ON THANKSGIVING NIGHT, I was dismayed, but not really surprised, to drive past the Target on Victory Drive and see the parking lot jammed to the gills at 10 p.m.
It's old hat to complain about the commercialization of Christmas. But this year, with so many big-box retailers deciding — colluding, really — to stay open Thanksgiving, clearly America has entered a whole new realm of capitalistic malpractice.
With our growing Black Friday obsession — gleefully and maniacally fed by the media, who profit from big-chain advertising — comes the bizarre incidents of chaos and social breakdown, now an accepted part of pop culture rubbernecking.
The weekend after Thanksgiving we click the links to see the latest fist-fights and hair-pulling matches and bone-crushing stampedes over slightly discounted Chinese-made merchandise at a bleak Walmart in New Jersey or Oakland or exurban Atlanta.
We gawk. We condescend. We pat ourselves on the back for shopping online instead, rationalizing that clicking on an Amazon deal-of-the-day on headphones is much more hip than rubbing shoulders with those Walmart people.
This year there was the usual grotesque diet of Black Friday fight-porn on the internet. But again, there were some unfortunate twists which reinforced the sense that our Christmas shopping obsession has reached a new level of profound pathology.
In Philadelphia, one woman used a Taser on another woman during a melee between two families at a Walmart.
Can a gun really be that far behind?
Another twist, this one arguably even more distressing: At a North Carolina Walmart, a man was kicked out for shooting video of some fighting customers — but the fighting customers were allowed to stay!
With all the craziness, it's tempting to focus on the consumer side of the metastasizing cancer of Black Friday. But I prefer to focus on the employees.
Someone has to work at all these stores open on Thanksgiving. Someone has to spend time away from their families to work for peanuts to cater to America's unwillingness to wait 24 damn hours to start shopping the day after Thanksgiving.
Please don't say these employees have a choice. Let's be real: Since when do minimum wage employees at large companies have much of a choice about anything?
Shoppers have the option of staying home. Retail employees, for most practical purposes, don't, and everyone knows this who has even a passing familiarity with what life is like for America's working poor.
It's a national disgrace that a huge and growing number of Americans who work, and work hard, are mired in poverty no matter how many shifts they work.
So mired in poverty, in fact, that at least one Walmart organized a holiday charity food drive — for its own employees. Food purchased, of course, from Walmart!
A psychologist might call this a national Stockholm Syndrome, an overidentification with one's tormentor. But exploitation of workers has always been baked in the cake of capitalism, and always will be. It's the nature of the beast. You can only hope to counterbalance it.
In the old days, labor unions were the counterbalance. But outside of a few enclaves such as the federal government, America today is a post-union environment, with only 7 percent of employees unionized.
The counterbalance is gone. The American Way is now people working for peanuts selling things on credit to other people working for peanuts, fighting over "deals" which are barely even deals.
It's deeply ingrained in our culture. Reality TV tells us the way to get ahead isn't to band together for the common good, but to make yourself unique by subjecting yourself to as much humiliation as possible.
Reality TV has "winners," but they win not by being good at something but by being willing to debase themselves more than their competitors are. This is reflected in our economic system.
Perhaps the only practical solution left is to at least make it worthwhile for people to have a job at all. Simply put, this means raising the minimum wage to a living wage.
President Obama recently suggested a $9 an hour federal minimum wage, up from the current $7.25. Democrats in Congress have proposed a $10.10 federal minimum. Those suggestions have about as good a chance as becoming reality as healthcare.gov has a chance of working super well.
But as is often the case these days, positive change is being made at the local level. The Seattle suburb which hosts Seattle-Tacoma International Airport (SeaTac) just passed a ballot initiative raising the local minimum wage to $15, for airport workers and associated industries like food and car rental.
"It shows that people are tired of waiting for corporate CEOs or Congress to deal with income inequality and that they can use democracy to make a change," said Heather Weiner, spokeswoman for the campaign to pass the initiative, which was, yes, primarily backed by unions.
The first local living wage ordinance was Baltimore's in 1994. Since then more than 120 local governments have enacted their own. Eighteen states have mandated minimum wages above the federal minimum.
Despite most research showing that the benefits to society of a higher minimum wage far outstrip the liabilities, deep-red Georgia obviously will not join those states any time soon. But could blue-ish Savannah be next on the list of municipalities?
Our elected city officials are always talking about wanting to be on the cutting edge and touting their participation in national government associations. You pay their dues to join those organizations.
Make it all pay off. Urge your alderman to support a local living wage ordinance.
If we all show the same initiative to that as we apply to Christmas shopping, it should be no problem at all.
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Thanks for the thorough report!