Friday, November 29, 2013

Reminiscing--What Do You Need?

Went out to return a rented Bissel Carpet Cleaner  to Lowes and then tried going to A.C. Moore to get some pieces for a tunnel I'm constructing on our train set. Lines were past the middle of the store in all the aisles.  So we (my boys and I) left.

This simple refusal reminded me of how my wife and I spent black Friday just a few weeks after we were married in 2001.

What follows is a story of that day in 2001 and the following year, 2002.  I still refuse to shop just to shop on Black Friday.  (I wasn't seeking anything today that I wouldn't have gone out for on any other day.) The story from November 25, 2002 was sent to the teachers in my district, which is why I'm speaking about education so much in the text.

But this is not mere nostalgia for my days as a protestor, a recent editorial in the USA Today let's us know that I'm not crazy (nor are the thousands of people who celebrate "Buy Nothing Day" on this Friday--see When we start shopping on Thanksgiving Day...?  Seems like crossing a Rubicon to me.

November 25, 2002:

We all know that the day after Thanksgiving has been termed "Black Friday."
The largest (supposedly) shopping day of the year.  The media builds us up
for this.  The Sunday paper in every US town on the weekend before
Thanksgiving is awash in advertisements and entreaties to "Shop till you
drop."  Television news vans stake out locations at local malls the night
before so they can broadcast their reports on traffic and consumer moods to
those of us who, eeek!, have not ventured out into the mass of (in)humanity
that attacks our capitalist Meccas.  From all angles, we Americans have
bought (something we are quite good at) into the myth of this day.  

A few years ago I asked a simple question..."Why?"  Why such a push to shop
on this day?  Why the need to consume with such aplomb?  Why do we need to
buy so much stuff?  The only answer I've come upon that satisfies me is that
we were raised to do so.  The capitalist economy under which we live fuels
itself on the creation of desire.  It's chief engines are advertisers and
marketers. It is no longer, as it once was, their job to sell a product.
No, the engine of the capitalist economy would sputter if all we did was buy
products.  Advertisers and Marketers are involved in a more insidious
undertaking.  They are the manufacturers of desire, and they now sell the
product of "image."  Satisfying such abstractions as "Desire" and "Image"
requires far more spending on the part of the consumer than just the
purchase of one product.  It requires a lifetime commitment to buy, and to
buy without thinking.

This is a true story--
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 all
I 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."

So this year I'm going back.  At 6:30 AM I will be outside the Bertiluccis
(?)/Neiman Marcus entrance to the plaza.  That's the one where the covered
walkway connects to the Court. I am trying to get a whole bunch of friends
and other like minded individuals to walk through the mall as a team of
people.  Together with PV graduate Jesse Miksic, I have designed a t-shirt
that has the question "What do you need?" emblazoned on the chest, with a
logo on the back.  This shirt will be our uniform.  If you are interested in
this bit of political theater, this protest against blind consumption, then
write back to me to let me know you'll be coming.  It's important to get
there early.

I want to note here that, as a group, my friends and I are not against
consuming things...we're 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 dissipates like sugar on the tongue. 

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.'"

It's a small vision I have, this protest on November 29th, but if you agree
with Giroux, if you believe that children are being programmed to buy, that
they, especially the girls, are treated as little more than "bodies" to
parade, Brittany Spears-like, on the stage of human desire, then join me by buying nothing.