Thoughts on Black Friday

I was the odd man out at the Thanksgiving dinner with my opinion on Black Friday.  My opinion: Black Friday is a festering sore of American culture, theirs: there’s nothing wrong with shopping when the stuff is cheap.  I think they missed the point, but that’s fine, I’ll try and make it again (and better).

By now I’m sure that if you’re reading this you’re also aware that a Wal-Mart employee was trampled by a horde of frenzied shoppers, who broke down the entrance and stampeded into the store.  If not, here is the story.  What surprises me is that this is the first time someone’s died in such a fracas.  Does this story exemplify my case, or strengthen it?  I do know that I am repulsed by a society in which ideas of human decency are forgotten when something goes on sale.  This person died not at the hands of an angry mob (although anger had something to do with it, I am sure), but at the feet of a mob who was enraptured by the idea of buying something for less than it usually costs.  When looked at this way, it seems such a sad way to die.

We might compare the frenzied Black Friday shopper, who arrives for the “door buster” deals (a metaphor now blackened), to the religious zealot, and Black Friday itself as the holy day.  The Black Friday zealot arrives at the store in the early morning to get the first-hour super sale.  The zealot waits in the cold and the dark, a period of painful penance that one must pay prior to being awarded the rush, the ecstasy of seeing one number crossed out and a smaller number in its place.  This ecstasy surely outweighs the simple joy of having a better TV.

But I know my friends aren’t these people.  My friends are good people, who likely abide by (most) norms of human decency when out shopping on Black Friday.  So what’s wrong if they go out shopping on the day after Thanksgiving?  I could argue that the act of shopping on the day after Thanksgiving gives life to the phenomenon, and the more who shop on that particular day, the stronger the phenomenon gets.  This probably does not dissuade those who have no problem in a phenomenon that “saves them money” (which is a wonderful way to look at it, say the marketing and business leaders).  But what of the symbolism of the matter?  Of the reinforcement of the capitalist ideal, done by your shopping on capitalism’s holy day – the day when these businesses turn a profit for the year?

One who is interested in seeing the muting of the materialist consumer lifestyle and the hyper-capitalism it promotes (where every “sale” is simply a cost passed down onto someone else, such as the environment) ought not shop on Black Friday.  This day is the celebration of materialism, of buying the new and shiny, and every purchase goes towards reinforcing the ideals of both consumerism and capitalism.  Instead of increasing demand for new goods, why not buy used?  If concerned with the pocket-book, this makes sense.  If concerned about the environment, this makes sense.  I argue that we ought consume less every day of the year, but it makes a particularly strong statement if we do not shop on that day of the year when everything is “cheap” and our pantheon of deities, Best Buy et al, find their enticements ignored.

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Remembering COINTELPRO

In times when the government seems to bungle everything, a common conclusion drawn by many is that the government is incapable of producing “results.”  The recent spate of governmental ineptness and inadequacy (Iraq, Katrina, the economy) is not only a spicy combination of ideology, bureaucracy, and nepotism, it is dangerous in the sense that it decreases the average person’s fear of the government.  Why fear a group of individuals and institutions which don’t know their elbow from their asshole?

And then we reflect back on history and the ability of small groups of individuals hidden within the government’s bureaucratic layers to get their results.  For instance, COINTELPRO, the FBI counter-counterculture unit that engaged in a wide variety of criminal activity in the 1960s and 70s.  Those of the “left” were the target, and they were pursued with determination.  Breaking up any “subversive” activity was their goal, which necessitated infiltration, burglary, and violent aggression (to assassination if you ask some).  Should you win a Pulitzer writing about the Vietnam war, get tracked by the FBI for two decades.  The FISA court that came to our attention in the last year came into being as a direct result of the investigations into COINTELPRO’s activities.

For all those who readily agree that the government wants us stupid, we should also realize that the government does not lose anything if we come to the conclusion that it is inept.  The government does not have to fear a radical overhaul led by the citizenry.  The institutions of government and those who staff them have nothing to fear from the bovine American populace.  Thus what does it matter if the stupid cows make themselves feel better by ruminating on the stupidity of government?  It grants the people a false sense of security, which is something entirely useful for those in power.  In short, this is a caution to those who smirk at the ineffectiveness of our government.

Nixonland

I just finished Rick Perlstein’s book Nixonland, which is a biography of Richard Nixon but also a study of 60s era politics and how the divisions that existed then reverberate today. The book was so well done that I can’t think of many substantial criticisms. It is one of the most detailed biographical tomes I’ve ever read (for instance, I never knew Watergate robber E. Howard Hunt was a bestselling suspense novelist under a pen name, or that G. Gordon Liddy admires Nazi Germany).

Perlstein argues that Nixon pioneered the manipulation of cultural divides for political gain. More significant than 60s left wing radicalism for Perlstein was the backlash against it, which was more ubiquitous than the movement itself. Nixon did, after all, win the ‘72 election in a landslide. Perlstein identifies Nixon as the grand innovator when it comes to framing liberals as “elites” and conservatives as the true populists who identify with middle America. This, of course, was aided by Nixon’s own insecurities that come from his history as a blue collar Californian who was beaten down all his life by East Coast elites like the Kennedys.

He saw himself as part of the “silent majority.” According to Perlstein, he and his true believers saw saving the country from the liberal democratic establishment and 60s anarchists (they were all bound together) as necessitating any extreme—even a nationwide campaign of spying, political sabotage and robbery.

Perlstein spends a good deal of time on Nixon’s role in putting away Alger Hiss. Nixon was the House’s equivalent to McCarthy and embraced his position in HUAC. At a time when most thought of HUAC as a bastion of wing nuts, Nixon saw it as a populist platform and a way to blur the distinction between establishment liberals and Communist infiltrators.

Nixonland also has the advantage of hindsight. Older books on Nixon—not knowing what we know now—tend to offer fragmented glimpses of Nixon’s chicanery. Nixonland leaves no doubt of Nixon’s role in, among other things, the infiltration and sabotage of Democratic campaigns, nation wide robberies and domestic spying. In addition to Watergate, Nixon’s “plumbers,” who operated right out the White House, broke into Daniel Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office and the Brookings institution. Nixon himself even contemplated firebombing Brookings so fake firefighters could break in and steal top secret documents.

Read it!

Negative Campaigning

Many of the major media outlets are carrying the determination by al-Zawahiri that President-elect Obama is not the true candidate of change. Such an outcry will clearly hurt al-Qaeda’s attempt to become the brand of resistance. The group clearly has not realized that negative campaigning does not work with Obama.

In a campaign to win the hearts and minds of the people of the world, so as to control how they use the guns and bombs of the world, as a nation we begin with a disadvantage. This disadvantage is not unique to the U.S. What is unique (well, shared with France) is that the U.S. has attempted to ignore this problem.

Kissinger discussed it well in his treatment of the foreign policy ideology of Woodrow Wilson versus Teddy Roosevelt. Teddy famously declared that we should tred softly and carry a big stick. This advice he would have given to any nation. The U.S. was not divinely special or endowed with magical powers of enlightenment. It was a great power that needed to act like the other great powers of the time. It needed to balance against the rising power of Germany, and to guarantee that China remained open for trade despite the power of the UK, Japan and Russia. The U.S. held no monopoly on morality. Morality belonged to humanity.

Wilson, on the other hand, argues Kissinger, inaugurated the age of moral imperialism in U.S. foreign policy. The U.S. was/is the shiny beacon on the hill. Showing all of humanity the path towards truth, justice, and prosperity. Since there existed a single Truth and good for all humanity and it was known by the U.S. there could not exist any real compromise. Any compromise with U.S. objectives would clearly be a perversion of the good. With knowledge of Truth the U.S. must spread the Gospel; it must bring forth the global transformation that would bring the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth. Wilson expounded a universal doctrine that was to be enforced by the foreign policy of the U.S., and could only be perverted if we followed the advice of Others.

Well, maybe the religious language was a little over the top and the two are merely ideal types for the purpose of discussion, but the message should be clear. At its most benign the U.S. foreign policy project of helping the world is universal. However, the the tool is clearly not. The U.S. nation-state is a country with a sense of itself as finite. The borders of the people do not extend beyond the borders of the state (if that). This is a problem.

I would argue that a people with a finite sense of itself cannot carry out a foreign policy that wishes to be truly universal. The reason being that the ingroup will not be able to perceive the full-fledged humanity of the Other. Psychologists Jacques-Phillippe Leyens and friends identified the unconscious denial of secondary emotions to outgroup members by the ingroup. They were, however, allowed primary emotions. Primary emotions are such things like joy, sadness, anger, fear, disgust, and surprise. They are the emotional states that you would associate with an animal. Secondary emotions are more complex. They entail such emotional states as affection, admiration, pride, conceit, nostalgia, remorse, and rancor.

While I have not looked at further studies of the hypothesis, Leyens and co. do come up with the disturbing conclusion that ‘we’ associate ‘them’ with primary emotions and do not conceive of the possiblity that ‘they’ may have more complex emotions. This cognitive bias, however, means that ‘we’ can not truly empathisize with the Other. We merely see them as emotionally retarded. To truly lead the world against the threats of the future there needs to be movement away from the conception of the finite nation… Of course, that creates new problems.

Urban Apartheid

I’ve started living among the swells in Philadelphia’s Rittenhouse square district.  Tonight was one of those “when in Rome” nights.  We started with wine on the 19th floor of the Bellevue hotel (where I hear every president since Wilson has stayed, and Sarah Palin recently held a fund raiser).  This city’s skyline is an utter fireworks display at night.  Then it was on to a play.  After that, absinthe (now apparently legal) on the square.

I’ve lived in North Philadelpia (poor), South Philadelpia (blue collar) and now Rittenhouse Square.  Finally I can walk the tree line streets without being reminded of all the city’s problems.  We’ve got a 20 percent poverty rate, a school system that graduates students into the prison system, and a statue of the racist head busting mayor Frank Rizzo standing near city hall.  None of those things bother me anymore.  Apartheid isn’t so bad, as long as you’re on the right side of it.

Walmart and the child consumer

Was watching Hardball, or something of the sort, and during a break Walmart aired a commercial that struck me.  It featured several children, and each wanted something for Christmas.  “I want a dinosaur,” etc.  At the end, it flashed to a “mother” of the children, who stated, “This Christmas, I want my children to follow their imaginations.”  Brilliant advertising, especially to any children who happened to be watching, as it empowers them to demand that their parents buy them shit.  It is yet another example of what Juliet Schor wrote about in her book Born to Buy.

What’s interesting to me in this case is the reduction of a child’s imagination to their ability to isolate particular consumables and then nag their parents to buy it for them.  In a way, we might see this as symbolic of the consumer society as a whole, where as individuals or as society our imagination becomes an instrument of desire.  The end served by our imagination is the purchase of the commodity, to direct the brain accordingly.  Rather than imagining a better politics, we imagine what life would be like with a shiny new laptop.  We’re all guilty of this, myself included (just purchased a shiny new laptop), but it is disturbing to see the effect on someone so young.  That the child’s imagination is not soaring through a book but imagining the euphoria of possessing a commodity is a danger to a society that seeks to be more than an aggregation of individual consumers.