The only mitigating factor is that if you add up visitors to all the state's parks, natural beauty still triumphs over plastic shopper-tainment, but no individual site comes close to the marketing madness of the mall. It doesn't help, though, that our natural environment is under such serious threat from pollution and overdevelopment that its attractiveness diminishes a little each year. Our highest mountaintops are becoming barren wastes of dead trees killed by smog, and our shorelines are increasingly artificial constructions designed to support extravagant second homes in defiance of nature and common sense.
Meantime, the mall unleashes waves of mindless mediocrity that replace authentic social experiences with shallow, synthetic simulations. Urban life in all its complexity can't compete with consumerist spectacles designed to soothe us into a state of complacency. The problem is that Concord Mills Mall compares to genuine urban places and experience the same way a Thomas Kincaid painting stacks up against Claude Monet.
Compared with 15.3 million paying customers, my contrarian judgment will probably count for little, but someone has to call a spade a spade. I get labeled "elitist" for opinions like these, but if striving for high standards in culture and art is elitist, then so be it.
Nullifying the public's critical faculties is especially poignant for local folks in Concord whose town is drowning in the tidal wave of Charlotte's suburban sprawl, even as downtown merchants and residents fight bravely for survival. You just know that if, with a stroke of marketing genius, the mall designers decided to create a simulation of Concord's downtown inside Concord Mills, millions would consume that sanitized copy rather than experience the real thing a few miles away where you can see, touch and enjoy real buildings.
But there's a malaise at work deeper than the decline of aesthetic standards and the erosion of architectural integrity and authenticity. Visitors to Concord Mills, and untold hundreds of millions of customers at other malls nationwide, probably don't give a nanosecond's thought about choosing to spend their time and money in places that constrain and deny many of the freedoms Americans hold dear. You try protesting George Bush's presidency with signs and speeches in a mall, or demonstrating against vivisection and cruelty to animals outside the venue's fast food emporia. You'll soon find yourself frog-marched to the exit. Years ago, I was even ejected from one regional mall for . . . sketching! The security men who escorted me out explained, without a trace of irony, that sketching was "not an approved retail activity."
The owners of these shopping "nirvanas" are quite within their rights to restrict political speech and actions on private property. When Americans eagerly trade their hard-won rights of free expression for fleeting opportunities to buy cheap jeans and trinkets made in China, then they check the Constitution at the door. Who cares about democracy when there's a sale of DVD players made by foreigners working for starvation wages?
This plunge into the cultural abyss is not an American phenomenon alone. Far from it. The most popular tourist destination by far for Brits is Orlando, where families from Lands End to John o'Groats vie to waste more money than their neighbors on the debilitating delights of Disney. Rather than explore the fascinating urban and natural landscapes of America, these hapless Brits fritter their free time away on manufactured pseudo-experiences designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator of their intelligence. With their wonderful heritage of cities and countryside, Brits of all people should value the difference between authentic experience and fabricated illusion. Why not walk down a real American Main Street and touch real buildings instead of bad Styrofoam copies? Why not ride a raft on a North Carolina river instead of a mechanical splash into an artificial pond?
Doesn't authenticity count anymore? Places like Concord Mills aren't merely harmless diversions, they're significant symbols of our preference for simulation over reality. Our growing detachment from real places means we care less about our cities and countryside. Where does this downward spiral lead?