This week my boyfriend and I were talking about Black Friday. He wanted to do some shopping, and I told him that I would not leave the house. Black Friday is too crazy, and it is best to stay indoors. I am not sure when this day after-Thanksgiving shopping mania started (the tradition of Black Friday predates me–at least locally if not nationally), but it seems like in the past few years Black Friday has taken on a life of its own. Black Friday has completely subsumed Thanksgiving–the actual holiday is now mere prelude to the Christmas shopping that commences the next day.
My boyfriend and I were talking about how awful it was that Target forced employees to end their Thanksgiving early so that the retail giant could open at midnight. I said to my boyfriend that I had an idea for a television advertisement: a bunch of people are sitting at a dinner table screaming at one another save for one poor person huddled in her chair. Then we hear a narrator who says, “Need to get away from your family? Wal-Mart is now open on Thanksgiving.”
Wal-Mart did open on Thanksgiving. And so did other major retailers. The truth though is that Black Friday has not just subsumed Thanksgiving, it has taken over the week before and the month after. But there is something about Black Friday that makes people grow crazy, and every year there are problems that make the headlines. This year it was some crazy woman in a California who pepper-sprayed other shoppers at a Wal-Mart. It has been called “competitive shopping,” which is apparently a new euphemism for assault and battery. That was only the most infamous incident though; there were others.
Look, I understand that this is not the Black Friday norm. The vast majority of people don’t pepper spray their fellow shoppers no matter how good the deals might be. But regardless of whether there is a violent incident or not, the collective cultural materialism from which this springs is out of control.
Don’t get me wrong; I like buying stuff too, and I understand the need to save money on good deals. But there is nothing that I want enough and no deal sweet enough for me to pitch a tent outside a store just so that I could enter a store at 5 am. And certainly not to attack another shopper with pepper spray. These actions speak to an almost Ayn Randian level of selfishness that is apparently acceptable in our culture now (although one particular woman will probably be using the money she saved for legal fees) even though it is not outright approved.
The America that I grew up is has always been selfish to some extent. I grew up in the 80’s, the “Me Decade,” and the self-involvement has only gotten worse since then. In the last decade or so though materialism has reached an astounding level. Not just in terms of shopping but also in terms of our politics. It’s why a significant faction of one of the two major parties is calling for the end of our social welfare programs. We don’t care about each other anymore, only ourselves. Who cares if the elderly suffer because they have no money or the poor (working or otherwise) die because they have no healthcare so long as I can buy a high-definition television? This is the United States 2011, and it’s a scary place. The holiday season is a visible symptom of that selfishness because that is when the retailers work hardest to convince us that greed is good.*
Recently there has been a push back against this self-centered mindset, but it’s unfocused and headed by deeply controversial (and frankly confused) people. Occupy Wall Street people occupied, well I’m not exactly sure what or what their goals were, but they started Occupy Black Friday. Supposedly it has something to do with hurting the 1%, although I am not sure that holding signs outside of Wal-Mart and shopping at Mom and Pop stores one day out of the year is meaningful action (even from a symbolic point of view.)
I would make a suggestion. Rather than buy stuff, why not go out to do some actual good for the community. Or perhaps donate to a charity in a loved one’s name. (I recommend the Ali Forney Center. They do important work, and they need support.)
Although there has been some reaction against the Black Friday mentality in the media, for the most part it has been muted. I saw one essay in Salon that echoes my concerns. But mostly, the negativity this year seems to me to be in articles about how turkey is actually not all that good, is too dry, cannot be cooked right, and makes for bad leftovers. Perhaps this isn’t surprising given how the media is largely owned by corporations. They are no less consumer-driven than retailers.
This is only going to get worse. Maybe there will not be competitive shopping next year, but over-abundant greed and selfishness do not just go away once the new year arrives. The holiday season is turning a mirror on American society, and I for one fear and dislike what I see.
* And my God, do they have to only play Christmas music both in the stores and on the radio stations for a full month? Does anyone actually like that? I find it completely unbearable.