Friday, November 25, 2011

I Will Buy Nothing

Today is Black Friday, the unofficial holiday immediately following Thanksgiving. Today, businesses open very early, offering reduced prices on all manner of consumer items. Customers are encouraged to flood the aisles in search of a good deal on all kinds of things - from DVDs to appliances - but, above all, electronics.

Black Friday apparently got its start back in the late Sixties, but it came into increasing prominance in the last decade, as the economy deflated and retailers became ever more desperate to sell their wares. In the past, stores would open around 6:00am; in recent years, however, this has not been considered early enough. The retail industry has been involved in an arms race, vying to see who could open the earliest. This year, a number of big box stores opened at midnight. Walmart, not to be beaten, decided to start their sale prices at 10:00pm on Thanksgiving Day.

This new move to open at midnight or earlier on the evening of Thanksgiving has elicited a response from some quarters. Some folks, perceiving that Thanksgiving is under attack by out-of-control consumerism, have started campaigns to resist this trend. Many are aware of the burden that this pseudo-holiday places on low-level workers: If stores open their doors at midnight, workers have to show up much earlier than that, depriving them of sleep, and the chance to enjoy the evening of Thanksgiving with their families. Black Friday, and its recent escalation, is squeezing out one of the few annual sabbaths that the working class could once count on.

Yet, even if Black Friday were not so terrible for working families, and even if it did not threaten to steamroll Thanksgiving under the weight of Christmas-season merchandising, I would still be opposed to it. Black Friday is the Anti-Thanksgiving. The Thanksgiving holiday is traditionally a time to gather with family and friends and practice gratitude for our blessings. It is a time to cultivate awareness of all the ways in which God provides for us, and to pay special attention to providing hospitality to others who are hurting. Black Friday, on the other hand, is a celebration of greed, unbridled consumerism and disregard for others.

Thanksgiving is, at its best, a fleeting incarnation of the peaceable kingdom, where we can all come together in peace and mutual respect. Black Friday, on the other hand, is an intensification of the hyper-capitalist, corporate order that already dominates most of our lives. Rather than gratitude, it promotes greed; instead of cooperation, competition. While Thanksgiving fosters brotherhood and peace, Black Friday is a celebration of self-centeredness and bickering.

If you need evidence of this, examine the fruits of the Black Friday rush for the latest consumer items. There was gunfire in a shopping mall. And at a Los Angeles Wal-Mart, the "competitive shopping strategy" of one woman involved the pepper-spraying fellow customers. Amazingly - though perhaps not surprising - the Wal-Mart remained open through the entire incident, and the woman was allowed to buy her merchandise and leave the store. Nothing, not even outright violence, was allowed to stop the flow of consumption.

How can we resist this violent culture of materialism and selfishness? This is a hard question to answer. The problem goes far beyond individual choices, involving as it does a manufactured culture of scarcity and greed. There are forces at work that are bigger than any one of us.

But I must start with myself. I must change my own life before asking others to join with me to seek broader solutions. As I hope and pray for more systemic change, how can I be changed? To begin with - and, I confess, it is a modest beginning - I commit myself to resisting Black Friday. I will not participate in this anti-holiday. Today, I will buy nothing.


Liz in the Mist said...

Shop small business saturday!!!

Christine Greenland said...

Most of my gifts to others will be home-made/hand-made this year... I need to divest myself of some accumulated scraps, fabric and balls of yarn.

Weaver said...

Wow. A lot of great stuff here. I agree. I hate Black Friday. Even aside from the Thanksgiving impact, Christmas is supposed to be a time of celebrating the gift of the Savior. I want to feel good about people. How can you feel good about people when you're fighting them for "stuff"?

Gotwhales said...

Well said, Micah! Thank you for writing this.

Marcus said...

You didn't even touch on the worst part of it, which is that America has enabled these companies to make Black Friday a mandatory workday. You're late? You're fired. That simple. I even read something recently about a gentleman whose daughter passed away Thanksgiving night. The retail company he worked for had no sympathy for his plight. He had no appeal. He was just out of a job.

Upwards of 20% of American jobs are in retail. About 10% is fast food, also mandatory that day. Convienience store workers, call center sales and support, police, logistics, IT, you name it, are all required to either work through that day or work around it.

A smaller version of this take place on Labor Day, of all ironies.

So what percentage of the American workforce actually gets to participate in the BS that these companies are fighting for? It seems like they're doing more to shrink the pool of potential buyers than grow it.

And in the mainstream American mindset, service/retail/restaurant industry isn't even considered "labor," it's looked at as something for the uneducated minority. In reality, they make up an underappreciated majority of the American workforce.

For them, there is no holiday.

During my first Finnish class, there were a number of questions about what holidays and national festivals we have in America - what days do we have where everything is closed and at least 75% of the population has the whole day off. Out of all the countries represented in my class, America was the only one that had just one (I think) such day (not to mention the lack of state-guaranteed paid vacation time, parental leave, or affordable healthcare that was both available and competant at the same time). Even that is slowly fading.

It's so sad that of all this news that Occupy has been generating so far, I have yet to read or hear anyone articulate this.

Bill Samuel said...

Black Friday is successful because many people buy into it. There is a significant number who love it. No one is forced to buy, and the merchants do what they do because it works for them.

I have nothing against big sales on the day, but I do object to the overnight hours. But the stores were mobbed, which meant that it was a success as far as the stores were concerned.

I needed underwear and went in at 11:30 AM to buy it at less than half price. The sale was 4 AM-1 PM. There was still plenty in stock and no line at the cash register. Many news reporters noted that the earlier openings meant things were much calmer later, which was my experience.

Not into commercial Christmas, so I buy very few gifts so don't have that enticement. But if I can buy what I really need at a really good price at a reasonable hour, I will go for it.

The majority of stores are still closed on Easter, Thanksgiving and Christmas, but it's breaking down, primarily with the very big chains. You will find few small independent retailers open on any of those days.

Historical Ken said...

Hear! Hear!
I love Thanksgiving but the media and stores have smacked us in the face with all of this black Friday hype this year worse than I have ever seen.
We spent today at Greenfield Village open air museum.
That's bliss...

Micah Bales said...

@Liz Good idea!

@Christine Home-made gifts are a good way to celebrate without feeding the greed machine.

@Donna I agree. Unfortunately, for decades now Christmas has mostly become a secularized, greed-based holiday. I wonder whether Christians might not do better to abandon it altogether.

On the other hand, Christmas could give us a special opportunity to witness to the justice and peace of Jesus Christ. But we'll have to be bold to break through the ad campaigns and shopping frenzy!

@Gotwhales Thanks!

@Marcus Always good to hear from you, friend.

I thought I did talk quite a bit about the unfair burdens that Black Friday places on workers. As usual, the poor pay the greatest price for our greed. We need continual reminders of this!

@Bill It's not my place to tell you what the Lord is requiring of you. What I do know in my heart is that Truth demands that I shun the Black Friday madness in the same way that early Christians were exhorted to stay away from situations where they would be forced to participate in sacrifices to false gods. As far as I am concerned, Black Friday is a festival to a variety of false gods, including "Prosperity," "Progress" and "the Market."

@Ken Glad to hear you put your day to good use!

A.J. Swoboda said...

Like you, I much prefer Good Friday over Black Friday.