Mainstream media spin Black Friday sales and limited violence to support the ideological imperative to shop

In a weekend OpEdge entry, I concluded that the three small incidents of violence reported nationally on Black Friday demonstrated how docile a society we have become. An Associated Press writer used the same three incidents to build a case that Black Friday has “devolved” into a “wave of violence” in an article titled “How much crazier can Black Friday get?”

With an estimated 152 million people shopping in stores and only three incidents, all relatively minor, I stand by my initial assessment that Black Friday was actually a very peaceful day this year. I do, however, want to explore the ideology behind the hand-wringing hype.

The hyping of Black Friday violence serves several ideological functions: The issue itself—has Black Friday become more dangerous, more violent or less civil?—serves as an example in the public discussion of the broader issues of safety and civility. Societies always have public safety concerns: how they are manifested is thus revealing of each particular society. How we speak about public safety makes subtle statements about the ideology or ideological battles of the times. Thus in the 50’s, an age in which one of the most important ideological imperatives was to influence Americans to move to car-dependent suburbs, a lot of talk about public safety revolved around the dangers of city living.

What we see in the AP’s and other articles about Black Friday violence reflects our current fears of violence in public places. The context, however, is shopping, pure and simple. Just as so-called urban violence prevented people from keeping their families safe in the 50’s, so the AP story subtly proposes that violence threatens our ability to shop. In both cases, the threat is to something central to the American way of life. In misinterpreting the relative calm of Black Friday, the subliminal message of the mass media is that the commercial transaction is central to our lives, a right that is under attack, the fear of losing which resonates within us with the raw emotional power of love or hunger.

The secondary effect of these stories about Black Friday violence is that the perpetrators become role models for misbehavior against which we can measure our own actions.  We saw this effect a year ago when a self-styled Tiger Mom advocated a harsh program for raising successful, career-driven children. The Tiger Mom became a symbol of overly restrictive child-rearing techniques, but also for intellectualism and Asian child-rearing philosophies. Tiger Mom’s absurd actions such as not allowing her children to have sleepovers made people feel better about the anti-intellectual, undisciplined approach that many American parents take to child-rearing. She made American parents feel like they were good parents, because they were better than she was; and it made them feel that the weaknesses of American child-rearing—permissiveness and anti-intellectualism—were the very reasons that they were better.

In the same way, reading about the pepper-spraying woman, shop-lifting senior and parking lot thugs who perpetrated the few incidents of Black Friday violence make shoppers all feel better about themselves. We may have pushed a little, we may have grabbed something from the hands of someone else and we may have wasted hours waiting on line. But we didn’t pepper spray anyone. We can feel good about our shopping etiquette, and by implication, the shopping we did. We never have to confront the intellectual and spiritual bankruptcy of making shopping the be-all and end-all of our existence, the only way that we measure or manifest all emotions. The fact that we’re good little shoppers conceals the fact that all we’ve done is shop.

The final tally for what the news media is now calling “Black Friday Weekend” was impressive: A record 226 million people visited stores and websites during the four-days starting with Thanksgiving, up from 212 million last year, according to the National Retail Federation. The average holiday shopper spent $398.62 over the weekend, up from $365.34 a year ago.

Many articles offered speculation as to whether people were making their purchases early or if the sales increase meant that retailers were going to have “a holly jolly Christmas,” in the words of that esteemed social philosopher Burl Ives.

The assumption behind all of this quick-and-dirty analysis was the same: increased holiday sales is a sign that the economy is on the mend. This basic assumption ignores that the increased spending, if it occurs, will take place within the context of a real unemployment rate of 16%. The profit from the sales will not be used to hire more employees. As with all the windfalls from lower taxes, higher profit and lower costs that corporate America has received over the past 30 years, the additional profit generated by larger than expected sales will be divided among existing employees, with virtually all of it going to senior management and stockholders.

The basic fraud of the low-tax, free market regime is that growth is always good, because the rewards of growth will trickle down. Every reporter writing on Black Friday sales this year assumed this fraud as an unsaid eternal truth. To the perpetrators of contemporary American ideology, whether or not Black Friday signaled a good holiday season is grist for an always-hungry mill that daily churns out millions of words about public controversies. But the grist concerns the trivial question as to whether or not Black Friday Weekend sales predict growth. The answer matters not. But what does matter to our ruling elite is that we all continue to believe that growth is good no matter how few people enjoy the benefits of that growth.

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