On The Tangential, a creative writing blog I’m among the proprietors of, I published a post titled “Shut the Hell Up About How Stupid Black Friday Is.” In the post, I called for Black Friday conscientious objectors to stop carping about the hordes who chose to go shopping on the day after Thanksgiving. Complaining about Black Friday, I argued, (1) is boring, (2) is classist, (3) misses the point, and (4) suggests a rather snooty discomfort with the plain fact that human beings are strange creatures who opt by the millions to do ridiculous things.
Much of the response was positive; people retweeting the post added comments like “Jay Gabler wins the Internet today” and “A wonderful post!” But a lot of the response was decidedly negative. Most notably, Mother Jones—the award-winning magazine that Wikipedia calls “the most widely read liberal publication in the United States”—unfollowed The Tangential on Tumblr, with a vengeance. “Unfollowing you just now,” Mother Jones informed us via an open letter calling us out, “has provided us far more satisfaction than buying anything anywhere ever could.”
I posted that open letter on my Facebook profile, and the debate on Tumblr and Facebook has been heated. Again, some comments supported my post. “I especially agree that it’s classist to go on about Black Friday,” wrote one blogger. “For many folks, it’s the only time they have off, or have transportation or child/elder care or other types of support available to them.”
Another blogger added, “After losing everything in April, taking advantage of the Black Friday deals let me replace a lot of my appliances for my next home for a price I could easily afford. And my Mom, Meathead [?], and I had a lot of fun getting psyched up to go out in the middle of the night. And after I did my shopping, I worked the 1 am to 10 am shift at the G. So I was on both ends of the Black Friday spectrum, and I’m okay with that. One day I’ll have a job where I can play with paper all day and pay rent for an apartment (where pants are optional), but for now I’ll stand in line for that $9.99 (after rebate) crock pot with my crazy pants family.”
But Mother Jones and others saw any defense of Black Friday as a misguided promotion of a grotesque display of capitalist excess that exploits workers and puts even more profits in big corporations’ pockets. “Instead of playing ‘I’m less classist than you’ on Tumblr,” wrote Mother Jones in yet another post criticizing me, “on a day when a lot of other people have to work, we could think about what we’re actually going to do to improve the situations of everyday laborers and customers, rather than defending the corporate practices of some boardroom execs looking for a shot in the arm for their late-year market cap.”
My friend Chase Mather Turner—who runs a popular Tumblr blog as minusmanhattan—also spoke for the anti-Black-Friday contingent in a Facebook comment. “You really are missing the overall crux of why people don’t like black Friday,” he told me. “It really sucks that our society is at a point where people think they have to camp out at stores so they can buy a third plasma TV and act like animals trying to get it. You can call anything a ‘tradition’—that doesn’t justify it.”
Whew! So what do I have to say for myself?
Well, for starters, I’d like to clarify that I share some of my critics’ concerns about social inequality. I support policies that ensure opportunities for all—policies that would reverse the rapidly increasing gap between rich and poor. I agree with Mother Jones that all workers, including retail workers, should enjoy a fair share of corporate prosperity via good pay, reasonable benefits, and flexible scheduling. Contrary to the impression of a commenter on the Tangential post, I think it’s perfectly valid—necessary, even—to protest corporate greed.
That said, I don’t think anyone benefits from misleadingly portraying this as a black-and-white issue. To criticize America’s retailers for mistreating workers and convincing consumers to buy a lot of things they don’t need while ignoring the benefits we all reap from a large, competitive, well-developed retail sector—big boxes included—is just as wrong as blindly and unequivocally supporting the “pro-business” policies that have contributed to America’s growing inequality.
With respect specifically to the Black Friday frenzy, of course there are excesses—sadly, even deadly excesses. And of course retailers encourage customers to shop on Friday because they want to make money. That’s how capitalism works, and small businesses are just as avid about it as chain stores are.
It’s true that in the kind of extreme price-race-to-the-bottom that Black Friday characterizes, big retailers will always be able to underprice independent merchants; while I share the Daily Planet’s support for independent retailers and neighborhood businesses, I don’t think that additionally having a market sector that allows consumers who aren’t necessarily wealthy to afford things like plasma TVs is a bad thing.
Consider the commenter I quoted above who replaced her lost household appliances on Black Friday; or consider a couple who go to Sears on Black Friday and replace an inefficent refrigerator for one that works better, costs less to run, and consumes less energy. Is it really mandatory to hate on Sears for offering that bargain?
My Tangential post was directed at critics who sit smugly at home and drop a collective blanket of mockery on all the shoppers who fill store aisles on Black Friday. Contrary to what Mother Jones believes, for me this isn’t just about playing rhetorical games. (Not that I’m above playing rhetorical games now and again.) I share the Mother Jones editors’ concern with improving the lives of the 99% (which includes, after all, me)—I think we need to continue the Obama Administration’s policies promoting corporate accountability and equitable growth, while investing heavily in technology and education to keep American workers competitive in a global market.
That said, presenting the Black Friday debate as a false dichotomy between supporting “everyday laborers” and filling the pockets of “boardroom execs” ignores economic realities and is frankly condescending to the millions of Americans from all walks of life and levels of income who turn out on Black Friday to spend their own hard-earned money on some of the year’s best bargains.