Sunday, December 25, 2011

Hey Pontiff -- Leave Those Kids Alone!

(For years now, I've wanted to write a new set of lyrics for Pink Floyd's The Wall. Mine would be called The Mall. "Can I take the station wagon / Mom, let me use your MasterCard ... All in all, it's just another day at the mall.")

I wasn't going to write today, but then I found this picture and some other things, so here goes. The picture comes by way of Whatever It Is I'm Against It, who notes that the Holy Father doesn't settle for superficial glitter, he wants and gets gold. The Guardian says that he urged his audience "to look beyond the holiday's 'superficial glitter' to discover its true meaning", which reminds me of the old joke about looking below the fake tinsel of Hollywood to find the real tinsel underneath.

I guess I really am a Scrooge, in a narrow sense of the word: I am not a Christian at all, and the story of the birth of a child in a manger doesn't do anything for me. Too many people can coo over that legend while real children go hungry or are burned in drone attacks and scarred for life (look for the story and photo of Shakira) for me to think it has much positive effect on the world. Christians of progressive politics often try to find a left-ish significance in Jesus' supposedly humble beginnings, but the point of that story was that this kid was really King of Kings. In order to make all this turn out right, Jesus' heavenly Father arranged the Slaughter of the Innocents at the hands of King Herod, who was merely an instrument in the divine plan. (The deaths of "all the boys in Bethlehem and its vicinity who were two years old and under" were sad, but fulfilled what Yahweh had said through the prophets, so we think the price is worth it.) Remember that Father Zeus spent his childhood in a cave hiding from his murderous father Cronus, eventually emerging to seize his birthright and his glory. Likewise, the relatively insignificant (his birth signaled by a supernatural star and recognized by Magi and heavenly choirs) Jesus suffered (Son of David), but was exalted to Heaven to bide his time until the day he will judge the nations and take his vengeance.

But back to Pope Rat for a moment. A lot of people like the gold and jewels and rich robes and spectacle, it's part of what they want from religion and from life; if they can't have it themselves, they can at least get it vicariously through others. The Church's ostentation is a symbol and a promise of the glory of God and his heavenly kingdom, and so on; but I'm not interested in kings, earthly or heavenly. (And this kind of thing isn't limited to Catholicism; Buddhist temples, for example, are often decorated lavishly with gold leaf. One of my neo-pagan friends sighed recently and covetously over a photo of a "laurel" crown made of gold.) With the best will in the world, a Pope who tried to live simply would probably be denounced and reviled not only by the hierarchy but by the laity. Some lay Catholics, when I've suggested that Popes ought to tone it down a bit, indignantly accuse me of wanting the Holy Father to live in the gutter and starve to death! The typical reduction of alternatives to extremes, you'll notice, but I'm suggesting a middle path for once. Still, once there are no hungry people in the world anymore, the Pope can have his fancy robes back.

Several online writers have been discussing our other big Christmas myth, Dickens's A Christmas Carol, in connection with JP Morgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon's whining about how rich people are being hated for no reason at all. This, as the writers explain, isn't true at all. Fred Clark at Slactivist (via) reports this year's bandwagon of anonymous donors who've been paying off layaway accounts at various stores around the country, and says,
We like good-hearted rich people. We like them very much. ...

It’s certainly true that we don’t like Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of A Christmas Carol, but that dislike has nothing to do with the fact that he’s rich or that he’s “been successful.” We hate the Scrooge we meet at the beginning of the story not because he’s rich, but because he’s a cruel, selfish, greedy miser enriching himself from the toil of the employees he mistreats.

And you know who else really hates Ebenezer Scrooge at the beginning of the story? Ebenezer Scrooge. He’s one of the most miserable, joyless, wretchedly unhappy figures in all of literature.

Scrooge tries to comfort himself by telling himself that he’s just a cool-headed rationalist who sees the logic of greed. He tries to make himself feel better about his abuse of poor Cratchit by thinking of himself as a “job creator.” It doesn’t work. It can’t work. He’s miserly and, therefore, miserable.

This is good, but if I recall correctly Scrooge is a miser because he's miserable; unable to control his life, he can at least hang on to his money. And as several of Clark's commenters pointed out, Scrooge wasn't as bad as he could have been: his harried employee Bob Cratchit gets Christmas off, which wasn't the Victorian norm. Eric Oppen wrote (no permalink that I can find; sorry):
My own take on Scrooge was that he'd been badly traumatized early on. It's often not remembered, but the late 1700s/early-1800s (roughly 1790-1840), when he'd been young, were not good times in Britain, Regency Romances notwithstanding. The economy had been bled nearly white by the Napoleonic Wars, and then you had the disruptions of the Industrial Revolution. Scrooge always reminded me of old people I've known who'd been through the Depression and still were haunted by it.

And he'd earned a reputation for honesty such that his signature was worth any amount he cared to raise, which is not the sign of a crooked man. He's grumpy and cranky...but not everybody likes Christmas, and he has some particular reasons not to. A real hard-heart wouldn't be thinking of his dead-five-years best pal to the point where his door-knocker suddenly looked like Marley's face. It also wasn't his fault that Bob Cratchit had a sick son, or more children than he could comfortably support. And le[a]ve us not forget...he did give Cratchit Christmas off, with pay, which was not the norm in early-Victorian Britain...the holiday had been badly damaged under Cromwell, and many Dissenters and Scots still scorned it.
(Before you sneer at Oppen for dragging politics into the discussion, remember that what he's talking about would have been well-known to his original readers, just as the Great Depression should be well-known to us now.) Backed up by commenter fraser:
Which probably explains why he denounces his nephew as poor when the guy appears to have a very nice middle-class life: In Scrooge's eyes, the very fact he's spending his money on frivolous things like a pleasant home and Christmas dinner presumably means he's heading for poverty.
Still (like some other commenters) I'm wary of the "Satisfied Mind" meme which holds that despite all their wealth, the rich aren't really happy. It's to Dickens's credit that he didn't think Scrooge was unhappy because he was rich; after all, though he grew up poor, Dickens himself become a best-selling author and lived comfortably.

But back to Jamie Dimon. Clark linked to this open letter to Dimon by Joshua Brown, who laid out some obvious home truths:
America is different than almost every other place on earth in that its citizenry reveres the wealthy and we are raised to believe that we can all one day join the ranks of the rich. The lack of a caste system or visible rungs of society's ladder is what separates our empire from so many fallen empires throughout history. In a nation bereft of royalty by virtue of its republican birth, the American people have done what any other resourceful people would do - we've created our own royalty and our royalty is the 1%. Not only do we not "hate the rich" as you and other em-bubbled plutocrats have postulated, in point of fact, we love them. We worship our rich to the point of obsession. The highest-rated television shows uniformly feature the unimaginably fabulous families of celebrities not to mention the housewives (real or otherwise) of the rich. We don't care what color they are or what religion they practice or where in the country they live or what channel their show is on - if they're rich, we are watching.
So true, and it helps to explain why so many Americans (though by no means a majority) worry that tax rates for the ultra-rich might go up a few percentage points, even though they themselves are in no danger of such a fate; they'll never see $100,000 a year, let alone Dimon's $23 million in 2010. These people feel more sympathy for the rich than they do for themselves.

Brown goes on:
Likewise, when Steve Jobs died, he did so with more money than you or any of your "job alliance" buddies - ten times more than most of you, in fact. And upon his death the entire nation went into mourning. We set up makeshift shrines to his brilliance in front of Apple stores from coast to coast. His biography flew off the shelves and people bought Apple products and stock shares in his honor and in his memory. Does that strike you as the action of a populace that hates success?

No, Jamie, it is not that Americans hate successful people or the wealthy. In fact, it is just the opposite. We love the success stories in our midst and it is a distinctly American trait to believe that we can all follow in the footsteps of the elite, even though so few of us ever actually do.

So, no, we don't hate the rich. What we hate are the predators.

I have quibbles about the sanctification of Steve Jobs, who was a contemporary Scrooge (and a predator) if anybody was. But that just confirms Brown's account of Americans' attitude to the rich, doesn't it?

I've been happy to read about the Layaway Secret Santas. (I must say I'm weirded out by terminology like "layaway angels" or "holy mischief" applied to them; "Secret Santa" is bad enough. They aren't demigods or mythical elves from the North Pole, they're people with humane instincts. Why does human goodness always have to be displaced onto supernatural sources? That's the real misanthropy, I believe, the real cynicism and the real Scrooginess.) One of the saddest things I've heard has been the accounts by people who work in the big-box stores of people who've had to return things they bought on Black Friday because they needed the money to buy food or pay the utility bills; but often the returned items had been gifts for their children (which, despite the parents' good intentions, is a reminder of the harmfulness of the commercialization of Christmas, and of childhood. Still, private charity has its limits; Secret Santas are only a stopgap in a bad time. Government-run programs are better, since they are (at least in theory) less vulnerable to the vagaries of donors' generosity or even ability to give: many charities are finding that as need increases, the less wealthy can't afford to donate. What the world needs is an economy that works well enough that people can pay off their own layaway accounts without having to work eighty hours a week.