much easier to surrender to popular opinion, or advertisements, and just follow the group. This, in my opinion, is the real risk in society today.

    The important distinction is not between Citizen and Consumer, but rather through being a passive Citizen-Consumer and an active one.

    An active Citizen-Consumer is still under the pressures that are inevitable in a free society, but attempts to find out the truth. A passive Citizen-Consumer responds to that pressure by blindly complying with it. However, equating passive Citizen-Consumers with Subjects ignores the central issue. What is at stake is not the liberty to choose, which distinguishes Citizens from Subjects. What is at stake is our willingness to actively seek the truth in the face of an exhausting amount of personal liberty.

  6. Chuck Freeman Says:
    July 21, 2010 at 1:54 pm

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment. I can see you are truly your father’s son! (that is a complement).

    I agree with your first point. We do have a choice. I used the proverbial preacher’s rhetorical flair to make a global pronouncement. I do believe however that a vast majority of Americans blithely accept the passive role of consumer.

    Your second point is very well taken and much more nuanced than I was shooting for. Once again I employed prophetic hyperbole as a wake up call. My point is that most of us have willingly given our privilege to choose over to those who would dupe us for their own purposes, some financial, some political.

    In the final analysis the consumer subject of today is in a much sorrier state than old school subjects. We have surrendered our birthright of choice for a bowl of lentils!

  7. bill dower Says:
    July 21, 2010 at 4:44 pm

    Oddly, perhaps, there is a third point to make, that while we have many choices, some of them will be acceptable to almost nobody. How many of us Citizens would consider reverting to the Amish lifestyle? Yet this is the only way I could consider realistic to stop using oil. As Ben says, we have the ability to choose which car to drive, but left out of this statement is the possibility of not driving any car.

  8. It’s true. As I said, I agreed with the spirit of your message, but I guess my “thinking-like-a-lawyer” training kicked-in.

    Actually I was thinking about this more after my initial post, and it occurred to me that the exhaustion from too many choices could apply to religion as well. In our pluralistic society, people are generally free to pick their faith. However, there are so many churches, so many beliefs to choose from that it can be overwhelming! I think one reason people may be turned off from an active spiritual journey, as opposed to a passive acceptance, is that there are so many faiths to choose from that the prospect of actively figuring out “the truth” (or perhaps “their truth”) is intimidating. Much easier to just go with the default option, such as the religion you were raised in, or call yourself a “Christian” but not bother going to church at all or carefully thinking about the particulars. I’ve noticed that many of my peers have never actively questioned their faith or considered why they believe what they do. I’m not sure if you can fairly say that “too many choices” is to blame for that, but it’s one possible factor.

    If people only had two options, such as Lutheran or Catholic, Hindu or Muslim, Buddhist or Jewish, then everyone could feel comfortable thinking carefully about the choice. (Although I’m sure most people would still follow the family faith.) But when we have so many choices that researching them all becomes virtually impossible, the prospect of giving up on the entire search becomes more attractive.

    One nice thing about Live Oak is that the church never abandons that comparative look at faith. Rather than becoming overwhelmed by the diversity of faiths, your church embraces it. And, in my opinion, that’s definitely a good thing.

  9. As an old grammar/comp instructor, I like your imagery of consumer as subject and citizen as verb. Good action verbs grab your attention.

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