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December 02, 2008


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The nation and our politicians often refer to the "American Dream" and the "American Way of Life", but it is never defined. It is stories like this that bracket how shallow and selfish that dream and life have become. But from the beginning, that dream and life have mostly involved taking from those that are not like us (white Anglo-Saxon Protestants) with no apology and righteous indignity. There are no regrets and no introspection. Its no wonder the dream and life edge closer to savagery.

The Long Emergency will quickly become the Long Nightmare when the mindless consumer society begins to realize that not only did someone move their cheese,they ate it and stuck them and their children with the check.

If you have no knife and you need to make a meal for yourself, it's difficult to do it with bare hands. Having a knife in this situation is very valuable. Once you do have a knife, maybe a second or a third in various sizes is also useful (but less so than the first). Having a hundred knives is a waste, it won't make your meal any better.

Lots of people seem to lose track of the concept that we own "things" in order that those things provide some useful purpose. Money is a means to an end, and ownership is a means to an end -- they are not ends in themselves. The end is what we do with our lives.

Then again, it is quite possible that shopping crowds have become like soccer crowds where some percentage go there just to enjoy the mayhem, not because they have any particular interest in either shopping or soccer. People are bored with bullshit media entertainment and want a bit of real-life action, even if it does come at someone else's expense.

I was one of the hundred or so that waited in line outside our local BestBuy to get a laptop for my daughter. I think the difference between the low-key, congenial atmosphere outside our store and the mob scene at the Wal-Mart is the expectation of fair dealing.

When I got to the store around midnight, some guys were running a bean-bag toss tournament in the street next to the sidewalk, which provided the rest of us with something to do for the next few hours. At 3:00, the BestBuy managers on-duty came out and announced that the door-busters would be allocated by coupons that would be handed out, starting at the head of the line. When the coupons were gone, so was the right to get the item. At 3:45, the managers came back out and began to hand out the coupons and everything remained peaceful and friendly while the process continued. At 5:00, the doors opened and everyone filed peacefully, but quickly into the store.

What kept things orderly and peaceful was the expectation that no one would be cheated out of a chance at a limited item and that there were rules and that they would be obeyed. (The store manager announced that anyone line-jumping would be kicked out of line and not permitted into the store until everyone in line was in the store. That put a stop to any pushing and shoving at that point.)

I don't want to be superficial here, but years ago (decades ago, actually) I visited New York City as a youth, only to find that some of the stereotypes were true. Cabbies really did drive like complete maniacs. I've never seen driving like that since. Pedestrians, when present in a crowd, completely ignored traffic signals, knowing that in-town traffic was unlikely to commit mass murder by mowing down an entire crowd crossing against the light. The city inhabitants (well, a number of them) seemed to think that they had a reputation to keep, and the attitude behind it was at best rough and ready, alternating narcissistic rudeness with an almost sociopathic aloofness. Of course, I saw the city through the relatively rosy lens of a tourist dealing mostly with those whose livelihood depended on tourism, but the somewhat bleak sensibilities of 1970s era films depicting NYC life contained more than a grain of truth. I've no idea to what extent the city's culture has changed since then.

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