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I have never been much of a shopper. I don’t like trying on clothes. I don’t like waiting in line. I don’t like spending money. And I don’t like the time it takes. So I have never paid much attention to Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving. I’ve usually spent that day with my family, bemoaning the amount we ate the night before, and looking forward to turkey sandwiches for supper. I knew it was the biggest shopping day of the year, but I didn’t realize the lengths to which people would go to buy a new television.
And this year, I thought the economic downturn might mean that more people spent their Friday-after-Thanksgivings at home. But then I read the report about a Walmart employee who was literally trampled to death on Friday as a crowd surged into the store at 5 a.m. Trampled. To death. Because people wanted to buy things.
I know that capitalism brings people out of poverty, and that’s good. But I also know that our culture esteems productivity, economic value, over and above everything else, and the ripple effect is frightening. I pay attention to the extremes–the employee’s death, or the students who tell me that their goal in life is to “make a lot of money.” But this culture of buying and selling impacts us in more subtle ways too. Even though many of us would say we value family, or love, or compassion, our actions often betray us. We value one another, I believe, largely based upon our economic potential. My daughter Penny, and other people like her, with mental or physical disabilities, are not seen as valuable in our culture, largely, I think, because they are less likely to contribute to our economy. It is unlikely that Penny will ever have a job in which she makes a lot of money. Does that make her less valuable?
We commodify the beginning of life through prenatal testing. We can choose, like a good consumer, whether to purchase or reject the product in our wombs.
We commodify life itself through measurements like Gross Domestic Product (which doesn’t account for any of the work done by (mostly) women who stay at home with their children). We commodify life itself when we measure the cost of “birth defects” to our nation. The government of Australia recently denied citizenship to a doctor from Germany. The doctor had been working in rural, poor Australian communities on a work visa for a number of years. He decided to apply for citizenship in order to continue serving these communities. He has a son with Down syndrome. That son, the government explained, would be an undue financial burden upon the other citizens of Australia. He would consume more than he would produce, they reasoned. Application denied.