Is this why they hate us? Why we hate ourselves? Is this why we seem to have no real idea who the hell we are anymore, or what it means to have a humane and thoughtful national identity, and therefore we happily scratch and claw and fight our way into giant fluorescent-lit hellpits for a chance at a $29 DVD player and some crappy plasma TVs and a pallet of heavily discounted spatulas?More broadly: Is this why we're suffering such a general feeling of ennui and disgust and apathy in the culture right now, the nagging feeling that we have no center and God has abandoned us and we therefore simply cannot consume enough goods and technology to try and fill the void? The answer seems rather obvious.
I don't even know what Kohl's is. I'm guessing some sort of mass-crap superstore, like Best Buy or Target or T.J. Maxx or a weird amalgam of all of those and it doesn't really matter because last Friday they opened at 4 a.m. for the mad rush of Black Friday shoppers, because if there's one thing you want to do when your body is groggy and sleep tugs at your heart and your dreams have turned vacant and sad, it's grope cheap waffle makers before sunrise.
Wal-Mart opened at 5. Target opened at 6. Across America, gluttony ruled. There were stores that had nothing whatsoever to do with gifting or holiday largess, stores with names like Cabinetry and More or Rug Depot that nevertheless opened at 6 or 7 a.m. on that now-ominous, insane, fateful day, if for no other reason than to capitalize on the fact that there were so many franctic zombified credit-carded bodies swarming about and it would be foolish not to take advantage.
Some say Christmas day most accurately captures the true nature of the American spirit. Some say it's Easter. Or the Fourth of July. They are all wrong. Black Friday has become, far and away, the most glorious expression of the true American idea, the gleaming capitalist leviathan at its most violent and orgasmic. Deny it at your peril.
Every year, there are new layers, new strata of absurdity. This year, retailers were reportedly angry that there are now a few blogs dedicated entirely to Black Friday sales, and those blogs were posting secret inside info on which particular items the various stores had marked down for the supersale, those bait-and-switch items on which the shops willingly take a huge loss in order to lure in shoppers in the hopes they will grab not only the $8 electric skillet but also an expensive digital camera and what the hell, a new stove and a drill set and a car.
Which reminds me of the nice discussion I had over Thanksgiving dinner about oil. My dinnermate's belief was that, as oil prices creep up and gas prices inch toward four, five, 10 bucks a gallon in the U.S. over the next decade, one of the first things to suffer will be the megastores, the Wal-Marts and the Targets and their Black Friday-promoting ilk, and not merely because their transportation costs will skyrocket and it will be increasingly unfeasible for them to ship their sweatshop crap over from China and then truck it from the docks to the individual stores.
No, he suggested Wal-Mart and its rapacious brethren will begin to fade because people in the more rural parts of America will refuse to pay the 10 or 15 bucks in fuel costs for a round-trip drive to the nearest big box mega-outlet just to get some crackers and shampoo and some nails. Instead, they will return to shopping locally, in their own neighborhoods and downtowns, where the shops are smaller and the hardware store owner knows them personally. They might still haul ass to Wal-Mart once a month for a serious shopping excursion, but that won't be enough for the big boxers to stay in business for long. And lo, the world will improve. A little.
I am not so certain. Firstly, I do not underestimate the power of Wal-Mart, et al to viciously alter the time/space continuum for their own benefit, and to figure out a way around the transport issue, perhaps by cutting the pay of their sweatshop workforce from eight cents a month to four and by strapping enormous pallets of crappy ink-jet printers and porcelain Jesus figurines to the backs of trained dolphins and send them over from Shanghai. They are just that kind of malevolent.
More importantly, I also just read the disturbing piece in the New Yorker about the massive new oil boom, how the petroleum titans are right now stampeding into Canada to lay claim to the land and build massive facilities for the extraction of a heavy hydrocarbon called bitumen from the enormous deposits of tar sand found there, in order to convert it into synthetic crude oil.
It is but one of a slew of new, hugely destructive oil-conversion techniques. They say there is enough bitumen intermixed with the sand that, if extracted and converted on a mass scale, it would guarantee sufficient oil for generations to come. Until recently, the extraction process was prohibitively expensive. Not anymore. As long as oil stays at or above $100 a barrel and people unflinchingly pay 4 or 5 bucks a gallon for gas, well, this brutal new technique will be insanely profitable indeed.
There are, as you might imagine, horrific drawbacks to this reeking, stinking, violent process, not the least of which is the appalling decimation of the natural landscape and the poisoning of the surrounding lakes and water basins and the horrid economic lopsidedness and the nuclear reactors currently being proposed to power the insane operations, not to mention appalling levels of greenhouse gas emissions (much higher than current refineries), massive water use, and the fact that, should these systems become deeply entrenched, big oil will continue to have a stranglehold on U.S. policy and the American identity for decades to come.
These pits, these new facilities are pure ecological nightmares. What's worse, nothing is stopping the new onrush. They are building them as fast as they can, with no limitation in sight. Bush just smirks. The GOP just gloats. Iraq roils on. Should the boom continue, not even the most liberal, environmentally conscious presidential administration in the world would be able to stop it. There is simply too much money to be made. And hence, far from moving away from oil and investigating alternative fuels and taking global warming seriously, the most powerful and bloodthirsty among us are still racing full speed ahead, in the worst possible direction.
This was my counterpoint, that until there's a profound shift in how we approach the world, in how we view the goods we buy, in how Black Friday and the rape of Canada are grossly, inextricably connected, we cannot affect much change. Much as I love the green movement and the Buy Nothing movement and the Slow Food movement and all the rest, in the face of the countless billions still to be made by raping the planet for oil, they're merely the equivalent of trying to water the rainforest with an eyedropper.
There was only one thing left to do. We both raised our wine glasses for a humble toast to the belief that man is, at heart, a deeply benevolent creature, and that a true sea change is coming (we just can't quite see it yet), that we as a species will wake up and see our way clear very soon, if not sooner. I'm quite sure we finished the bottle.
Thoughts for the author? E-mail him. Mark Morford's Notes & Errata column appears every Wednesday and Friday on SFGate and in the Datebook section of the San Francisco Chronicle.
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