Black Friday reveals our dark sides

I wrote this on Dec. 7, 2008, and posted it on another blog. I’m back-posting it here, just to hang onto it.


The death certificate is sitting on my table.

It is 10 inches wide, 9 1/2 inches tall, 28 pages long. It looks like a Walmart ad circular. But it is a death certificate, all the same.

It has pictures of three televisions, a digital camera, a global positioning satellite monitor and a Blu-ray player on the front.

Blue-ray, death ray — is there a difference?

At the top, beside an ornament, the words: “Walmart. Save money. Live better.”

We all know by now that, on Black Friday, a mob of shoppers in a mad rush to buy things inside these pages trampled to death a temporary worker at a Walmart in Valley Stream, N.Y.

They broke through the sliding glass doors, through a barricade, and stomped the life out of 34-year-old Jdimytai Damour.

And today, I am leafing through these pages, trying to figure out why. We’ve all at one time or another said, “I’d kill for a . . . ”

These people actually did it.

Maybe it was for video games. “Bully” is right here, on sale. But who needs the game when you can live it? Toys. Cameras. Computers. Flat-screen televisions. Plasma screens.

I’m afraid I don’t see it. I’m afraid no amount of explanation can make me understand how people insisted on shopping even as Damour died, even as officials tried to close the store, consumed by this Eye-for-an-I-Pod abdication of priority.

I’m afraid in our heated quest for high definition, we have lost our focus.

And if this seems a bit heavy, it’s because I don’t think there was anything particularly unusual about that crowd of shoppers in Long Island. I think it could have been anywhere.

I have been wondering when in this country we would finally become ashamed of ourselves. I have wondered what it would take to at long last shake us out of our marketing-addled stupor of acquisition.

I’d say the killing of Jdimytai Damour presents as good an occasion as any.

For the better part of two years, candidate and President-elect Barack Obama has embarked on a concerted campaign to lift the people of this country up.

Maybe it’s time for someone to chew us out.

I have heard the explanations of psychologists — that in difficult economic times there’s an irrational fear of going without.

But there’s nothing within these 28 pages that a person needs to live. This nation’s founding fathers wisely provided for the “pursuit of happiness,” in our Declaration of Independence, but not a single item in this Walmart document can fairly be termed a requirement for happiness.

Though, if you read the fine print, it’s easy to see why people might be in such a froth to think otherwise. Two phrases dominate the document, but appear in such small type as to be almost subliminal: “While Supplies Last,” and “One Time Offer.” Together, they appear 148 times in these 28 pages, and the message is clear: “You’d better hurry. You’d better be intense. It’s not enough to want these things, you need to really want them. You need to act. You might well miss out.”

And the marketing works, because it has worked on us for a lifetime. I have a 4-year-old son. From his car seat, he shouts out the ad slogans of every national chain business we pass. On Black Friday, I looked at a newspaper from San Diego, where a high school teacher is selling advertising space at the bottom of tests to pay for printing costs. It sounds innovative. But the presence of such messages is insidious.

And if they are loud enough, long enough and creative enough, we begin to believe we need what they tell us we need, even if it is a load of junk. And it is worthless, all of it, compared with a single, human life.

Yet there are those who even would tell us that it is patriotic to pump our money into the Black Friday economy.

“Save money,” the Walmart slogan begins. “Live better.”

It could not be more wrong.


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