Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Will Shopping Trump Turkey?

Apart from some regular grocery-shopping, my shopping needs are modest-to-minimal (and more and more of my minimal shopping is conducted on-line). Add to that an underlying, residual, anti-commercial, anti-market world-view, rooted in my academic formation and reinforced by religion, and one result over the years has been an almost complete indifference to such high holydays of American consumerism as Black Friday. I've known people who head for the mall in Black Friday's pre-dawn hours, but I've never been even remotely tempted to share in that experience.

My attention has, however, been peaked by Black Friday's increasing intrusion into Thanksgiving Day itself, as more and more stores have started opening - some at midnight, some at 10:00 p.m., some even as early as 8:00 p.m. on Thanksgiving Day. Commenting on this dreadful development in today's Contra Costa Times, the director of the Retail Management Institute at Santa Clara University is quoted as saying: "Looking 10 years down the road, maybe we'll say, 'There used to be this nice holiday.' Thanksgiving will have disappeared."

Just contemplate that: "Thanksgiving will have disappeared"! 

Of course, Thanksgiving won't quite "disappear." What will more likely happen is what's already happened to Sunday (which was universally a real holiday in the Western world  from 321 A.D. until somewhere around the middle of my life-time). What will likely happen is what's already happened to most of our other "holidays," which used to have cultural and civic significance and were widely observed as such until living memory, but are now largely glorified shopping days.

The inevitability of this dreadful development in our consumerist, capitalist culture is clear. Today's same Contra Costa Times quotes a Bay Area shopping center's director of marketing and business development as saying: "Just being here and seeing the huge volume of customers and the demand really opened our eyes. It's not something these retailers would be doing if they didn't see the demand."

Given the unholy alliance of business greed and consumer greed, the obvious - and only - solution would have to be government legislation. That, of course, is what we used to have until relatively recently, when Sunday and holiday closing laws were common. Today's New York Times has an edifying article ("Where Pilgrims Landed, Thanksgiving is Kept at Table Not Mall") highlighting the beneficial survival of colonial-ear "Blue Laws" in Massachusetts, Maine, and Rhode Island, which, so far at least, are still somewhat protecting Thanksgiving Day.

The widespread destruction of "Blue Laws" and the consequent assault on the humane and familial values they protected is, of course, part of the larger story of the modern assault on those values form both right and left - on the "right" from capitalism's rapacious market forces and on the "left" from cultural and moral individualism and relativism (the latter historically fostered by the former). As conservative commentator R.R. Reno wrote recently in First Things ("The Public Square," November 2012)“Our capitalist system’s creative destruction puts a great deal of life into play, often ripping up our neighborhoods to build shiny new buildings, offering lucrative or interesting jobs that lure us away from our extended families, and generally acting as a solvent on all forms of communal permanence. The way in which contemporary liberalism reinvents moral truths reflects another kind of creative destruction, one that reinforces rather than remediates the worst aspects of modern economic life. Moral revolution tears down our mores as completely as a real estate developer destroys a settled neighborhood.”

We have lost a lot that made life more humane - and continue to be losing a lot - thanks to the unholy alliance of these two forces which define contemporary culture. Sadly, Thanksgiving Day, until recently one of the least commercial and most traditional and familial of American holidays, seems on the way to becoming yet another casualty.

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