More off-putting, however, is Postrel's peculiar disregard for the human element, paradoxical as that may sound in a book hailing the age of identi-kit materialism. Even though she pegs the social factors that helped generate today's smorgasbord—women's new economic clout, the mainstreaming of gay sensibility, the rise of subcultures whose sartorial symbolism inspired epigones—they don't seem to interest her much. As a rule, she's much too eager to congratulate the keen designers (and nifty corporations: man, does this woman love Starbucks) who gave us our world of wonders, while slighting the inventive consumers whose creativity with what they had induced capitalism to offer them more. When she appreciatively notes that shopping malls are now designed as attractive social environments, she never thanks those lowly agents of change, America's much maligned mall rats—who turned shopping emporiums into community centers because they needed them.
Postrel's heedlessness turns into something worse when she hauls off at one Jennifer Portnick, a 240-pound San Francisco woman who sued Jazzercise Inc. for refusing to hire her as an aerobics instructor. Such cases often give people like me mixed feelings, since there's equal opportunity and then there's kidding yourself. But Postrel isn't ambivalent; she's stupefied that media commentators, who mostly sympathized with Portnick, were indifferent to Jazzercise's "aesthetic strategy." In fact, she can't contain her disgust that "outside observers"—uninvited, ignorant, and probably ugly too—"second-guessed the company's judgment and identity." While that's bad enough, what's truly atrocious is that this occurs in a chapter called—no kidding—"The Boundaries of Design," which otherwise is devoted to legal wrangles about inanimate materials: annoying zoning restrictions, excessive design review, and the like.
Aerobics instructors aren't much better paid than most service-sector workers, making me guess that Portnick fell victim to the biggest mote in Postrel's eye: class, a subject her approach elides at every turn. Or almost, since she's no elitist if you've got the MasterCard; it's part of her purpose to hail the "democratization" of consumer aesthetics, and she applauds the way affordable luxuries now let untold millions enjoy aesthetically gratifying lifestyles once reserved for the rich. Nonetheless, when this author writes "people," she almost invariably means "middle-class Americans and Europeans with disposable income to burn." Through the smoke of flaming checkbooks, they appear to be white; most are brandishing college degrees.
Postrel's one direct mention of a "two-tiered society" is a quotation from Pat Buchanan, whose trepidation she quickly pooh-poohs. In virtually the lower tier's only other appearance, she quotes a female journalist's amused recollection of the day she realized that, what with cook, housecleaner, colorist, dog walker, personal shopper, and so on, "it must have taken sixteen or seventeen other people to help me do all the things I needed [sic] to get done in that 24-hour period." Although Postrel concedes that "most of us" don't need a team of seventeen, she's delighted that, "if trends continue," more and more busy doctors, TV costume directors, magazine stylists, and even graduate students—a list that appears to be her idea of the human caravan on display—will enjoy a system that delegates the grunt work to anonymous peons. She doesn't seem to realize, or care, that she's implying such lesser sorts are our day's equivalent of what convenience foods were to the Eisenhower era.