They were camping out of days. Armed with only sleeping bags, tents and cans of soup, these people braved the elements, the beat downs and the pepper spraying to make a statement about the sheer obsolescence of society. No, I’m not talking about the occupying folks over at Zuccotti Park; I’m talking about the hundred of thousands of folks stationed at the entrance to Wal-Mart and Best Buy.
Last Friday, after I laid in bed recuperating from the feast my grandmother made for Thanksgiving, I sat watching videos and reading various news reports of people trampling over each other and barging the doors of various box retail stores to be the first to grab the deal of the season. It was entertaining yet horrifying to watch supposed normal everyday folks turn into savages, ripping, pawing and pillaging through cardboard displays to grab one or two or even five iPods and High Definition televisions.
Was it for the thrill or sport of it or is it truly about the gift-giving part of Christmas? I don’t know for sure. However in the process, dozens of people were injured including a grandfather, who had been slammed to the ground by police and another elderly man, who laid dying on Target’s floor as several unfazed shoppers stepped over him and continued on their gadget-thirsty frenzied path. And this folks, is holiday shopping. Makes you wonder how much of the Christ is actually left in Christmas.
The hype about Black Friday has never been greater than this year. Not only were the sale prices lower but also some shoppers had been camped outside of the store up to two weeks in advance. In fact, some retailers decided to get a jump on all the “festivities” by opening up during the time when most should be sleeping off the tryptophan from turkey dinner. And despite petitions from low-wage workers pleading to reverse the decision to open on midnight (which meant that the store employees would have their very own holidays cut short), retailers in the end were the ultimate beneficiaries, with sales up a cool billion, or 7 percent, from last year.
If you ever questioned why we couldn’t have nice things – such as universal healthcare, fair wages and economic equality – Black Friday is a symbolic answer to that. Normally in times of crisis, as exhibited by the economic downturn which has seen millions losing their jobs and millions more losing their homes, we are supposed to engage in a sort of self reflection in which we challenge and re-evaluate how we choose to live our lives. But as young folks across the country pleaded – and ultimately took beat downs from police – with the general public to resist excessive consumerism and boycott all trans-national corporations – you know, the same folks donating to right wing causes – in hopes of sending a message to the top 1 percent, the collective was too preoccupied with our rights to selfishness, materialism, and flat out bad taste.
It’s like we haven’t learned anything from the 2008 global economic crash. What could have been a real paradigm shift didn’t happen. Instead, many of us have continued on the same destructive and unsustainable course, which got us into this position to begin with. And as long as we keep feeding the same system that continuously screws us over, the more that our wails of economic inequality are dismissed as just whining.
Am I saying that we all should start mending our own clothes, making our gifts from scratch and living completely off the grid? No. But we should definitely begin to rethink how we use our power as consumers. Think about it for a second, about how many ways our consumerism aids in the creation of violent foreign policies. For instance, on the same day that millions of Americans broke their banks trying to find the “best deals” on sneakers and other footwear, thousands of Chinese shoe manufacturing workers began their strike to demand livable wages and other basic rights. Likewise, as shoppers were running ransack over each other for the latest electronics gadget, women and girls in the Eastern Congo were being brutally raped and having other violence perpetrated on their families by armed militia groups operating to traffic conflict minerals, which is used in many electronic products.
While it wouldn’t be fair to suggest that we should shoulder all the responsible for the social injustices happening around the globe, as the top consumers of resources globally, exercising a bit of restraint in our conspicuous consumption as well as engaging more in conscious consumerism could go a long way in changing the dominant cultural patterns of greed and selfishness. Like it or not, the consumerist model has reached its limits and we can no longer afford, socially or economically to ignore the ramifications of our self-indulgence and waste. If not just for global interest but for the interest in our own backyards. After all with credit card debt surpassing all other debts, doesn’t it make sense to forgo the iPhone upgrade until you actually need it, instead of doing it because you want to have the latest trend?
Charing Ball is the author of the blog People, Places & Things.