Don’t Be a Tool This Christmas

Early Friday morning, shots rang out to herald the first days of the holiday season. Men were shot in Walmart parking lots in California and Missouri, and gunfire was reported outside of a Fayetteville, N.C., mall as shoppers were gathering to enter.

Newscasters were almost giddy in their reaction to the wave of “shocking” stories coming out of the annual “Black Friday” ritual, one in which retailers, desperate for ho-ho-ho holiday sales in the middle of a bleak recession, have amped up the discounts and come-ons to the point that consumers, in many cases mindlessly acting like Pavlov’s dogs, are falling for the bait and putting their very lives at risk to snatch “deep discounts” on the latest Xbox 360.

Fox News seemed particularly happy to be shifting attention away from the ongoing scandal over campus police methodically pepper-spraying student protesters at the University of California-Davis two weeks ago to the woman who sprayed fellow Walmart shoppers with the same thing over a pallet of the popular Microsoft gaming console on Friday. This time, any mention of pepper spray being a “food product” was left out of the discussion. In fact, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that pepper spray is dangerous — the woman eventually turned herself in, and several of her victims were taken to the hospital with injuries.

This isn’t the first time that violence has erupted on Black Friday. Last year, a 34-year-old Walmart employee in Long Island was killed in a stampede of shoppers. Witnesses said it was the second year the doors at that store were literally taken off their hinges at the opening of the busiest shopping day of the year.

And next Thanksgiving, no doubt, it will happen all over again.

No one seems to notice the perverse contradiction of being told on Nov. 24 that we are a nation of exhausted refugees from the financial collapse — maxed out and hunkered down — and then two days later, congratulated for being a nation of savvy shoppers, with relentless holiday-themed music and Santa’s elves as our coaches and avatars.

But that’s nothing new. President George W. Bush may not have told Americans to “go shopping” right after the 9/11 attacks as he is oft-quoted, but he clarified his statements and then some in his autobiography when he wrote that “traveling on airplanes, visiting tourist destinations, and, yes, going shopping, were acts of defiance and patriotism.” In other words, nothing says “America strong” like mindless super-consumption.

Now, if that consumption manages to distract large portions of the population from dwelling on other things, such as a loss of civil liberties at home and wars overseas, well, that’s a big bonus. Don’t think that’s not happening now. In fact, ’tis the season.

As though red and green fairy dust descends upon us at the end of each November, Americans lose touch with reality, and that is a good thing for the country’s control centers — it’s good for big business because we’re spending money ferociously, much of which we don’t have, which makes money lenders and the credit card companies very happy. It makes government doubly happy, because one, we’re helping their friends on Wall Street, and two, we are ignoring everything else that is important in the world for exactly one month.

Most likely it also makes the Republican presidential candidates very happy, because the less voters are paying attention ahead of the primaries, the less they’ll realize that the candidates’ grasp of the issues, such as foreign policy and national security, is so juvenile and weak as to be truly unsettling.

As Aldous Huxley implicitly suggested in Brave New World, mass consumption is but a tool with which authority distracts people from doing more dangerous things, like reading, learning, asking questions, finding solace and fulfillment in other human beings and in faith, believing in something other than the almighty god of material satisfaction or the sanctity of the status quo. Those in charge would call it “maintaining stability,” but really, it’s about keeping us all fat, dumb, and seemingly happy while the powerful work for their own interests in the shadows.

The apex of such worship has become, ironically, the Christian holiday of Christmas. And right on time, it would seem. As we press into the big bargain outlets or remain glued to a computer screen to voraciously consume every last Groupon or Living Social barnstormer savings, “credit card nation” is conveniently missing the rest of the world go by.

Last year, “the holidays” successfully diverted America from the explosive revelations in the thousands of State Department cables released by WikiLeaks in November 2010. It was gunning to be a great story with many moving parts, but Black Friday put a wet blanket on all that. While the cables may have very well sparked information revolutions all over the world after Jan. 1, the blackout here allowed the narrative to shift away from the actual leaks and squarely onto WikiLeaks’ founder Julian Assange: his motives, his possible prosecution, and whether he was a hero or just a hyper-sexed misogynist with a god complex.

Meanwhile, it was another Christmas at war, but everyone was too busy to ask why we still needed close to 200,000 troops overseas. Things were getting worse in Afghanistan, but no one seemed to notice until months later.

If you can find your way beyond all the plastic models mouthing “Believe!” (thank you, Macy’s, for giving us a “magical” alternative religion to celebrate), the Let’s Rock Elmo mania (only $69.99!), and the clearly one-percenter mother in the Target commercial who can afford to give her entire family Apple products for Christmas, you’ll find things are just as unsettling as they were last year at this time, if not worse.

Over the weekend, NATO airstrikes killed 24 Pakistani troops — our supposed allies — in an attack across the border from Afghanistan. The Pakistanis responded by shutting down all transit routes through the country, putting hundreds of trucks carrying supplies to NATO troops in Afghanistan at risk because they are now stuck at the border and essentially sitting ducks for insurgent attacks (see the last time the Pakistanis choked off the supply route in 2010 for an idea of how this might turn out).

“This is pretty serious,” a U.S. official said in Monday’s Washington Post. “We should not expect this to blow over soon.” NATO and its Afghan partners say they had come under enemy fire before retaliating and mistakenly killing the Pakistani troops on their own border posts; the Pakistanis called the strike “inexplicable” and claimed that aside from there being no fighting in the area beforehand, the military posts were clearly marked as such. The Pakistanis even said the NATO bombing continued for two hours after they pleaded for the strikes to stop.

This comes after a week of “Memo-gate,” in which the American-friendly Pakistani ambassador was forced to resign and President Asif Ali Zardari has come under uncomfortable scrutiny. It involves promises to replace certain military officials with Pakistanis more “friendly” to U.S. interests and, according to Phil Giraldi, “could, at a stroke, cause Washington’s policy in central Asia to implode.”

And has anyone even noticed that the U.S. lost 11 soldiers in Afghanistan this month? We’ve lost over 1,000 since the beginning of Barack Obama’s term in office, for a total of 1,845 since 2001.

As for civilian killings, they go on, too, if anyone cares. Glenn Greenwald burst through the turkey-induced haze on Friday, reporting that six children between the ages of 4 and 12 working in a field in southern Afghanistan Thursday were killed by a NATO airstrike, according to Afghans on the ground. An adult Afghan — the father of two dead children and uncle to the other four — was also killed. An 8-year-old girl was badly wounded. NATO officials are investigating.

Says Greenwald:

I read about the death of these children yesterday and had decided not to write about it because I don’t have anything particularly new to say about it, but then all day, that decision irritated me because it just seems wrong to allow this to go unobserved (and in Southern Afghanistan, “NATO” in the vast majority of cases means: “American”). Whichever version is correct, the U.S. devastated these families forever and ended these children’s lives in a region where even U.S. officials say that there is a grand total of two al-Qaeda leaders and the group is “operationally ineffective.”

That’s right: according to The Washington Post last week, the CIA has run out of al-Qaeda targets and is only tracking “lower-level fighters and other insurgent groups” for drone strikes. At what point do we say these “targets” aren’t worth the lives of one more innocent Afghan or Pakistani unlucky enough to be in our cross-hairs?

Meanwhile, all combat troops are supposed to be coming home from Iraq by the end of the holidays, though Secretary of State Leon Panetta promised the hawks in the Senate this month that he is still negotiating with Iraqi officials for some to stay beyond the Dec. 31 deadline. This flies in the face of what most Americans want right now. But as Peter Van Buren pointed out on his blog over the weekend, most Americans are probably too “tied up with shopping, overeating, and leftovers” to notice, or care, what has been going on in Iraq of late.

On Saturday, seven people were killed and 28 others wounded when three roadside bombs exploded mid-morning in the busy Bab al-Sharji commercial district of central Baghdad. Another six men died and 10 others were injured when a roadside bomb hit a minibus carrying young laborers and construction workers in al-Annaz area in eastern Fallujah. Both area were primarily Sunni.

But don’t worry, because earlier in the week 50 people were killed and more than 50 others were hurt when three explosions hit a commercial district in Basra, an oil-rich, predominantly Shi’ite city. The universe of sectarian killing in Iraq remains in balance.

There were also two bombings on Monday: one outside a prison in Taji, which killed 13 people, and another near parliament inside the heavily fortified Green Zone. Reports indicate two people were killed in that blast, but as Van Buren notes, “the importance of the event is that a car bomber made it into the Green Zone, bypassing whatever passes for Iraqi security there these days.”

And don’t forget the drumbeat for war with Iran; it seems stronger every day. But don’t worry, keep shopping.

I know what you are thinking — most Americans don’t need a holiday to ignore the news. They just do, all year round. The razzle-dazzle and fa la la, the ka-ching of the cash register, and the ding-a-ling-a-ling of the jingle-bells — not to mention the shirtless men in front of Abercrombie & Fitch and A Very Gaga Thanksgiving — just make it all easier to tune out in blissful ignorance.

I guess it’s up to the grinches at and others like Greenwald and Van Buren to remind us that yes, every time we giggle at that Justin Bieber Macy’s commercial or listen to some GOP presidential candidate explain foreign policy as if we’re in third grade, they’re taking us for fools. But that doesn’t necessarily mean we are fools. We just have to wake up and stop acting like it.

Author: Kelley B. Vlahos

Kelley Beaucar Vlahos, a Washington, D.C.-based freelance writer, is a longtime political reporter for and a contributing editor at The American Conservative. She is also a Washington correspondent for Homeland Security Today magazine. Her Twitter account is @KelleyBVlahos.