Debra Goldman’s Consumer Republic

Our leaders told us from the start that this would be a new kind of war. In the past few weeks, we’ve seen just how right they are.

Once, war entailed a call to sacrifice and public duty. Young men by the millions were swept into the armed forces. Women were drafted into the fac tories. Americans submitted to rationing, and everyone did their bit by saving aluminum foil.

None of that is required today. Fighting terrorism does not call for huge numbers of conscripts. Women cannot be recruited into the workplace because they are already there. And far from saving foil, we are urged to buy it, as well as cars, new homes, wide-screen TVs and vacation packages. We are all in the un comfortable position of becoming potential casualties in a war in which we have little role to play.

With so few public outlets—save for the avalanche of benefit concerts—through which to express our solidarity and determination, Americans have turned the battle inward. Fortunately, this is terrain as familiar to consumers as the Afghani mountains are to the mujahideen.

The terrorists want to break our spirit? We will foil them by digging deeper into our spiritual resources. They want to rob us of our psychological comfort? We will work twice as hard to put ourselves at ease. We will defy our enemies by fighting to restore our sense of personal well-being. It’s a new kind of patriotism to match a new kind of war: private instead of public, individual rather than collective. Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for yourself.

In the immediate wake of the attacks, comfort food became battle-field rations for a nation of involuntary combatants. Anecdotal re ports of friends treating their anxiety with butter-and-cream mashed potatoes and home-baked brownies are re inforced by reported spikes in fast-food sales. Scanner data confirms that sugar and fat have been flying off grocery shelves, with consumers showing a distinct preference for creamy, slurpy foods that require little chewing: ice cream, peanut butter, soup. But we aren’t cleaning our plates because children in Afghan i stan are starving. Now, having double servings is our first line of defense against the psychic harm inflicted upon us.

Over the longer term, the real battle for well-being is being fought in the realm of the spirit. What’s interesting is that for all the talk that everything changed on Sept. 11, there’s nothing about this trend that is new. If anything, the terrorist attacks have only reinforced the interest in all things “spiritual” that had been developing for the last two decades. By the late ’90s, our booming, wealth-creating economy had started to breed a palpable contempt for materialism—without, of course, ever discrediting it altogether. The em phasis of consumption shifted to keeping up with the souls of the Joneses. Indeed, if we had spent a fraction of the resources we’ve been putting toward caring for our spiritual selves into, say, stockpiling small pox vaccine, we’d be a more secure nation today.

Those in the media who figured this out before September are now ahead of the game. Just look at the November issue of Oprah’s magazine, O. Assigned and written long before the attacks, it is almost creepily relevant today. A cover line proclaims, “After shock: Comfort in the face of disaster” (it refers to a sidebar accompanying an article about Col um bine, which until last month set the gold standard, along with Oklahoma, for terrifyingly random violence). In the same issue, a novelist tells how she coped with the sudden death of her beloved spouse. Would that the CIA had been so prescient.

O’s message that its readers should stop worrying about their thighs and start working on their souls now has a renewed urgency. It teaches its hopeful readers that life is one big opportun ity to feel good about oneself, if one knows how to go about it. Even, according to the big O herself, life after Sept. 11. In her post-attack column in the current issue, Oprah concludes that the best way to “bring honor to the memory of those who lost their lives” is to “celebrate each and every moment by being fully present in it.”

I wonder. “Celebrating each mo ment”—be it through a home-cooked meal, a shiatsu massage or a scented candle—does little more to ward honoring the dead than saving aluminum foil. Such gestures can, however, make us individually feel better about ourselves. Which, come to think of it, is itself a triumph of the true American spirit.