Saturday, November 24, 2012

The Night of the Living Dead

Today's the Macy's Day Parade
The night of the living dead is on its way
With a credit report for duty call
It's a lifetime guarantee
Stuffed in a coffin 10% more free
Red light special at the mausoleum
Give me something that I need

Satisfaction guaranteed to you
What's the consolation prize?
Economy sized dreams of hope

- Green Day, "Macy's Day Parade," Warning (Reprise, 2000)

With the "night of the living dead" having officially come to a close, it is worth reflecting on what just took place. Many (including some LDS) have and will question the morality of such an excessive display of consumerism. Having just written a piece on gratitude, am I of the view that Black Friday negates everything Thanksgiving stands for?

Not entirely.

To be clear: I am not supporting materialism, which evidence shows to have a negative impact on people's well-being. Materialism and consumerism, however, are not one and the same (though they can often reinforce one another). Materialism has to do with a person's values, while consumerism refers to the practice of greater consumption and economic order as a whole. Oddly enough, the trend of consumerism seems to be moving in a less materialistic, more collaborative and community-based direction.

Even with the fights that ensue, it seems that an increasing amount of people are making Black Friday a family affair. Not only that, but it is hard to miss the social phenomenon Black Friday has become. As Reason's Greg Beato points out,

Think, for a moment, about Black Friday’s ascension. According to the National Retail Federation, at least 71 million U.S. citizens are planning to shop this weekend.  Even with the premature openings, many shoppers simply can’t wait and are already staking out their places in line. When was the last time you heard of anyone who was so eager for Easter to arrive they spent seven days sleeping in a church parking lot just so they could commandeer the first pew? How many people design propriety t-shirts to celebrate their love for the Fourth of July? Black Friday has no federal sanction. It draws upon no centuries-old tradition. The Hallmark Channel has yet to sentimentalize its virtues in dozens of made-for-TV movies about the way the pursuit of deeply discounted toaster ovens can mend old family wounds. And yet millions of people celebrate Black Friday now, some casually, others with great ardor, because it stirs them in some way.

This near-religious "stirring" can occur especially when one has a better grasp of the fundamentals of choice; a knowledge that Sheena Iyengar of Columbia University sees as leading to "informed intuition" by which we "create music where there might otherwise be only noise" in the choosing process.[1] With shoppers becoming more and more informed, the consumer experience is bound to increase in quality. This supermarket spiritualism is captured in the words of Dan DeLillo's narrator in the novel White Noise:

...[I]n the mass and variety of our purchases, in the sheer plenitude those bags suggested, the sense of replenishment we felt, the sense of well-being, the security and contentment these products brought to some snug home in our souls--it seemed we had achieved a fullness of being that is not known to people who need less, expect less...[2] 

"Like Thanksgiving and Christmas," explains Beato, "Black Friday celebrates bounty and benevolence...In addition, Black Friday’s not just a highly inclusive holiday that draws participants from all creeds, colors, classes, and political persuasions—it’s a holiday that does so in shared public spaces...Thanksgiving and Christmas are largely private affairs, celebrated at home with only select invitees in attendance. Black Friday is for anyone who wants to show up." While it may lack "the nobler pretenses of its forebears," it nonetheless is a "way we show gratitude that we live in a country where we have heated mattress toppers." Of course, Beato recognizes that "it’s natural to focus on [Black Friday's] most negative aspects." I am often humored by those who disdain the upfront honesty of Black Friday's consumerist intentions. These same individuals often have no problem overindulging themselves with turkey, stuffing, and much more on a holiday ironically known as Thanksgiving. Furthermore, the Christian aspect of Christmas (the true meaning) often fades into the background in favor of Black Friday-like consumerism, Christmas trees, and a gift-giving Santa Claus whose American image was largely shaped by Coca-Cola. Now, I personally have no real problem with any of the above. I like eating turkey with my family and often feel thankful during and afterwards. I like Coca-Cola Santa and other Americanized Christmas traditions that have nothing to do with the holiday's original meaning (A Christmas Story is one of my all-time favorite films and it has absolutely nothing to do with Jesus). Perhaps we should cease moralizing trivial things that make us sound good in conversation, yet mean little in substance.

However, could we all learn to live a lifestyle of enough? Of course. Less than half of American adults participate in the post-Thanksgiving shopping festivities, perhaps demonstrating an overreaction by the critics of consumerism. But it is worth noting who actually shops on Black Friday: the young and lower income. While one could see this as evil corporations "exploiting" the poor, it probably makes more sense to see it as an end-of-the-year boost in living standards for those who are, out of necessity, cost conscious. If increasing the quantity and quality of one's material well-being was inherently wrong, then caring for the poor would be unnecessary and even immoral (one could just dismiss them with "be thankful for what you have"). Next time you are tempted to refer to Black Friday shoppers as mindless zombies, you might want to realize who you're talking about lest you invite the same condemnation as Romney's 47% remark.

In hopes of inspiring a healthy and responsible consumer habit coupled with an ever-present sense of gratitude, I will leave you with a simple prayer uttered by Joseph Smith over a rather humble cornbread dinner:

Lord, we thank Thee for this Johnny cake, and ask Thee to send us something better. Amen.[3]

1. Sheena Iyengar, The Art of Choosing (New York: Twelve, 2010), 214-215.

2. Quoted in Iyengar, 2010, 190-191. It should be pointed out that DeLillo is ultimately not presenting consumerism in a positive light.

3. As recalled by Elder John Lyman Smith, brother of President George Albert Smith, and recorded in The Juvenile Instructor (1892).

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