Sunday, November 27, 2011

"What do you need?": Buy Nothing Day 2001 Revisited.

On my facebook page, I just linked to a news article that questions, "How did Black Friday come to this?"--referencing pepper spray, pushing, shoving, etc. that occurred this year (and many other years for that matter).  In 2001--egged on by a president who told us that, in order to get back to normal after the 9/11 attacks, we had to get back to shopping ('cause, um...that's what we do, right?)--I went off the deep end and launched my own attack.  The rationale and lengthy explanation for this protest is found below, but in short, I was sickened to the point of action.  Picking up on the culture jamming ethic I'd been introduced to by a group of high school students I'd worked with in an after-school arts/writing seminar, I armed myself with a series of poems emblazoned with the brilliant logo of our group (see picture above), designed by Jesse Miksic, a wicked smart kid who's an even more intelligent and thoughtful adult (read him at his blog and you won't be sorry), and I sat myself, and my wife of two weeks, outside the King of Prussia Mall "Lord and Taylor" entrance.  The rest?  Well, if you want to read it, it's below.  Suffice it to say that I do not shop on Black Friday. I do not protest any longer.  Not in the way I used to.  Say what you want, question the motive, argue for the bargains...whatever.  I've heard it all.  The more you defend the day and the unquestioned consumption upon which it feeds, the more you feed my argument and motive.  There is a branch of science that has been growing over the past few decades.  Some call it complexity, some chaos, some emergence.  In nature, it's more or less the study of "swarm mentality." (And those of you who will be clamoring that this is all about personal responsibility?  Yeah, go read up on Swarm Mentality and check out Stephen Johnson's Emergence.)  Whatever you call it.  It applies quite clearly to the actions of shoppers on Black Friday.  Sharks in a feeding frenzy or shoppers on Black Friday?  Ain't no difference to me.

Here's what I wrote about my first experience in culture jamming, back in 2001.  I did it one other time, in 2002 in a different fashion.  I'm sorry to say I could do it again...things haven't changed.

(Understand that this e-mail was originally targeted for the teachers in my district, thus the ending paragraphs....  Also, I had to edit out the line breaks because I pulled it from an old e-mail and I don't have a text scrubber, other than myself, handy.)

Last year, on Black Friday, I arrived at the King of Prussia Mall around 6:30 AM and sat on a round concrete object whose purpose was, for allI could tell, to be a round concrete object. But is served well enough as a bench, and so I sat upon it.  In my right hand was a large, two sided sign, some 21X 37''.  The sign asked a simple question, "What do you need?"  All I wanted to do was sit there the whole day and ask this question.  I had heard my president, in a post 9/11 speech tell us that America had to get back to business, and that we shouldn't be afraid to do the things Americans do, like shop.  (That's almost a quote, but not quite.)  That turned my stomach.  Being an American means a hell of a lot more to me than shopping and I'll be damned if I'll let any president, democrat or republican, insinuate that part of my expression of patriotism should be to shop.  So there I sat.  About 15 minutes later four mall security men stood like the famed "four horsemen" in front of me asking me what I was doing.   Well, after no discussion whatsoever, I was told that if I wanted to take up my case with the police, they would be happy to oblige me. ('Seems I was trespassing on private property.)  So I asked if I could talk to someone about what I could do. They directed me to the mall manager.  Well, I took my big sign and, quite happily, walked into the mall, searching for the manager.  When I found him, I asked if I could sit with my sign.  He said I could not, that if they allowed me to do so, they would have to allow everyone who was soliciting to do so.  I pointed out that I was not soliciting.  He still said no.  I said, "What if I just stand outside and ask the question to all the people who walk by?"  He said I couldn't do that.  "What, I'm not allowed to ask a question?" I said.  "No," he replied, "it ruins their shopping mood."

Well, I had no comeback for that, so I walked out, dumbfounded.  The manager of the mall had, quite openly and shockingly, admitted to me the mantra the King of Prussia mall--and, I suspect, all malls--want their shoppers to repeat:  "Don't think, just shop." 

I want to note here that I am not against consuming things...I'm not against buying things.  I fully understand the integral part I play as a consumer in this country.  However, as an American I represent less than 5% of the world's total population (according to 1999 estimates), but I am part of a world minority which consumes over 20% of the world's natural resources.  I have a problem with that.  When we buy simply because we are told to, when we buy because it makes us feel good, when we buy because we are, consciously or not, trying to fulfill some image, then we are blind consumers, and we are robbing wealth from the rest of the world for our own indulgences.  My conscience leads me to believe that there is something wrong with that.  To buy just because I can and because I want/desire to...there's something wrong with that. Even Christmas has been changed by these market forces.  What was once a celebration of the hope and joy represented by Jesus Christ (and you don't have to believe in the Bible to understand the mythic import of hope and joy to a civilization), has been perverted into the hope and joy that buying can bring.  One joy is existential, other worldly, and nourishment for the soul.  The other is ephemeral; it disipates like breath in a chill wind.

What's more is that as educators, we are in a perfect position to get students to question their consumption, to question the cultural forces at work that mold them into the kind of blind consumers whose idea of a good time is a day out at the mall.  Henry A. Giroux, Penn State professor of secondary education, writes that "if democracy is to carry us forward into the next century, surely it will be based on a commitment to improving the lives of children, but not within the degrading logic of a market that treats their bodies as commodities and their futures as trade-offs for capital accumulation. . . . Critical educators . . . need to create a cultural vision and a set of strategies informed by 'the rhetoric of political, civic, and economic citizenship.'"