September 11 changed us. Remember how, in the weeks following, as the smoke cleared, New York felt more cohesive? The whole city seemed to bind together in a warm, shared sorrow. The baker clapped your shoulder as he handed you a loaf of bread, waitresses gave you sad little smiles of recognition, strangers on the street moved tenderly around each other. It was an unexpected good feeling that could not last--and didn’t.
This feeling of connectedness soon crumbled. War began. Our streets rumbled with the noise of demolitions like aftershocks in the wake of the fallen towers. Glass high-rises began rising everywhere, as if to make up for the loss of those 220 floors. And the new buildings were stuffed with banks and stores.
The personality of this city changed as "Consume!" became New York's anxious war cry.
It has been well documented that Americans changed their consumer habits drastically after 9/11. Now, in the paper "The Sweet Escape," researchers Naomi Mandel and Dirk Smeesters take a fascinating look at why.
The authors discovered that when many people think about their own death they tend to eat, drink, and shop more. They become super-consumers. You might think people do this out of a desire for hedonistic pleasure, "I'm going to die, so I might as well live it up." But this is not what the research showed.
Instead, the study revealed the critical role of self-esteem. People with "high levels of self-esteem were less impacted by thoughts of death--and therefore less likely to increase their levels of consumption when dealing with those thoughts--than those with low self-esteem."
People with low self-esteem become ravenous consumers, instead of moderate, thrifty consumers. Such people, says Mandel, "are trying to put all of these [death] thoughts out of their minds. They want to escape from self-awareness. They don't want to confront the fact that they don't live up to cultural standards, and one way to do that is through overeating or over-consumption.”
Marketers know all about this dynamic and they use it to sell products. Just as our politicians have used 9/11 to sell themselves and their policies, stoking the fears of an insecure populace.
waiting for the iPhone
Narcissists are particularly known for their low self-esteem, though they may appear confident. This article in Harvard Magazine lays out the difference between narcissism and self-esteem, explaining clearly how self-loathing underlies the narcissist's apparent grandiosity.
After 9/11, a confluence of factors converged on New York City. Which came first, our dominant culture of narcissism or super-gentrification? Maybe it happened like this: Those already here with low self-esteem became hyper-consumers. The city fed that hunger with more stores, restaurants, condos, bars, and banks. New York must have begun looking like an all-you-can-eat smorgasbord to the insecure and fearful across America. And they flocked to come feed themselves, too.
It amazed me that after 9/11, more people came to New York than left, as if terror exerted a strange attraction.
cupcake feeding frenzy
The toll of 9/11 continues to reverberate in many different ways. People still suffer flashbacks and anxiety, along with grief for lost loved ones. Perhaps we must also include in that day's rolling tally of losses the vanishing of our city's mom-and-pops, priced-out artists, evicted poor and middle classes, and the tens of thousands of fallen buildings that once made up the fabric of our city.
Maybe the terrorists are "winning" after all.