Once Again: Black Friday

I have posted this piece before, but in light of the fact that we now have a mega-holiday that a character in one of the comics I enjoy calls “Hallothanksmas,” and given also that advertisers are now calling November “Black Friday Month,” it seems especially appropriate since we are about to see the ugly face of commodified Christmas once again. The more things change the more they stay the same! I have added a few pithy comments to this version.

The headline read “Woman pepper sprays other Black Friday shoppers.” In an effort to have a better chance to get at the cheap electronics Walmart was using as a lure to get shoppers jump-started this holiday season, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 customers who were in her way. Except for the talking heads on Fox News who think this is perfectly acceptable behavior, everyone is in a dither — but for many of the wrong reasons. Out-of-control shoppers are a worry, but the whole marketing ploy that begins before Thanksgiving [Halloween?] is the larger problem.

We do live in a commodified culture, as Robert Heilbroner told us many years ago, but our values are clearly out of kilter when money and the things that money can buy become the main focus of an entire nation at a time when the theme should be “peace On Earth.” If we take a commodified culture preoccupied with possession of things, combine it with an immense advertising machine that works buyers into a frenzy prior to Thanksgiving, it is no wonder that things like this happen. We shouldn’t be surprised; clearly things are out of focus when money becomes the center of one’s life. Citizens who bother to go to the voting booth any more are there to turn around a weak economy, tighten the purse strings. That has been the rule for some time now: vote out the bastards who are taking money out of my pocket; when you retire move somewhere where the taxes are lower. The real issues, like the spread of nuclear weapons and the damage we are doing to the environment in our determination to raise our already obscenely high standard of living, are largely ignored.

Christmas should, of course, be a time for reflection and thought about others. In this country, and other “developed” countries around the world, it has become a time to get that 30% of the yearly profits that keep the engines of commerce running. It is understandable, since business has become the cornerstone of our culture. But is it necessary to point out that the ideals of business are antithetical to the ideals of the one whose birth we presumably celebrate next month? The fact that a woman in California would pepper-spray her way to the cheap electronics in Walmart is simply a sign of the times and a clear indication that we need to rethink our priorities. But we won’t.

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Again, Black Friday

I have posted this piece before, but in light of the fact that we now have a mega-holiday that a character in one of the comics I enjoy calls “Hallothanksmas,” and given also that advertisers are now calling November “Black Friday Month,” it seems especially appropriate as we are about to see the ugly face of commodified Christmas once again.

The headline read “Woman pepper sprays other Black Friday shoppers.” In an effort to have a better chance to get at the cheap electronics Walmart was using as a lure to get shoppers jump-started this holiday season, a woman pepper sprayed about 20 customers who were in her way. Except for the talking heads on Fox News who think this is perfectly acceptable behavior, everyone is in a dither — but for many of the wrong reasons. Out-of-control shoppers are a worry, but the whole marketing ploy that increasingly encroaches on Thanksgiving is the larger problem.

We do live in a commodified culture, as Robert Heilbroner told us many years ago, but our values are clearly out of kilter when money and the things that money can buy become the main focus of an entire nation. If we take a commodified culture preoccupied with possession of things, combine it with an immense advertising machine that works buyers into a frenzy prior to Thanksgiving, it is no wonder that things like this happen. We shouldn’t be surprised; clearly things are out of focus when money becomes the center of one’s life. Citizens who bother to go to the voting booth any more are there to turn around a weak economy. That has been the rule for some time now: vote out the bastards who are taking money out of my pocket. The real issues, like spread of nuclear weapons and the damage we are doing to the environment in our tizzy to raise our already obscenely high standard of living, are largely ignored.

Christmas should, of course, be a time for reflection and thought about others. In this country, and other “developed” countries around the world, it has become a time to get that 30% of the yearly profits that keep the engines of commerce running. It is understandable, since business has become the cornerstone of our culture. But is it necessary to point out that the ideals of business are antithetical to the ideals of the one whose birth we celebrate next month? The fact that a woman in California would pepper-spray her way to the cheap electronics in Walmart is simply a sign of the times and a clear indication that we need to rethink our priorities.

Loving The Earth

An outstanding athletic team can win even when it doesn’t play its best game. Apparently the same can be said of an outstanding novelist. Barbara Kingsolver’s novel Animal Dreams is not her best work, but it is stunning nevertheless. Like a rich mine, her novels keep turning up nuggets of pure gold. In this novel, we follow a young woman in search of her self and her place in the world. Her mother died whence was three and her father was cold and remote, lost in his work and unable to give his daughter and her sister any real affection. So the sisters form a tight bond, but when the younger one goes off to teach people in Central America how to improve their farming practices, the heroine is left alone to find her way. She ends up with a dashing young Indian named Loyd who takes her to his Pueblo village at Christmas time to witness a celebration of the season — not Christmas, but a spiritual celebration of thanks that has many parallels with the Christian custom as it was once celebrated (before Big Business took over the show). The two have the following conversation, which, as I say, is pure gold. Loyd is explaining the celebration:

“We’re on our own. The spirits have been good enough to let us live here [on this earth] and use the utilities, and we’re saying: We know how nice you’re being. We appreciate the rain, we appreciate the sun, we appreciate the deer we took. Sorry if we messed up anything. You’ve gone to a lot of trouble and we’ll try to be good guests.”

“Like a note you’d send somebody after you’ve stayed in their home?”

“Exactly like that. . .

“It’s a good idea. . . especially since we’re still here sleeping on God’s couch. We’re permanent house guests.”

“Yep, we are. Better remember how to put everything back how we found it.”

It was a new angle on religion for me. I felt a little embarrassed for my blunt interrogation. And the more I thought about it, even more embarrassed for my bluntly utilitarian culture. “The way they tell it to us Anglos, God put the earth here for us to use, westward-ho. Like a special playground.”

“Well that explains a lot.  . . . But where do you go when you’ve pissed in every corner of your playground?”

“. . . . To people who think of themselves as God’s house guests American enterprise must seem arrogant beyond belief. Or stupid. A nation of amnesiacs, proceeding as if there were no other day but today. Assuming the land could also forget what had been done to it.”

Admittedly, the novel is somewhat didactic. Kingsolver has something to say and dammit! she’s going to say it. But it is important, even if it smacks a bit of romantic blindness to the shortcomings of native people and holds them up as paragons of virtue. We must admit that they, being human, also have faults. They have their petty jealousies, squabbles, and even wars. At the same time, the native people have always been much closer to the earth than we are and it’s a good idea to take a long, hard look at our own culture from the perspective of other people; Kingsolver is very good at that. In the end, what our culture has done to this planet, and continues to do today, is indeed embarrassing. And stupid.

 

 

 

 

 

Ignorance Is Bliss?

I sometimes I wish I could join the ranks of the ignorant, because I am told that ignorance is bliss — and I would believe it. I would also believe:

• that global warming is a fiction invented by liberal (and therefore “wrong-headed”) scientists and our planet is not under threat by greedy capitalists.

• that elected officials are smarter than I and are only concerned about the common good. And mine.

• that the armed forces are comprised of dedicated young men and women who have devoted their lives to protecting my freedom — and not the interests of Big Oil.

• that Big Oil is devoted to developing better and cheaper ways to make my life more comfortable, and not, as some insist, to increasing their already massive profits.

• that the continued use of torture and drones will eventually win the war on terror — and not simply label this country as morally bankrupt and increase by tenfold the numbers of would-be terrorists who hate me and my country (and everything we stand for).

• that Wall Street provides the paradigm of success by which we should all guide our lives.

• that corporate CEOs are devoted to improving their company’s products and the lot of their employees rather than cutting corners and pocketing more than 400 times what the folks who work for them make.

• that Christmas was about “Peace on Earth” and not materialism and profits for retailers.

• that the money the very wealthy spend backing selected politicians will produce the best and brightest leaders in Congress who will transcend party loyalties and work together for the common good.

• that our democracy is a government of, by, and for the people and not of, by, and for the few who control the vast majority of wealth in this country.

• that the more people who carry guns the safer the world would be.

• that the players on my favorite sports teams aren’t taking PEDs and that the Mafia never gets involved in fixing sporting events — at any level.

• that everything I hear and see on Fox News is the truth.

As I say, I wish I could believe these things because I suspect I would be more at peace and better able to sleep soundly at night, confident that all is for the best in the best of all possible worlds (as Pangloss would have it). But then I would be delusional, and I don’t think I want to be that. So I will continue to read and think and attempt to make sense of the little I know while I try to be as realistic as possible about the things going on around me — bearing in mind the words of the very wise Socrates who said that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”

Birthdays

My friend BTG, the self-proclaimed “old fart” (who is young enough to know better), recently posted a very nice blog wishing his wife a happy birthday. It made me think about birthdays and the way we have come to celebrate them in this country of late. The attached comic (which I will probably get in trouble for using while at the same time I thank “Go Comics” for allowing me to post it) pretty much says it all. But that never stopped me from ruminating on the subject a bit.

Thanks to "Go Comics"

“For Better Or For Worse”

The notion that a person should receive a present — or multiple presents– for a birthday is, on the face of it, ridiculous. The one who should receive the present is the mother of that person. After all, she was the one who endured the pain and agony of delivering the child into the world and, in all likelihood, pretty much raised him or her all by herself. As a rule, husbands seem to have so much to do that takes them away from the raising of children, causing them later in life to regret spending so much time away from their kids. I know that was true in my case. It all seemed so important at the time, whereas I have come to realize that what was important was being with my kids as they grew up and helping my wife turn them into the remarkable young men they are today. In any event, the kids should give their mothers presents. After the kids grow up the presents should stop — along with counting the years!

And as far as parties go — as the comic suggests — it has gotten out of hand. In fact, my wife and I refuse to participate in the orgy of parties that have become a contest among families; we simply send the grandchildren their presents and leave it at that. We love our grandchildren, but are convinced the whole spectacle of parties has gotten way out of hand, with hired clowns and princesses escalating their way to bigger is better. The giving of presents and the hosting of parties simply expands the whole materialistic ethos that permeates this country and has in large measure brought us to our present impasse where money and “things” have become the idol worshipped in nearly every house in this land.

Many of us have come to realize that the way we celebrate Christmas is all wrong. Perhaps it is time to turn our attention to birthdays. Let us embrace our loved ones and tell them we are happy to have had them with us for another year. Or perhaps post a blog telling them how much we love them and take them out for a nice dinner. But let’s let is go at that. It should be about love and the delight we have in knowing those we love are still with us. It shouldn’t be about giving someone a scarf or a ball point pen and getting caught up in the competition of throwing a bigger party than the Smiths did last year. And don’t get me started about all those “holidays” Hallmark has invented to sell their cards!

Commercial Messages

I must confess I don’t watch much commercial television — except for a couple of sit-coms and sports (all manner of sports). And when the commercials come on I usually mute the television so I don’t have to listen to them. But the message still comes through loud and clear: they are designed to sell the product by appeal to such cravings as sex and power, though some use the avenue of humor which I applaud. (I do listen to the E-Trade babies which are terribly clever.) And I note that a great many commercials are peopled by young, beautiful, thin folks laughing and having fun at what appears to be a non-stop party. But most commercials resort to “in your face” tactics that are designed to get the message through in spite of whatever defenses you might throw up. Even the mute won’t help.

Years ago commercial messages were designed to simply inform potential buyers of a product’s desirable qualities so the buyer could make an informed choice. At some point, early in the last century it was discovered that the commercial message could also be used as a device to sell the product, thereby killing two birds with one stone as the salesman becomes redundant. And once that seed was planted it grew like a weed when television came on the scene; we now get 10 minutes of commercials in every 30 minutes of TV programming. And increasing numbers of those minutes are taken up by messages selling violence, such as those promoting Xbox games and shoot-em-up movies — ignoring for the moment the highlights on ESPN. One must consider the hidden message behind so much of what we watch on television — in a culture that wonders why we have such an affinity for violence. But there are other messages as well.

I will skip the Cialis and Viagra commercials that frequent the airways, especially on the Golf channel curiously enough, because they are simply in poor taste. But good taste is a concern that went out with hoop skirts. I will also resist the temptation to list the plethora of commercials that play into our cultural narcissism. Instead, let’s turn our attention to a commercial that has been on a good deal during this Christmas season when the car manufacturers want us to believe that a car would make a good Christmas present for our loved ones — “Just what I wanted,” as the Hyundai commercial would have it. (And, by the way, you can buy your loved one’s love by giving her jewelry if you can’t afford the car. It must be true, I saw it on television.)

In a Buick commercial that I find particularly offensive, a young man has just given his girlfriend/wife a brand new small car with a giant red ribbon on it. She is ecstatic and is giving him a huge thank-you hug when a new Buick drives by and catches her eye — and her affection. She looks longingly at the car, drawing his attention in that direction as well. Once the car has passed, he looks back at his partner, shows her the keys to her new car and tries to hug her again to recapture the moment. It is futile as she looks off into the distance and clearly wishes the car he gave her was the Buick instead of that thing.

There are at least three subtle messages coming through in this commercial: (1) buy a Buick if you want to win over your partner, (2) any gift recipient is sure to be disappointed and even to withdraw his/her love if you don’t spend lots of money buying them an expensive present, and (3) it’s perfectly OK to hurt someone’s feelings. Feelings don’t matter, things matter. It’s the latter message that really burns in my belly. Whatever happened to the notion that “it’s the thought that counts”?

It’s bad enough that we have turned Christmas into a commercial enterprise, but it’s deeply disturbing to send messages that other people’s feelings don’t matter, bigger is better, and it’s all about how much you spend that makes the present worth having. To see what Christmas is all about, check this out. Christmas isn’t about presents at all, and it is certainly not about expensive presents. And feelings do matter; they matter a great deal.

But the advertising agencies have learned that if you show people what the “good life” is all about they will want it and even go deep into debt to buy it — and it is for sale. They have also discovered that if you tell people something often enough they will believe it no matter how absurd it is — just ask the politicians.

Oh, Poor Baby!

Pity the poor corporate CEO. After all he needs to make his profits and this is the time of the year when he makes the most. Why shouldn’t he insist that his employees work on Thanksgiving? He is planning to take the kids out of private school early this year and fly them to Switzerland for a skiing vacation.  After all, they  went to Mexico last year and there’s no need to repeat the same old thing. And he wants to fly his family from Geneva down to Rome for Christmas day and have a nice meal. Those private jets don’t fly themselves and pilots don’t come cheap! Poor guy: all he wants to do is make sure this year his family has a REAL vacation! Those damned employees have signed another petition to put pressure on him to let them have Thanksgiving day off. What do they think this is, anyway?

Target is one of the larger chains to ignore the pleas and petitions of its employees, as this story in the Orlando Business Journal tells us:

A Target employee launched an online petition drive asking the company to push back opening hours and let workers spend Thanksgiving with their families, after the retailer announced it would open at 9 p.m. on Thanksgiving for Black Friday shopping.

The petition has garnered more than 211,000 signatures as of Wednesday afternoon, the South Florida Business Journal reports.

It happened last year as well. The story has been repeated again this year as the Consumerist also tells us:

For the second year in a row, a Target employee has managed to secure hundreds of thousands of names on a petition asking Target to rethink its pans to start its Black Friday sale on Thanksgiving night. And for the second year in a row, Target is politely declining the suggestion and moving ahead as planned.

Target thus will demand that their employees work on turkey day again. This is the American way. The period from Thanksgiving until Christmas is the portion of the year when the businesses make the majority of their annual profits so the idea is to extend that period as much as possible in order to increase profits. If this means keeping the stores open on Thanksgiving Day, so be it!  As we have seen, it doesn’t stop here: the pre-Christmas sales now start before Halloween. It’s never too early to make a buck! This is not brain surgery. It’s not ethical, either. But we have long since given up on letting ethics stand in the way of Big Business.

There are companies, and especially small businesses, that care about their employees and attempt to work out some sort of compromise between the employees’ reasonable desire to spend time with their families during the holidays and the need to make sure the bottom line is black instead of red at year’s end. But the large corporations must answer to their stockholders and they tend to be heartless and unfeeling in the manner of Scrooge at this time of the year. But unlike Dickens’ wonderful tale, there’s no one person the ghosts can visit in order to activate a dormant conscience and make them realize what this season is supposed to be about. The Supreme Court has determined that corporations are persons. That’s absurd on its face, but even if it were true, it is a certainty that they don’t have a conscience.

The Christmas Spirit

It does seem a bit early to begin thinking about Christmas, though the stores and the TV commercials have been all in our faces about gift giving since last Fall. I can remember when the stores would at least wait until after Thanksgiving to set up their Christmas displays. But that was then. Now some of the department stores in our area are already having “pre-Christmas” sales to dump some of the merchandise they don’t want to get stuck with at year’s end while others indicate they will be open on Thanksgiving day to get a jump on the competition. I do realize that this is the time of the year when the businesses that comprise the heart and soul of this great nation make their maximum profits, so if I complain I am beating a dead horse. But I can agree with the brilliant satirist Tom Lehrer when he tells us that the proper spirit of Christmas as practiced in this country is the commercial spirit. In fact, he wrote a song about this season that begins as follows:

Christmas time is here, by golly

Disapproval would be folly.

Deck the halls with hunks of holly

Fill the cup and don’t say when.

Kill the turkey, ducks and chickens

Mix the punch, drag out the dickens.

Even though the prospect sickens

Brother, here we go again!

I suspect that gallons of ink have been wasted reminding us what Christmas is supposed to be about and the words have, for the most part, fallen on deaf ears. So I won’t go there. Instead, I would like to consider a broader issue: the inherent contradiction between the central message of the New Testament and capitalism which has captured our hearts and souls. The latter involves the domination of many by the few in the name of profits, whereas the former stresses the subordination of self for the sake of all in the name of love. The contradiction has fascinated me since I wrote a senior thesis in college on R.H. Tawney’s remarkable book Religion and The Rise of Capitalism. As Tawney was careful to point out, and as Max Weber also argued, Christianity has survived by making innumerable compromises to capitalism: the contradiction has been resolved by Christianity giving up the field almost entirely. What remains in our commodified culture are a few devout followers, empty churches, and remnants of the Christian ethic in the form of the Golden Rule that surfaces most often in moments of crisis — all mere suggestions of the doctrine preached by the founder of Christianity who insisted that it is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter Heaven.

But we don’t like this message and as is so often the case with things we don’t like, we ignore them — like global warming for example. But the fact remains that the religion that so many people claim to follow demands of them sacrifices they are simply unwilling to make, so they have replaced it with a more entertaining, commercial imitation. Christmas as we celebrate it in this country is simply the most graphic symptom of a cultural malady that suggest similarities with ancient Rome: it attests to the undeniable fact that it is not love of our fellow humans that motivates us; it is, as Lehrer tells us, our love of money. Indeed, Tom Lehrer wasn’t the first to point this out. By no means. He was beaten to the punch by the remarkable Alexis De Tocqueville who visited this country in 1831 and noted that  “..[Americans] have sought the value of everything in this world only in answer to this single question: how much money will it bring in?”

Fyodor Dostoevsky wrote a novel about a man who truly wanted to follow Christ while living in a secular world in which the message Christ preached had become mere words. The novel was titled The Idiot, and the title says it all: the protagonist simply didn’t fit in and was thought a fool. Anyone who really wanted to follow the teachings of the New Testament would be so regarded in a world where commerce is at the center of our lives and politicians ignore all other issues when running for public office except “jobs and the economy.” Has your life gotten “better” in the last four years?

Business is not an inherently bad thing, but the profit motive that drives so many people in business (with rare exceptions) most assuredly is in conflict with a doctrine that focuses upon charity and love of our fellow humans. It is pointless to claim we are loving those we exploit and make dependent upon us or when we ignore those in need in our attempt to accumulate as much wealth as possible. In the end we must admit that Christianity has been forced to capitulate to capitalism. Any doubts we might have disappear at this time of the year, as Tom Lehrer reminds us:

God rest ye Merry Merchants

May ye make the Yuletide pay!

Santa Lives!

The story began:

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — The young father stood in line at the Kmart layaway counter, wearing dirty clothes and worn-out boots. With him were three small children.

He asked to pay something on his bill because he knew he wouldn’t be able to afford it all before Christmas. Then a mysterious woman stepped up to the counter.

“She told him, ‘No, I’m paying for it,'” recalled Edna Deppe, assistant manager at the store in Indianapolis. “He just stood there and looked at her and then looked at me and asked if it was a joke. I told him it wasn’t, and that she was going to pay for him. And he just busted out in tears.”

At Kmart stores across the country, Santa seems to be getting some help: Anonymous donors are paying off strangers’ layaway accounts, buying the Christmas gifts other families couldn’t afford, especially toys and children’s clothes set aside by impoverished parents.

Amazing story. Apparently there is a number of similar stories of generosity at KMart stores around the country — with no hidden agendas, apparently. For some reason, the donors seem to focus on that chain (perhaps because KMart is struggling to survive in the contest with Target and Walmart). But whatever the reason, it is heartwarming to know that there are good people who want to do something at this time of year besides open presents.

I must say, I grow in my distaste for what we call “the Christmas spirit,” which seems to me to be antithetical to what a celebration of the birth of Christ should be all about. And when I think of the real need around the world that could be met with such generosity, I do wonder about our priorities. The purchase of toys for American children doesn’t seem to me to be terribly important, in the grand scheme of things. There are people in this country and all over the world who can’t put food on the table at Christmas time or any other time, for that matter. But when I read of this sort of thing it does make the cynic in me take a back seat and just feel good for the kids who will be having a merry Christmas. And perhaps even more gratifying is the thought that there are some very generous people out there who just want to make the world a better place. Let’s hope their generosity doesn’t begin and end at this time of the year.