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Christmas in the Information Age

Today is Black Friday, when the annual Christmas shopping season begins with bargain-hunters duking it out over some Chinese-made gewgaw or another in the store aisles, and as usual we’ll pass on the ritual. This is expected to be the first Christmas when on-line sales surpass those in the old-fashioned brick-and-mortar stores that you have to drive to and walk into and then interact with other people, but we’ll also take a pass on that.
As much as we resent all the current stores on the east and west sides of town for driving away Gateway Sporting Goods and Reader’s Bookstore and all the other locally-owned retailers who used to transform downtown Wichita, Kansas, into a winter wonderland during our youth, we don’t want to see them driven away by the computer or other newfangled device you’re using to read this. That would leave a lot of empty buildings, and a lot of unemployed shop clerks, and what with the drones Amazon is already using and the driverless trucks that Google is threatening to unleash it’s hard to see what space-filling businesses and jobs the new economy might offer them.
Such potentially dire economic consequences aside, the technological tectonic shift that’s expected to occur this Christmas season has a cultural effect we also don’t care for. Although today’s stores lack the personal touch of the mom-and-pop operations we so fondly recall, there’s still something to be said for driving to a store and walking into it and interacting with other people. The drive takes you past places that evoke fond memories and gives you a chance to hear the local radio, and if you don’t get hit by a car the walk across the parking lot is healthful, and maybe it’s just a Wichita thing but we find that most of our interactions with other people are generally quite pleasant and often have a very salutary effect on our mood.
Somehow, despite the crass commercialism and creeping secularism of this modern age, people always seem to become more pleasant to interact with the closer it gets to Christmas. Lay off the Black Friday sales or the Cyber Monday bargains, hunt down some fascinating shop some local oddball opened, and it might just instill some Christmas spirit. We also suggest you call your far-away family rather than texting them, and meet face-to-face if at all possible, and gratefully accept any invitations you might receive to a holiday party, and except for your daily visits here spend less time looking at some sort of screen.
There’s no fending off progress, even when it goes too far, but we’ll be damned before we go along with it.

— Bud Norman

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The Calm on the Day After

By longstanding tradition there is no news worth writing about on the day after Thanksgiving, and this is probably for the best. Between the lingering soporific effects of the turkey and the noisome distraction of the disconcertingly premature Christmas music that is already on the radio it would be difficult to deal with a real issue. The networks and newspapers will make do with sordid tales about the Black Friday shoppers rioting at the local mall, and the anti-coroporate moralists will recoil at the sight and the economists will be watching to see what it portends for the all-important holiday season in the retail sector, but otherwise the most significant news is to be found on the sports pages.
More ambitious pundits will seize this opportunity to run something so profoundly all-encompassing and not tied to a specific story that it has long been in the drawer awaiting a slow enough news day, or perhaps something they came up with in a moment of holiday-inspired reflection, but we have neither to offer. The most interesting thing we’ve come across is the estimable Gertrude Himmelfarb’s reflections on Matthew Arnold’s 1869 treatise “Culture and Anarchy,” which contains some fascinating observations on the Hellenistic and Hebraic traditions in western civilization, but the jokes it suggested were too earthy and ethnic. An early winter has chilled our ambition, and although we could come up with something sympathetic about the stranded travelers at the snowbound airports or something sarcastic about global warming we’re too darned cold to muster the effort. A snowstorm and a holiday and the presence of heavily armed National Guardsmen seem to have quelled the rioting in Ferguson, and unless the Justice Department is inclined to further placate the mob with a civil rights prosecution we’ll be glad to have heard the last of that story. The president’s outrageous executive action to legalize a few million illegal immigrants will soon be back in the news, but until the Republican congressional majorities are sworn in early next year there won’t be much to say about it except that we’re still outraged. Around there are plenty of worrisome developments rom China to Russia to the Middle East, but except for the Islamic State being on the verge of another major victory in Iraq and Iran getting another six months of nuclear weapons developments there is nothing to vie with those Black Friday shoppers for news space. Economic mediocrity and Obamacare and assorted political scandals are still afoot, along with the usual misbehavior in the entertainment industry, but nothing that violates the longstanding tradition of no news on the day after Thanksgiving.
Give thanks for that, and let drowsy sense of gratitude linger for another day or so, and stay away from those Black Friday sales. Real issues will intrude through the Christmas music soon, and the same old battles will still need to be fought, and it might help to be rested.

— Bud Norman

Black Friday, White Christmas

Thanksgiving is over, even if the leftovers are likely to last another week or so, and the Christmas season has now officially begun. We take a back seat to no one in our gratitude for the birth of Jesus Christ, but this strikes us as a bit too much Christmastime.
The celebration of our Savior’s birth begins ominously enough with something called Black Friday. This now-familiar phrase is meant to have a positive connotation, as it refers to the black ink that retailers are hoping to use to write down the profits made from the first day of the Christmas shopping season, but it has an undeniably sinister sound about it that that more accurately conveys what the event has become. By now it is an annual tradition for the Drudge Report to scream out headlines about the mayhem in America’s shopping malls, with harrowing tales of maniacal shoppers assaulting one another in the store aisles and riots breaking out over the bargains being offered, and it seems a most inapt way to honor the arrival of the Prince of Peace. It’s far more frightening than anything that occurs on Halloween, which is about the time when the big retail chains start running television commercials with a Christmas theme to promote their Black Friday sales, and it winds up causing a full two months of holiday cheer that is simply too much to bear.
We wish all those stores plenty of black ink today, and dread the drop in the stock market that will surely occur if the figures prove bleak, even if the Federal Reserve announces that the quantitative easing will continue into the next millennium, but we’d rather that people approached Christmas with a more relaxed and reverential attitude. For at least the next two weeks or so we intend to go about our business as usual, and remained focus on such seculars matters as the great lump of coal in the national stocking that is Obamacare, and only then turn our attention to the spiritual issues that are supposed to inform the season. Any more than that would test the faith of even the most pious Christian, especially if he spends the time punching out other shoppers in pursuit of the latest gizmos at some green-and-red-bedecked shopping center.
Our week of Thanksgiving has been spent far from our prairie home in the Philadelphia area, where our parents remain endearingly Okie even after a couple of decades in the big bad city, and except for an opulent evening at the astonishingly fancy-schmantzy Green Room of the Hotel DuPont in nearby Wilmington, Delaware, it’s been a happily low-key week of reminiscing and family togetherness and genuine thankfulness. We highly recommend it to anyone as a good way to spend a holiday, especially a holiday that celebrates the impoverished birth of a man who once chased the money-changers from His father’s temple.

— Bud Norman

Black Friday Blues

Today is called Black Friday, as you might have heard. The name has an ominous ring to it, like the title of one of those movies where the hero runs around machine-gunning terrorists while lots of things blow up, but apparently it merely refers to all the Christmas shopping which regularly occurs on the day after Thanksgiving. We’re told it derives from all the black ink that retailers use to tally their profits on this day, and we suppose that’s a good thing.
Still, there is something unsettling about the annual stories of shoppers camped out in mall parking lots for days in order to be the first in line for the marked-down goods, the shoving matches and fistfights over the last of the of the bargains, and the general mayhem and rudeness that always seem to result. This year has also brought a slew of stories about all the underpaid and over-worked shop employees being deprived of Thanksgiving by the ever-earlier opening times demanded by their taskmasters, all very reminiscent of poor Bob Cratchit back in the dark Dickensian days, as well as reports of threatened labor actions to take revenge on the evil corporations.
None of which does much to bolster the holiday spirit, which is hard enough to maintain these days. We’ve known people who look forward to Black Friday shopping, and despite their best efforts to explain the appeal we just don’t get it. They seem to find much pleasure in purchasing something at a lower-than-usual price, and go about it with the competitive zeal of a big-game hunter on safari, but it hardly seems worth the hassles of jostling with the maddening crowds.
Those fortunate enough to find themselves with free time today might find that it is better spent by relaxing, reading a good book, tending to some long-neglected chore, enjoying the quiet company of family or friends, or otherwise preparing for the onslaught of the holiday season. There will be time enough for shopping, with plenty of bargains, and maybe there ought to be less shopping. Although we advocate a red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalism, and pride ourselves on a high level of tolerance for whatever lifestyle choices that people make with their money as well as their private parts, it does seem to us that in this heavily indebted country most people already have quite enough stuff. Civility, serenity, and the very non-materialist philosophy of the teacher whose birth is being celebrated this season are what’s lacking, and would make a much better gift than anything on sale on the mall.

— Bud Norman