Sunday, November 27, 2005

Christmas Under Siege!

(This post originally appeared on December 22, 2004. Unfortunately, it still seems timely.)

Once again, the Right has spoken with one voice - and can it really be true that there are people in this country who are not yet sick of that whining, wheedling, insinuating voice? - and declared a state of national crisis: Christmas is under siege!

Needless to say, as soon as the GOP's barrel-organ struck up its customary dirge, our media monkeys began turning cartwheels and swinging from lamp-posts and baring their nasty little teeth. "Can Christmas be saved?" they chattered. "Have liberals gone too far?"

Sane people thought, "They can't be serious. These people are not going to sit there with a straight face, week after week, and tell us that all good Americans must band together to 'save Christmas.'" But as usual, sane people were wrong.

I have some scatterbrained, fever-addled thoughts on why so much effort is being devoted to this imaginary War on Christmas (putting aside the GOP's ongoing project of hustling the fundamentalists for spare change, which has to be taken as a given whenever Der Kulturkampf is waged).

Let's begin with a simple proposition: You can't put people through an economic wringer, frighten the wits out of them with terrorism alerts, depress them with the horrors of a chaotic, aimless war, poison their minds with hatred against their fellow citizens, and expect to get a bumper crop of Christmas cheer in return.

If Christmas is besieged, it's largely because Americans themselves are besieged. For many people in this country, the difference between what life could be and what it is tends to become very stark at this time of the year.

Christmas is a time when people tend to brood about security. Surrounded by family, they tend to worry about their children, and about aging parents who may need special and expensive care. Burdens that are heavy at the best of times can become enormous. Problems become harder to hide, while the need to hide them increases.

When Christmas became an orgy of consumerism, it also became a test of one's earning power. As such, it's also a measure of one's security. These are tests that an increasing number of us can't help but fail in George W. Bush's America. For many Americans, the only way to celebrate Jesus' birth in the style to which he's become accustomed will be to contact the moneylenders in their temple, and ask for a higher credit limit.

Sad to say, Christmas often makes us feel we have something to prove. If our Christmasses were happy, then our children's must be every bit as happy, or heads will roll. And if our Christmasses were unhappy, then our children's must be perfect; no one - least of all the children themselves - can be allowed to stand in the way of the Christmas juggernaut, lest they be crushed beneath its tinsel'd wheels.

It's also true that a holiday dedicated to celebrating feelings that we've been encouraged by our leaders to devalue, or to give up entirely - like compassion, and a sense of community - is going to be a bittersweet affair at best. Christmas is one of the most explicit examples of how we replace emotions with things. But what happens when we can't afford these things, or when we can have them only by giving up some of our security, as we do when we go into debt? Anxiety and guilt, at the very least.

Meanwhile, the fundamentalist hand-wringing over Christmas shows how easily metaphysical truths get replaced with empty ritual. Dogma always fills the vacuum left by retreating or confounded faith; no society will be more observant of ritual - or more unforgiving of dissent - than one that has lost sight of whatever was good and true in its faith. What we're seeing in religious conservatism today is not some Great Revival, but the anxious bluffing of a spiritual tradition that's bet the farm on a pair of deuces.

What I'm saying, in a very roundabout way, is that Christmas is a tremendous machine for generating free-floating anxiety. It stirs up deep, deep emotions having to do with family, security, comfort, home, and community. These are things that the Bush administration has either failed to protect or attacked furiously in the last four years, and this has created still more anxiety; it hits people, very literally, where they live, in ways that they can't necessarily define or explain.

The Right's greatest talent - perhaps its only talent - is to ferret out such anxieties and exploit them. It pinpoints the things that make people feel scared or disappointed or resentful or insecure, and proposes reductive, self-serving, emotionally convenient causes and solutions for them.

Do you feel bad? Do you feel worried? Don't reflect, don't try to understand...just lash out at atheists and beat up on gays! After all, every second you spend thinking, you run the risk of blaming the wrong people for your problems.

The "Christmas Under Siege" story is a pre-emptive strike; the Right's power depends on deflecting negative feelings away from its vicious economic policies, obviously, but also on hiding its spiritual emptiness. Rather than be called Scrooges themselves, they've sensibly decided to go on the attack. As always with the Right, accusation is confession.

What strikes me about the antics of Bill O'Reilly, as he fights his lonely battle to save Christmas, is that Scrooge honestly hated the holiday, and therefore refused to celebrate it; he didn't pretend to love it more deeply and fervently than anyone else. While Scrooge talked of tossing the poor into prisons and workhouses, and extolled the primacy of business over everything else in life, he didn't pretend to be brimming over with holiday cheer. That's because he was an emotional cripple, rather than a sanctimonious hypocrite.

Dickens understood hypocrites inside and out, and populated his later books with them in great numbers, but he didn't portray Scrooge as one of those tight-fisted, vicious, selfish people who pretends to be generous and jolly and pious. I imagine that's because he wanted Scrooge's redemption to be believable. If there's a single pious fraud in Dickens who has stopped being a pious fraud by the last chapter, I can't think of who it might be. Bounderby in Hard Times, an astounding hypocrite who is essentially identical to Bill O'Reilly, is not only not redeemed at the end of the book, but (in one of the most unsettling denouements ever written), establishes a society dedicated to creating simulacra of himself, so that the world will never suffer for lack of his wisdom. Dickens understood the difference between a person whose goodness has been submerged or sidetracked, like Scrooge, and a person who has torn goodness out by the roots and consciously replaced it with a ghastly counterfeit, like Bounderby. Or Bill O'Reilly.

Is Christmas under siege? For families whose loved ones have been living under literal siege in Iraq, thanks to the incompetence and callousness of the Bush administration, the question must seem trivial. For every family that lost a loved one in Iraq this year, in a war that will stand as a monument to dishonesty and bad judgment, the question must be irrelevant. For every bereaved parent or spouse or child or sibling who was horrified this week by Andrew Card's unblushing praise of Donald Rumsfeld - an utterly heartless man whose capacity for conscious evil has so far been limited only by his incompetence - the question must be insulting beyond belief.

Not just these suffering people, but the whole sane world must be appalled at the self-involvement of this country as we debate whether we're able to enjoy Christmas as much as we should, at a time when we're sending our children to kill and be killed in Iraq.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

A most thoughtful post.

I found especially interesting your comments on Scrooge. I've long thought the same - that Scrooge, for all his harshness, was an honest man. Deprived of love as a child, he lost the ability to love and devoted himself to attaining the perceived security of money.

Perhaps it's because of his honesty that the spirits deem him capable of and worth the effort of reforming.

Dickens makes a point of stating that post-spirits Scrooge kept Christmas in his heart the year-thru. He didn't just send the Cratchitts a turkey, he asisted them in bettering their lives, and saw to getting Tim the best medical care.

In the end it makes Scrooge better than the men who took up a collection to give the poor a holiday respite, but had no interest in tackling the social conditions that made and kept them poor.