A poisonous robotic rat in every stocking.
The other day, while waiting in line at my local CVS, I had a chance to inspect the latest holiday offerings churned out for our benefit by the hardworking folks of China. One particular item, a reindeer of sorts, with big button eyes and strangely forlorn smile, seemed almost cute. Were I the type easily cheered by the holidays, I thought, I’d buy it and place it on my hypothetical mantelpiece, right above a row of hypothetical stockings, as I sip hypothetical egg nog or mulled wine.
It was merely a passing fancy, one that lasted until the child ahead of me, most likely past due for a dose of Concerta, pressed the reindeer’s belly and it belted out, in a Chinese accent no less, a manic yet oddly tuneless version of “Jingle Bells.” At that moment my halfhearted desire turned to a queasy embarrassment. Somewhere in China hundreds of people were put to work manufacturing a reindeer that sang “Jingle Bells” when pressed in the belly. God only know what they were thinking as they sewed on its button eyes and pushed its chubby legs into a pair of red, holly-covered britches.
It struck me how our inexplicable mania for holiday kitsch and excess, once a completely autarkic affair — silly stuff made by Americans for Americans — was now international. Looking at that reindeer, suffering its tawdry singing, I imagined a million Chinese eyes on me, wearily passing judgment on me and my childish nation for which they made such baubles. I felt dirty, guiltily complicit somehow, and I knew I could never celebrate (which is rather a strong word for what I used to do, anyway) the holidays the same way again.
We purchase our carbon offsets and drink organic milk, but we still support the manufacturing of cheap plastic toys that will eventually end up in the landfill, antimony, and lead leaking from their once cute, furry noses.
I couldn’t help but think of that singing reindeer when I found out that the latest Christmas craze, the Zhu Zhu Hamster, was on the verge of a recall. The December 7, 2009 edition of The Los Angeles Times reports that Zhu Zhu Hamsters, which are supposedly robotic hamsters that mimic the actions of real hamster, have been found to contain dangerous levels of lead and antimony. Russ Hornsby, CEO of Cepia, the Zhu Zhu pets manufacturer, insists the toys are safe:
We are disputing the findings of Good Guide and we are 100 percent confident that Mr. Squiggles, and all other Zhu Zhu Toys, are safe and compliant with all U.S. and European standards for consumer health and safety in toys.
But the Times reports otherwise:
But are they safe? The Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008 places limits on antimony to no more than 60 parts per million, and the Good Guide report found 93 parts per million in Mr. Squiggles’ faux fur and 103 particles per million in his cute little nose.
Looks like quite a few American tykes are going to have their holidays — and IQs, perhaps — ruined by cleverly repurposed industrial waste, and I’m sure their parents are already flipping through the Yellow Pages for a good lawyer.
How can anyone be surprised at such events? Though Cepia is a company based out of Saint Louis, Missouri, its products are obviously made in China. Once again, I can only imagine what the Chinese were thinking (besides, “Glorious, the easy fruits of global Capital!”) when they were asked to churn out millions of mechanical hamsters. Karl Denninger, genius loci of the weblog, The Market Ticker, gets right to the meat of the matter, writing in reference to the recent recall of these very same rodent simulacra:
Let’s play this one straight up the middle, OK?
. . .
“Zhu Zhu” things are not pets. They are mechanical. They are collections of synthetic and mineral non-living things. They run on batteries, not food. They crap nothing. And, unless you step on them or they break, they do not “die”.
. . .
Who among us flushed “fishie” when he passed? Buried a cat or dog — or hamster? Took the dog for a walk (so it could relieve itself), cleaned a catbox, changed a fish tank filter (those are NASTY!) or cleaned the cage of a hamster, gerbil or parakeet?
What is wrong with us in this country? How can we equate those lessons of growing up with buying a cheap plastic piece of trash from China?
Why not just purchase a real hamster? Sure the thing shits and bites, but at least it won’t poison your kid. More than that, however, one wonders where the shame is in coveting something so utterly stupid? We purchase our carbon offsets and drink organic milk, but we still support the manufacturing of cheap plastic toys that will eventually end up in the landfill, antimony, and lead leaking from their once cute, furry noses.
Because these embarrassments in consumer choice are no longer strictly a private matter of Americans buying stupid stuff made by Americans, the lack of shame in making such choices is bewildering. Unless we recall that we live a nation dominated by the desire to participate, unconsciously, in the culture industry’s puerile revisions of the real world.
In his book on that topic, The Culture of Narcissism: American Life in an Age of Diminishing Expectations, sociologist Christopher Lasch writes,
Overexposure to manufactured illusions soon destroys their representational power. The illusion of reality dissolves, not in a heightened sense of reality as we might expect, but in a remarkable indifference to reality. Our sense of reality appears to rest, curiously enough, on our willingness to be taken in by the stage illusion of reality. Even a rational understanding of the techniques by means of which a given illusion is produced does not necessarily destroy our capacity to experience it as a representation of reality. The urge to understand a magician’s tricks [...] shares with the study of literature a willingness to learn from the masters of illusion lessons about reality itself. But a complete indifference even to the mechanics of illusion announces the collapse of the very idea of reality, dependent at every point on the distinction between nature and artifice, reality and illusion. This indifference betrays the erosion of the capacity to take any interest in anything outself the self. Thus the worldly child, unmoved, stuffs herself with cotton candy and ‘wouldn’t care’ even if she knew how twenty-four clowns managed to fit into a single car.
Though I hardly believe the Chinese industrialists have much to teach us, save that the business practices of the nineteenth century should have never been revived, the continuing lack of interest as to how exactly they produce those robotic hamsters, suspiciously inexpensive fillets of salmon, or plasma screen televisions seems indicative of the worst sort of narcissism, as though we weren’t complicit in how their poisonous crap finds its way to our shores by demanding goods below a certain price point. The average consumer, too busy gazing at her own image as reflected through the eyes of her Zhu Zhu hamster, never stops for a moment to consider all those eyes gazing at her from across the Pacific, eyes that are probably tired, hungry and filled with disdain, but most likely satisfied that they made her what she asked for.
Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.
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