Black Friday as a Spectacle of Rampant Materialism or of Economic Malaise

The phrase “Black Friday” originally derived from the fact that the sales on the extended weekend following Thanksgiving set the tone for the holiday shopping season and thereby determine whether a store will be profitable for the year—or finish in the “black.”

Last year, stores began opening on Thanksgiving Day itself ostensibly so that shoppers can get a jump on the Black Friday crowds, even though Black Friday itself was initially rationalized as a way for shoppers to get a jump on the crowded stores during the Christmas season.

But the phrase “Black Friday” has increasingly come to suggest the dark side of American prosperity, a sort of deranged exercise in concentrated commercialism, in unconstrained materialism.

Indeed, the day has become an internationally reported event that is not doing anything to enhance the image of the U.S. abroad.

What follows is what the British newspaper The Guardian reported last year:

“As day follows night, so is Thanksgiving followed by an orgy of consumerism. Thankfully, no one appears to have died in the rush for bargains this year-in past Black Friday stampedes, fatalities have occurred.

“Nonetheless, stories of idiocy in the malls of America abound, so here’s a round-up of the lengths some people have gone to in order to bag a bargain on Black Friday.

“A shopper in Massachusetts went home with a new 51in flat-screen TV, but left behind his girlfriend’s two-year-old son. The toddler was found by police asleep in a car outside Kmart; officers had to break into the vehicle to free the abandoned boy. Officers say they expect to charge the 34-year-old boyfriend of the child’s mother with reckless endangerment.

“In San Antonio, Texas, a queue jumper had to hide behind a refrigerator after an aggrieved shopper pulled a gun on him. The incident took place at a Sears store late Thursday evening, as punters queued for discounted Black Friday goods. After an argument broke out between shoppers, an alleged queue jumper punched a rival in the face, prompting the injured man to threaten him with a weapon, according to the San Antonio Express-News.

“Pepper spray was deployed to break up a fight outside JC Penney at a mall in Kentwood, Michigan, according to reports. Local TV station WOODTV said police had handcuffed and taken away two shoppers, following the mélêe in the early hours of Friday morning.

“In Alabama, one punter recorded chaotic scenes at a Walmart store as people fought over items including $5 headphones, toys and cellphones.

“In Florida, Walmart shoppers captured the arrest of a customer who was wrestled to the ground after trying to bypass long checkout lines. Police say 28-year-old Samantha Chavez was asked to get in line several times, but refused and then threw merchandise on the floor and began screaming at them. In a short clip posted on YouTube, the woman is heard begging officers to ‘please stop’ as they restrain her.”

The Mail offered a similar catalogue of reprehensible incidents, including many of those covered in The Guardian report. But it opened with the following detailed account of an incident not reported there:

“A two-year-old boy was rescued from a Kmart parking lot after he was abandoned by a shopper who left with a wide-screen TV–just one of the shocking incidents in a day of chaos on Black Friday.

“Anthony Perry, 35, of Springfield, Massachusetts was arrested for leaving the child unattended and he faces potential child neglect charges. . . . Perry left the boy in his car around 1:30 a.m., as he went inside Kmart to buy a 51-inch flat screen television. When Perry left the Kmart, he saw that his car–with the child inside–was missing and he later told authorities that he phoned a friend to give him a ride home.

“Police tracked Perry to his home and found him there with his new television. He never reported the child missing, according to authorities. He told police that he had been babysitting for his girlfriend, who was working, and claimed that he brought the child inside the Kmart with him and that’s where he believed he lost the toddler.

“Perry’s alleged neglect is just one of a series of arrests and scuffles reported on Black Friday as bargain-hungry shoppers clawed for once-a-year sales.”

In line with that closing clause, I am fairly certain that many of the affluent people in this country regard Black Friday as an appalling spectacle in which people of much more limited means expose their desperation to have consumer goods that they really cannot afford. Although I am not willing to look down my nose at people who have less and want more, I think, nonetheless, that there is some truth in such a perception. That is, I think that all of this contrived frenzy in pursuit of “unbeatable bargains” is getting worse and not just because we are, as a people, becoming more materialistic and much less civil towards each other.

Rather, I think that it reflects, in large measure, the escalating income inequality in this country and the fact that even middle-class dreams are becoming increasingly remote, increasingly unattainable, for an ever-growing number of working-class Americans. If understood in this way, Black Friday is less indicative of the underside of American prosperity and more indicative of an increasing economic desperation.

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