Welcome Back, Ya’ll, to the Customer Relationship

Ronald Reagan sucking on his gunGenial, always smiling TV-rific Ronald Reagan became president in 1980. “It’s morning again in America.” And the customer relationship came in full blast. For many younger people this particular twist on the always important “relationship” word was like fresh air rather than a freezing wind blowing down their necks. It’s not like it had never been around, but during the feel-good 1960s and the get-your-rock ‘n’ rolls-off 1970s, lots of us were looking for something beside it: social engagement, liberation (a word like “empowerment” that the corporations immediately took to their kind hearts), “Nirvana,” the guru next door, and a meaningful encounter that might last one night, but, heck, it was still a great night.

Most of us remember that period as a time of “affinity,” We preferred this to the more mundane exercise of cruising for customers that led ultimately to the “New Consumerism,” a cosmetically egalitarian concept which states that all you are is what you own and/or what you can buy.

In other words, all consumers are created equal in their unimpeded opportunities to keep on buying and consuming. (And, if you don’t believe this, you are a revolting, disgusting, and possibly sexually deviant “elitist,” belonging to that group Rush Limbaugh loathes while chomping down on one of his $32 burgers at the 21 Club.)

So, according to classic Marxian dialectics, out of the hoary ol’ feel-good, hippy-dippy Moms and Dads from the 1960s-70s, came their kids: voilà Michael J. Fox in Family Ties, in his young Republican button-down,Alex P. Keaton aka Michael J. Fox feeling . . . OK, what he was feeling was a hard one to figure out. (Although in the new egalitarian Consumerism, “hard one” and no brains went together good, too.)

So what if Fox’s guy had no “consciousness” (Screw that, who needs it: you can’t bed a brain anyway)? So what if he had no empathy for the whales or the economically challenged (screw it too: you don’t bed hot girls with empathy)? So what if he was a WASP version of a schlemiel (screw that . . . anyway, just screw it!)—to the new Generation X the Customer Relationship (or C.R.) seemed as refreshing as a good hit of coke, as honest as cheery Ronny Reagan and his endearing Hollywood family, and without a tad of hidden agenda.

You didn’t have to be smart to engage in it, you didn’t have to be “spiritual,” and as one earnest youngster told me in the midst of Ronny’s “American morning,” circa 1985, “The one thing we all have in common is that we’re all consumers.”

Who’d not love such an endearing declaration?

Rarely have so many people been relegated to pure schmuckdom by so few.

Then hard reality blew in. The market did not “know everything.” So a whole generation learned as it maxed itself into credit card slavery. The boom-or-bust real estate cycles promulgated by the hard-ass necessity that your house must become your retirement (because there’s no other plan, idiot), led to a whole new class of millionaires-next-door as well as their shadows, the homeless across the street, who suddenly looked just like you and I.

We also began to suspect people who believed themselves to be outside the now accepted (and even demanded) C.R., such as trade unionists, teachers, doctors, artists, writers, and other “professionals” who had been brainwashed into believing that —“elitists” as they were—their jobs did have some semblance to an a profession. That is, there was some other human component in it beyond a paycheck, and, hopefully, their work could not be outsourced tomorrow to Bangladesh.

This made these people pure trash among the Republicans and other religious believers in the C.R., even through that now “classic” relationship’s various low points, such as the Clinton Spring. During the Clinton hiatus, those damn elitist S.O.B’s started coming out of the woodwork again, the Federal budget was balanced, and we had a surplus. This was not going good for the billionaires, but they weren’t about to stand still for very long, not when they could get Joe Plumber (non-union, of course) on their side.

Henry Fonda in Grapes of WrathJoe loves a good conspiracy, and anything outside the C. R. quickly became that. In another era in fact, simply being outside the ol’ C.R. would quickly land you in “Red” territory. Witness that wonderful quote from Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, when a foreman at a big agri-ranch tells us what a “goddamn Red is.”

“A goddamn Red is someone who wants to make 9 cents an hour when I want to pay him 7.”

Now you’d think this beloved Customer Relationship (which at one point, back in the by-and-by had seemed like an enlightened reaction to feudalism itself, and whose nascence had—in most probabilities—given birth to Protestantism) would still be blowing good and sweet. Except it isn’t. As things have gone more and more sour towards it, huge numbers of people, armed with—we hope—the ballot, want something else. The C. R., which might have once been personified by the alto trilling voice of, say, Franklin Pangborn, 1930s Hollywood’s professional sissy  (“Madame, please step over here for your henna rinse and facial massage!”) is now totally computerized. It’s as mechanized as an ATM machine, with one grimy hand in your wallet as the other strokes your groin–the original bait-and-switch—while its head is somewhere in China.

So even the Wal-Mart’s crowd, dedicated consumers all, is tired of it.

They’re worn out by it. They yearn for normal “family” again. They have a just discovered blood-lust for “affinity,” “empathy,” “morality,” and even a bit of “chivalry.” So guess where they’re looking for it, and who’s going to give it to them?

Can anyone still sight the ever-ready specter of Rick Santorum, even now that his more cleaned up version, Mitt Romney, is galloping on a white Mormon horse over the horizon?Perry Brass

From Savannah, GA, poet, novelist, playwright, and activist Perry Brass has published 16 books, winning numerous awards for his poetry, plays, and fiction. He has had over 60 poems set to music by such composers as Chris DeBlasio, Fred Hersch, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Gerald Busby. He is featured in “All the Way Through Evening,” a documentary by Rohan Spong about young composers who have died of AIDS, named for his collaboration with Chris DeBlasio. In 1972, he co-founded the Gay Men's Health Project Clinic, the first clinic for gay men on the East Coast, still operating as New York’s Callen-Lourde Community Health Center. Perry Brass’s newest novel is King of Angels, a Novel About the Genesis of Identity and Belief, set in 1963 in Savannah, GA, and available at Amazon and other fine bookstores. For more information: www.perrybrass.com.

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