The nation gives thanks … for what?
I was never a William Burroughs fan, but I nonetheless find myself thinking about his 1986 “Thanksgiving Prayer,” surely one of the most caustic (and insightful) takes on our great American holiday. I’m in this sort of mood for a reason. Or two, or three.
First off, you may have noticed all the static around the news that more and more businesses will be open today, getting a jump on tomorrow’s appalling orgy of consumerism, Black Friday. That term originated in the early 1960s, apparently, with bus drivers and the police, who used it to describe the mayhem surrounding the biggest shopping day of the year. It was not intended as a complimentary appellation, either. Clogged streets, unruly mobs, scenes that were wholly at odds with the “reason for the season” – black is the color of mourning, not celebration.
Fast-forward 50 years and we find that retailers have actually embraced the term. Google “Black Friday deals” and consider the results. Check out Best Buy. Or Macy’s. Or Target. Or Walmart. Or this, which just arrived in my inbox from Groupon:
“Doorbusters,” which reminds us that people have been injured and killed in these melees, has now become a sales hook. As I observed last year, it has become our new high holy day. If our institutions of advanced shopping can make hay with Black Friday and people being trampled to death by a rampaging stampede of shoppopotami, I’d love to see what Madison Avenue could do with “poverty” or “herpes.” (BTW, you can keep track of the mounting casualties with the online Black Friday Death Count tracker.)
One can’t help wondering how many people who are venturing out today and tomorrow to take part in the collective riot will, in a few short days, begin carping about the “War on Christmas.”
Black Friday is bad enough, but now our great American moment of gratitude has been co-opted, as well. Thanksgiving is now Black Thursday, and the other day we got news that a Pizza Hut manager in Indiana had been fired for refusing to open today. Now, the good news is that he has been reinstated. But read the story closely and ask yourself a question: had the story not gained national attention that embarrassed the brand, would Tony Rohr have his job back or would the black shadow of unemployment lay heavy across the table as he and his family sat down to their dinner of thanks?
I guess we should be thankful that we have a media culture that finds out about these kinds of injustices and calls them to our attention. In a pre-Internet, pre-24-hour news cycle world Pizza Hut would never have had to respond to save its reputation and Tony would down at the McDonald’s putting in an application first thing tomorrow. On the other hand, this makes us think about what kinds of stories get covered and it reminds us that corporate media ignores a great many critically important stories altogether. So maybe not.
Perhaps I’m projecting a little here. On Tuesday the CFO of my company flew into town unexpectedly, called us all into a meeting and explained that the senior exec who ran our office had resigned. As a result, HQ was closing the office down and we were all being terminated. He stressed repeatedly how much he hated doing it, and then he and the HR guy set about doing it with a crisp, banal efficiency. Of course, I believe him – he can’t possibly have enjoyed throwing 16 talented folks into the street two days before Black Thursday. But as I type I imagine him enjoying the Macy’s parade on television, then football, and finally a feast of gratitude with his family – while the rest of us wonder what we’re going to do for a paycheck.
He’s thankful. Me, I’m having a little tougher time with it.
This is the day where we all talk about what we’re thankful for, and while I’m obviously depressed about Black Tuesday, there are things for which I’m deeply grateful. At the top of that list you’ll find my family and friends, who are the most remarkable collection of people anywhere. I’m thankful that I discovered the sheer joy of photography last year. And I’m grateful for my colleagues here at S&R and our readers. I wish each and every one of you a happy holiday.
I hope everyone has much to be thankful for today. But as we pause to reflect on the many blessings, advantages and privileges we enjoy, I’d ask you to spare a moment to contemplate that which we ought not be thankful for. Maybe a few seconds to consider how the day of gratitude has been colonized by what is worst in us, by the great stain on the soul of our nation.
I don’t want to be a bummer. I don’t want to rain on other people’s joy. But I can’t think of a better time than right now to ponder Thanksgiving 2014, and 2015, and 2025. I’d like our day of thanks to arrive and depart with a clean conscience, and that begins with acknowledging, right here and now, that we have some work to do.
Now Playing: “Trampled Underfoot,” Led Zeppelin