American Culture

Affluenza: Black Friday is America’s new high holy day

Originally published on 11/23/2012. And it’s getting worse.

Black-Friday

Black Friday is under way – has been since midnight, in fact. In many places around the country, retailers started kicking off the festivities at yesterday: over a quarter of Americans said they planned to go shopping on Thanksgiving. Or, as it will soon come to be known, Black Friday Eve. Or Black Thursday, maybe.

Want to hear some fun statistics?

2,470,000
The number of Google News results at press time for “Black Thursday,” the term for stores starting Black Friday deals on Thanksgiving instead of midnight after Thanksgiving. The general mood in the media is that Black Thursday is a terrible idea because retail workers should be able to spend the holidays home with their families (and potential shoppers should be home eating with their loved ones instead of out buying stuff). Black Thursday is already getting pretty ugly, with workers at stores like Walmart — where Black Thursday begins at 8 p.m. on Thanksgiving — and Target threatening to strike. A number of petitions to stop the madness are also going viral online.

4,000
The number of Walmart stores that will have extra security measures in place on Black Friday. “Nobody wants to go into an event when they are risking injury for a video game,” Josh Phair, Walmart’s public affairs and government relations director told the Arizona Republic. Well at least they figured that out this year!

225,000,000
The number of people who shopped on Black Friday last year.

11,400,000,000
The number of dollars spent on Black Friday last year.

Imagine the stress on the workers who have to ride herd on these “doorbusters.” Imagine going to work – on a holiday – worrying that you’ll have to break up a fistfight over a toy. Or that someone might get trampled to death. Literally.

How about some breaking headlines?

What the heck. Let’s watch a video, while we’re at it.

No, folks, this isn’t a Mad Max movie. It’s Christmas shopping in America. Christmas. You know, birth of the savior. Peace on Earth. Three Wise Men, star in the east, baby in a manger, all that. I wonder if this year’s misbehavior will match last year’s carnage.

(A friend of mine works at Target. At 11:20 last night he reported that only one F-bomb had been lobbed at him so far. Of course, he still had over six hours left in his shift.)

[sigh]

America has a social disease

Have you read Affluenza? You should. This fantastic book examines, in uncomfortable detail, our culture’s pathological need for stuff. The editor’s review at Amazon sums it up this way:

The definition of affluenza, according to de Graaf, Wann, and Naylor, is something akin to “a painful, contagious, socially-transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.” It’s a powerful virus running rampant in our society, infecting our souls, affecting our wallets and financial well-being, and threatening to destroy not only the environment but also our families and communities. Having begun life as two PBS programs coproduced by de Graaf, this book takes a hard look at the symptoms of affluenza, the history of its development into an epidemic, and the options for treatment. In examining this pervasive disease in an age when “the urge to splurge continues to surge,” the first section is the book’s most provocative. According to figures the authors quote and expound upon, Americans each spend more than $21,000 per year on consumer goods, our average rate of saving has fallen from about 10 percent of our income in 1980 to zero in 2000, our credit card indebtedness tripled in the 1990s, more people are filing for bankruptcy each year than graduate from college, and we spend more for trash bags than 90 of the world’s 210 countries spend for everything. “To live, we buy,” explain the authors–everything from food and good sex to religion and recreation–all the while squelching our intrinsic curiosity, self-motivation, and creativity. They offer historical, political, and socioeconomic reasons that affluenza has taken such strong root in our society, and in the final section, offer practical ideas for change. These use the intriguing stories of those who have already opted for simpler living and who are creatively combating the disease, from making simple habit alterations to taking more in-depth environmental considerations, and from living lightly to managing wealth responsibly.

Grist notes that in the wake of 9/11, affluenza seems to have evolved from social disease into official policy:

In each of the past four years, more people declared bankruptcy than graduated from college. On average, the nation’s CEOs now earn 400 times the wages of the typical worker, “a tenfold increase since 1980.” Although the United States makes up less than five percent of the world’s population, we produce 25 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions; since 1950, we “have used up more resources than everyone who ever lived on earth before then.”

Many of us also know that bigger houses, bigger cars, more gadgets, and more expensive clothes do not make us more content, despite the glossy promises of advertisers. Yet consumer spending has long been used as an indicator of both the national economy and the national mood. The more we spend, the better off we are — or so we’ve been told. This mantra has been particularly insistent in the past year, as the great blooming bubble of stock market riches began to deflate and the Bush administration chose instant gratification as an economic strategy. Since Sept. 11, national leaders have been telling us with ever-increasing urgency that consumer confidence must and will rebound. While confidence — as an indicator of our faith in the future — should return, it’s equally clear that the past few decades’ rate of consumption is neither sustainable nor desirable. Moreover, we must assume — and hope — that tragedy has made us wiser, and tempered the impulse of so many Americans to affirm their existence with a pleasing new purchase.

To be honest, reading Affluenza is one of the hardest things I’ve done in some time. I not only saw the moral emptiness of my society laid bare, there were entirely too many pages that described my own life. Even in instances where I feel like I’ve won the battle against consumerist addiction, I still had to acknowledge that once upon a time I was eaten up by a craving for material things that not only couldn’t have made me whole, they would have made the hollow space even larger. I had to slog through passages that seemed specifically written about people I know, people close to me. Worst of all, the book flogged me relentlessly with details about how our obsessions with status and toys are annihilating the physical world that sustains us … for the moment.

Affluenza ripped at my guts in ways that brought me literally to the brink of illness. Or maybe past the brink. I’m currently battling at least a couple of medical conditions that may ultimately be the result of affluenza. One of them is certainly a product of the American food complex: if you drink, on average, a liter of soda a day for the better part of 25 years, how many milligrams of high-fructose corn syrup have you strained through your body? I’m not blaming anybody for my stupidity, which was considerable, but let’s not pretend that our consumption patterns exist in a vacuum, either.

The physical impact pales next to the psychological, though. I grew up desperately seeking the sort of validation that comes with success in America, and if you aren’t careful you can fixate on all the wrong goals. Is success a certain income level? Is it a house in a trending neighborhood? Is it the security that comes from knowing that your children have newer, cooler and more expensive basketball shoes than their friends? Is it a Lexus or Beemer or Mercedes? Is it having a particular number of people reporting to you?

Is it the satisfaction that comes from working so many hours your wife doesn’t recognize you when you come home? Is it the number of ulcers you have? Is it having a physical stress level so consistently high that your body is more or less always sick in some way?

Affluenza made me think about the lies we tell ourselves about success. About happiness. About the “American Dream.” We grow up enculterated into a consumerist assumption (unless our parents raise us in the woods, miles from the nearest television – and then we have a whole ‘nother set of problems). At some point we realize that we’re not happy (although “realize” may be the wrong word – one thing affluenza seems to do is systematically kill off our self-awareness – in any case, we aren’t happy). Everywhere we look, though, we see happy people (they’re in these things we call “advertisements”), and the happiness we see always – always – emanates from a thing. A car, a haircut, a shirt, a house, an iPhone, a gaming console, a next-generation tablet…whatever it is, it’s something that can be purchased. So purchase it we do. If this means we leave the family on Thanksgiving (or worse, bring them with us) to queue up around the block at Best Buy so we can be ready to kick the door at 8pm, so be it.

We never seem to notice that after a few minutes, we’re not happy all over again. Clearly, we need to go buy something else.

I once watched a young boy on his first big Christmas morning. The monetary value of the presents he had under the tree was probably triple the value of all the presents I’d ever had under all the trees during my entire life. I mean this literally. He was the first child of affluent parents and everybody they knew was competing to outspend each other on this precious little boy.

He ripped into the first present with gusto – it was spectacular. He looked at it for a few seconds, then dropped it and ripped into the second one. Then the third. And the fourth, and fifth, and so on. He never paused to play with any of them. The holiday experience wasn’t about having or enjoying, it was only about more, more, more. When there were no more, he still didn’t sit down to play with them. I will never forget the look on his face at that moment: it was as profound a disappointment as you’re ever likely to see in a child. There were no more.

I had never seen anything like it, and I was as horrified as he was unfulfilled. That boy is a teenager now and has had many more Christmas mornings since then. As best I can tell each one has been little more than a ritual re-enactment of that first one, only with escalating price tags. He’s a smart kid and a very good kid in many ways, but I shudder to think of the hollowness that now threatens to consume his entire life.

I don’t know for sure, but my guess is that he’s one of the millions and millions out shopping today – assuming he didn’t make it to the stores last night.

Can I complain about the parenting decisions that have been made in this child’s life? Well, I could, but in truth the significance of the story isn’t what happened to him, it’s that what happened to him happens millions of times a day all across our consumerist nation. The more we have, the emptier we are. We’re a nation of addicts, and all the stuff that we’re Jonesing for is a million times more addictive and destructive than crystal meth.

What happens when we run out of fantasies?

We are the age of insubstantiation,
a generation of digital bells,
loose change on the sidewalk.

Our days are loops,
our nights tight spirals,

and if the virtual is
even better than the real thing

it’s only because the real thing is so goddamned empty.

So here’s my theory/hypothesis/question. We’re a hollow nation, a society that provides nearly all of us with rampant access to more material goods than we know what to do with. But we cannot find happiness in the material because there is not happiness in it. On the contrary – it’s a system that’s rigged to feed us a shiny, pretty lie that hollows us out some more, all the while whispering that only more of the lie will make us happy. Our consumerist society is a church that, instead of communion wafers, dispenses crystal meth. This is my body, broken for thee….

Welcome to the American reality: We have everything that this world can offer and we’re bored to tears.

Black Friday is our new high holy day. We’ve always looked at Christmas, the most sacred of holidays for a majority of our citizens, as our most important cultural celebration. Whether we’re reveling in the unbridled secular glee of exchanging gifts or ranting about the “war on Christmas” and the ways in which everyone has lost sight of the “true meaning of Christmas*,” December 25 has been our unquestioned national holiday.

Perhaps it’s time to rethink things, though. In truth, it’s Black Friday that most typifies the American pathology. Christmas is the big reveal, to be sure, but in a culture addicted to acquisition, the day that matters most is the one where we camp out, line up, bust doors, fight each other and trample each other to death – both figuratively and literally – in order to buy. To throw money at the retail giants that are our true church, to beseech the managers and cashiers, priests and acolytes, in the name of commerce, to fill the sucking holes in our souls with stuff so that we might at last be happy.

Thanks, but I’ll pass. I like playing with fun toys, too, but I’ve long since realized the truth about them. I won’t be venturing out to shop today and I salute those of you who are boycotting the madness, the utter sickness, and the corporations who promote it. To hell with Black Friday, Black Thursday, and the retailers who are cranking up the Christmas shopping music before Halloween.

My friends and family will be receiving what I think are some really nice gifts this year, but none of them are coming from Target and Walmart and Best Buy, and I’d encourage them to do the same, especially when it comes to getting me something. In fact, if you’re having a hard time deciding what to do for those you love, how about a gift that makes a real difference in the lives of people who need help the most: think about donating in their name to Heifer.org. If my friends are family are reading this, know that there isn’t much you could do that would make me happier than to give some chickens or a goat in my name.

I wish everyone a happy holiday season. And when I say “happy,” rest assured that word has nothing to do with stuff.

*That, of course, would be the imperial Christian appropriation of pagan solstice celebrations.

Portions of this article were adapted from a post that originally appeared on Sept. 9, 2009.

7 replies »

  1. On a dog walk a few days ago, i realized that i deeply missed living in Russia. I distilled the feeling down to the fact that i miss the general melancholy, or that i perhaps need a more melancholic milieu. Of course, this observation came as a contrast to living in the United States with its forced happiness and seeming requirement to smile with perfect teeth for no good fucking reason in public.

    But all that’s immaterial. It led me think about my nation and come to the conclusion that we’re the most depressed, unhappy people maybe anywhere. It’s easy to see in individuals, treating their depression with shopping or mindlessness of the not-so-Buddhist kind. We’re a whole country of it. Never a whit of self-examination because it’s buried under buying shit and searching for the best deals to have the newest, latest, and greatest shit that doesn’t matter.

    Don’t get me wrong, i like stuff (and my travels seem to indicate that we all like stuff). I have an iPhone 5, because i was due for a new phone when it came out. I own a vintage BMW that i happily spend money on. I have a flat screen TV (though a mere 32″) and PS3. But i think you’re right that our collective depression is expressed in this pathology of consumerism. I see the clinging of the desperate in it. I’m not sure we have anything left but to try and fill the deep black hole in our collective consciousness with more shit that we don’t really care about; it’s the acquisition of more shit that we need. And when it doesn’t make us happy, we try and get more shit, as if it’s the quantity that’s lacking.

    Why anyone would submit to the brutality of Black Friday is beyond me. Even my enjoyment of the human heart of darkness hasn’t gotten me to go and just be a spectator of this yet. But as a person who doesn’t believe humans to be anything more than chimpanzees with fancy hips, thumbs, and a skull too big to allow for proper gestation in the womb, i do appreciate that we’ve elevated to the level of holiday a time to act like the animals we are.

    So when someone tells me about how evolved we are, i have a trove of Black Friday videos and news stories as counter-point. Tell me again how far we’ve come from flinging feces.

  2. And Amen to Heifer. My brothers and i always contribute to a single gift for our mom and stepfather. The year we first donated to Heifer in their name was the best gift giving feeling i’ve ever experienced. Made Mom cry.

  3. Wonderful piece, Sam – I read AFFLUENZA a while back and while I wished it were even more brutal; it says so much that it almost gets diluted because it’s “see how silly we are” tone detracts from the enormous power of its messages. Thanks for distilling its key points so beautifully – and pointedly.

    Given what we’re seeing happen to our national psyche with every passing year, the word “Black” has a level of irony in its use by the consumer culture’s mavens that should make any thinking person squirm….

Leave us a reply. All replies are moderated according to our Comment Policy (see "About S&R")

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s