Published March 17, 2022
It’s a weekday evening. We’ve just had a great dinner. And now, relaxed and comfortable in our family room, we tune in to the latest war coverage from Ukraine. It’s midnight in Lviv, and the ink-black horizon is lit by a ball of orange flame, the latest target of Russian missiles. This is followed by a cutaway to the rubble of a smashed civilian neighborhood and weeping victims; followed by shots of a long trench, now serving as a mass grave filled with hastily wrapped bodies; followed by. . .a commercial.
It’s a commercial for something very expensive – a Jamaica vacation, an electric Cadillac, a full set of teeth implants. I forget the product, but it doesn’t matter – and an attractive woman in her forties (actor portrayal) explains why she bought it. Yes, the cost might seem sobering she hints, but she wants it, she deserves it, and “I had to learn to put myself first.” Then it’s back to a TV newsroom of talking heads and carnage in Ukraine.
“I had to learn to put myself first.” For a heartbeat, my mind drifts: I imagine this poor creature from the commercial locked in a titanic struggle for new teeth implants with her own unselfish self.
But my baffled wife ruins the daydream: “What did that woman just say?” My bride is a lifelong educator, and after forty years teaching elementary and junior-high-school young people – most of them about one degree less self-centered than true north on a compass – she has calluses on her credulity. She loved her students but having to “learn” how to “put myself first” is not a problem she observed in them, or in anyone else in her experience. Her skepticism is, of course, unwelcome in a consumer economy. But I mention it here for a reason. Bear with me.
The war in Ukraine has all the elements of an exceptionally vivid videogame. . .except that real people are really fighting and dying. Few images in recent memory rival the footage of Ukrainian men escorting their families to the Polish border, and then turning back to fight. True, they’re obligated to stay and fight, but most do, and most do so willingly, as evidenced by their stubborn resistance to the Russian invasion.
They fight for something more important than themselves, in this case their nation, families, homes, and fellow countrymen. And they remember. They remember the savagery of a Second World War that raped and looted the Ukrainian countryside. They remember the Bolshevik persecution of their churches, the Soviet mass deportations of innocent farmers, scholars, and clergy, and the Holodomor – Stalin’s genocidal famine campaign in Ukraine that killed millions.
To describe today’s Ukrainian resistance as “fearless” would be melodramatic; fear of dying is a universal human trait. But the willingness to risk oneself for something bigger than oneself exhibits an authentic kind of freedom, a freedom that comes from self-denial rather than self-indulgence. It’s a freedom that stands in unpleasant contrast to the thing we too often call “freedom” here in our own comfortable lives.
“I had to learn to put myself first.” This is our unofficial national anthem. And not by accident. For the American public, commercials are a form of religion-like catechesis, as Neil Postman shrewdly captured years ago in his essay “The Parable of the Ring Around the Collar” (collected here). If Americans don’t buy stuff, and keep buying a lot of stuff, everything unravels. So we need to be relieved of our moral qualms about excessive desire and endless consumption. We need to be taught, and we need to learn, to put ourselves first.
That demands a social curriculum of constant titillation and teasing people’s hunger for more – which is why Postman also suggested that foreign visitors need only look to Las Vegas to understand America. Here in the heart of the empire, far from those curious provinces like Ukraine, we increasingly live in a bubble of the permanent present; a bubble unburdened by memory and its lessons, and infested with distractions, faux rewards (cashback on all purchases!), manufactured appetites, and illusions masquerading as liberty.
Protecting that bubble demands nimble managers with superior analytical skills, guided by behavioral psychology. Las Vegas, not surprisingly, models how it’s done. In Addiction by Design: Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, MIT professor Natasha Dow Schüll outlined the immense care the gambling industry takes in knowing, feeding, and thus shaping, its clientele. The data collected by the industry then determine the look, feel, and risk-reward balance of the gambling experience. This keeps customers coming back and, on balance, losing. Machines, as opposed to poker, roulette, or craps tables, are especially profitable. The individual player on a machine is alone and intensely cocooned in his or her own mental zone, sometimes for a full day without eating or even a bathroom break, and absent the hassle of other players.
One of Schüll’s addicted machine gamblers, a woman named Mollie, described the experience this way:
The more I gambled, the wiser I got about my chances [of winning]. Wiser but also weaker. Less able to stop. Today when I win – and I do win from time to time – I just put it back in the machines. The thing people never understand is that I’m not playing to win. [I play] to keep playing – to stay in that machine zone where nothing else matters. . .the whole world is spinning around you, and you can’t really hear anything. You aren’t really there – you’re with the machine, and that’s all you’re with.
Other industries have watched and learned, adapting behavioral psychology techniques for their own purposes. Advertising, for example.
“I had to learn to put myself first.” It’s a simple sentence; just nine syllables. But I can’t get it out of my head, because it raises a simple question: Who exactly are the free: the people fighting in Ukraine’s rubble. . .or us?
Francis X. Maier is a senior fellow in Catholic studies at the Ethics and Public Policy Center and the 2020-22 senior research associate at the Notre Dame Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government.