Monday, November 21, 2011

Servant Hipness

When my hometown turned 175 years old, the local celebrations and commemorations included a history book, "Vandalia Remembered: Illinois' Second Capital Celebrates 175 Years, 1819-1994," edited by Charles W. Mills and others. One article I love (pp. 33-34) is "From the Depression to 1993" by local attorney Robert Burnside, whom (like Charles) I knew. He describes the many businesses in downtown Vandalia during the 1930s and afterward, commenting that "if any one thing stands out as being the single crucial element of the tradition [from the Depression to the present] it is the decline, and almost complete disappearance, of the sole proprietor, the entrepreneur, the self-made man and the 'mom and pop' operation" (pp. 33). These people were the "backbone of the community" not only economically but in their civic and religious participation (p. 34).

My dad worked for one of these entrepreneurs, Dale Hasler, a petroleum distributor, for about sixteen years. And both my parents were friends with many of the people Bob named in his article. Vandalia's business district is quieter today, but some entrepreneurs and small businesses remain---even a few from this earlier period. I'm sad that many of the businesses are gone by now; the downtown economic vitality of my hometown has followed the trends of other small towns, with larger companies (one in particular) meeting retail needs that small businesses once fulfilled. I like to take a broad view, deny that I'm "self-made," and acknowledge that these numerous local businesspeople were in different ways essential for my growing-up years.

I thought of Bob Burnside's article when I read a recent op-ed piece by William Deresiewicz, "Generation Sell," in the Nov. 13, 2011 New York Times. ( The whole article is well worth reading; I'm leaving out interesting points. The author, trying to discover the basic "idea of life" of our contemporary youth culture, noted that "[p]revious  youth cultures — beatniks, hippies, punks, slackers — could be characterized by two related things: the emotion or affect they valorized and the social form they envisioned." The Millennial Generation's basic paradigm, he thinks, is "the salesman."

"Consider the other side of the equation, the Millennials’ characteristic social form. Here’s what I see around me, in the city and the culture: food carts, 20-somethings selling wallets made from recycled plastic bags, boutique pickle companies, techie start-ups, Kickstarter, urban-farming supply stores and bottled water that wants to save the planet.

"Today’s ideal social form is not the commune or the movement or even the individual creator as such; it’s the small business. Every artistic or moral aspiration — music, food, good works, what have you — is expressed in those terms."

Deresiewicz goes on to say that today's "hipness" is social entrepreneurship (with Steve Jobs as a major cultural hero). A side to that is the "commerical personality": polite (compared to the rage of the punks, for instance, or the conscious counterculturalism of the beatniks and hippies), good to others, without overt rebellion against anything. If we're nasty, it's in our anonymous posts on web sites rather than anything in our own names. In our own names, we're pleasant and positive---as salespeople are.

"We’re all selling something today, because even if we aren’t literally selling something (though thanks to the Internet as well as the entrepreneurial ideal, more and more of us are), we’re always selling ourselves. We use social media to create a product — to create a brand — and the product is us. We treat ourselves like little businesses, something to be managed and promoted."

I'm thinking about all this. "Branding" isn't a new idea; I've heard the term for several years. The idea, if not the term, has been common in church professional literature, where churches and their pastors are enjoined to discover that congregation's vision and ministry opportunities they can do well in their community. I've also read discussions of how colleges and universities brand themselves in order to attract students, and certainly anyone of us use who uses the internet has to think about this. (For my own professional networking, I've thought about how to "brand" myself and realized I couldn't: I've five or six professional interests that I don't want to narrow to just one or two. So I simply identify those interests and know that my generalist approach is most true to my calling and myself.)

But---thinking about Deresiewicz's analysis---is the popular kind of "branding" a bastardized version of an earlier business model when people created businesses with much higher stakes than hipness and self-identity: surviving a depression, making a faithful living, and giving back to the community?  Also: isn't branding (paradoxically, since it involves modern communication technology) a kind of nostalgia for simpler times (the way some shopping mall shops have store fronts that mimic the ornate facades of many small-town commercial buildings)?

I also wonder..... if you're going to brand yourself, are you thereby also "giving back" and growing spiritually?  Does your "brand" draw you closer to God?  Does it help and serve others?  I'm not being snarky; the answer may very well be "yes," as you seek God's will for your life.

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