By:Thomas Fleming | February 08, 2011
"He who dies with the most toys wins."
Every year on Black Friday, American shoppers brave the bad weather and go out to do battle with other shoppers in a contest that will determine who pays the least for the most stuff they are better off without. Twenty years ago, the worst these victims of modern marketing had to face was long lines, high levels of frustration, and exasperated clerks. Now, they can be assaulted by angry competitors or trampled to death by a mob of Jerks with greed in their hearts and blood in their eyes. On November 26, 2010, some shoppers (worried about the economy, of course) were on a hair-trigger.
In Buffalo a man was pushed to the floor trampled by a mob, oblivious to his screams of "I don't want to die here."
In Madison, a 21 year old woman threatened to shoot shopping competitors who got in her way, though a police search turned up no weapon.
At the Los Cerritos Center in California, fights erupted at a food court, and shots rang out.
Anyone who follows the local news or braves the dangers of Christmas shopping could tell better stories than these—and I hope you will, if only so that I can rip them off for the book. But let us look a little more closely at the shopping mania that has so many Americans in its grips and does so much to aggravate the jerkitude that is never far beneath the surface of the postmodern American character.
Shopping, as we understand the experience, is a comparatively recent phenomenon. Of course, people have always bought things, or at least traded them. When we Americans say we pride ourselves on self-reliance, we are obviously remembering scenes from Little House on the Prairie, not from our lives. Although there are parts of America, even in suburbia, where people can tough out a hurricane or flood for a week or two, the survival skills needed for self-sufficiency are fast disappearing. While Hank Jr. could sing, 30 years ago, "We can skin a buck and run a trot line," his son's generation is probably handier at texting or rolling a joint (not that Bocephus could not roll his own).
But frontiersmen, let us remember, represent a tiny part of human experience. A large part of being human is to know how much we depend on others for food, clothing, and wireless internet service. Climbing down from his tree, the early ape-turned-man tried to trade his bananas for a throwing stick he could use to knock down a rabbit—or, more likely, the poor guy who had traded the throwing stick for the bananas.
While the apeman was trading and plundering, his wife prowled the fields, day after day, looking for berries and roots. When she found more than they could eat in a day, she could exchange them for something she thought she needed but probably could have done without. Ever since those earliest days, men and women have maintained quite different shopping strategies. Men, typically, hunt for the tools they need, and, as soon as they find what they are looking for, they rush to the checkout counter. Women—and yes, I know this sounds sexist—are in it for the total experience. They go up and down the aisles, looking at the nuts and berries, hats and gloves and perfumes that strike their fancy. You never know what you may find, as my wife says. Men are exasperated, but, then, American males think they are being manly when they watch NFL games on TV, and they contrast this significant and demanding activity with their wives' waste of time on women's magazines and dramatic television serials.
Some men, it is true, enjoy shopping, but that is usually because they have a consuming passion like fishing tackle, carpentry tools, or computer stuff that excites their imagination, while for many women, it hardly matters what the store is selling. Men are hunters, women are gatherers. One result of this is that women, who take so much more time in shopping, are less likely to get stung by high prices for inferior merchandise than their impatient boyfriends.
But when I described Shopping as a comparatively modern phenomenon, I did not mean a trip to the market to buy food for the day or a casual stroll along the Seine looking at old books. By Shopping, as opposed to mere shopping, I mean regularly setting aside long hours to go to a mall dedicated to stoking the fires of consumerism. The mall—as opposed to the market or the shop—is not simply a place to buy things; it is an experience in itself, a fantasyland where men and women with nothing better to do can buy the uniform and identikit that makes them who they are: Microsoft programs, iPhones, Nike running shoes, Starbucks coffee, (but the task of filling up the blanks I'd rather leave to you.) An entire generation of Americans has now been brought up to indentify themselves with the brands they buy, and from infancy children are taught, first at home and then in daycare and kindergarten be brand-loyal consumers in the same way they are brought up to be Packers fans.
Whether they shop singly or in packs of feral teens running riot, shoppers enjoy the comforting sense of anonymity. In a mall or supermarket of even modest dimensions, it is unlikely that anyone will recognize them or remember them in the future, no matter what they do. If they have the slightest propensity for being a Jerk, shopping will bring it out.
Not every shopper is a Jerk, quite the contrary, and not all malls and supermarkets encourage rude and selfish behavior. Some communities take a dim view of aggressive shopping. I know I was astounded, on moving back to the Midwest, at the aggressive old people who rammed their carts into mine, staring at me defiantly, daring me to say something. In 25 years of living in Illinois, I could count on the fingers of one hand the number of times someone has run into me and then said, "excuse me." By contrast, I was walking down the streets of Quebec with an inattentive Canadian friend who got lost in pointing out the historical sites and knocked a man over. The victim, as he was getting to his feet, apologized. It was natural for the Canadien to accept responsibility even when he was in the right.
People complain about the rudeness of New Yorkers, and some of the complaints are justified, but New Yorkers are not so much rude as indifferent. They have learned to look several feet past anyone who might be approaching them. It is safer that way, but when I slipped and fell in the street, coming back from dinner, several New Yorkers came over to help, assuming I was drunk. There are places in America where they would have walked over my body rather than lend a helping hand. Soon after I moved to Illinois, a friend from South Carolina visited us, and I took him out to my favorite liquor store to buy bourbon. After getting knocked in the shins with a shopping cart and stared at as if he were a Martian, my friend observed that anyone acting this way in his state would get killed. It was a slight exaggeration, but I do have to remind myself, every time I go South or spend time in Italy, to turn off the Jerk alarm that keeps me on the alert, ever on the lookout to retaliate against the middle class hoodlums who are making life in suburbia intolerable.
If Jerks are spoiled children who just won't grow up, then the Jerk on a shopping spree is defined by the most obvious of children's vices: greed, the pure unadulterated lust for more things. St. Augustine, who knew about as much as anyone knows of human rottenness, once denied that children had innocence: It was only physical weakness that prevented an infant from killing to get at the breast he wanted, and it is only our lack of power as individuals that prevents us from acting on the impulse of our greed glands. As Dirty Harry observed so sagely, "A man's got to know his limitations." This is the ancient wisdom of Socrates and the Delphic Oracle: Know Thyself; Nothing in Excess; maintain the Golden Mean, all of which sums up our recognition that we are not gods and cannot have our way in everything. Unfortunately, we can temporarily transcend our human limits by joining a mob. As Max Beerbohm famously observed: "You cannot make a man by standing a sheep on its hind legs, but by standing a flock of sheep in that position you can make a crowd of men. If man were not a gregarious animal, the world might have achieved by this time some real progress toward civilization." (I should add an etymological note, that gregarious, from Latin grex (flock or herd), does not mean simply friendly by refers to the behavior of herd animals.)
Just announce an introductory sale on iPads or a new computer game. There is more buying frenzy than a Microsoft IPO. Men of all ages start lining up the night before, oblivious to the cold weather or the discomforts. These fanatical shoppers combine the dedication of the sports fan with the desire of the lover.
Greed, while it can be controlled or sublimated, can not be eliminated, because it is part of the human condition. In the ancient world greed was denounced both by Aristotle and St. Paul as an unnatural vice. But the English word, so redolent of smacking lips and insatiable lust for things, is a bit misleading. The word is so negative that hardly anyone would own up to being greedy, while the word used by Aristotle and Paul means simply "getting more." Well, that's different. Who is there today who doesn't want more of whatever he likes? Not to push forward to get more is cowardly and un-American. In the movie Key Largo, and old man asks the gangster Johnny Rocco (played by Edward G. Robinson) what he wants out of life. At first, Rocco says he doesn't know, but given a little prompting (by Humphrey Bogart), he admits he does know what he wants: "More. That's right! I want more!" More money more cars, more wives, smaller cell phones or bigger package—more. And it does not matter how he gets it. Most of us are a little smarter than Bernie Madoff. We know that if we sell billions of dollars of shares of nothing, eventually someone will probably catch up with us. But a little cheating on our taxes or expense account—who gets hurt? And during the Holiday Shopping Season that has replaced Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Channuka, may the best man win.
Americans today may not be greedier than their grandparents or than the ancient Greeks who loved wealth as much as anyone can, but unlike other cultures, we have built or lives around greed the way some people devote themselves to sex or violence. Being human, of course, we lie about this, and we disguise our devotion to getting and spending by giving to charities—albeit tax-exempt charities. But the reality of American life is that never in the history of the world have so many people owned so much useless stuff that is doomed to be replaced in two or three years. This is the manufacturing strategy of planned obsolescence.
Some advocates of greed—they are known as libertarians—actually come out and say it: Built in obsolescence is good. Why buy a refrigerator that will last 20 years, when technology will provide astonishing new gadgetry in less than five? Today, we have icemakers and ice water pumps. Who knows? The next model may have a built-in microwave that can cook the frozen pizza without anyone having to do anything but open the box and serve. Will it be good pizza? No, but that's not the point. The point is novelty. Why, the country would go broke, if people stopped buying things they did not need but want because they are told to want it by admen who promise them social approval and beautiful women.
I once asked a druggie friend of mine about his then current craze: inhaling the gas propellant of a product used to ice champagne glasses. He described a set of horrifying symptoms—diffraction patterns, the smell of blood, violent headache, and then unconsciousness. Asked why he would willingly undergo all this, my friend replied. "It's something different." Go to the Supermarket in January and watch people stocking up on frozen pizzas and Buffalo wings. The best that can be said is that it is "something different," though in truth it all tastes the same.
There are two sets of phenomena in American life that are closely related: our eating habits and our shopping propensities. In both cases, we follow fads, regardless of quality, and in both cases more always trumps better. A Neapolitan who inherits a little 10 table joint from his parents spends his whole life learning to make pizza, a culinary art so difficult that it has baffled some of the greatest chefs who have attempted it. He makes enough money to take care of his family and keep the business going long enough to pass it down to his own children. An American stocks up his freezer with Tombstone or Red Baron, and, in the unlikely event he ever tastes a real pizza, he complains that it is only tomato, cheese, and basil or perhaps a bit of undercooked sausage, or eggplant without tomato. When he shops, even if he insists on the best, he needs the biggest TV, the fastest computer, the largest number of Bears t-shirts for the lowest money.
In a set of interrelated short stories titled The Crystal Frontier, Carlos Fuentes tells a fantastic tale of a Mexican chef who lectures to American students. The students, weary of his pontifications—true as they are—on the superiority of Mexican over American cuisine, take him out for a real meal, inevitably to McDonalds. In the evenings he watches the Shopping Channel and buys every piece of crockery, every gadget that is offered. Soon his apartment is full, and he rents space a Southern California warehouse to store his useless loot. Finally, he loads up a truck and with a cowboy who got lost in the mall, heads back to Mexico, spilling garbage along the way. Yes, it is over the top, and yes, Fuentes, despite all the nice things Americans have done for him, has heaped ridicule on this country his whole life, but he has a point, the same point Edward Abbey made in one of his last books, where he denounced the "ant people" of Japan and all the useless junk they sell us.
This, then, is the background for the desperately rude and selfish behavior we witness every day in shopping malls and supermarkets. The Black Friday stampede at a Walmart in 2008, during which an employee was killed as the mob broke through the door, is only an extreme case. And, by the way, did the shoppers break off their spree, when the police tried to clear the store for their investigation? They did not. Some shouted out angrily that they had waited in line for hours. Others just went on shopping. George Romero's Dawn of the Dead, in which Zombies in a shopping mall cannot be distinguished from ordinary shoppers, was prophetic—or was it merely descriptive?
More to come