21 November 2013

On Black Friday Eve (f.k.a. Thanksgiving)

It's been coming for the last few years, and this year, major retailers have essentially canceled Thanksgiving for their employees in order to bring Black Friday sales even earlier. Opponents have called for boycotts and protests. The Internet is all a-tizzy with condemnations about corporate greed, our enslavement to materialism, the disposable world of iGadgets, and the value of time with family above all. "It's disgusting to think there are people who would rather stand in line to buy an iPad than spend time with their family." (Personally, I exhaust my patience for being around my family about 20 minutes after we eat.)

A few years ago, I adopted something of an informal policy to refrain from discussing a lot of subjects. Following Craig Ferguson's advice, I began to ask myself, "Does this need to be said? Does this need to be said by me? Does this need to be said by me, now?" There's one thing in all the debating that I haven't heard discussed much that has prompted me to write this evening, and that's the importance to poor and working class families of those Black Friday deals, so here I am, saying something now.

The stereotype of the event, of course, is an angry mob of soccer moms trampling one another to fill their shopping carts with Tickle Me Elmo dolls and whatever the latest video game console is. We're sickened by the indulgence and extravagance, knowing that all this effort - and money - goes to buy things that kids will outgrow by New Year's Eve or will be obsolete by summer. Legit criticism, and I largely agree, but keep in mind that you're really criticizing the heart and soul of post-industrialist capitalism, which is all about peddling luxuries marketed as necessities. Fight that fight all year round, and don't just wait until November to get holier-than-thou about it.

But here's the thing: Not every Black Friday shopper is trying to keep alive a consecutive streak of spoiling their kids.
It isn't all about the fat cats at the top getting fatter because Little Johnny gets another iGadget for Christmas.
There are a whole lot of families out there who rely on these deals just to stretch their dollars far enough to buy coats and shoes that fit their kids. BFAds.net shows 24 pages of items in Black Friday ads for Kids' Apparel. There are eight pages of appliances. Nearly a quarter of those items are dryers. Really self-indulgent, those things.

I'm not saying that these items constitute the lion's share of Black Friday sales. They don't. But they do account for some of them, and the families who most rely on getting a break on these kinds of things have a very difficult time abstaining on principle. Here's a remark from something on Facebook tonight:
People are so stupid.Who cares about saving 100.00 on 1, 000.00 Tv or some other dumb shit.I just sleep on Black Friday.
Answer: A family who needs a $1000 item and only has $900 on hand. (I won't say TV, because setting aside the obnoxious debate about the extent to which anyone "needs" a TV, there are far better deals on TVs than $100 off a $1000 model to be found). Believe it or not, but there actually are families out there right now who are genuinely excited at the idea that they'll finally be able to wash and dry their clothes at home instead of going to a Laundro-mat, and all because a Black Friday deal is going to put a new machine within their financial reach. They're not "stupid". They're broke, just like an increasingly large number of us. It's not exciting. Dryers have none of the sex appeal of an Xbox One. But it really does bother me that, five years after the economic meltdown threw so many Americans down the ladder, that we still forget how hard a lot of families really do struggle.

I'm not suggesting that anyone reading this change their plans (whatever they may be). I didn't write this to guilt or to shame anyone, and neither did I write it to defend or excuse retail associates having to ring up thousands of people instead of enjoying Thanksgiving dinner with their families. But I think it's important for critics to remember that not everyone shares the same circumstances. It's as hard for a family trying to finally get hold of a dryer to abstain from these sales as it is for the worker who needs the job to refuse to work during those days.

Just try to remember, then, that just like the American economy itself, it might be the people burying themselves in luxury goods who make the magazine cover, but somewhere else you'll find a lot of people just trying to get by. For these people, showing up Thanksgiving evening to fight the crowds isn't about keeping up with the Joneses at Christmastime. It's about trying to do the best they can for their families, during a limited window established by people who have more power than they do.