Have you heard of Kalle Lasn?
Twenty years ago, this former advertising executive decided to put his talents toward promoting a different message: don’t buy stuff. This year marked the 20th Anniversary of Buy Nothing Day, which Mr. Lasn and those who have joined his cause place on what is usually the biggest shopping day of the year: Black Friday, or the day after Thanksgiving, or that extra day you get off to make a long weekend, which most employers refer to as “in lieu of Veteran’s Day.” Which leads me to another question, if you weren’t buying nothing, did you take time out of your shopping to thank a Veteran for their service to our country?
I first heard about “Buy Nothing Day” from a small group of do-gooders in my childhood congregation. Around my junior year of high school that church started opening its doors to people who wanted to step out of the rat race of Christmas shopping the day after Thanksgiving. I remember even then, as a teenager and perhaps the height of my consumerist aptitude, feeling a profound relief that someone was saying “Don’t Buy” in the midst of all the “you must buy in order to have a merry Christmas, you must buy to let your loved ones know they are your loved ones.” That day at church, the parishioners and their friends would gather to talk, perhaps make some crafts for gifts, bake cookies, have a nice lunch together, and think about the Western World’s penchant for over consumption.
In the decade plus since my first introduction to Buy Nothing Day, I have researched the founder and the non-profit he is connected to “Adbusters.” Thanks to the increased accessibility to information, I’ve been able to get perhaps a broader view of each year’s efforts. For instance, Kalle Lasn was also one of the main minds behind the recent Occupy Wall Street protests. This year’s Buy Nothing Movement has a new tagline: Occupy Christmas. Though I still applaud those who are performing in demonstrations or simply participating in this effort by buying less, overall I feel they have a better chance of bring down banks than stopping the average American from mindless consumption.
Ten years ago, it seemed that you heard about Christmas being over-commercialized as often as you heard Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer. Today, even more emphasis has been placed on the GDP and the media’s treatment of “the economy” makes you feel like you are being unpatriotic if you spend less than you are able. Black Friday has stretched itself so sales actually begin on the night of Thanksgiving. Many stores don’t even bother to close. Sarah Josepha Hale, the woman who worked so hard for the establishment of a “genteel” holiday that celebrated hearth and home must be crying somewhere.
BTW, did you know that FDR tried to change the date of Thanksgiving to increase the holiday shopping season? Do you know how he did that – by making Thanksgiving the second-to-last Thursday in November 1930, rather than the last. There was public outcry and the next year our sacred holiday was put back in it’s proper place – the last Thursday of November. And, in the decades since, we’ve found peace with having Christmas sales posters alongside our Halloween candy.
Perhaps it’s not surprising that in eighty years such a cultural shift could occur. However, it still surprises me of how naive I am of other’s feelings about “stuff” that you may chose to buy.
One of my most fascinating classes in college was a course called “Material Culture.” The course objective was to look at objects from our culture and others through various perspectives to examine conscious and unconscious messages that they hold. Because of a long history and a very generous financial aid program, the College attracted a very diverse population of women from different racial, ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds, so it was a great opportunity to be exposed to many different ideas. As wonderful as it was for me to attend classes with students dressed in African garb and to hear strange accents from all over the world, the most eye-opening experience I had in the class was a discussion with a woman from the to me strange place called New York City.
On that particular day, someone brought up the linguistic distinction between want and need. This spurred the most heated debate of the semester. When does something become a necessity? When do we need an item, rather than want it? However we got to that point in the discussion I do not remember, but one of these woman of my generation made the statement that she needed her $300 pair of shoes. The class was almost evenly divided. Was it possible to need such an extravagant item? Nothing could convince the woman who made the comment that it was in actuality a want…she had been made to think it was a need.
I made the claim that you could only need something that met your physiological needs. Hence, you may want the Nike’s, but a non-brand name will likely fit your needs. Our professor, hoping to encourage more dialogue, asked me what one should do with the $100 difference on these two brands of shoes, if the shopper in question did indeed have unlimited buying power. I did not give much thought before I answered with a shrug, “give it to charity.” My response was met with a chorus of ostentatious groans.
The majority of my class obviously felt like George Costanza when it came to charitable giving. Remember the “Human Fund” from Seinfeld? In one particular episode, the character of George receives a card stating that a donation has been made in his name to a children’s charity. “Don’t you see how wrong that is!” George exclaims. “I gave him Yankee tickets, he gave me a card that said I’m giving your gift to someone else!” He goes on to protest gift-giving should be an eye for an eye. Is that what we all secretly believe now?
Today, if you Google Buy Nothing Day or Kale Lasn, you will get some articles that share his background as well as his efforts with Occupy Wall Street and Buy Nothing Day. Very few of these are from the big-media outlets who may give a brief mention, but are much more likely to be reporting on sales figures as if they were the best or only measure of our country’s well-being. Thanks to the many online article that allow readers to “post a comment” you may also see many people accusing him of being a hypocrite or worse attributes. Some are general, some point to a specific statement or action that seems to prove him a hypocrite.
I’ve been thinking about how often we like to “disprove” someone’s message by pointing to something about their character or their past. As if the truth or words is absolutely linked to the person who says them, rather than truth and positive being able to reside in the mouth of even the most horrible human being. That will probably turn into another blog…