Well, I had a good Christmas and I hope you did too. For me, of course, any Christmas not spent in Iraq is good. Presents be damned. I just feel lucky to be home with my family, and my heart goes out to those who can’t be.
A tradition my family holds at this time is an annual viewing of A Christmas Carol staring George C. Scott. It’s a very good movie version and I recommend it. Of course, the 1843 novella by Charles Dickens made Scrooge as synonymous with Christmas as Santa Clause. It has been made into over twenty movies, as well as stage plays, and numerous parodies. This story of ghostly redemption runs through our veins in America, and it’s an odd person indeed who hasn’t heard the tale at some time.
But you wouldn’t know that by listening to our conservative friends.
Conservatives have apparently taken pains to shove chewing gum in their ears every time they encounter this story. Gleefully, they clap as the curtain falls on their kid’s Christmas play. And then they go out into the world crying, “Welfare recipients, immigrants, homeless people…bah, humbug!”
Wait, you may say, don’t conservatives give to charities that relieve the suffering of the less fortunate?
Am I perhaps being unfair?
My answer is, no. I am not being unfair, because the fact is charitable donations from evangelical churches and, other such outlets are but a drop in the comprehensive ocean of the needs of the less fortunate in America. Since Ronald Regan began dismantling the “Great Society” and the “New Deal” in 1980, homelessness has gone up and wages down. As Bruce Springsteen sang; “times are tough and just getting tougher,” and thus the need grows ever greater year by year. And sadly, much of the money that is donated to evangelical charity pays not for sheltering the homeless but for some TV preacher’s mega-mansion (I’m talking about you, Joel Osteen). Such charity only serves to make the donor feel a little less guilty and the poor slightly less miserable for a day or two…but the suffering never truly goes away.
Now, of course, the character, Scrooge, was loathe even to give to charity at the start of his story. When asked to give to the relief fund he says, “Are there no prisons? Are there no workhouses? My taxes pay for such things. I do not make merry at Christmas, and I can’t afford to make idle people merry.”
Idle people? To me, that line well sums up Scrooge’s opinion of the poor; that they are simply lazy or otherwise unworthy of his help. And how many times have I heard a conservative run down welfare recipients as exactly that! Never mind the FACT that over 50% of welfare recipients get off the dole and back on their feet within two years. Never mind the FACT that fraudsters are a pitifully small percentage of the truly needy that receives welfare. Never mind the FACT that there are some people in every society, such as the mentally retarded or physically disabled, who simply cannot support themselves. When I hear conservatives talk about the poor the subject of laziness often pops up in the very first sentence. It’s as if the fictional Scrooge himself is writing their real world dialog!
So, now that we’ve covered the Scrooge/Conservative position on the jobless. Let us move on to a Scroogian discussion of the WORKING poor. In A Christmas Carol, the working poor are epitomized by Scrooge’s one employee. Bob Cratchit works hard, under a strict boss in a cold office, for pitiful wages. No matter how many hours he puts in, though, it’s never quite enough to support his family. And what of Tiny Tim’s medical needs? Forget it, Bob, because there’s no way for him to afford any doctor’s service. Bob’s only hope to save his sickly child lies in prayer. In scene after scene, we hear Bob Cratchit talk of taking his son to church and praying for a miracle. However, according to the Ghost of Christmas Future, such a miracle will not come from heaven, and the lad’s only hope is to get decent healthcare!
Does any of this sound familiar?
Have you heard conservatives blasting the working poor too? I’ve had many a conversation on the subjects of raising the minimum wage or Obamacare with these folks and they never go well. Essentially, my conservative friends will say, “Raise the minimum wage? Humbug! They should either work harder or go find a better job! And who told that Cratchit fellow to have so many kids? Require employers to provide health insurance? Why, that would take away our freedom!” And then I get called a socialist, and my ex-friend storms off in a huff.
To be clear, Charles Dickens would be considered a socialist today. He was raised in poverty, his father did time in prison for failing to repay debts and only his natural genius for writing saved him from a lifetime of drudgery working in a shoe blackening factory.
“Ha!” Cries the conservative, “You see he worked hard and succeeded! Charles Dickens didn’t need welfare!”
To which I reply, true, he did work hard and made good. However, he also understood that not everybody is born a fragging writing genius! Not everyone gets a lucky break, and hard work does not guarantee success or even survival in this world.
When The Ghost of Christmas Present takes Scrooge to see the homeless, we encounter a scene where a man laments that he wants to work but can’t find a job. The homeless man must instead feed his children potatoes that fell from a cart, and he proudly insists that he did not steal them. The man is clearly devastated, but powerless to improve his situation in a world of uncaring capitalism and inadequate charity. I believe that Charles Dickens understood such a man’s plight. He knew that if society valued fiction writing as much as it did such a man’s labor, he’d also have been feeding his children purloined potatoes as well.
So, what remedy do we find in A Christmas Carol? Surly the story promotes charity as a virtue. Scrooge is only redeemed when he starts to share his wealth with the less fortunate.Does Dickens desire us all to be more charitable? Yes, I’d say he obviously does. However, it is also obvious that Dickens does not expect the Scrooges of the world to be charitable without some compulsion. The needs of the less fortunate were great in 1843 as they are now in 2016. So, can we count on the three spirits to visit each and every miserly billionaire in America until there is enough charity to go around?
Does Dickens desire us all to be more charitable? Yes, I’d say he obviously does. However, it is also obvious that Dickens does not expect the Scrooges of the world to be charitable without some compulsion. The needs of the less fortunate were great in 1843 as they are now in 2016. So, can we count on the three spirits to visit each and every miserly billionaire in America until there is enough charity to go around?
We must instead look to less ethereal methods of helping the downtrodden. Put simply, we must adequately tax the wealthy and use those resources to help folks pick themselves up when there down. And we must ensure those who are on their feet stay there with the help of a living minimum wage and accessible healthcare. To me, this lesson is as plain as the nose on Ebenezer Scrooge’s face. But no matter how many times conservatives encounter A Christmas Carol; the poor remain the undeserving idle, especially if they are new to our country.
I find this lack of enlightenment frustrating, to say the least. But I keep trying to help them see the light and I keep watching A Christmas Carol every year.
By Clayton J. Callahan