I defended Black Friday (albeit in a tongue-in-cheek, pro-environment, pro-local business way) for a couple of reasons. One is that I'm not buying the sanctimonious anti-materialism that crops up in some sectors of the left in response to the holiday. It's liberal reactionary politics, in my opinion, and driven as much by a shuddering distaste for the aesthetics of the day as any genuinely thoughtful point of view. Plus, events like Buy Nothing Day make "materialism" a matter of personal moral worth and actually distract from larger, collective actions regarding our economy and the environment. (I suspect most participants still buy stuff for their friends and family, just on Saturday.) As a moral value, anti-materialism reeks of puritanism, because it brackets off certain pleasures as base and animalistic and therefore suggests we should be better than that. The parallels between leftists scolding me about how I don't know what I reallly want and need in terms of material goods and conservatives scolding me about how I don't really know what I want and need with regards to sex are just too uncomfortable for me. Plus, declaiming the pleasure of having a nifty new toy makes it a matter of individual worth, making it a culture war issue, allowing wingnuts to pretend they're defending the basic right to feel pleasure against nanny state liberals. There's multiple levels of irony there, but it's something to consider before you create more grist for their mill.
Plus, I just really don't like how most liberal commentators I see who address Black Friday sneer at people who try really hard to get the advertised deals, ascribing that behavior to madness and sheeplike conformity. Another possibility that I might offer, though it may burst your bubble, is that it's a lot of people who struggle to get by. The advertised deals may look like their one shot to get the cool new toy that others may take for granted. If you're not making a lot of money and Wal-Mart is advertising some really cheap game or toy or gadget to get your kid that will make up for a year's worth of not having the cash on hand to take her to the movies or amusement parks, I'm not going to judge you. I feel uneasy with any rhetoric that slides too close to wingnuts foaming at the mouth because they discovered that poor people have color TVs. In fact, the economic desperation of the times being what it is, the increasing frenzy around bargain goods was entirely predictable, as was the growth in at-home alcohol sales after the crash. People do not live on bread alone, and when times are tight, they look for ways to feel entertained and pleased that are more affordable.
Anyway, I will just refer you to Ellen Willis and her amazing essay about the "myth of consumerism" that really demonstrates why a pro-pleasure/anti-puritanical liberalism simply cannot have this simple-minded anti-materialist knee-jerk reaction while still laying claim to be humanist. I want to move on.
To discussing the woman-pepper-spraying-a-Wal-Mart issue. On social networks and on blogs, I saw most people react to this story with knee-jerk anti-materialism with a side dose of bemusement that anyone would be lured into Wal-Mart with the promise of really low prices on electronic doo-dads and the latest kid's toy. At least a few did try to be better than that, by offering consumer education information, by pointing out that the bargain goods are sold out immediately and the whole point is to lure you in so you buy something else in order to justify the time and hassle of shopping. But I was surprised to read not one blog draw a parallel between this woman's behavior and the dramatic upswing in police using pepper spray and taser guns as weapons to control and subdue (instead of, say, fight crime). Even at Hullabaloo, where Digby has spent years blogging about incidents where the police have pepper sprayed and tasered innocent people for everything from having inconvenient seizures to being school children who graffiti desks focused mainly on the consumerism when addressing the incident, and not on what I think is the most fascinating aspect, which is the normalization of casual torture of people for not bending immediately to your most childish will in our society.
Maybe it's not obvious because until now, most of the people wielding pepper spray on crowds have been cops? Maybe it's because many people haven't really been paying attention to the fact that the OWS crack-down is an outgrowth of the increasing militarization of the police (including pepper spraying for jay-walking)? Who knows why people haven't figured this out. What I do know is that by becoming accustomed to the idea that outsized force is acceptable for the police to get their way, we opened up the door for ordinary citizens to believe that they get to be violent to people who irritate them by being rude, being strange, or, in the case of the pepper-sprayed Wal-Mart, having the nerve to get to the limited bargain good before the woman wielding the pepper spray could get there.
I believe that the biggest problem with Black Friday is not people's desire to have goods at cheap prices (though god knows a more economically just society would de-escalate the situation as more people's time would be worth more than getting up at 3AM to buy a toy), but that we allow our corporate gods to play such an obvious con on the public. A little legislation to rein it in—for instance, by outlawing sales that last only a few hours and requiring any store advertising one to have a salesperson specifically hand out rain checks to anyone who got there after they sold out—-could go a long way. But even if the excesses of Black Friday were curtailed, I think the pepper spraying incident is a harbinger of what has become of this country. One day it's a person of color caught jay-walking. Then it's protesters sitting peacefully at UC Davis. Then it's a crowd of bargain-hungry shoppers on Black Friday. What next? Are we all in danger of being doused with pepper spray for having the nerve to be in line in front of someone at the coffee shop? Are we going to see someone whip out the pepper spray on a retail worker who they want to move faster? The notion that inconvenience can be met with physical violence, as long as it's packaged in a neat weapon that keeps your hands clean like pepper spray, has been introduced to our society. And this incident at Wal-Mart suggests it's going viral.