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Capitalism’s Grossest Win: The Final Triumph of Black Friday

From Plymouth Rock to Thanksgiving at Best Buy: The Puritan ethic went spectacularly astray, all for an iPad mini.

For wily veterans of a decade of Black Friday doorbuster sales, 2012 was the year that the last semblance of a boundary between the actual day of Thanksgiving and the formal commencement of the holiday shopping season finally collapsed. It wasn’t just the decision by some of the biggest retailers to move their opening hours earlier than ever before. For many customers, the exact time when the doors were unlocked was irrelevant, because Thanksgiving had already become completely subsumed in shopping mania. What difference does it make if the doors open at 8 p.m. or midnight, if you were already in line days earlier?

Consider the example of the Kelley family in Fort Myers, Fla., so determined to sacrifice nothing of their quality of life while in quest for the perfect deal that they showed up in front of the local Best Buy’s doors on  Monday, equipped with a dinner table.

This is what we call  not messing around:

“[Over the years] we’ve pretty much gone from not sleeping in a tent to a tent and slowly progressed to where we’ve got everything that we remember we need,” said Sean Kelley, who is ready to have his Thanksgiving feast in line, [as reported by in Miami/Fort Lauderdale.] “On Thanksgiving, mom comes out with the china and the plates, and we’ve got everything you have on a normal Thanksgiving table.”

That’s some real can-do American pioneer spirit right there, worthy of the Puritan settlers who struggled through fierce New England winters to bequeath us our most indigenous of holidays. The merger of festival and fantastic flat-screen TV deal makes sense: The United States is the greatest consumer society that has ever existed on this planet. Shopping is the lifeblood of our economy; capitalism as we know it would founder if we all stopped buying stuff. In this context,  “buying nothing” on the very day that the Christmas shopping season traditionally begins would be foundationally unpatriotic. And if that means passing the gravy while standing in line in front of Wal-Mart, so be it.

But there was also something deeply disturbing at the sight of so many Americans waiting this week to get into stores that were already open. Black Friday’s metastasizing control over our popular culture is propelled by a poor economy and reminds us how millions of Americans have seen their incomes stagnate or fall over the past decade. We wouldn’t be so desperate to be first through those doors if stretching every dollar to its furthest possible extent didn’t mean so much, right? And union activists attempting to organize Wal-Mart workers wouldn’t have  targeted Black Friday for a nationwide strike if the day wasn’t so resonant for the national economy, right?

Black Friday has it all: Exploited workers!  No Thanksgiving holiday for you, Wal-Mart stock boy, to go along with your rock-bottom wages and nonexistent healthcare! Consumer product superabundance!  Just deciding which of the proliferating tablet offerings to buy this year is a task that will intimidate even the savviest shopper. Violence and greed!  Even as you are reading these words, someone, somewhere, got a little too frisky with the pepper spray while reaching for that half-off Sony Bravia.

It’s a toxic mix that tells us too much about the state of our own culture. The kickoff to the shopping season is crucial to the overall health of our economy, but at the same time the annual spectacle is sending strong signals that something is deeply wrong. Since when did celebrating Thanksgiving while in line to buy an iPad Mini represent the apotheosis of our culture?

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