From Consumerism to Community


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“A bit over thirty years ago I was listening to the news of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana, where 900 Americans committed suicide and murder, in some cases on their own children, at the behest of a deranged ‘charismatic’ cultist promising them rewards in Heaven. Memories of this shock came back to me in an odd way when I heard what just happened on Black Friday at a Nassau County, New York Wal-Mart— turning it very black indeed: crowds who had waited, in some cases all night, for a few bargains broke down the door before the store was ready to open, and when a temporary employee tried to stop them they surged in to do their shopping and, in the process, trampled him to death….”

Author: Michael N. Nagler, emeritus Peace Studies professor from University of California at Berkeley
Published in: Standard Journal in Rexburg, Idaho, the Huntington News Network in West Virginia, the Havre Daily News in Havre, Montana, and in the Bullhead City/Laughlin Bee in Arizona
Date: December 4, 9 and 10, 2008

For the full article:
From Consumerism to Community
(769 words)
by Michael N. Nagler

A bit over thirty years ago I was listening to the news of the Jonestown massacre in Guyana, where 900 Americans committed suicide and murder, in some cases on their own children, at the behest of a deranged ‘charismatic’ cultist promising them rewards in Heaven. Memories of this shock came back to me in an odd way when I heard what just happened on Black Friday at a Nassau County, New York Wal-Mart— turning it very black indeed: crowds who had waited, in some cases all night, for a few bargains broke down the door before the store was ready to open, and when a temporary employee tried to stop them they surged in to do their shopping and, in the process, trampled him to death. That may seem like a rather different kind of mob hysteria from Jonestown — but they have something in common. They are wakeup calls. As one radio personality talking about Guyana said then, “Well, there’s 900 bodies down there and the FBI is cleaning it up. Now here’s the real question: who’s going to pay for all this?”

Is that the real question? Isn’t the real question more like, “Who are we?” What kind of people have we become, that a deranged egotist could lead a thousand Americans to their death with fantastical promises of heaven? Not, perchance, a people eerily reminiscent to us now of fanatical jihadists? But let me get back to the more recent and, in terms of numbers, much smaller disaster.

One of my friends sent me a photo of road signs outside a shopping mall in Emeryville, CA, that displayed the words, “as long as we both shall shop . . .to love and to cherish,” and “to have and to hold.” On the other side they said, “happy – happier – happiest” with increasing numbers of shopping bags. All this might be mildly funny were it not for the fact that once again, with the tragedy in Nassau County, we are staring into a chance revelation of something deeply wrong with American culture — and once again some of us are running away from the right questions.

Nearly half a century has passed since Martin Luther King warned, in his famous speech against the Vietnam war in New York’s Riverside Church, “We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society.” By not heeding his advice — even when there are shocking examples of what happens when we do not — some of us have become so crazed by consumerism (Americans are exposed to between three and six thousand commercial messages a day) that when aroused by the idea of saving a few dollars they forget their humanity — and of course, in the process, that of others. One onlooker commented that the 4,000-strong crowd waiting for Wal-Mart to open behaved “like animals.”

Some shoppers, of course, were deeply shocked when they heard what happened; but an eyewitness, Ms. Cribbs, told the Associated Press, that not all of them were that alert: “When they were saying they had to leave, that an employee got killed, people were yelling ‘I’ve been in line since yesterday morning!’ They kept shopping.”

Detective Lt. Michael Fleming, who is in charge of the investigation for the Nassau police, said that some “criminal charges are possible” (though it is just about impossible to identify exactly who stepped on the still-living body of Jdimytai Damour, 34, when he went down). The police have their job to do — but so do we. Our job is to weigh the choice we have made as a culture to so exaggerate the power of things and the buying of things to make us happy that we forget the only thing that can actually do that, which is relationships of love and compassion for one another. The relationships that, as King said, make us “person-, not thing- oriented.”

So Lt. Fleming is partly correct when he charges, “I’ve heard other people call this an accident but it is not. Certainly it was a foreseeable act.” Not foreseeable that a Wal-Mart employee would be trampled to death on a Black Friday; but yes, foreseeable that if people go on believing in things instead of one another there is going to be violence and misery somewhere. Indeed, in the psychological sense, there already is. This kind of materialism is violence to the human spirit.

Still looking for answers from his own perspective, which is correct as far as it goes, Lt. Fleming also said of the store that there “wasn’t enough security.” If we don’t wake up to the dangers of materialism, there never will be.

Michael N. Nagler (mnagler@igc.org) is emeritus Peace Studies professor from UC-Berkeley and current co-chair of the Peace and Justice Studies Association.