Friday, December 24, 2010

What Would A New Carol Look Like?

Like the sainted Dickens, my hope is the following doesn't put you out of temper with me, the day, or the sentiments of the season.

Toward the end of John Mortimer's Introduction to the sesquicentennial edition of A Christmas Carol, he "wondered how far we had really come in a century and a half since that endlessly active pen scratched its Christmas message."
All over the world povery and ignorance are tolerated. Those great Western democracies, the United States and Britain, accept the existence of an abandoned underclass, unemployed, unwanted, uneducated, and ignored. In Russia poor children live on the rubbish dumps, in Africa they starve. What we need is another Dickens, a novelist to stir our consciences and succeed where politicians and preachers and pamphleteers have so conspicuously failed. (p. xiii)
As marvelous a piece of literature as A Christmas Carol is I have to wonder how effectual it, or a contemporary equivalent, would be in snapping us out of our socially moral lassitude. The obstacles we face in regard to issues of wealth and poverty, the attitudes represented by Scrooge and, in particular, the Spirit of Christmas Present, would find it far more difficult to penetrate the hearts of our contemporary Scrooges. The problem is not that ours is a less religious, or less moral time. The problem is not that our economic and financial elite are in some manner, fashion, or form less moral, or even more evil, than those in Lord Palmerston's Britain. Rather, the structures within which these elites operate, the professional and ideological demands upon their attention, that which sets their public priorities, could not be met by appeals to their better human natures, to the thought that, as Marley's ghost tells Ebeneezer, the dealings of their trade are but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of their business.

Part of the problem with any attempt to do what Dickens was attempting here - to paint a picture of a society indifferent to the condition of a large sector of its population even as it claims the mantle "Christian" - is that we all too easily get hung up on the personalities involved. Because Scrooge, in particular, but also Bob Cratchit, the gentlemen who come calling for a charitable donation, even Fred Holliwell and Old Fezziwig are such marvelously drawn characters that we can forget that they are much more than that. For example, I can imagine Larry Summers or Robert Rubin announcing tomorrow that they are willing to make slightly less money if it would mean paying their employees slightly more. I cannot imagine, however, any government official, or CEO at a major bank announcing policies that would harm quarterly profits. I cannot imagine a scenario in which the Chairman of GM or Dow Chemical would welcome greater environmental regulation. I certainly could not see the Board of Target or some other big box store inviting labor organization at its stores.

The obstacles to a more just, more equitable society are not personal. I am not the least bit moved by character sketches of this or that person in business or government, because who they are as individuals means nothing to their professional, public conduct. It may well be that Dick Cheney is a loving, attentive father and husband. His public, professional conduct, however, in offices of public trust, has been egregious not for the least reason because there are structural rules and limits upon those offices that limit the impact any particular individual's personality may have upon their operation. This is why the endless focus on certain personalities - Sarah Palin, Pres. Obama as a person, John Boehner as a lachrymose spray-tanner - really mean little to me. I could probably sit and have a nice chat with all of them and more, share a beer with the President, tell jokes with Boehner, talk Winston Churchill with Newt Gingrich, and it would mean little to nothing about who they are as holders of public office.

Which is not to say that we are not in dire need of a fiction of moral redress in regard to the abysmal state of our political, economic, and social life as we are currently living it. Some attempts, such as Jonathan Franzen's bleak perspective of an ever-shrinking field of moral choices, are more descriptive than prescriptive; for all that, they seem to offer little hope in their explorations of the tortured soul of America in decline.

While it would be marvelous if the Spirits would visit, say, our Secretary of the Treasury, inducing his support for fiscal stimulus and greater banking regulation, my guess is even if they did visit - and please remember the vision of spirits bound together granted to Scrooge, which he divines as "governments" condemned in much the way Marley is - our public policy would change little, and the larger framework within which public decisions are made would not alter one bit.

I am not saying we should not read Dickens' "ghost of a tale". I am hardly suggesting that its weighty moral vocabulary is irrelevant. I do hope you don't get the impression that I do not believe there is still so much for us all to hear in the words of Marley's Ghost and the two Spirits who speak to Ebeneezer. I am only suggesting that Mortimer's idea of some contemporary fiction of moral sermonizing faces a far more difficult set of obstacles than those faced by Dickens.

So, God bless us, everyone!

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