When enough is not enough

Daily News Egypt
6 Min Read

NEW YORK: The US dollar is plunging, the economy is imploding, and a crisis of identity is shaking countries around the world. So, what are Americans obsessed with at this critical moment? “Octamom : the saga of Nadya Suleman, a young single mother in Los Angeles who, having already given birth to seven children, underwent fertility treatments and is now bringing home octuplets.

The story would ordinarily be a mere curiosity. But, ever since Suleman hit the news stream, dozens of media outlets have begun to report, with a kind of obsessive revulsion, on her every move. And, as if being called “Octamom weren’t bad enough, pop stars such as Cher have come forward to denounce her; blogs have been created to track the details of her plastic surgery; and entertainment websites have sent reporters to stalk her and write shaming exposés of her sojourn at an expensive cosmetics counter.

It is true that there is plenty to condemn: Suleman’s family lives on food stamps, the children already at home don’t have enough baby furniture, and her own parents are giving interviews to the media in which they criticize her choices. Her publicist quit, calling her “crazy.

There have been plenty of oddball flash-in-the-pan media stars in US popular culture before Suleman. But her story just goes on and on, and the emotion that attaches to it seems strangely furious and vengeful.

I believe that Americans’ obsession with Suleman is a projection of their own guilt and shame at their recent choices. Suleman does not have a decent job, but she managed to invest in costly fertility treatments and could afford many expensive cosmetic surgeries. Worse yet, her surgeries seem designed to make her resemble the actress Angelina Jolie. She somehow has a spacious house, but no proper beds for the kids.

In other times, it would have been the absence of a man that turned Suleman into an object of public scorn. Today, that scarcely registers against the other themes: a working-class or unemployed person dared to aspire to resemble someone of too high a status, and spent too much money conceiving too many blameless babies who deserve protection and care, and who have now been put at risk by their mother’s selfish choices. Bewitched by symbols of affluence and a level of consumption that she could not afford, she acted like a child herself, with no thought to the future.

Sound familiar? Sound like anyone you know?

Right now, Americans are staggering from the reality of what they themselves have done. The real estate bubble inflated and collapsed partly because millions of Americans borrowed more than they could afford to repay – and knew it. It takes nothing away from the pain of those now losing their houses to notice that something oddly American and a bit perverse happened: millions of Americans were seduced by fantasies of a beautiful big house, vague about their own plans for the future, and yet full of crazy confidence that it would all somehow work out. American optimism became as much a curse as a blessing.

The credit freeze is partly the work of bankers and hedge fund managers who acted just like Nadya Suleman, leveraging the present for an unrealizable future. But it is also the result of ordinary Americans, who ran up more credit card debt than any previous generation.

In the mall, or at home on the Internet, Americans acted like Nadya Suleman, too: seduced by the bag, the shoes, the beauty treatments, the vacations, and the life that the stars they admire take for granted. And, with education and health care faltering and social security funding at risk, their kids, like Suleman’s, are now endangered partly because of their own choices.

The manageable, honorable American Dream of the 1950’s – a decent, affordable college education; a small house of one’s own; hope that one’s children will be better off than oneself – was misplaced in the last decade and a half. In the new, reality-show version of that dream, countless Americans came to expect to be able to live, look, dance, and party like celebrities, or else feel themselves to be failures. Enough is not enough anymore.

That is the American Dream that Nadya Suleman bought into, and, in their obsession with her, Americans are coming to grips with how seriously they went astray. Indeed, a strange sense of relief is now creeping into Americans’ consciousness as the consumer economy grinds to a halt.

The relief comes from not aspiring to spend like Suleman, or Britney Spears, or the neighbors down the street. It comes from the thought that this really might be enough to be able to afford a small house, a college education, and the children that one already has.

Naomi Wolfis a political activist and social critic whose most recent book is Give Me Liberty: A Handbook for American Revolutionaries. This commentary is published by DAILY NEWS EGYPT in collaboration with Project Syndicate (ww.project-syndicate.org).

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