Tag Archives: black friday

I shop therefore I am

People in a retail store reaching to be the first to purchase a limited gaming system

Thank God Black Friday is finally over.  Every year it’s a sad reminder of the ugly side of human nature. The day that a good  “deal” can drive us to do disastrous things. Trample people. Steal from them. Even kill. All for the thrill of snatching up a limited edition Wii or an Xbox 360.

I often wonder though, if the whole concept of Black Friday is just a simple case of herd mentality, or if a majority of us are propelled by a relatively new evolving need to hoard stuff and buy? I mean, just as food is comfort, so is a day devoted to retail therapy, right? Nothing  identifies me more than my clothing style. And hell if I don’t have a plasma screen TV like everyone else on my block. I often wonder too if my love of French clothing, espresso makers and talavera tiles is nature or nurture. Is it so far fetched to believe our DNA has mutated to the point in evolution that shopping is now an instinct? Clothing is, after all, one of our top five necessary human resources. It’s up there with food, water, shelter and oxygen. But then, where does the purse hook, the pocket projector or the tattoo sleeve fit in? Especially when we’re going to wrap them up and give them to someone else.

In The Boston Review, Juliet Shor’s essay “The New Politics of Consumption” argues that we “Americans [have] been manipulated into participating in a dumbed-down, artificial consumer culture, which yield[s] few true human satisfactions.” In “Consumerism in America,” Kendra Wright writes,  “Americans are consumed by consumerism.” She says, “Our belongings have become probably the most important part of our life. We are so possessed with our things that it seems we often forget what’s really important in life.” And a Newsweek article entitled, “America’s Crazed Consumerism” the author writes, “Uncontrollable consumerism has become a watchword of our culture despite regular and compelling calls for its end.”

And so here we are, stuffing our souls and dresser drawers with useless crap that 85% of the world’s population has probably never seen or heard of. Do you think societies in the Australian Outback would know what to do with a baby wipes warmer, a pair of laser guided scissors, or a fondu pot? If aliens landed on our planet, and walked through one of our shopping malls,what do you think they would surmise about human culture if they saw baby toupees, clothing for dogs, or the leopard print snuggie? We obviously no longer purchase on a needs basis anymore. According to Globalissues.org “the wealthiest 20% of the world accounted for 76.6% of total private consumption. The poorest fifth just 1.5%.” That tells me that a huge percentage of our purchases go above and beyond the percentage required to simply cover our basic needs.

Somewhere along the way, we lost our common sense. We believed in Capitalism so much that we were willing to buy into the ads and the culture and the lies that told us the more we bought, the stronger we, as a Nation, would become. We believed it when they told us we’d be happier, stronger, more beautiful, better. We wanted happiness and perfection so badly, we believed Calvin Klein and Gap and Whirlpool and Kenmore. We bought into the idea that we all needed bell-bottoms, Beanie Babies, and  hand soap in a pump. And we wanted so desperately to keep up with the Joneses and fend off our own self-hatred and insecurity, that we (yes, me) believed in the plasma TV, the iPod touch and the HTC.

The author of “America’s Crazed Consumerism” summarizes the work of Economist John Kenneth Galbraith, who argued that “the modern economy didn’t flourish by satisfying the needs of consumers, but by creating the desire for products consumers didn’t need at all.” Even Dorothy Parker once said, “people don’t know what they want until you give it to them.” We were told that if we don’t consume, others lose jobs, shops go out of business, our economy fails, the stock market crashes, we fail as a society. But if we do consume, we lose touch with our basic human dignity and succumb to false gods. We become something we probably never expected to become: a product.

At this time of year I always think of the Grinch and how he “stole” Christmas. Bad, ugly Mr. Grinch straps a pair of antlers on his little dog Max and steals all the Christmas stuff from the Whos down in Who-ville, for what purpose I’m not sure. On the surface, it’s to stop Christmas from coming. But in reality, the Grinch is probably somewhat of a cranky Marxist who believes that Capitalism is evil. OK. A stretch, perhaps. But the bigger message is that despite the Whos having nothing, they wake up Christmas morning and still sing their hearts out. Mr. Grinchy “hadn’t stopped Christmas from coming! IT CAME! Somehow or other, it came just the same!” But the depressing reality is that Americans most likely wouldn’t be so happy without their stuff.  Would any of us really be able to celebrate a holiday without all the packages, boxes or bags? Are family and friends enough? These are good questions and ones that I am trying to get to the bottom of. I confess; I love stuff. But I’m willing to make sacrifices if it means altering the direction in which my DNA is mutating. Shopping does not have to be the “be all and end all” of my existence.

Not So Black Friday

I went to the bookstore late this afternoon, hoping for a miracle of human kindness. I bought a copy of my favorite magazine, PRINT. I roamed around the aisles looking for gifts. Perused the science, history and art sections. But nothing struck me as out of the ordinary.  To kill some time I people watched in the cafe while sipping a latte, tagging random customers with health statistics I read earlier in Time Magazine:

Girl in the cookbook section: one of the 67% of Americans that are either fat or obese.

Fortysomething scruffy man with white beard perusing art books; drawing his wife’s attention to erotic art: one of the 27% of Americans whose blood pressure is too high.

Hipster lurking around the self-help section: one of 96% of the population that can’t recall the last time they had a salad…

There were no crowds. I was disappointed. I expected to wait in line. To suffer. I wanted a small taste of suffering. I wanted to struggle through a crowd so that I could say to someone, “Why are we here? This is insane.” I wanted to make that connection with people. Like what happens during a natural disaster. The way everyone pulls together when the floods ruin homes and uproot trees. But that didn’t happen. I was the first in line and the check-out girl rang me up fast and pleasant. I was gone in minutes. Thanks for shopping at Borders. No high-strung, beaten-down nastiness.  In fact, she gave me a coupon. And said, “come back soon.” That pissed me off. So I went to Cosi to struggle over there but the place was empty. I bought a greasy flat bread sandwich, chips, a soda and left. 

Even the roads were wide open. 

I went home and built a fire. Cleaned. And put on the soundtrack to the Darjeeling Limited.

I sat in front of the fire eating my sandwich, flipping through PRINT, thinking.

I thought about how important Black Friday is for the purpose of well-being; how necessary the insanity of shopping for Christmas gifts one day out of the year, pushing and shoving obnoxious people out of the way to get the sale items, and fighting to be the first in line  is to the core of human nature. Days like this that only come once a year are supposed to awaken in us that sense of primitive, collective struggle. That feeling that “we’re all in this together.” No matter how lame or ridiculous the reason is for coming together (shopping) it’s still an important event that our psyche requires. The struggle, no matter how trivial, answers a primitive need to war with people and to make peace in difficult times. With that gone– with everyone home on their laptops, or ordering through catalogues– we become sadly isolated. Further disconnected.

I thought that maybe after forty years of specious commercialism people wizened up, staying home, saving money and not falling victim to some primordial, reptilian brain calling. But that didn’t make much sense. I myself consciously went and sought out the drama. 

My final thought was a simple assumption: because we’ve been dealing with such national tragedy anyway (global warming, the economy) people don’t need Black Friday anymore. Black Friday served a great purpose for inciting extremism when nothing else in the country was going on. I mean, this year, only one “Wal-Mart worker dies after shoppers knock him down.” Only one! That’s huge progress. Usually a dozen or so die from being trampled by shoppers.

But Black Friday serves little purpose now. Who needs to be trampled at Wal-Mart when you’ve already been beaten down by the stock market? Who needs to stand in line and make friends over bargain books when people’s sons and daughters are overseas at war? Now that I think about it, I don’t know what I was thinking. 

When I finished reading my $20 copy of PRINT, I threw it in the fire.

Who needs commercialism and advertising when you’ve got a head full of free ideas and a warm home?