Sunday, May 29, 2005

Progressive History Book of the Month

Speaking of responsible consumption, I thought that for this month, I would recommend Lizabeth Cohen's A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America. Cohen's book is one of the best books written on the history of consumption and she does a particularly excellent job showing how central consumer politics were in so many aspects of postwar America, from suburbanization to the civil rights movement. I have personally always felt ambivalent toward consumer politics. I respect Ralph Nader for his early work attacking GM and other businesses who put out products with little concern for the health and safety of their users. But on the other hand, when consumer politics play such a central role, even consumer advocates essentially accept the proliferation of often meaningless products as a good thing that every American should have a right to. I have a hard time accepting that we have a right to buy pop-tart holders that look like pop-tarts, and frankly I don't care if such a product is safe or not.

In any case, Cohen's book is an excellent discussion of how the centrality of consumerism in postwar America represented both the best and the worst about the country, how it reflects class, race, and gender, and how it has influenced today's America in a multitude of ways. Consumerism is a key aspect of American society that every progressive American needs to think hard about and reading Cohen, especially in tandem with other books about the rise of consumption in America such as Leach's Land of Desire and Marchand's Advertising the American Dream, is a good way to get your head around this important aspect of our history.