An Ambiguous Legacy
At the end of the twentieth century, never had Americans taken critiques of consumer culture less seriously, though that culture may never have needed criticism more. Since the 1960s, consumerism has proved to be resilient, rather easily surviving the challenges of the environmental and economic Left. It has prevailed worldwide over other meaning systems for human life — despite the large swaths of the human population still unable to participate. In the late twentieth century, consumerism continued to ease conflicts between generations, the sexes, and classes just as it had early in the century. Fashion products let children break from adults and bond into peer groups. Houses, cars, and thousands of other goods still resolved a myriad of tensions and contradictory longings — blending nostalgia for the past with anticipations of change. Consumers' festivals and fads brought Americans into communion with each other in wave after wave of media-driven crazes. These may have been lonely crowds, but they were often exciting and seldom intimidating. The endless variation of clothing, travel, and entertainment provided opportunity for practically everyone to find a personal niche, no matter their race, age, gender, or class.
That success, however, obscured significant changes in American consumer culture that since the 1960s have disturbed many. To be sure, those years have not produced rampant hedonism. While limits on obsessive desire for sex and gambling were loosened, social pressure and law have restricted tobacco use. Similarly, indulgence in fatty foods and hard drink became less acceptable in health-conscious circles. Americans continued to