On December 3, 2012, I created a “reminder” on my iPhone. It reads, “Post idea: Black Friday at Walmart not so bad.” Now, I wish I had taken the time to write the post I had in my mind when I made this reminder, because thinking about it just now fills me with more embarrassment than inspiration.
Look, I really don’t like shopping at Walmart. For any item you want or think you need, its flimsiest, lousiest, ugliest incarnation lies waiting for you down some crazy Walmart isle. That particular Walmart smell of new plastic and McDonald’s french fries is unwholesome and repulsive.
And I really don’t like Black Friday, or at least the extremes of Black Friday. I have no objection to bargains. But I do have objections to acquisitive families cutting short their Thanksgiving holiday to go to bed early in order to rise refreshed to stand in line for the 5am opening. And like everyone I sneer self-righteously at footage of deranged shoppers dog-piling over some stack of Chinese electronics. But.
But what? What did I have in mind five weeks ago when I wrote that reminder? I wish I knew.
Interlude…Tom puts on his Chesterton hat and tries to find the best in every popular practice, acknowledging vulgarity and wickedness but finding far more interesting whatever golden slivers of goodness shine through…Hat doesn’t fit well…Still interluding…Ok, maybe….Maybe?…Well, let’s give it a go…
Commerce is intrinsically good. With a few exceptions, anything you can buy is, under some imaginable circumstances, worth buying. It is, in general, good to buy things. This is because, 1) things in general are good and because 2) possessing things is good and because 3) in buying a thing you give someone else the opportunity to possess things.
While it is good to recognize that there are inappropriate times and places for commerce (see Jesus and the moneychangers…this is probably not the point of the temple cleansing…but like Church Fathers I’ll adapt the Bible to my own high purpose), it’s also snobbish to separate commerce overmuch from your day-to-day, real life. You are not wholly an economic entity, but you are an economic entity, made that way not by capitalism but by nature. You are a finite, fragile hunk of dust and rely on all sort of external goods to keep you going, and hence rely on all sorts of other people to supply you those goods. So it’s not good to poo-poo commercial activities like going shopping and hunting for bargains. Even if these activities are done in a mini-van, even if they’re done in a (the squeamish may skip the following word) suburb, even if you must transverse a parking lot so expansive that all of old Oxford could fit into it, still, the activities are good and noble. Food and textiles and electronics and toys: they’re awesome!
So here’s my thought. Black Friday shopping wraps a noble human activity into one of our most cherished national holidays. While we’re taking time to be with family and friends in an extra-intentional way, while we’re taking time to reflect on all the good things we enjoy and to express gratitude for them however and to whomever we know how to express gratitude, we’re also taking time to buy things for ourselves and others in a way that prudently stewards the resources we have.
Additionally–and this is anecdotal–Black Friday, if celebrated as a holiday instead of endured as a chore, can be a time of genuine solidarity with your neighbors. For those minivan driving suburban Walmart shoppers, Black Friday may be the one old-fashioned “market day” of the year, where all manner of people come out proffering their wares or, on the other side of the counter, demanding the best deals; everyone rubbing elbows together and embracing manfully our humble economic humanity, not wincing or sneering like an aesthete or a rich man. My in-laws were standing in some enormous line waiting for one of the hot-ticket items to become available, and struck up many conversations with those around them. My father-in-law bought fries and a coke for a few people behind him, my mother-in-law asked the other ladies where else they were going and traded notes about the best deals. Too busy to wait in one long line, my mother-in-law offered to pay a purchasing fee if anyone in line would pick up something for her (all demanded too high a price, as it turned out).
You see, ordinarily shopping is not so interactive or so festive. So keep making your criticisms of Black Friday–they’re probably all valid–but don’t dismiss the tradition (yes, it’s become that).
Postlude…so how was that? It was okay…no idea if this is what you were thinking about on 12/3…Rhetoric a bit forced…but point about economic human nature genuinely insightful…and I almost imagined Walmart as a Turkish bazaar as you were talking about the crowds and the interaction…still, will you actually celebrate Black Friday next year?…I plead the Fifth…