Gimme a Commercial Break

A pretty young woman with high, teased hair and colorful leotards speaks to me from my TV. In the few seconds my remote pauses on her sunny features and luminescent smile, I hear her intoning America's need to stand together and stay strong in the wake of the previous week's tragic events. "And what better way to stay strong" -- she pauses momentarily -- "than to buy one of our incredible workout machines?"

General Motors doesn't want us to lose our "freedom." Its TV spot offers an endless ribbon of open road -- the horizon, distant and beckoning. It doesn't even show the car. "C'mon, America, buy some wheels and burn some gas," it suggests provocatively. "Forget about free speech and the freedom of religion. The greatest freedom is the freedom to drive ... the freedom to escape ... the freedom to just get up and go." Remember: "What's good for General Motors ..." Well, you know the line.

It has been six weeks since a handful of fanatics flew into the World Trade Center in New York and brought our country to its knees. And the "men in the gray flannel suits" are already beginning to figure out ways to market the tragedy. If patriotism is the way to our pockets -- they'll use it.

Forget all the pain and loss of life. Forget the countless kind and selfless deeds performed without thought of recompense. It's time to get back to "normal." It's time to get back to business. And "the business of America is ..." Yes, you know that line, too.

Politicians are not immune. Facing a huge budget shortfall largely due to a giant rupture of his state's $50 billion-a-year tourism industry, Florida Governor Jeb Bush says it's our patriotic duty to go out to eat and, maybe, take a cruise?!

"C'mon honey, let's pack up the kids and float around the ocean for a few days. I know you get seasick, but we've got a job to do. And don't forget to bring the water wings." After all, what price honor?

This is still America, the voices shout, and we can still buy our way out of anything! Feeling lost and confused? Purchase a new car! Feeling vulnerable? Get a ThighMaster! Is travel down? Bail out the airlines. Are tourists staying away? Ratchet up the advertising. Buy, buy, buy. Spend, spend, spend. It's worked for generations.

Only, I wonder if it will be so easy this time around. If it's just fear of flying, that will probably diminish over time. But if something really has shifted in our national consciousness ... if there really is a change in our long-term mood ... if our heretofore lavish investment in mindless entertainment and rampant consumerism is actually played out ... if our immersion in the trivial has been truly suspended ... then we have a long row to hoe.

A lot of people have suggested the terrorist attacks were America's wake-up call. But what exactly we've woken from -- or woken to -- is a matter of considerable and important debate.

Have we awakened from the notion that we are not alone in this world and that there are a lot of hurt, angry and desperate people out there? Have we awakened from the conceit that we may not be entitled to our profligate ways, consuming 25 percent of the world's resources with only 5 percent of its population?

Have we awakened from the dream that we can do what we want, live how we wish, regardless of cost -- without paying a heavy price? Have we awakened to a world where caring for our neighbors, giving of ourselves, being conscious of our actions, will take precedence over gorging on our pleasures?

Have we awakened to a planet where tribalism in all its forms (we're the good guys, they're the devil) will be seen for what it is -- a way in which fear of the other is transfigured into something noble and good?

Or will the ad men have their way? Will they use their enormous powers of influence and control of the media to lull us back to sleep? Is the business of America really business? Or is it something more?

Maybe this is the time not to spend, not to buy, not to salve the wounds. Maybe this is the time to tell the marketers to back off. We've got some important things to think about. And they have nothing to do with going to the mall or buying this year's model.

Have we woken up? Or have we only turned fitfully in our sleep?

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