Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Campers Give Their Lives for Black Friday Bargains

Perhaps I am suffering from a willful amnesia, but I do not recall in previous years people camping out on Wednesday for their Black Friday shopping binges.  But this year I was struck by how widespread this has become.

Perhaps the camping is made more attractive because more stores are starting their Black Friday bargain-bin orgies at midnight instead of 6 a.m.  So really those campers consumed by consuming are out in the cold for just a little over 24 hours.  So it's no big deal, right?

But the campers are not ALL lined up at the stores opening at midnight.  Some will be spending two nights (some more than that) outside, waiting to get the latest gadgets and toys at the lowest prices.

I wonder, though.  Are they saving that much?

Sure, they can get flat panel HD televisions for half price, saving a few hundred dollars.  Similar discounts on other items abound.  But shouldn't the cost analysis include the time they spent camping out?  (Not to mention the time away from their families on the holiday.)

Henry David Thoreau
When I saw those early images of the retail devotees, I thought of Henry David Thoreau and what he said in his book Walden: "... the cost of a thing is the amount of what I will call life which is required to be exchanged for it."

That is, the price of an object is not counted merely in the number of dollars you must sacrifice, but also in the time required to earn those dollars, the time required to travel to the store and obtain the item, and, especially for Thoreau, the amount of time required to maintain the object once it is acquired. 

What is the true cost, then, of that smart phone or Furby?  If the campers had to calculate the amount of their life they exchanged for those hot Christmas-list items, would the deals be worth it?

The bargains become especially dubious when we consider just how many gifts are returned -- last year about $46 billion in gifts were taken back.  Economist Joel Waldfogel thinks gift-giving is bad for the economy, partly because so many of us are bad at it -- "on average gifts generate 20 percent less satisfaction than items we buy for ourselves."  All those unwanted presents?  According to him they are destroyed wealth.  The time you spent earning the money (and perhaps the time spent camping out) to buy the present that winds up returned or stored in a closet and never used?  It is worth nothing.  Wasted.

However, I imagine a great deal of the shopping that happens on Black Friday is more hedonism than altruism.  That iPad is going home with the camper and not being sent to a cousin.  At least in that case, Waldfogel would not call the purchases commerce rather than destruction, so that is good.  But Thoreau would ask whether the bargain was worth it.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

American Flag Shotgun Guy to the Rescue!

Last week someone heckled Mitt Romney during a campaign speech.  The man stood up and demanded the candidates stop their silence on climate change. 

His shouting was drowned out by the crowd chanting "U-S-A! U-S-A!"  They took the chant up rather quickly, as if it was a perfectly logical or automatic response. 
I immediately thought of a meme I have seen, one the website calls "american flag shotgun guy."  I have included a Sandy-inspired use of him.

The response of the pro-Romney crowd to the heckler and the response of american flag shotgun guy to the pending storm struck me as vivid illustrations of something that we call a non sequitur.  That is Latin for "does not follow."  This describes a statement that does not logically respond to or arise from the previous statement.  

How are that flag and that shotgun going to stop Hurricane Sandy?  How will patriotism counter climate change?

(I have included a couple of my own american flag shotgun guy images below.  You can go to the website and make your own.)

I understand the crowd being upset with the heckler.  They had the right to be, since he was interrupting their event.  But I think their response is interesting.  The crowd did not respond with a counter-argument or even "shut up!"  Instead, they responded with a patriotic chant, as if they were attending the Heckler Olympics.

The assumption that talking about climate change -- especially in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy -- is somehow unpatriotic is strange or even nonsensical.

Or is it?  To address climate change seriously would mean to alter our lifestyles, and Americans do not like to do that.  (However, that begs the question: Don't frequent hurricanes alter our lifestyles?)  Also, to seriously address climate change could disrupt the economic structure of the nation -- that is, moving away from fossil fuels would be a threat to some very powerful corporations.  Those companies make very good profits from the lifestyles Americans prefer. 

(People tend to prefer things that are readily available to them, so if their choices are limited, so are the range of their preferences; therefore, lobbyists for established industries work hard to keep new industries from offering alternatives consumers might prefer.)

So, if patriotism means defending the established order of the nation, then the climate-change heckler was being unpatriotic.  If patriotism means calling for action against a threat to the nation's health (rather than its established order), then the crowd's response does not make sense.

In either case, I can see how the crowd's response is ideological.  In the first case, I would say it fits the definition of ideology as a form of discourse that serves to maintain the power relations in a society -- in this case, allowing the fossil fuel industry to continue dictating national energy policies, but also allowing people to maintain personally convenient but ultimately destructive lifestyles.  Terry Eagleton describes it this way in his book Ideology: An Introduction:

A dominant power may legitimate itself by promoting beliefs and values congenial to it; naturalizing and universalizing such beliefs so as to render them self-evident and apparently inevitable; denigrating ideas which challenge it; excluding rival forms of thought, perhaps by some unpsoken but systemic logic; and obscuring social reality in ways convenient to itself.

In the second case, we can see the way an ideology can obscure the true nature of social or economic relations.  Through a process called "mystification," an ideology (quoting Eagleton again) "takes the form of masking and suppressing social conflicts."  In this way some ideologies are criticized for being "an imaginary resolution to real contradictions."

In the case of the Romney heckler, simply loving one's country is an imaginary solution to the real problems caused by our dependence on fossil fuels, problems such as climate change (droughts and hurricanes); economic exploitation and undue political influence by corporations; and the economic dependence of people on those corporations for jobs, especially during the recovery from a recession, a dependence that encourages people to sacrifice control of their lives and their environment -- and to chant patriotically when someone calls attention to that.

Friday, November 2, 2012

Gwen Stefani, Cher, and "Indians"

So that was a first.

TMZ just called my office looking for a response to the new music video from No Doubt, "Looking Hot."  The song has a Wild West visual theme, even though the sound and lyrics do not have an obvious connection to that.

You can see for yourself that Stefani's sexy costume comes close to the "sexy Indian" costumes that we see each Halloween.  Adrienne K. tracks such things at her blog, Native Appropriations. 
[Update Nov. 3: No Doubt has pulled the video and issued an apology, but you can find it here.  See the story at Indian Country Today.  So I added some images from the video.  The online images I found do not show Stefani in her all-white head band, leather pants, and vest, which is what reminded me of Cher (see below).]

The TMZ reporter wanted to know whether I found the imagery in the video offensive.  I am pretty hard to offend, so I am perhaps the wrong person to ask that question.  I look at pop culture imagery and try to figure out how it works before I figure out whether I like it or not.  So I tried to provide some brief perspective on why other people might be offended by the video.

This is what I gave the reporter:

Cher-okee Princess
I think that the American Indian community is very sensitive to how its members are portrayed in the media, including music videos like No Doubt’s “Looking Hot.”  American Indians have been misrepresented so often in so many ways and with so many negative consequences that many are  leery of any pop culture representations.  It is rare that any of those representations are authentic  or accurate or serve a positive purpose for the American Indian community – honestly, those images are rarely created with an American Indian audience in mind, so their creators do not care about accuracy or positive purpose.

So, when I see Gwen Stefani dressed as she is in this video, I do not think about any really Indian.  I think “Hollywood Indian.”  Stefani here is inspired more by Cher from the music video for “Half Breed” than any American Indian who actually existed. Because of that, some people might be tempted to dismiss the video as campy, goofy fun.  But that is part of the reason many people in the American Indian community object to such depictions:  in the popular American consciousness, these campy, make-believe Indians have replaced real, living and breathing Indians.

Ryan Red Corn twerking.
A colleague in American Indian Studies at my university suggested I refer the TMZ reporter to "I'm an Indian Too," a video by The 1491s, an American Indian comedy/filmmaking troupe.  In the video Ryan Red Corn channels Jackass's Chris Pontius in dancing around lewdly as a tragic hipster Indian wannabe.  You can see some of their stuff at their website,

Party on, Ryan.

[Updated Friday night: I haven't seen anything on the TMZ site; this reporter was calling for specifically.  I won't be surprised if they don't run anything.  It just isn't a very interesting music video.]