I missed out on the mayhem of Black Friday. I worked. I didn’t have to but I couldn’t pass up time and a half. Financial necessity takes precedence especially when it only comes around once a year since my company considers Thanksgiving, and the day after, Black Friday, holidays. That’s two in a row! Even Christmas doesn’t enjoy that kind of deference. Everyone understands that Thanksgiving is really two schizophrenic holidays rolled into one. One day is supposed to be all about family, with a dash of football, and the other day is all about consumerism. Not just any consumerism, but hyper-modern, buy bonanza, steroid-induced, All-American consumerism. It’s the Royal Rumble of consumerism. The fucking show, and this year my town, Johnson City, Tennessee, made the news for all the horrible reasons.
If you’re unfamiliar with Johnson City it’s not surprising. A town with population of about 65,000 it’s home to East Tennessee State University, my alma mater, and according to the 2010 census has a median household income of income of about $37,000. 23 percent of the population is also below the federal poverty level which is up from 19 percent ten years ago. Hospitals and ETSU are the city’s two largest employers, and the rest is mostly service industry jobs. A lot of retirees have moved to Northeast TN since the '90s. Snidely called “half-backs” they’re people who moved to Florida from the Northeast, didn’t like it, and have now moved halfway back to where they’re originally from. Finance, manufacturing, tech, basically all the jobs for recent college graduates to start a career aren’t here. You can get educated here, work in the healthcare industry, move away for a better job, or retire here. Those are the options. Otherwise it’s underemployment if you stay.
This year on Black Friday at the Walmart just off of Interstate 26 two women were trampled as a crowd surged forward. Police officers were able to get to them before they sustained more serious injuries, but a lot of people were surprised that their fellow shoppers didn’t stop to help. They just kept going. I was surprised it has taken this long to happen here.
Now I’m not trying to be flippant. This isn’t a cynical missive lamenting the horrible nature that is humanity, but given our current economic model/system this isn’t all that shocking. It’s simply inevitable. The people who stampeded past those two women weren’t zombies, or morally bankrupt, or soulless people. They’re merely desperate. You don’t head out before dawn in below freezing temperatures to battle for electronics just for the hell of it. You do it because this, today, right now, will be the only time you can afford something a little bit better. An $800 TV for $200 doesn’t seem worth a slice of your humanity unless you’re making $8 an hour. That six hundred dollar difference will take you seventy five hours to earn which is a little over two weeks and a day if you work full time. Most people who work for below poverty level wages can’t set aside two weeks of pay. They’re lucky if they can set aside anything at all.
When you look at the stagnation of working people’s wages, the rising cost of living, and the ever steeper climb to the middle class, which has become quite a precarious perch, the incomprehensible becomes, "Oh, I see." Our society praises materialism, and the ownership of prized products becomes a symbol of your worthiness as a human being. I’m doing alright because I have the latest, greatest gadget. I might not be able to tell you who my congressman is, let along my State Representative but I can tell you the difference between a 60 Hz and 120 Hz refresh rate.
Black Friday is a symptom of an economy based on scarcity to create artificial demand, and competition among consumers rather than suppliers. You are not surrounded by your fellow human beings with hopes, and dreams like you. They’re competition. They’re out to take your family’s happiness. Everything is based on a “limited time”, because it drives up demand. How many people do you know eat the McRib sandwich just because it’s seasonal? What’s the point if you can get it year round?
Now a lot of folks will say these people need to opt out. They should realize, like they do, that this behavior is ultimately self-defeating and should simply give it up. The moralizing begins against corporations and the consumer cattle herd they create. Thanksgiving is supposed to be about family, not this. But for a lot of those folks in the Walmart Rollback Battle Arena, Black Friday is about family. It’s about giving their children a happy Christmas, and this is the way they can do it. The moral lesson in a sitcom that teaches us about the importance of family and altruism comes at the end of the episode after you’ve sat through all the commercials. Those important messages show you how to get that loving moment too. Who doesn’t want to be eating popcorn with the two well behaved children, and the family pet curled up in front of the couch watching the latest Hollywood blockbuster on a home theater system especially when your beautiful spouse curls up next to you in silent praise? Compassion, and loving support are too intangible, but a Bose speaker system is as real as it gets. If you can’t afford it, don’t worry there will be other Black Fridays.