By Marie Cocco
Two weeks ago I wrote that this was going to be a Wal-Mart Christmas, a deeply discounted holiday season for a middle class whose well-being has itself been discounted by an economic and political culture that has diminished paychecks and benefits for years. I could not have anticipated the most macabre manifestation of the syndrome: the death of a Wal-Mart worker who was trampled by a mob of early shoppers Friday on Long Island.
The story is an allegory of our time.
The victim was, in fact, a seasonal worker not hired by Wal-Mart but by an employment agency. The crowd had been building overnight at the entrance of the sprawling store in Valley Stream—by 3:30 a.m., Nassau County police already had been called to calm the throng. They were among an estimated 73.6 million shoppers around the country who turned out for day-after-Thanksgiving sales, lured in part by pre-dawn “doorbuster” specials, a term that turns out to have been tragically literal.
Just before the scheduled 5 a.m. opening—an hour at which shoppers had been promised such delights as a 42-inch HDTV for $598 and popular DVDs for as little as $2—the crowd stampeded through the glass doors, throwing Jdimytai Damour to the floor and creating such chaos that even the first police who rushed to aid the dying man were jostled by irate bargain-hunters, according to Newsday.
Once inside, other Wal-Mart employees asked the early shoppers to leave because of the tragedy. Still, some ignored the request as they blithely filled their baskets with the consumer flotsam and jetsam for which they’d waited through the night.
The disturbing parallel is the case of Kitty Genovese, the young Queens woman whose 1964 murder by stabbing sparked a round of national soul-searching. Genovese’s cries for help were ignored by neighbors even as she crawled, screaming, from the site of an initial attack to the vestibule of her apartment building. Windows slammed shut; apartment lights that had been briefly turned on went out.
The Genovese murder became a parable for the unwholesome combination of fear and indifference that gripped city dwellers as urban areas were said to become increasingly inhospitable places to live.
What darkness in the national character is exposed by the Wal-Mart rampage?
Unseemly consumerism is the most frequently cited culprit. Even in the midst of the worst economic downturn in decades, initial estimates of Thanksgiving-weekend sales show that shoppers spent an average of $372.57—up more than 7 percent from last year’s average, according to the National Retail Federation. The marketing and media hype that has made Black Friday as much a Thanksgiving tradition as turkey and pumpkin pie drew about 30 percent of the day’s shoppers to stores by 6 a.m., according to the federation’s research.
A few years ago, California “valley girls” were mocked in part for their vapid habit of shopping for entertainment. Now we value time shared at the mall with family and friends as much as time shared over leftovers. President George W. Bush famously promoted shopping as a patriotic act after the terrorist attacks of 9/11.
Yet the culture of consumerism is only half the story.
Suburbs like those that run along the South Shore of Long Island changed long ago from comfortably middle-class enclaves to polyglot communities of strivers who are far more squeezed than the suburbanites of a generation ago. “They’re struggling to maintain their middle-class livelihood,” says Lawrence C. Levy, director of Hofstra University’s National Center for Suburban Studies. In a poll the center conducted this fall, 40 percent of respondents in suburbs across the nation said they were living from paycheck to paycheck.
“I was astonished that that many people would admit it, in suburbia,” says Levy, who grew up in the Valley Stream community where the Wal-Mart is located. “These are numbers that destroy the myths of wealth and wellness.”
It is impossible to try and make sense of the stampede without stripping away these myths. Our well-manipulated desire for consumption is now incompatibly coupled with economic distress.
Now our generation has had its Kitty Genovese moment, and the public response must go beyond brief introspection into our insatiable craving to acquire. We must finally stand up, as well, to the economic and political forces that continue to push the middle class down, even as it is claimed this is just what’s needed to eventually lift us up.
Marie Cocco’s e-mail address is mariecocco(at)washpost.com.
© 2008, Washington Post Writers Group