Lunging into a sumptuous tuna and provolone wrap in our suburban corporate campus cafeteria, I became distracted by a brunette newsreader peering down at the lunchtime crowd from a large flat screen TV.
Above the cheerful din of the dining office workers, the full-lipped anchor chatted amicably about "rebuilding consumer confidence" in order to forestall the current "drop-off in consumer spending" in our "consumer driven system". She was promptly followed by another smiling face reporting that "consumer confidence" had ?plummeted to a new low." I then recalled the radio host during my morning commute lamenting the "consumer sitting on the sidelines."
Tired of all this consumer talk, my gaze shifted to the bucolic fields that lay beyond the cafeteria?s imposing picture windows, as I tore into a bag of mini pretzels.
Just then, the pristine meadow was invaded by a small herd of suburban deer that immediately proceeded to vacuum up the lush greenery around them. Behold I mused, smirking smugly to myself: happy consumers.
Though ubiquitous in these days of economic calamity, the consumer has been widely cited for decades. The chairman of former U.S. President Eisenhower's Council of Economic Advisors contended half a century ago that our "economy's ultimate purpose is to produce more consumer goods." And in a speech to the Economic Club of New York in 1963, President Kennedy addressed the urgent need to "increase consumer demand" for "consumers to purchase more goods."
As I watched the antlered hoard consuming our lawn, it occurred to me that being referred to as a consumer was mildly insulting. It seemed to suggest an unsettling kinship with mindlessly grazing beasts. I certainly never thought of myself as a consumer.
Back at my cubicle with my partially consumed lunch, I browsed an online dictionary, which defined consumer as "a person who purchases goods for personal use." But another click of the mouse revealed that back in Geoffrey Chaucer's day, the word was more darkly defined as squanderer.
Present day synonyms for consume were at least as unflattering: spend wastefully, use up, destroy, devour, and even ravage. Among the contextual if somewhat frightening phrases provided as examples were 'Fire consumed the forest' and 'Cancer consumed the body'.
Squanderers, destroyers, devourers, ravagers: could it be that attractive news anchors and politicians have been routinely if unwittingly insulting their viewers and constituents for years?
Naturally, my thoughts pivoted back to me. Well, am I really a consumer? Aside from sustenance and hygiene, my personal consumption is largely limited to books and music - only the loftiest of cultural pursuits for me, thank you. Otherwise, not much to report: I developed a shopping allergy during dismal childhood Sundays spent with my parents on Orchard Street, the bygone bargain Mecca on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
My shopophobia prevents me from entering a Wal-Mart, though I must concede to a single indiscretion several years back to pick up a jumbo-sized box of disposable diapers on sale. But that's pretty much it.
But enough of me: Are consumers really analogous to a forest fire or cancer?
Let's see: humanity devours the planet;s precious resources, from ancient forests, to commodities and fresh water in order to make and consume an endless array of generally useless junk, much of which, like the planet, gets trashed almost instantly. Do newsreaders and presidents really think that more of this will cure our nation?s economic ills?
Later on, I asked colleagues if they too were offended by being branded as consumers; none were - even after they listened to the label's litany of horrible synonyms. As my Yiddish speaking grandmother might have quipped, seems they get peed on and call it rain.
Mulling their passive acceptance of this label, I couldn't help but wonder if the present economic straits would have been as dire had we been referred to all this time as, say, sentient human beings rather than foraging consumers.
With lunch finally devoured and quitting drawing near, I swivel away from my monitor to stretch. Arms extended, my eyes come to rest on my squat plastic trash bin, now occupied by three plastic coffee cups (complete with fancy heat resistant sleeves), an empty mini-pretzel bag, and several feet of tinfoil and wax paper that faithfully kept intact my tuna and provolone wrap.
46 years ago, U.S. President John Kennedy famously declared to a throng of Germans "Ich bin ein Berliner!" - I am a Berliner!
With my trash heap bearing witness, I must reluctantly confess, "Ich bin ein consumer."