In last week’s Conx posting, Tina Hovekamp invited people into the world of mass consumption and stuff. As indicated in that posting, the short film Story of Stuff has attracted significant attention for those interested in, and concerned about, mass consumption. It has also drawn criticism for providing an unbalanced view of capitalism and consumption.
A few months ago someone suggested I watch the film. I did. In less than thirty minutes, the film provides an overview, albeit oversimplified, of mass consumption and our economic and cultural dependence on it. As a sociologist and academic, my assessment is that the filmmakers laid out some general ideas about mass consumption. But because of their target audience, a younger general public demographic, as well as the time constraints, the film did not provide much statistical and analytical depth.
As I read Tina’s Conx posting, I was curious about what others found fault in the film. To start my archeological dig into discovering the criticisms, I simply typed the film’s title into the Google search engine. I scrolled down the top hits. The top two hits were for the Story of Stuff video site. The third links to a commentary provided by Glenn Beck, the conservative Fox News pundit. Regardless of the title he chooses to wear, he is not a journalist, educator, nor academic. He is a pundit. In fact, he would likely cringe at the prospects of being called an academic. And that is a benefit to academia, for him to claim that title would undermine academia’s engagement in seeking discourse, debate, and analysis.
The fifth hit down is for a Fox News link. The title of this link is “Viral Video ‘The Story of Stuff’ is Full of Misleading Numbers.” I went to the link to find out more about the misleading numbers. Unfortunately, the link did not provide analysis. It only provided hollow critiques that indicated a more direct political agenda than could be argued for the actual film Story of Stuff. Glenn Beck’s inflammatory and unsubstantiated criticisms do not speak to what is invalid about the film, but rather, in a strange way, the film’s validity. By this I mean, a valid critique would break down the Story of Stuff argument, examine the evidence, and draw conclusions. A critique founded on this analytical approach, would add to our collective knowledge and further engage people in the search for perspective and truth. If Glenn Beck and Fox News really were to offer a true analysis of the film, we would all benefit from being more informed. But, as I said, Beck and Fox News are not interested in weighing the evidence or positions provided in the film. If they did, then some of the links made between mass consumption, globalization, capitalism, environmental pollution, and compromising social welfare would be supported. And this would bring into question the limitations of free-market capitalism as a solution to all of our social ills.
Aside from the shallow criticism made about the film, the Story of Stuff is reflection of a larger social pulse. In recent years, many documentary films, such as this year’s Academy Award nominated Food, Inc., and popular press books, such as Fast Food Nation, have drawn the interest of a public concerned about the interrelationships between mass consumption, governmental policy, community welfare, and people’s struggle for economic survival. Rather than shutting down this debate about capitalism, we would better served by advancing the debate.